All I knew was that I had to get out of New York. A quick search turned up a ludicrously cheap package deal to a random Caribbean island (it was either a Turk or a Caico), and I was typing in the number of my overextended credit card before I could think twice.
And there I was in early June, my toes in white sand, looking out over turquoise waters and a sultry azure sky. A small stretch of space in which to breathe before facing the reckoning to come.
My hotel was eerily deserted, and the beach was nearly empty as well. When I walked to the shack bar to buy a drink, the well-tanned bartender looked at me strangely, as if surprised to see a customer. It took a while for her to rustle up the ingredients to make a piña colada, but I didn’t mind. I was in no hurry.
I walked toward the hotel lobby to see what activities I could plan over the next three days. The concierge looked the part, with a white linen shirt and panama hat. He had introduced himself as Al when I checked in, and he smiled when he saw me.
“I hope everything is to your liking so far,” he said.
I returned his smile. “I feel like I have the whole island to myself. What do you recommend I should do while I’m here? Scuba diving, parasailing, small desert island tours…?” I wasn’t sure I could afford any of it, but no harm in asking.
“Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “the hurricane will be here tomorrow, so…”
“Um…” I stopped him. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Yes, the hurricane will make landfall tomorrow, so everyone’s taking off work today to prepare their houses. All activities are canceled until further notice.” Seeing the look on my face he said quickly, “Don’t worry, it will probably pass over the Dominican Republic before it gets here, so it will only be category one or two.”
“But… everyone’s taking the day off to prepare their houses?”
He shrugged. “You can’t be too careful.”
I studied his face carefully. He seemed genuinely unconcerned, which calmed me a little. I felt foolish to be blindsided like this, but it hadn’t occurred to me to proactively check to make sure no hurricanes happened to be coming in the three short days I would be here. What were the odds?
I shook my head. So. Everything was shut down today. A hurricane would be coming the next day. The day after that people would be un-boarding their houses and cleaning up debris. And the day after that I’d be leaving. Some vacation.
“Well then,” I said finally, resigned to my luck, “I suppose I’ll enjoy today as much as I can.”
He smiled graciously. “That is what it’s all about.”
* * *
After an uninspiring dinner at the skeleton-crewed hotel restaurant, I took a to-go cup of rum punch and walked along the deserted beach until I found a nice spot to lay out my towel. Great bulbous updraft clouds turn muted shades of pink and lavender as the sun sank toward the horizon. I ran a hand down my leg to the anklet I’d been wearing for years, woven from threads I’d bought from a Bedouin girl in the colors of the Sinai: dark blue like the sea, turquoise like the sandy-bottomed lagoons, white like the wavelets crashing against the reefs, and gold-brown like the desert mountains. A talisman of how beautiful life could be. It was ragged and faded now, which seemed appropriate. Conal had been with me on that trip, my best friend from my years of travel. He’d be in New York soon for a journalism conference. I felt a pang to think how differently his life had turned out compared to mine since our times in the Middle East.
I downed the rest of my drink, stood too quickly, and stumbled a few steps before striding into the warm, inviting water. The sky languidly faded to starry cobalt and a full moon rose in the east as I swam past the breakers and into the swells, bobbing with the rhythm of the sea. It was impossible to imagine this peaceful scene would be a wind-battered maelstrom in a matter of hours.
I looked through the greying clouds to see if I could spot any planets—a comforting ritual that was nearly impossible in New York. Mars and Jupiter were high and bright. I smiled at a sudden memory of my best friend Celeste’s dad showing me Jupiter through his backyard telescope. The wonder of seeing it for the first time not as a featureless white dot but as an entire world with its own tiny pinprick moons. A moment of pure, simple joy and discovery. How long had it been since I’d had one of those?
As the waters darkened, I reluctantly swam back to shore.
* * *
I walked again along the beach the next morning until powerful gusts of stinging sand drove me indoors. There was nothing to do but nibble on snacks and flip between CNN and The Weather Channel as the sky darkened ominously.
Hurricane Ilsa was category one by the time it got to us, edging toward category two. I watched, uneasy but fascinated, as winds kicked up to nearly a hundred miles per hour and howled and lashed the palm trees in the courtyard outside my window for hours. By the time the eye passed over and calm decended, it was full dark. I felt much better then. The storm was most violent closest to the eye, and so far everything still appeared to be standing. Then the trees thrashed and flailed in the other direction until the power went out. I continued watching the tortured trees until the roar of the wind lulled me to sleep.
Little damage was reported the next day other than some missing roof tiles and the loss of a few non-native trees. Life went on as normal. The white sand no longer stung legs and eyes, and the turquoise water looked as if no vast grey vortex had ever disturbed it.
