I’ve been intrigued by the relationship between sisters for as long as I’ve been a writer. It’s a bit odd, actually, because I don’t have a sister myself (just one awesome younger brother). And, yet, despite having watched sister-to-sister dynamics with fascination in real life, I still didn’t expect so many sister pairs to turn up in my fiction. For those of you who’ve read According to Jane, you know that the heroine’s relationship to her big sister is just as fundamental to the story as her conversations with Jane or her romance with Sam…and this new novel I’m working on, Gifts by the Shore (working title), is no different in that regard.
In truth, one of the primary inspirations for this manuscript came from the personality differences of the sisters in Sense and Sensibility. I’d even named the younger and more impulsive sister Marianna and the practical elder one Ellen before I’d consciously realized what I was doing, LOL. And, of course, I’ve long been curious about Jane Austen’s relationship with her own sister Cassandra, and have always been drawn to the idea of Jane finding love along the seashore.
But, I’m a contemporary writer. And this novel is set in Sarasota, not Sidmouth… Also, I’m apparently incapable of replicating the plot of anybody else’s story beyond the most basic structure, even to modernize it, so this is not exactly “Sense and Sensibility Goes to Florida.” 😀 Rather, it’s a present-day tale of two very different sisters who’d made relationship and lifestyle choices that they now need to fully face as mature, adult women. It’s a story about siblings, mothers and daughters, good friends, and getting a second chance at love.
And it’s still very much a work in progress… I’ve written a little over 100 pages so far but, since I do not, in fact, have a sister (!!), I would really love your feedback. Please let me know if something in particular compels you…or if a scene starts to drag…or if a passage comes across as unbelievable or confusing…or, conversely, if any of it rings true and clear. I look forward to all of your thoughts — on the writing, the sister relationship, the beach life, or the hope of finding love after 40!! Thank you. 😉
GIFTS BY THE SHORE
Marianna Greggor scanned the nearly empty room and picked up her favorite clock—a peachy conch shell, tough on the outside, a delicate pink on the inside, with slightly scalloped edges and a circular clock face with hour and minute hands implanted into the center of it. Her sister Ellen had given it to her years ago, a gift from Florida’s Sunshine Coast.
It read 3:42.
Huh. What could be a more unremarkable time in the middle of an unremarkable day, week, year and, let’s face it, life?
But she’d saved this clock until the end for a reason. Its ticking had kept her company and, now, it played the role of the marker for her final task.
In spite of herself, Marianna felt a heady zip of excitement rising inside of her.
She rolled up the clock in bubble wrap, nestled it into the center of the very last of the cardboard packing boxes and taped the top shut. Sealing the flap of that box was like slamming the door on all four decades of her existence until now. The past tucked safely, firmly inside.
Most everything here, shell clock included, was to be transported to the storage facility that afternoon. Only her one large suitcase, her oversized purse and her frayed windbreaker would be stuffed in the trunk of her car and would make the trek to Ellen’s Florida bungalow with her. God willing. The engine of Marianna’s nine-year-old Civic was about as reliable as one of those mystery vehicles from Louie’s Used Car Lot at the edge of town. But, still—it was her mystery vehicle.
She took a deep breath and studied the room in all its bareness and vulnerability. So strange to be doing this again—making a real move—especially after all of these years.
Only twice before did she have to pack up all of her belongings this way and leave home. Both times it was summer. Both times she knew where she was headed. Both times she’d shared the journey with someone else.
When she was five and her sister was ten, their parents moved them from their two-bedroom apartment in downtown Detroit to a sturdy house in an upscale suburb of Ann Arbor. Nice neighborhood. Good schools. Time proved this was a smart move.
Then, when she was eighteen, just a week after high-school graduation, she moved again, this time with her boyfriend Donny, also eighteen (at least chronologically—his maturity level hovered somewhere around age twelve), into his parents’ basement, two days after their secret elopement in Atlantic City. Time proved this was not such a smart move.
