First published by OPEN PEN in June 2015
I hate Florida. I really do. I used to pass through it so many times, on the way to and from the States. The girl I thought I’d marry used to live there, though I’m not sure if she’s living there anymore.
I was at Miami airport on a layover from São Paulo, where I’d been working for the week. As I wandered downstairs to the musty chill of baggage claim, a handsome old Hispanic man, arms folded, was staring absently at the luggage belt as a young woman and her family crept up behind him. The amber lantern flashed and the rubber belt slid into action - the old man spun around and they all whooped! He hugged his daughter tightly as a child flung itself at his legs.
I smiled and went outside into the warm, clammy night to smoke a cigarette. I always had a snippet of sentimental song going around my head whenever I arrived in those places, lingering, halfway across the world:
I wish somebody was waiting
I wish somebody was waiting
I wish somebody was waiting
And I wish that somebody was you.
No one ever was though, so I just stood there, smoked my cigarette and thought about her. She might have been forty miles away, dancing half-naked in front of the mirror in her parent’s bungalow to German alt-rock, her small breasts twirling round and around. I went into the deserted lounge and spread myself out between two big leather armchairs. I put on my noice-cancelling headphones and opened the bottle of whisky I’d bought at duty free. The malt sent little shock waves around my brain and I took another swig. I sat there, suspended, as my chin began to bob into my neck.
We decided to get back in touch after a long time. A New Year’s text message, a birthday email – we’d nibbled at each other like little fish, all night sighs and sentimental electronic scribbles in the ether. Finally, one evening, I faced the inevitable. I stretched out on my couch, a bottle of red wine mustered on the table, and called her.
“Well – hello,” she said.
We had met at a show the week I moved to America. I was excited and high, she was cute and funny and relished the fact that I was English. We made a date for the zoo the next day but I woke up late, hung-over, and on the way, my cab nearly crashed in the fog. An hour late, I tried to call her, but I couldn’t get through. Despairing, I floundered in anyway, hoping that I might just somehow spot her.
And then, somehow, I did. Standing in a pair of pink sneakers in the grey whiteness of the afternoon, watching the chimpanzees.
“Well – hello,” she said, smiling.
She did most of the talking. She talked about songs she could play on the guitar, about stars she had interviewed for her website. She explained how I might have noticed already, but she was sometimes compared to a certain blonde pop star, whom I hadn’t heard of, but anyway she had once slept with the band’s guitarist one night after a show in Berlin.
By the time we sat down by the parrots, my head was pounding. As we smoked, she told me, conversationally, that she was now sleeping with her father’s best friend. That they’d been on a road trip together the year before, and ‘things had just happened’.
“When you spend time with someone like that,” she said, “things can just happen.”
“Right,” I said, wheezing. “That makes total sense.”
Hours later, ruby-mouthed and blurry-eyed, it had been agreed. I’d take a few days off, go to visit her at her parent’s place in Florida, where she was living on her own for a while.
“There’s NOTHING to do here, just so you know.”
“I don’t mind. It’ll just be nice to see you.”
“Nothing AT ALL.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Seriously – there is Nothing. To Do. And everyone here is at least A HUNDRED.”
“It’ll be cool. It’ll be fun.”
“So. What is there to do? Really?”
Her voice took on a cute, flippant tone.
“Well! We can go to the beach . . . and the old folks have their bingo at the club house on Tuesdays!”
“I haven’t been to the beach in ages.”
“Or – we can go to the Flamingo Gardens…”
“I’d love to go to the flamingo gardens.”
“Ahhh! He’ll go to the Flamingo Gardens with me!”
“They sound very picturesque.”
“And just so you know, honey, there’s probably going to be a hurricane, and we’ll probably have to put up the hurricane shutters and have no air con for a week. Oh, it’ll be dreamy.”
“I can’t wait.”
“You have no idea what it’s like. This is Florida. Seriously.”
“It’ll be fine.”
I wish somebody was waiting.
I wish somebody was waiting.