Even though several resorts and hotels were close by, the beach felt remote, even wild. There was a dull roar far offshore where the sandy bottom gave way to shallow, rocky coral reefs that broke the powerful Atlantic waves into gentle breakers. I was wondering if I could find a kayak to borrow when my toe snagged on something.
I looked down. The object glinted half-buried in the sand. I picked it up and shook it off, and my eyes widened. It was a bracelet made of silvery metal twisted into entwining vines with a clear stone set in the space between each twist. Based on the craftsmanship, the way the stones caught the sunlight, and the weight of the piece, I could only assume they were diamonds. I looked around to see who might have dropped it, but the beach was empty.
I shrugged and draped it over my wrist to see how it looked against my tanned skin. The ends came together as if joined by strong magnets. It fit perfectly. The edge of my mouth lifted. Jewelry was something I generally considered an expensive hassle. But this was a work of art.
From paradise to the A train was quite a comedown, even if it did take me from JFK almost directly to my front door in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. I looked at my fellow passengers, each a million miles from the next, and felt anew how much I hated New York, all grim ambition and grudging tolerance of the filth and proximity of others. Or maybe that was just me.
The train finally reached my rundown neighborhood. I trudged up four flights of grimy stairs, jammed the key in the door, and walked past my roommate Sara, who was washing a mountain of dishes in our closet-like kitchen.
“Hey,” I said shortly.
“Hi, habibti!” she beamed over her shoulder, using an Arabic endearment. Her parents were from Lebanon, and she was an aspiring actress. With her black ringlets, pale olive skin, and expressive blue eyes, it’d be a waste if her face was never on a movie poster. But whenever she got an audition, they’d tell her she was too ethnic to play a ‘universal’ role and didn’t look Arab enough to play an Arab. For now she worked at a box office on Broadway. “How was the trip?”
She scoffed. “I don’t know what beach you ended up on, but remind me not to go there. Hey, what’s that?” She nodded toward my wrist.
I told her about finding bracelet on the beach after the hurricane. “I called every hotel on the island trying to find the owner. I even called the police. Nothing.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Back up a little bit. Hurricane?”
I laughed and filled her in on the whole story of my ‘vacation.’
“Well, my weekend wasn’t nearly as exciting. Work yesterday, solo Netflix and chill today. Anyway, go, unpack. Tomorrow you’ll wake up to a clean kitchen for once.”
I didn’t really need to unpack, though. For a year I’d been living out of a suitcase as if I might be called to bigger and better things at any moment. In my small room with its cracked wooden floor, I opened my laptop to see if any agents had gotten back to me (nope) and to scan the news in the Middle East (more of the same). My glance shifted to the room’s only decoration, a collection of quotations taped to the wall. One read:
“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” —Theodore Roosevelt.
“Easy for you to say,” I muttered. “You were president of the United States.”
My eyes moved to the bookshelf where half a dozen copies of my first book, a political travel memoir called Balkan Bruise, were lined up on the bottom shelf. When I sold it to a major publisher after a couple years of post-college travel and freelance journalism, it felt like a vindication. I wasn’t just some dissolute shoestring dreamer; I was on the road to “a success unexpected in common hours,” as Thoreau once put it. It was an indescribable thrill to see my work lined up next to bestsellers and classics.
But sales never really took off, and then the next season’s books rolled in, and that was that.
Still, the advance was generous enough to get me on the road again. I chose the Middle East as my next destination and fell for it much harder than I expected. It was years before I dared believe I could write a remotely worthy book on the subject, and I poured everything I had into my next book, The Silver Olive Tree. I envisioned it catapulting me into middle age with a life of travel, royalties, and doing what I loved full-time: knitting the world together through stories. It felt like not just a calling but a service. I really let myself imagine I could do some good.
From what I could gather, my publisher barely read it. She’d made a bad bet once and wasn’t interested in doing it again. My agent, blessed with a smarmy bestseller soon to be made into a major motion picture starring Emma Stone, dumped me as well.
Deep in denial, I moved to New York determined to find a new agent and publisher, taking odd jobs and writing gigs in between going to conferences, workshops, and author events. A couple of agents said my book was great but not right for their list—the literary equivalent of ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ The rest weren’t so kind.
By now it had been a solid year of rejection. I was slowly starting to come to terms with the fact that it was really over. My sweeping, hopeful, idealistic path for the past ten years had come to this. I wasn’t that inspirational person who followed her heart into a dream career. I was a cautionary tale. A fool who squandered her education, heedlessly blew through her twenties, and woke up one day a thirty-two-year-old nobody.
I sighed and closed the laptop, and a random memory came to me from the early days of my travels. “You know what I’d kill for right now?” I mused out loud, my voice easily carrying to the kitchen. “A tiramisu like the one I had at this little café in northwestern Italy. It was humble, you know, a mess of ingredients in this thick, ugly glass bowl. It looked terrible. But then I bit into it, and it was like… I can’t even describe it. Like eating love.”
