There’s sand in my sheets.
To be fair, there’s sand everywhere. In my purse. In my ears. On every inch of the tile floor of the condo we’re calling home this week. There’s even sand clinging to my feet right now, even though I’m sitting in front of a sand-less swimming pool, writing in a dog-eared steno book.
I’m just over halfway through a week in Florida with my family — on a little Gulf Coast island we’ve visited before. Our vacation is a long-awaited reward for surviving a winter that beat us so thoroughly that it still comes up in conversation.
We’ve come in search of a quiet getaway, and we’ve found it. Truth be told, we like this island for what it doesn’t have — big resorts, wild nightlife, or chain restaurants.
Instead of collecting adrenaline-fueled memories, I’ve read five books this week. I’ve dug my toes into sugar-sand beaches at sunset and sipped tea from a poolside chair just after sunrise. I’ve watched dolphins swim. Played mini golf. Gone through five bottles of sunscreen and still ended up with color on my arms and legs.
The only thing missing this week is Rex.
The first time we visited this island, in 2016, I wrote about Rex. Jay and I had gone out for dinner, and he was sitting just a few tables away from us. He had white hair, combed at an angle off his forehead. Neat chinos. A tidy polo shirt. A friendly face.
It stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Jay, look,” I said, grabbing my husband’s arm. “That man looks just like my grandpa.”
Jay agreed — but what else was there to say? Instead, I stole as many glances as appropriate over the course of dinner. And then he was gone.
Except that he wasn’t. Because two days later, that same man was just ahead of me in line at the local coffee shop. Reminding me vividly, again, of my grandpa.
Here’s an excerpt from the column I wrote in 2016 about seeing him there:
“I’m trying to figure out how to talk to him when he turns around, spots me, and walks right past the woman between us to stand at my side.
‘Well, hello!’ he says.
I think maybe he’s made a mistake — that he means to talk to someone else. But, no, it’s me.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘I think I saw you at dinner the other night.’
‘Could’ve been,’ he says with a warm smile. He asks if I’m vacationing on the island, and I tell him that I am. He tells me he’s lived here, year-round, for 30 years. I say that it sounds like a wonderful life.
But what I really want to say is: ‘You remind me of my grandpa.’ Only I can’t bring myself to do it because my throat is thick with emotion just thinking it. And also I’m afraid I’ll end up adding, ‘And could I give you a big hug?’
I run out of time, anyway. The barista calls, ‘Rex?’ And my friend returns to the counter to retrieve his coffee. I try to find an excuse, any excuse, to talk longer — to sit at a sidewalk table with this man who’s not my grandpa. But the moment passes; he turns to leave with a tip of his hand off an imaginary hat. ‘Good day,’ he says. ‘Enjoy your vacation.’”
When that column came out, I wished I could share it with him. It felt strange and wrong to write about someone who had no idea that I was writing about him.
So I cut the column out and put it in a manila envelope and sent it to the Island Haus Coffee Shop. I added a note to the coffee shop manager, explaining that I was hoping to reach “a regular named Rex.”
“If you know who I’m talking about, could you share this column with him?” I wrote.
A week later, Rex responded with an email. He told me he was surprised to get my package, and was delighted that he could provide a memory of my grandfather. He gave me his phone number and wrote, “When you come back to the island — and you will come back, everyone does — give me a call. Also, send more of your columns.”
I wrote back. Sent columns. Told him I would definitely be in touch if we ever returned. He thanked me. Told me he looked forward to it.
True to my word, I sent Rex an email before our next trip. Because he was right: The island does draw you back.
I received nothing in return. So this year, as we planned another getaway, I looked Rex up … and found a tribute to him online. He passed away two years ago, just days from his 90th birthday.
The article called him an “island altruist” and “legend.”
I wish I had known him. But I’ll always be glad I reached out to that stranger with my manila envelope and made that connection — and gathered another meaningful memory for my collection.