I wish somebody was waiting -
And then – there she was. Floating across the tarmac outside the terminal in her dad’s battered green Cadillac. She wound down the window. “I’ve gone around three times already, honey. You better get in before they arrest me.”
I clambered inside and the car jerked forward.
“Ahem. You’ll have to move my yoga mats from the seat.”
I threw them into the back as we drove away from the decaying, heat-stained airport.
“And can you pass me my water bottle. Please.”
I handed it to her and as the car veered toward the exit, I started to helplessly grin. I wound down the window, hot air blowing in against my face.
“Uhm, nye – nye – nye, honey, if you open the window then the air-con doesn’t work.”
I shrugged, still grinning, and wound it back up again.
The road led through a small beach town, the silver tripod of a gas tank looming over us. A billboard stuttered up, advertising the gun show, then another for Motel 6.
“Just so you know – if you need another place to stay,” she said, smirking.
Then we were out on the freeway, the malls scudding by on loop of concrete and pastel – Taco Bell, Borders, Blockbuster, Home Depot, Safeway, Burger King, Blockbuster, Taco Bell . . .
A car in front of us swerved in and out of the third lane of the highway, a silver thicket of hair bobbing beyond the rear glass. She held her hand to the horn, but then put it back on the wheel, rolling her eyes.
“Jesus. Florida brain! I get it after two weeks of being back here.”
She shifted lane, overtook the old lady, smiling sweetly through the window.
“Honey, if I ever get like that, you promise to shoot me?”
A horn blared from the car behind us as we sailed in front of it.
The country sped by. Retirement communities tucked away behind long screens of laurel and chain fence – secret, wistful pockets of milk and honey salvaged from the swamp, given names of lush, fragrant promise: Willow Grove, Emerald Pointe, Orange Blossom Manor . . .
All above and around them – the sky is vast, as if hoisted up on stilts a hundred miles high. Far away, where the tropical sky meets the flat land, snake tongues of lightning flicker and dance against the pinkness, as if tasting the salt in the warm, moist air.
We stopped at Safeway and I went around the aisles, cheerfully picking out meat and vegetables, stocking up with wine and whisky. We drove to the other side of the road, waved at the sullen guard, and she picked me up a security pass at the community office, written out in spidery handwriting by an ancient sun-wrinkled woman. We wound around the lane of the retirement village to her parent’s bungalow, where her neighbors were sitting out in deckchairs, tanned and leathery as alligators. She waved and they squinted and nodded as she introduced me.
When we got inside, she turned on the air-con straight away.
“So what are we eating tonight? There’s some mini-steaks in the freezer.”
I cooked chicken with tarragon, and pasta. We ate side by side, at the glass table in the lounge, so she could see the TV. She finally seemed to relax. She put down her fork, and I noticed a twist of tarragon around one of its metal teeth.
“This is delicious.”
She held up her misted glass of wine to me, and nodded.
“Cheers to you.”
She took a sip.
“Thank you for coming, anyway.”
“Right. Anyway. Ymm.”
She picked up the barbarous remote control and changed the channel, turned up the volume.
Animated spirals and vortices were twisting jerkily across the Caribbean Sea. They stopped, went back, repeated, over and over again. She stared at them for a moment.
“Oh, great. Just fucking great.”
Christmas, a few years after we met. I was hopelessly in love with her by then, alone, hundreds of miles away in London and feeling as if I was losing control. I phoned her in Berlin - she sounded pleased to hear my voice. I asked if I could visit for New Year’s.
“Um,” she said. “You know I’m still with – my man. Don’t you?”
“I know that,” I said. “It’s OK. It’ll just be good to see you.”
I picked up champagne at Zurich and she met me at the airport. We dropped off my bags at her friend’s house and we went to a bar for a few drinks.
“Sorry you can’t stay with us,” she said. “He didn’t like the idea. Even though I told him you were gay.”
Later, we walked over to her apartment block. At the foot of the stairs, a decrepit-looking man stood holding a bunch of flowers. She beamed and spoke to him in German. In the cramped elevator up, she told me that he was her mother’s boyfriend, that he was waiting for her to come down after dinner.
