It all started with raspberries. Or that’s what we told people in the 10’s of times we recollected our magical afternoon.
The truth is we were a week into the 15 day National Critics Institute and needed a chance to breathe. A break from writing; thinking; other people. We grabbed beach towels and met in the lobby of our dorm to walk to the Waterford beach.
Randall and I became friends quickly during our first week at the Institute. In fact, the whole group of critics grew close – apparently, the recipe for belly laughs is 9 witty, playful writers and Andy Propst.
But Randall and I were sharing late night writing sessions, gossiping over drinks in the pub and bonding over Texas roots. And we wanted to spend our afternoon off the same way: relaxing.
The walk to the Waterford beach takes 30-minutes. We stopped in at the liquor store, grabbed lime-a-ritas and settled in to an afternoon of conversation. As we headed toward the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, one of the houses we passed on our walk had xeriscaped their yard. A raspberry bush lined the sidewalk and Randall stopped to admire.
“have you ever had a ripe raspberry?” he asked me.
“No, actually,” I said, surprised to learn this truth about myself.
He plucked two. The bush was in direct sunlight and the berries tasted like a warm, gooey berry topping a pie (apparently pie is my most vivid experience of fruit).
We began to talk about gardens. I explained to him the vision I have of Lauren at 30: a small bungalow in a warm city, with a lavish garden I care for myself. A few years older than me, Randall shared a story about a time in his life when his garden had served as a therapeutic getaway. It was one of those conversations you can only really have with people you’ve just met. The conversations that make you feel like you’ve known each other for years.
Not a minute after he finished his story, a black Mercedes pulled up and a suave looking blue hair reached over his wife in the passenger seat. “Are you guys with the O’Neill?” he asked.
“Well, yes,” Randall said quickly. We exchanged a glance of surprise, forgetting the nametags around our neck.
“Hop in, we’ll give you a ride.”
Being the kind of people who never listened to their parents about riding in cars with strangers and facing another 20 minutes on our feet, we obliged.
He was reaching in the backseat, moving his fedora and briefcase from my seat and they smiled, “I’m Edward, this is my wife Jill.”
Within five minutes, we learned she grew up in the area and rode horses from what is now the Rose Barn Theater. They lived just down the way and they had contributed to the city’s nature conservancy with a huge portion of trees lining the O’Neill. They were friends with Preston Whiteway and Jill Anderson (the head honchos of the O’Neill) and in fact, he taught yoga there in the 70’s. And by the way, who were we and where were we from and what were we doing up here?
When we reached the fork in the road entering the Theater Center, Randall and I were about to begin our thank you’s for the ride when our new friends asked, “Have you been to Harkness?”
“No,” Randall said. In his version of the story he will say this is when he realized they had just shown us the forest they could’ve buried our bodies in.
“Well you must see this place. It is heaven on earth. Absolutely stunning. My favorite place in the world,” Edward said.
hyperbole for the dumb tourists, I thought. But we didn’t have a choice. Edward drove past the theater and on to Harkness Estate. For the next five minutes, I thought learn to trust strangers, learn to trust strangers.
Then we pulled into the private park and Edward flashed his visitor pass. “You must go to the East garden. Trust me it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.” Just from the parking lot you could see the stunning beauty of this land . He pulled up to the entrance and handed Randall his business card. “Tell Preston and Jill that Edward and Jill say hello.”
Did we need water? He grabbed two water bottles and handed them to us. And by the way, you’re going to the beach right?
Again the obviousness of the towel sticking out of my purse eluded me in that moment and I replied in awe. “Yes, we are.”
“Perfect, you can get to Waterford beach easy from here. But you’ll want to stick around for a while.”
“But darling, they don’t know the way,” Jill piped in.
“They’ll find the path,” he said.
They drove away.
“What was their name again?” I asked Randall.
He grabbed his business card, “Edward Lameroux” he read.
And underneath where his company name should be, “Magical Opportunities.”
“That’s weird,” we said in unison and Randall tucked the card into his pocket next to a phone number of an actor he planned to interview later.
Harkness Estate is stunning. It’s Downton Abbey on the ocean.
And the East Garden was everything Edward promised. Serene, colorful landscaping with a peaceful Buddha watching over it. The thick grass was a lush green and I had a peaceful solitary feeling that the flowers were allowing us to disturb them. I looked at Randall and grinned.
“This is surreal. This is absolutely surreal. Remember what we were talking about when they picked us up?” I asked.
“Oh my god, you’re right. Gardens. And here we are.”
“Here we are.”
“We have to thank them,” he said reaching into his pocket for the card. And then into another pocket. And then the outside pockets of his backpack. The phone number was there, but the card vanished.
We looked at each other and said, “Magical opportunities.”
Suddenly the estate was more magical, the haze off the Long Island Sound more misty. We would ask Preston who these conduits of destiny were. Surely he would know them.
After a few moments of peace, we decided to look for the path to the beach, which we did find quite easily and spent the rest of the afternoon with our toes in the sand.
Later Randall ran into Preston who had no idea who he meant by “Lameroux.” When Randall told him the story, he furrowed his brow and said, “By god, it sounds like you’ve been Brigadooned.”
And he was right.
We spent the beginning of our afternoon talking about how important gardens were to his past and my future. And only because we were sharing our vulnerabilities could we find the magic of the present. The raspberries would spur that experience that one time with that one person, never to be repeated the same way again.
How lucky we are to be alive, my friends. How lucky we are to be alive.