She’d gotten their daughter Kathryn out of the marriage, though, and that was worth something. Quite a lot, really.
But Kathryn was in college now—on scholarship, thank goodness—and the upkeep of a house was too much. Especially being all alone and with no source of income. So, Marianna found herself packing up all of her belongings and moving once again.
Like the first two times, it was summer and, for seven weeks at least, she knew where she was headed. Unlike the first two times, she was not sharing the journey with a single soul.
She could still hear the faint ticking of the conch-shell clock, even trapped as it was in the last packing box.
Time. It did have a way of pressing forward whether she was ready or not, didn’t it?
She rubbed her hands together, contemplating this. Her fingertips caressed the spot where her wedding band had once been, but there was no longer any visual trace of it.
With her heart pounding in metrical synchronicity with clock’s second hand, she peered outside at the yard and at her favorite sugar maple tree in the back. The trees, flowers and muggy atmosphere outside of the now-sold house were no more hers than the paint-chipped walls and dented floorboards. They, too, seemed to be waiting for her to leave Michigan behind for a summer. To see if anything at all awaited her a thousand miles—and a world—away, before she had to return to face the chill of fall and a nearly blank slate come September.
Oddly, she felt almost buoyant. For maybe the first time in the three years since Donny ran out on them, she was genuinely, unmistakably hopeful.
She raised an imaginary glass and toasted the house, the yard, the boxes one last time: Here’s to the past, with all of its good and its bad.
And, while she couldn’t quite bring herself to make a toast to the uncertainty of her future, she managed to raise her make-believe glass one final time: Here’s to new beginnings.
CHAPTER TWO: Bungalow 26
“Here’s your key,” Mr. Niihau, the elderly proprietor of the Siesta Sunset bungalows, said to Marianna, handing her a plastic keychain in the shape of a golden nautilus with a single key on the end. “It works for the laundry room, too.”
She nodded and tried not to look as unenthusiastic about the idea of doing laundry as she felt. As hard as it was selling the house and, with it, the washer and drier that she’d scraped together enough cash to buy a year after Donny left her, she couldn’t say she was going to miss the appliances all that much.
“Here are bath towels to get you started.” He placed an assortment on the counter between them. “Garbage bags and a roll of paper towels.” He added those and pointed in the direction of the narrow parking lot. “There should be extras of everything in your unit. Garbage pickup comes on Tuesdays. Throw your bags in the green dumpster at the end of the lot. And there’s a big bin for recycling, too. Fresh sheets on Thursdays. Any questions?”
She inhaled and held the breath deep inside her chest for a moment. She was almost forty years old with no husband, no home of her own and no paying job. Her most pressing question was “Seriously, what am I gonna to do with my life?” but she did not ask Mr. Niihau this.
“Looks like I’m all set,” she told him. “Thank you.”
He smiled kindly, the corners of his eyes crinkling even further. The sun-weathered skin had seen seven decades at least, but he looked as though if someone were to say, “Surf’s up!” he’d grab his board and race them to the water. Ellen had told her he was born in Hawaii and still had the heart of an Islander. Having met him now, Marianna believed that.
“Your sister’s unit is number twenty-six,” he reminded her. “Let me know if there’s anything you need during your stay.”
She assured him she would and, then, meandered down the outdoor walkway. The late-June humidity was so oppressive—good God! She was crazy to think Ann Arbor was muggy by comparison. She felt wrapped in a tight wool blanket, the sweat being squeezed out of her, until she got to the shaded canopy of the bungalow that Ellen and her husband Jared bought as a vacation unit over a decade ago.
With the exception of a few weeks every winter, Ellen and Jared didn’t visit this property. They just rented it out through the year with the help of Mr. Niihau and his staff—often to an assortment of regulars and to some others, mostly families, who were looking for a place to stay on their beach holiday.
But not this summer.
For seven weeks, Ellen kept the reservation book clear for her. A gift for which Marianna had no earthly idea how she might ever repay.
