It was the end of May, the end of a dream, and I had to get out of New York. I didn’t have the money or the patience to fly all the way to Egypt. A quick search turned up an absurdly cheap last-minute getaway to a random Caribbean island—it was either a Turk or a Caico—and I punched in my credit card number and headed to JFK.
The June air was clear and warm, heavy with a slight breeze, as I made my way to the lobby of the generic mid-scale resort that had offered the four-day package deal. The concierge was a dapper man in a white linen shirt and Panama hat. He didn’t meet my eyes as I approached. I could see the thatched-roof bar by the pool through wide-flung doors. No one was in the pool or at the bar. In fact, the whole place seemed eerily empty.
“Hello,” I ventured.
He looked up briefly with a smile that was almost a grimace. “Yes, hello, welcome.” He looked back down at a large date book he was leafing through.
“I was wondering what kinds of things there are to do here. I don’t know anything about this place. I usually read up on places before I visit, but… to be honest I don’t even know…”
He looked up again, this time with a definite cringe in his eyes. I trailed off.
“Well,” he said, trying to sound matter-of-fact, “the hurricane will be here tomorrow, so—”
“Wait… I’m sorry. What?”
He looked at his date book again. “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.” He glanced at me, and I must have looked ashen, because 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.”
“Probably? But… everyone’s taking the day off to prepare their houses? Like in case…”
He shrugged. “You can’t be too careful.”
“So… everything’s canceled… all weekend?” I felt stupid and slow. No wonder the price had been too good to be true. I studied his face carefully. He seemed, perhaps, a bit guilty to have taken my money but otherwise unconcerned, which calmed me a little. I supposed living through my first hurricane would be more interesting than sipping daiquiris by the pool, in any case, assuming I survived it.
Suddenly I laughed. It was perfect, actually. After all the conflict zones I had traveled to, the coups, the mass graves, the military occupations, why did I think I could get away with a simple beach vacation?
The concierge looked relieved, if startled. He gave me my keys and told me where I could go to stock up on food and water for the long hours ahead.
Once that was done, I grabbed a towel and walked along the beach, which was deserted as far as the eye could see. Other than the residents battening down their various hatches, it seemed I had the whole damned island to myself.
I picked a random spot to lay out my towel and sat back, taking in the languid spaciousness that stretched beyond the horizon. Great bulbous updraft clouds turn muted shades of pink and lavender as the sun sank toward the rim of the earth. I ran a hand down my leg to an 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 our lives had turned out since our times in the Middle East.
I stood, pulled off the over-sized FC Barcelona t-shirt I was using as a cover-up, and strode into the warm, inviting water. The sky faded to starry cobalt as a full moon rose in the east. I swam past the breakers and into the swells, bobbing with the rhythm of the sea. It was hard to believe this peaceful scene would soon be a wind-battered maelstrom.
I looked through the greying clouds to see if I could spot any planets—a comforting ritual that was nearly impossible in New York City. Mars and Jupiter were high and bright. I smiled at a 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 striped 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 took another walk along the beach the next morning until I was driven indoors by stinging gusts scraping sand across my bare calves. There was nothing to do but nibble on chips, pudding, and a rotisserie chicken and flip between CNN and The Weather Channel. The sky darkened ominously as the hours wore on.
The consensus on TV was that Hurricane Ilsa was category one by the time it got to us, edging toward category two. I watched, uneasy but fascinated, as the winds revved up to such howling intensity I wasn’t sure how the thrashing palm trees—let alone the building—were still standing. I kept wondered how much worse it was going to get until finally, well after dark, the eye passed over and calm descended. With any luck I had seen the worst of it. Soon enough the trees began thrashing and flailing in the other direction, and that was when the power went out. I watched the tortured trees until the roar of the wind lulled me to sleep.
Little damage was reported the next day other than a few missing roof tiles and the loss of some non-native trees. Life went on as if nothing had happened. The white sands no longer stung legs and eyes, and the turquoise water looked serene, as if no vast grey vortex had ever disturbed it.
As hurricanes went, it hadn’t been such a bad one.
A dull roar emanated from far offshore where the sandy bottom gave way to rocky coral reefs that tamed the powerful Atlantic waves. As I walked along, listening to the roar, wondering where I might find a kayak to borrow, my toe snagged on something.
I looked down. An object glinted half-buried in the sand. I picked it up and shook it off. My eyes widened. I looked around to see who might have dropped it, but the beach was empty. Perhaps the hurricane had brought it here, or maybe it had been buried and the hurricane unearthed it. Either way it was a stunning find, a bracelet made of silvery metal twisted into entwining vines with a clear stone set in the space between each twist. Based on the way the stones caught the light, the exquisite craftsmanship, and the weight of the piece, I could only assume they were diamonds.
I draped it over my wrist to see how it looked against my skin. The ends came together as if joined by strong magnets. It fit perfectly. The edge of my mouth lifted. Jewelry was something I normally considered an expensive hassle. But this was a work of art.
