by Janet Gilmore
“You can’t retrace your steps.” — Gertrude Stein
“We’ll have to retrace our steps.” — Hugh Gilmore
“Mom, did you pack my headphones?”
“I sure did, Andrew. They’re in the blue canvas bag under your feet,” I said. Back when we were school teachers, summer found us on the way to the Outer Banks.
We packed carefully, as though North Carolina were a foreign country where we didn’t speak the language, and we could never replace anything we forgot. Like water, chewing gum or flip-flops.
“You know, Hugh, we should take an extra set of car keys, just in case you lose yours,” I said to my husband before we left home.
“I won’t lose them,” said Hugh.
“Of course I’m sure,” said Hugh.
We drove from Philadelphia to Kitty Hawk without incident and checked into the Nag’s Head Inn. Our son tucked himself into one of the two beds and turned Comedy Central on TV. We didn’t have cable TV at home; he was happy to stay in bed for the entire week and watch cartoons, but we lured him outdoors with vague promises of candy and drove to Jockeys Ridge State Park, the biggest sand dune in eastern North America.
“Hey, Hugh, how about I put the keys in my waist pouch on the way up? I could zip them in to keep them safe.”
“No, no, I got ‘em.”
Up we climbed. Andrew is not an outdoors kind of guy, but he liked the giant sandbox in front of him. We watched people walking, hang-gliding, climbing up, sliding down. Teen-agiles were doing cartwheels and somersaults down the side of the dune. I sat in the lovely air and watched my beloveds roll down sandy hills, laughing. I wondered from time to time about the keys when I saw Hugh tumbling.
“Let’s have a butt-race down!” said Hugh.
“How do you do that?” we asked.
“You have to scoot to the bottom of the dune on your rear end without using your hands.”
“I can beat you guys! Let’s go! Hugh, got the keys?”
He jingled his pocket reassuringly.
“OK, Andrew, count us down.”
“Ready, set, GO!”
Down we went, over and over and over again.
Andrew cheated and won every race. He put his hands down on the sand and vaulted over me just before the finish line. He said it was the natural victory of a kid over an old woman (?). I lay in the warm sand and sunshine, catching my breath, savoring my defeat.
After a while, someone said, “Let’s go, I‘m starving.”
“Yeah, me too…”
“Jan,” said Hugh, patting his pockets on the way to the parking lot. “I can’t find my keys!”
“No, they’re not in my pocket! They must have fallen out during the race. We’ll have to retrace our steps!”
It was a pivotal moment. I could say what I was thinking or keep my mouth shut and earn good-wife points. I looked over my shoulder at the giant dune. The pressure was too much.
“RETRACE OUR STEPS??!!” I yelled. “ARE YOU CRAZY??!!”
“I knew it!” I thought to myself. “I just knew it! I told him to let me hold the keys. We’d already lost car keys on two other vacations, even though both times were my fault. But this was Jockeys Ridge State Park, the biggest, baddest sand dune this side of the Gobi desert. RETRACE OUR STEPS? There’s nothing but sand for a zillion miles. What are we going to do? Men are so…”
“RETRACE OUR STEPS??!!” said Andrew. “I want to go back to the motel. Cartoon Network has a special on at 3 o’clock!”
“We can’t get back to the motel without our keys, sweetheart,” I said through clenched teeth.
Andrew commenced to caterwauling and throwing sand at us. Hugh continued to look down.
“Fine! Let’s retrace our steps. What else can we do?”
I half-noticed that Hugh stepped deftly aside and waited for me to take the lead in the search, which was odd. He stood quietly to one side of the path, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched in a really sad “I-should-have-listened-to-my-wife” posture.
We turned around to start the walk back, me scanning, Andrew whining, Hugh following.
“Jan! Look! It’s a miracle! I see the keys!”
“You’re kidding! You mean I walked right past them?”
“Wow, Dad!” said Andrew, thinking of his father as the kind of hero who could find keys in the world’s biggest sand dune without even breathing hard.
But Hugh was way ahead of me, already half-way to the men’s room, keys in hand, confident he’d find the keys exactly WHERE HE HAD THROWN THEM A MINUTE EARLIER.
I believed him when he said he’d lost the keys, and I would have believed him forever had he not made the mistake of catching my eye for a second, and I spotted the evil twinkle.
Moral: Marry the twinkle.