The door to unit #26 creaked as she unlocked it. She twisted the knob, pushed her way in and stepped inside a photograph.
She remembered this image exactly from a snapshot her sister had sent one winter: A lush floral sofa with pretty buttercup throw pillows dominated the living room. A glass coffee table was parked in front of it. A small spotless kitchen was just beyond the front seating area with stainless steel appliances and a circular dining table jutting up against the main kitchen counter. A hallway could be found beyond that, with speckled tile floors throughout, an occasional throw rug and stark white walls dotted with a few small seascapes to break up the monotony.
The only difference between the photo in her memory and this room was that, in the former, her smart, successful older sister was lounging on the sofa, drinking from a 24-oz. ceramic mug of extra-strength coffee and glancing up from her collection of work pages scattered on the glass table in front of her. Marianna had no such papers in her own bag, just an invisible, ever-growing list of differences between Ellen’s life and hers. Ellen’s ability to do work while on vacation was only one of them.
Her loafers click-clacked against the ceramic tiles as she strode down the hall to where the bedrooms were hidden. There were two available: one with a queen bed and one with a double. She opted for the larger of them—well, why the heck not?—and tossed her suitcase, purse and jacket in the corner. The only items she retrieved from her bag were her flip-flops, which she slipped on after kicking off her travel loafers. Like the way Mister Rogers changed his shoes at the start of his show when she was a kid, she felt the need to do the same.
She smoothed down a few wrinkles from her short-sleeve shirt and shorts and inhaled. Yes, she was as comfortable as she could get under the circumstances. Ready to enter the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
She squeezed the plastic nautilus keychain in her fist and pivoted toward the door, but the phone rang.
For several seconds, she just stood there, paralyzed by the intrusive tone. Her heartbeat raced to fill the gap between rings. Who would call here? What disaster is waiting to befall me now? She finally snapped out of her inertia and grabbed at the beige phone on the wall.
“Hello?” she said, her voice sounding tinny and unsure even to her own ears.
“Marianna!” came the energetic, good-natured growl on the other end, signifying her sister. “Welcome to Sarasota!”
She glanced out the front window, straining to spot Ellen’s wiry frame, her sharply defined jaw, her mischievous brown eyes. She didn’t see them. “Are—are you here?”
Ellen laughed. “No, silly. I’m home in Connecticut.” She paused, no doubt enjoying making Marianna wonder and squirm. “I asked Mr. Niihau to email me after you checked in. That’s how I knew you’d gotten there.” She could hear Ellen’s laptop keys clicking and the distinctive echo-y reverberation that indicated she’d switched her over to speakerphone already. Her big sister, Queen of Multitasking. “So, what do you think?” Ellen asked. “Do you love it already?”
Marianna couldn’t help but grin into the receiver. “I arrived ten minutes ago, Sis. The Gulf looked very pretty from the car window—I caught a few glimpses of it on the interstate. But I haven’t been to the beach yet.”
Ellen half smothered one of her involuntary huffs of disapproval, but Marianna still heard it. Much as she loved her sister, the woman was not known for her patience, and Marianna found herself relieved not to have to deal with her face to face. Was it too much to ask not to be judged for one day? By anybody?
“You should go out and walk around,” Ellen commanded. “You can call me back after you’ve taken a look.” She paused but not long enough for Marianna to explain that this was what she’d intended to do. “You like the bungalow, though, right?”
“I do,” she said truthfully. “It’s just perfect. Everything I need, and nothing I don’t. It’s simple. Uncluttered. Like Miss Garwood’s private cabin at Camp Willowgreen, only much nicer and without all those snot-nosed little kids and pesky teen counselors knocking on the door, asking annoying questions.”