Sara said nothing, but I heard the faucet turn off.
“The mascarpone was made in the hills behind the village. The waiter’s grandmother probably sifted the cocoa by hand.” I sighed deeply. “There’s nothing like that around here. There’s nothing like that in my life.”
The sound of clinking glasses emanated from the kitchen. “How about a glass of Trader Joe’s finest instead?”
I set the laptop aside and heaved myself up. “Sounds like a plan.” I was a few steps from the kitchen when I heard a gasp.
Sara laughed. “You really had me going! You’re going to share, right?”
I looked in at her. “Share what?”
She rolled her eyes. “The dessert in our fridge. The one you were just describing.”
She opened the refrigerator door wider. On the middle shelf sat an exact replica of the tiramisu I had enjoyed so thoroughly in the Cinque Terre, down to the heavy glass bowl.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. “What… Where did that come from?” I sputtered.
“You tell me,” she said and pulled it out of the fridge. I recoiled.
“No, seriously. This… what…” I felt like a computer that had divided by zero.
She grabbed two spoons out of the drying rack and handed me one. I took it mechanically. She tried a bite. “Oh my God.” Her eyes fluttered. “You were right. This may be the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth. Seriously, where did you get it?”
“Sara, I didn’t. I had nothing to do with it.”
She looked at me incredulously. “Then where did it come from?”
“I don’t know!”
“Right. You just described this exact dessert, and it happened to appear in our fridge? Come on. I don’t know what you’re playing at, but… please stop. It’s weird.”
“I…” Was she playing at something? What the hell was going on?
“Anyway,” she shrugged, “this is all kinds of good, wherever it came from. Can I take half?”
I nodded, again mechanically, as if my body was responding to stimuli on its own after my mind had crashed. She smiled, almost sympathetically, scooped half onto a plate, kissed the air good-night, and retired to her room.
I stood rooted to the spot, staring at this ghost from my past that seemed to be haunting or mocking me. I looked toward Sara’s door, on the verge of knocking and demanding that she come clean. But that would make no sense, either. She would have had to read my mind in advance. There was no way to make sense of this.
I took an experimental bite. It tasted exactly as I remembered, and a warm feeling flooded through me. I finished the rest quickly. Whatever its provenance, it was another brief respite from my current reality. By the time I scraped the last of it out with my finger, I was too tired and satiated to keep trying to puzzle it out. I rinsed the bowl in the sink, gave it one last suspicious glance over my shoulder, went to my room, popped my earplugs in, and fell asleep to the sound of my beating heart.
* * *
“Happy birthday, Mom,” I said into my pay-as-you-go flip phone, outdated by at least a dozen years. “Sorry I’m a little late…”
It was the next morning after a breakfast of three eggs and a bagel to make up for having dessert for dinner the night before. I had no plan to mention my little trip to the islands. I didn’t need her to tell me how ridiculous it was.
“Don’t worry about it. I’d have forgot it myself if Roxana hadn’t fixed me an apricot pie.”
“Nice. How’d she do?”
Mom paused a moment too long. “Bless her heart. It was so damn sweet.”
“Yeah, it’s the thought that counts.”
“No, I mean she put in four times as much sugar as she was supposed to.”
I laughed. “Well, it’s better than the time she overloaded the biscuits with baking soda.”
“Oh Lord, I almost forgot about that. I don’t think there’s anything sadder in the world than a whole pan of hot buttered biscuits in the trash.”
I sighed. I’d left Kansas with such big dreams. Right now, biscuits and apricot pie sounded better than anything I had going on.
“Anyway, what’s eating you? You sound kind of mopey.”
I raised an eyebrow at the phone. Mopey? You couldn’t say something dignified, like ‘depressed’ or ‘mired in existential despair’?
“I don’t know. I guess it’s been a year since I came to New York, and I’m not sure…”
“You don’t think you’ll ever sell that book?” She sounded like she’d been expecting it, which felt like a subtle knife in the ribs.
“I don’t know,” I said evenly. “Nothing seems to be working.”
“Well, that’s how it goes. I wanted to be an actress until I met your father.”
I slowly closed my eyes. Mom’s acting dreams had withered after she got pregnant at age nineteen—with me. I had killed her dreams and now mine were dead, too.
I opened my carved wooden jewelry box, a gift from a host family in Sarajevo that held a few nostalgic treasures: a dog tag given to me by a Russian soldier I had kissed on a train; an amulet of carved bone from a Buddhist monastery in Siberia; a seashell from a valley in the Sahara, evidence it had been under the sea millions of years ago; and now the bracelet. I pulled out the latest addition and tilted it back and forth to catch the light. I had always been so careful with money, almost to a fault. Being frugal meant having the freedom to do what I wanted. Maybe maxing out my credit card was a subconscious attempt to force my hand—to give me that final push to find a steady paycheck and leave all this hope and uncertainty behind.