So that was how the whole thing started.
New York’s subways are a forlorn place, I thought as I rode the lumbering A train from JFK back to my cramped apartment in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. Such a rat-hole compared to the palatial Metro of Moscow, the charming trams of Istanbul, or the clean, efficient lines of Paris. The people also seemed depressed, with broken dreams and resignation written on their faces.
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 would be a waste if her face was never on a movie poster. But every time 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.
“Yeah, funny thing. I found it on the beach after the hurricane. I called every hotel on the island trying to find the owner. I even called the police.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Back up a little bit. Hurricane?”
I laughed. “Yeah, not exactly the getaway I was expecting.” I filled her in on the story and about finding the bracelet. “For all I know the hurricane picked it up in Barbados and blew it in.” I shrugged. “I guess it’s mine now.”
“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 continued to my small room with its cracked wooden floor and Craigslist bed and desk. Truth be told, I hadn’t really ‘unpacked’ in the past year, still living out of a suitcase as if I might be called to bigger and better things at any moment.
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 few 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 landed on the bookshelf where half a dozen copies of my first book, Balkan Bruise, were lined up on the bottom shelf. Not long ago it had been a point of intense pride. I’d scraped by for a few years after college with odd jobs and writing gigs—like George Orwell and Frank McCourt before me, I liked to think—and when I landed a journalism job in the former Yugoslovia, then sold the rights to a memoir for mid-five-figures, it felt like everything was coming together. It was such a thrill to see my work lined up next to bestsellers and classics.
But sales never really took off despite my frenetic efforts, including more than a hundred book talks across the country.
Before I knew it, the next season’s books rolled in, and that was that. Once the publicity push was over, sales slowed to a trickle.
Still, the advance was generous enough to get me on the road again. I chose the Middle East and spent a few years there before I believed I could write a remotely worthy book on the subject. Those years changed me, wrung me out, challenged my perspective on life, politics, and the world. I wanted so badly to share it. It felt like not just a calling but a service, and I poured everything I had into my next book, The Silver Olive Tree. I envisioned this more ambitious and elegant work catapulting me into middle age with a life of travel, royalties, and doing what I loved full-time.
From what I could gather, my publisher barely read it before turning it down. My agent, blessed with a smarmy bestseller soon to be made into a major motion picture, dumped me as well.
Deep in denial, I moved to New York to find a new agent and publisher, taking odd jobs and writing gigs in between going to conferences, workshops, and author events. A few leads raised high hopes. More than one agent said my book was great but not right for them—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, blew through her twenties, and woke up one day a thirty-two-year-old nobody.
I sighed, closed the laptop and realized suddenly that I was starving. “You know what I’d kill for right now?” I mused out loud, my voice 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 a thick 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 the faucet turned 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.”
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. “Oh man, this looks amazing. You really had me going! You’re going to share, right?”
I looked in at her. “Share what?”
“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 from it. “That’s imposs… What the…” 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?”
“I didn’t! I just got off a plane. You were in the kitchen the whole time.”
She froze. We both looked at it, then at each other, our faces mirrors of confusion.
“But you just described this exact dessert. And now here it is.”
“I know. I don’t get it, either.”
Sara narrowed her eyes. “Come on. You’re playing at something. Did you get someone to drop this off here while you were gone?”
“Why on earth would I do that?”
“To mess with me. And it worked! Jesus. For a second there…” She shook her head and laughed. “Well done. That is one weird-ass prank, but I approve. And I definitely approve of this tiramisu. I can take half of it, right?”
“I…” Was she playing some bizarre prank? What the hell was going on?
“Thanks. Worth it.” She grinned and scooped half the dessert onto a plate. “Good night!”
“Good night,” I said in a daze. She kissed the air 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. Even if Sara was playing a trick, 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. A warm feeling flooded through me, and I finished the rest quickly, too tired and hungry to think any more.
* * *
“Happy birthday, Mom,” I said into my threadbare flip phone. “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 didn’t plan to mention my flagrantly escapist trip to the island. 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.”
Roxana never cooked, so it was quite a gesture. “How’d she do?”
Mom paused a moment too long. “Bless her heart… It was really sweet.”
“Yeah, it’s the thought that counts.”
“No, I mean she put in four times as much sugar as she was supposed to. Made my teeth hurt.”
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 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. That was about as fancy as I got. The bracelet seemed 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 that opened into a spacious apartment on the fourteenth floor. A wall of windows in the residence overlooked 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. “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.
I grabbed a bottle of zin. “Perfect. 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 as she poured herself a cup of chardonnay.
She was right. I had apparently found the odd bottle out.
“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 filled a clear plastic cup with cabernet.
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. Slowly I raised my eyes. A steaming mug was sitting on the desk next to my laptop. It 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 blinked slowly. 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 places she definitely never expected 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.
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