Her sister found this description very funny—laughing in delight, and even pausing (albeit momentarily) in her typing to get all sentimental about Camp Willowgreen and witchy camp director Miss Garwood. “Oh, man, those were the days,” Ellen said as she waxed fondly over memories of tipping canoes and mosquito bites. Ellen had, apparently, forgotten that Marianna didn’t share her love affair with summer-camp adventures, and it never did any good to try to explain to her sister that she was more ambivalent than not to those long weeks away.
However, Ellen had blithely given her the kind of gift worth the weight of Mr. Niihau in gold. Marianna’s heart almost burst open in appreciation of it but, at the same time, being in Florida felt like an exercise in procrastination to her. Like she’d been sent off to summer camp when everyone else was busily working on something more productive. She wasn’t sure how anything she might do in Sarasota would help her when she got back to her real life, any more than learning to play water polo, roasting marshmallows over a fire or weaving placemats were skills of much use to her in high-school geometry or sophomore world lit.
“I envy your summer,” Ellen concluded on a sigh.
Marianna rolled her eyes, glad her sister couldn’t see her. She once again told Ellen how grateful she was for the use of the bungalow.
“Then why the hell don’t you sound happier?” Ellen demanded.
What to say to this? Up until Marianna’s senior year in high school, her sister was always five years ahead of her. That was a given. Marianna never thought for an instant she’d catch up to her. Not really. But, if she were to be honest, she’d hoped their experiences would eventually even out.
And, for a time, they seemed to. After Marianna’s impromptu marriage, right around the time when Ellen, by contrast, was in the process of getting her very practical CPA, Marianna almost felt more experienced. She was a married woman and then a mom, living an adult’s life, even if it was in her in-laws’ basement. Ellen, meanwhile, was still a student, living single with Mom and Dad at home.
But that soon reversed again—in Ellen’s favor.
When Ellen moved out, became a tax partner, started dating Jared and began jetting off on international vacations to exotic locales like Bali, Ixtapa and Prague…the sisters’ five-year age difference seemed magnified to ten. And when Ellen and her man relocated to New Haven, Connecticut (Jared was a Harvard grad living in Yalie waters), had a lavish wedding and moved into a McMansion overlooking Long Island Sound, the gap between the sisters felt like decades. Ellen was a mover and shaker in her world, up in the stratosphere, while Marianna was…well, nowhere close. And that always seemed to scratch at her insecurities. Something she sure as heck didn’t need right now.
Marianna took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you’ll understand this because you’re so…so good at everything,” she said, knowing this would probably be interpreted by her sister as “whiny” even though she was trying hard not to be. “You have a husband who loves you. A beautiful home. A career you excel at.” She frowned. “I mean, I’m sure your life isn’t totally perfect.” Although, to Marianna, Ellen’s life had always seemed that way. “I’m sure you get tired of working so many hours sometimes and you need a break. But my being here isn’t fun like that. It’s not a vacation, you know? It’s a delay tactic.” She slowed her speech in hopes that the truth might sink in. “I failed at everything, Ellen. I have to start all over again. This isn’t a ‘happy’ kind of thought.”
There was a long pause on the line. Oh, damn. She was finally getting through to her sister, perhaps, but she was managing to offend her in the process. “Sis, I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful because you’ve been wonderful to me. But I’m just—just—”
“Scared,” Ellen supplied. She exhaled. A long, slow breath. Marianna could hear the air streaming out of her like a deflating balloon and knew she was the one responsible for puncturing Ellen’s good mood. She was a lousy little sister.
When Ellen spoke again, her voice had that clipped businesswoman tone to it that Marianna always heard her sister use when speaking to clients on her iPhone. “Well, explore a little and get to know the area. Sarasota is pretty different from Ann Arbor, so your first visit to Florida ought to be an eye-opening experience. Even if it isn’t a vacation.”
She was mocking her now. Marianna rolled her eyes again but succeeded in uttering a very cordial, “Okay.”
“And stop being so hard on yourself,” Ellen said, evidently unable to turn off the bossy big-sister gene for more than ten seconds. “You did not fail at everything. From what my niece tells me, you’re not even an entirely dreadful mom.”