“Anyway, there’s a party tonight. Some ritzy college reunion thing. Maybe I’ll meet someone there who can help me find a real job.”
I could almost hear Mom brighten at the thought.
* * *
I put on a little black dress I’d bought at a thrift store when I was in college, brushed on eyeliner, and finished with lip gloss. The bracelet was a bit much, but I doubted I’d have a better excuse to wear it for a while.
The party was at a private residence on Central Park West. A uniformed doorman pointed me to a gilded elevator, which opened into a spacious apartment on the fourteenth floor with a wall of windows overlooking the green trees of Central Park. The couches were cream-colored, the rugs lush with patterns of cream and beige, and blandly quirky wire sculptures adorned large niches in the walls.
Bracing myself, I walked toward a group of alums. They all had that polished New York look with three-figure haircuts and dry-clean-only clothes. As they chatted with aspartame smiles, brightly asking each other, “And what do you do?”, my mind drifted to another kind of gathering, a house party on a rooftop somewhere in the Mediterranean where the guests couldn’t possibly care less about anyone’s status or job title.
“Lauren!” I heard from the direction of the elevator. I turned and saw Anna, my freshman year roommate, saunter into the room. Animated, blonde, and originally from Manhattan, she was totally at ease at these types of gatherings. Last I heard she was working seventy-hour weeks at a consulting firm. Whatever that was.
“Hi Anna,” I said, relieved to see a familiar face.
“How’s it going, world traveler?” she asked playfully.
My left eye twitched involuntarily. “Where’s the wine?”
She hesitated, then smiled knowingly. “I think people are heading in that direction.” We followed them to the dining room, where bottles of chardonnay were lined up like soldiers next to bottles of zinfandel. Behind them lay an impressive spread of appetizers.
“Great,” I said, grabbing a bottle of zin. “The only two kinds of wine I don’t like. I wish they had just one bottle of cabernet.”
Anna blinked. “That’s a cab, isn’t it?” I squinted at the bottle in my hand. “Lucky you. I wish they had a sauv blanc, but oh well.” She poured herself a cup of chardonnay.
“Huh. I thought they were all the same.”
“Anyway, how’ve you been? You seem a little tense.”
I sighed and gave her a run-down of what was going on in my life as I opened the lone bottle of cabernet and filled a clear plastic cup. Anna pursed her lips in a sympathetic frown, then perked up again. “Well, you can always write,” she said cheerfully. “As a hobby, I mean.”
I nodded at the sage advice, downed the wine quickly, and poured another cup, then another.
I wasn’t exactly sure how I ended up back in my apartment sitting on the floor next to my bed. A few hours, I realized with some alarm, were missing. That hadn’t happened since college. I stood up shakily, sat on the edge of the bed, and rested my forehead in my hand.
“God I wish I had some coffee,” I muttered.
The scent of coffee filled the room. I slowly raised my eyes. A steaming mug was sitting on the desk next to my laptop. The mug was made of thick white ceramic, the kind found in diners. I hadn’t noticed it when I came in. Had Sara left it for me?
Suddenly a wave of nausea rolled over me. I lunged for the wastebasket at the foot of the bed and heaved into it repeatedly. The can had mesh sides, and my wine-stained effluvium began oozing out of it and onto the cracked hardwood floor.
“Ugh, God,” I slurred. “I wish I didn’t have to clean that up tomorrow.”
The vomit vanished.
I furrowed my brow. That was odd. Was I hallucinating? I’d never done that before, at least not while drinking. It was vaguely worrying, but I couldn’t hold a thought well enough to worry very much. Flopping onto the bed, I pulled off my clothes and drifted into darkness.
Thus begins an adventure that will take Lauren to Croatia, Switzerland, Beirut, the Sinai, and [spoiler redacted] as she explores the mysterious object around her wrist and the mysterious forces that shape who we are.
Here’s a synopsis in the style of mainstream literary fiction:
Lauren Clay is a writer and world traveler who, after a decade of “following her dreams,” has reached the end of her spiritual and financial rope. She's on the cusp of dropping it all and getting a “real job” when she finds a strange object that offers the terrifying gift of unconditional freedom.
In the weeks that follow she explores the meaning of success in Switzerland, romance in Beirut, and the heights of the human spirit in the Sinai. Just as life is starting to make sense, a series of small acts of carelessness snowball into dire consequences for herself, her family, and those she loves, threatening to undermine everything she’s learned about living well in a world rife with uncertainty.
Packed with romance and adventure, humor and wisdom, Sinai Moon is at once a thrilling travelogue and a compelling work of literary fiction that explores the gulf between the way life is and the way we expect it to be.
Click to read Chapter 2
Click to view my first book's