A jolly man - her father - welcomed me into the small flat. In the kitchen, her mother was making goulash soup. Another man was standing in the lounge – mid-fifties, tall and potbellied - and I realised that this must be the Best Friend. He shook my hand. After a moment, he went and sniffed the pot on the stove theatrically, guffawing as he waggled the thick roll of his belly between thumb and forefinger. She went to her room to take a call and we listened to her burbling with excitement as we stood there in silence, sipping our drinks. Her pet rabbit was hopping about in the lounge, and her father scrambled through to pull at its ears, leaving us alone.
There was a photo of her on the wall, taken at her high school graduation. She was sneering at the camera, blonde hair spiked up, all faux anarchy and princess punk. The best friend turned, put his finger to her face, and drew it slowly down her body, lingering. Then he turned back and leered at me.
“You really want this to happen, don’t you?”
I didn’t want to say it, but it was true.
“Right. When the windows blow off and we have no air con or TV for three days you’ll be super happy.”
She was right. I didn’t care.
She glared at me. “This is Florida. Seriously.”
“It’ll be like our adventure.”
She rolled her eyes.
The TV showed crowds gathered in the snow by the Cathedral as we sat around the dinner table in silence. The Best Friend was on her far side, and her mother served up the goulash soup as her father squinted at one of the bottles of champagne, twisted the cork and poured it into our fizzing glasses with a chortle. She was wearing a black wool sweater, her blonde hair cut short, and she seemed more beautiful than I had ever seen her before.
We clinked a toast to the New Year ahead, and began to eat our goulash soup. After the bowls were empty, we all stared dumbly at the TV for a while, until her father finally started playing with the rabbit again, chasing it around the cramped room, and her mother took this as an excuse to slip downstairs to her decrepit lover with his wilted flowers. The best friend gave her a private glance. She suggested that we leave now.
Fireworks were exploding all across the night sky as he drove us in his warm Mercedes to the party at the friend’s place where I was staying. When we got there, the party had already started, and she came in for a while as he waited outside in his leather seats, the engine running.
A beautiful girl with black hair and a camera around her neck started chattering to me and a cheery guy I assumed was her boyfriend breezed past carrying beers and gave me a knowing wink.
She took me upstairs to my attic room for a moment.
“Please don’t fuck her tonight,” she said. “Please.”
Then she went back outside to her waiting car.
The hurricane was travelling at ten miles an hour across the Caribbean Sea – slower than a moped. I pictured Havana being pummelled, the buildings crumbling into mud, the people on the Malecón being hurled into the frothing waves. Katrina had scoured this coastline a few years back and I’d listened to the reports on the TV as the trucks rumbled past my apartment and tried to write something significant:
The wind that blew in over Lake Pontchartrain,
So dismal and dreary that time drowned itself
Dread and decay where all that remained
In the dawn of the day that the Hurricane made
I hope that I don’t grow fat and old and die in Florida, though I probably will.
I brought out breakfast – bacon sandwiches with avocado and mustard. On the TV, the animated nebula of the hurricane were still spiralling toward the coast, glowing arrows projecting its path. Later on, I took the hurricane shutters from the loft – mysteriously full of photographs of her mother - sweating as I slotted them against the windows. We drove back over to Safeway to stock up with candles and batteries and water. The day before, gallon jugs had formed great embankments and aisles; now they seemed more like the plundered ruins of some ancient platic citadel.
Back at home, she sat on the couch, flicking between the glowing spirals and her medical shows. I filled the bath with water, and boiled up three pounds of pasta. Forked it, limp and white, into bowls in the fridge.
The night before my flight home, as we sat in the plush darkness of a cocktail bar, I told her that I loved her, that I needed to know whether it was still worth me having hope. She touched the rim of her glass, and told me, seriously, that one day, she thought we would be together. But not yet. That, at that moment, she had two hearts. One, which belonged to her father’s best friend. Another, growing slowly, which she thought one day would be mine.
