Emma Balfour walked into my life in the summer of 2003. Our paths collided on Ocean Beach, the 3-mile stretch of gray sand and graffiti-spattered seawall marking the western edge of the city.
It was a cold day and the beach was buried in dense fog, the kind of fog that makes you feel as if you are lost in some strange dream. It was in this bleak landscape that the child appeared, wearing a red sweatshirt, blue jeans rolled up to her calves, no shoes. She was carrying a small yellow bucket. Although she was only 6 or 7 years old, she appeared to be alone. She had long black hair, blue eyes, dimples.
She bent down, picked something out of the sand and laid it gently in the bucket.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi.” Her voice was sweet and raspy, completely unguarded.
“What are you collecting?”
“Sand dollars,” she said seriously, holding out the bucket for me to examine. At the bottom lay a single, perfect sand dollar.