This past Saturday on Hilton Head Island, I caught someone taking my flip-flops.
It wasn't yet 9 a.m.
I saw it happen from a distance. The woman was older, blonde and had been sitting in the dunes by herself.
She was wearing shoes of her own. This much I could tell.
She walked to where my flip-flops were sitting in the sand, to the left or right of the beach's walkway depending on the perspective.
She picked up my flip-flops and clapped them together as if they were hers -- as if she were merely de-sanding them to put them on or to tuck them neatly in a tote bag, next to her Kindle and reading glasses.
I left the flip-flops in the spot usually occupied by two to three other pairs of flip-flops, the spot where beachgoers sometimes kick off their footwear before walking the shoreline, the spot where I've been leaving flip-flops for nearly 12 years without incident.
I saw it happen and began to run toward her with my dog in tow.
This is it, I thought, it's finally happening. This isn't a drill.
Then it occurred to me that I was about to accuse this woman of a very bizarre theft.
A Hilton Head woman in preppy clothes and with recently set hair doesn't just steal flip-flops for herself. She takes them righteously and with a lesson attached. She takes them with purpose and assumption. She takes them so that when conversation with her friends hits a lull later, she can slip in a few words about her heroics. "You know, these people on the beach are something else. Do you know that I had to pick up a pair of flip-flops this morning? Who leaves their flip-flops for an hour during prime walking-on-the-beach-barefoot time?"
At least this is how I pictured her in that moment.
And I considered letting her have the flip-flops to avoid the interaction. I'll drive home barefoot, I thought. I deserve this.
When you grow up in a metropolitan area, you learn certain ugly truths about humans rather quickly.
By 7, I knew that sometimes homeless men don't wear underwear. Or zip their pants.
That cash belongs in your front pocket, not in your purse, which can be snatched.
That unlocked doors mean things get stolen. That locked doors sometimes mean this too.
I learned that people take things from each other, real and emotional. They ruin each other's days and each other's lives. They inflict themselves on one another for their own gain, whatever it is they need or want, whatever it is that makes a single moment of their existence better than the last no matter what is lost or who gets hurt.
Leaving my flip-flops by the walkway was always an act of faith. A request to the universe: Prove to me that one thing can be pure.
Each time I kicked them off, I wondered if they would be there when I returned. Each time they were.
It brought me great joy.
It means something, even if it is a fantasy
It is the unmanned bicycle with a baguette in the basket, leaning on a kickstand outside a flower store. It is pies cooling in an open, screenless window.
It is fresh air, glowing skin and sand in the car.
It is the sign of a good life, in a good place, with good people around me.
"You can leave your flip-flops here," I've told my guests. "No one will touch them."
The first time I walked on a Hilton Head beach in October 2003, I didn't own flip-flops yet. I had on heavy shoes that I took off and carried with me to the shore.
I live here now, I remember thinking. Pretty soon walking on the beach won't be a big deal to me.
I was wrong about that.
My first breath of salt air is always taken gratefully. I still pause at starfish, sand dollars and horseshoe crabs. I feel at ease and steady, grounded, but free. I listen to music and audiobooks and sometimes walk with friends. I spend thousands of barefoot steps puzzling over left-behind mysteries -- like the trail of brownies and red and white carnations I once encountered or the arc of five half-smoked cigars stubbed out in the sand.
Did one man say "Now!" and the four others followed his lead? Were they standing or sitting? Were they celebrating something or unwinding? Were they actually cigar smokers or did they do it just because it seemed like something one should do? Will they remember the night as a good one?
The woman who took my flip-flops could not know any of this, of course.
As I drew closer to her, I considered the facts and whether I'd say anything.
Yes, I had left my flip-flops unattended. This was my fault, ultimately.
But those flip-flops were $32 and made of recycled yoga mats. She wasn't walking off with the Old Navy variety. This was middle-class consciousness itself.
"I'm sorry," I said to her when I caught up. "Did you take ... did you ... I think those are my flip-flops."
She handed them to me and was equally unable to form words.
I felt bad.
"I thought someone left them," she said. "I was taking them over there."
She motioned to the boardwalk, but I wondered if she meant the trash cans.
She wasn't stealing my flip-flops. She was moving them. I still don't understand why.
We made small talk about dogs and how walking on the beach is fun for them. I got out of there as fast as I could and forgot about the incident.
Until the next morning.
Instead of walking, I sat in the sand with the flip-flops on my feet. I couldn't take them off. I didn't want to carry them.
I knew there was no reason I couldn't leave them in the same spot and have another 12 years of make-believe.
Logically, I knew this.
I watched a family fly a kite and take photos. A man walked toward the shore, paused and took off his heavy shoes before wading in the water.
But I could not take mine off, and I didn't want to carry them.