Marianna laughed. She’d cheerfully strangle Ellen sometimes, but her sister was funny. Plus, she knew Ellen loved her. And Kathryn. That counted for more than a little.
“Anyway,” Ellen said, “we all need a fresh start sometimes. Regardless of our age or how successful people think we are.” Marianna heard the rapid-fire clicking again and was so preoccupied trying to calculate how many words-per-minute her sister must’ve been typing—she was almost positive she was a hair faster than Ellen at that, if at nothing else—that she almost missed Ellen’s last sentence. “No one wants to stay in a rut forever,” her sister murmured. “Not even a gold-plated one.”
A mix of cerulean with teal for the furthest watery depths.
A dabbling of silvery sunlight, whiting out patches of sea and sand like a spotlight.
Gil Canton studied the shoreline with the practiced eye of an artist. Which was what he was, he reminded himself. Never mind the low, deep voice from decades’ past that told him otherwise. That told him he should be using his powers of observation on “a worthier, more global cause.”
A faint blend of burnt umber and goldenrod in a subtle line underscoring the crisp cottony tufts of rolling waves.
A flash of gray and green as the sunfish tangled with the seaweed just below the surface.
Anyone with a heart knew the creatures of the ocean were as worthy and as global as anything out in the world. That the Gulf was not only a visual feast for a painter, but it was a composer’s symphony, a poet’s playground.
Anyone with a heart…ahh. But that was the problem, wasn’t it?
Gil grimaced. Calf-deep in the warm water and strolling languidly along the Siesta Key shoreline, he picked up his stride to outrace that old, familiar voice. It didn’t work. It never the hell worked. But he turned his attention to the passersby in hopes of a distraction.
Shades of skin color in a palette of creams, tans, bronzes, chocolates and, sometimes, sunburned reds.
The fascinating discordance of fabric hues and textures and patterns, draping the wearer in a manner that left no question as to whether the individual wanted to be noticed…or wanted to blend into the seascape.
He knew he looked at the beach differently than he had when he’d first moved here twenty-six years ago. And, unlike the appreciative but unobservant gazes of the bikini-clad tourists, he needed to distinguish between the various ranges of blues and greens, the buffet of multicolored accessory images and the differing degrees of whiteness from the sand to the bungalows—for the sake of his passion. His paintings.
Why was it so easy, so natural for him to be both loving and discerning in one area of his life but not in another?
With a canvas, he could step back and assess it. If he saw he’d done something wrong or, more frequently, had neglected to do something completely right, he would be able to see the problem area with the help of a few feet of distance and, then, correct it.
With relationships—parental, romantic, professional or otherwise—it was never that simple. Stepping back was harder for the other person to accept. And it tended to create more damage, even when the objective was to do just the opposite. To achieve a fresh perspective. Clarity.
Art and life? Not so much the same.
He kicked lightly at a broken conch with the tip of his water shoe. Even with a chunk of its shell missing, it was still beautiful. There was almost heartbreaking beauty on this shore.
Children splashing and frolicking, often with a battalion of siblings and water toys.
An old woman dressed in white standing beside an attractive younger lady—an obvious newcomer—in his direct line of sight. The latter was a tad overdressed in her pinkish t-shirt and navy shorts. Untanned and pensive. Awed by the Gulf setting in that mystified tourist sort of way. The coast was full of visitors like that. Nothing wrong with them, he supposed. His business depended on them, after all. But it was hard to get to know many people well in such a transient environment.
With a shrug, he returned his focus to the water—the rhythmic breaking of the waves trying their darnedest to drown out his father’s voice once and for all until, a few minutes later, a sound he couldn’t ignore pierced his concentration.
(End of Part 1) This was already a rather long post, so I didn’t want to add the final scene of Chapter Two as well, but that is where Marianna and Gil will meet. I’ll start with that segment on October 7th, when I share Part 2! Hope you liked it so far… 🙂