Outside, on the porch, we sat smoking, glancing occasionally at the sky.
“You’re excited about this, aren’t you?” she said. “I can tell.”
I was. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded if the world had ended. Mad Max gangs would hurtle down the swampy remains of Daytona Beach on chopped Ducatis. Up the coast, I’d go out in the morning to beach comb, pick raffeta rugs from the shore, scrutinize the flotsam and jetsam of our lost civilization as it washed up on the beach. I’d pick out the bits we could use – the good planks, the abandoned sails and masts. One day a great carved figurehead would wash up on the sand – I’d drag it home and mount it up outside the bungalow.
Those splendid mornings! When the hot and rosy sun would emerge from the sea, brightening the entirety of the sky into blue. My dawn shadow casting across the shore as I walked back home to where she was waiting, my footprints melting behind me in the sand.
The days would come and go. At dusk, I would stroll down to the shore again, fling an ill-woven net into the surf – pull it back, a couple of flapping, floundering fish tangled in its strings. I’d watch the sky bleaken prettily, walk out into the ocean and swim, float, emerge once more, feel the cool wind salting my skin. The sky would become a long smudge of indigo, the silver moon would appear, as suddenly as ever, and roil out across the deep stained sea, pulling the tide in and out, in and out, while faint, far off lightning electrocuted the purple horizon.
I wasn’t worried about how we would survive. The Safeway would have food enough for a while – the freezers would keep things fresh until the backup generators went. After that – there were the dry goods, the pasta and such. Then the tins. I could forage for lizards, trap turtles, net fish. We would somehow survive, in the bungalow together. The sun would circle endlessly around us; the vast sky would silently flicker. She would grow garlic amongst the weeds. Every two years, we would have pineapple.
The rain came in late that night with a sudden, steady patter. We took all of the blankets from her mother and father’s beds, and sat them out in the lounge like two children building a fort. The Weather Channel burbled away as we lay in the blankets and hugged each other. She wondered with a moan why we hadn’t thought of the idea before. I slid up her shirt, and she sat on top of me, leaning over. She embraced me with her body, I reached my hand behind her neck. She pushed down hard on my rib cage, protesting.
“You think I’m a fucking high school cheerleader or something?”
I slid away, stung, withering.
We lat next to each other in silence, as the hurricane wandered closer.
“You really want this to happen, don’t you?” she whispered.
At about one in the morning, a great sighing came from the trees outside. Sudden, violent rain hammered against the house. Air sucked and pummelled at the windows - there was a loud crack, a blast of freezing air and a howling shriek as the first hurricane shutter flew twirling away. The wind hit the window again, hard, the glass shattered - and then it was there in the room with us, like a shrieking witch. There was a vast whump, a bang, and the lights in the house snuffed out like candles. She screamed; the red light on the TV glowed for a second, then faded into blackness. I held her tightly as the driving wind scoured the room, flinging magazines into the air. The storm retarded for a moment, and we sat there in the darkness, a fine, freezing water spraying over us like it water from a sprinkler.
The trees began to roar again and I leaped up and pulled her to her room and we huddled tightly in the bottom bunk of her bed. Then the entire house was being pummelled on each side, slapped by enormous hands, veering and leaning on its shallow foundations.
Even then, as the wall buckled behind me, I could feel her hot body squashed against mine, my hand gripping her breast, the nipple hardening beneath my fingers. I pushed my face into her hair, and could smell the burnt caramel and apricot scent of her skin, the jasmine of her night perfume.
I pulled her as tight as I can, my hand on her ribcage, my sternum pressed against her spine. As the hurricane pounded against the windows, I felt her mouth on my finger, her small perfect teeth against my skin; she bit down as hard as she can, and I could feel the imprints welling there like half moons in my flesh.
I was not sure how we slept. But we must have slept, somehow, because when I woke, everything was gone.
I slid out of the bed, leaving her sleeping, and clambered through the wreckage of the house in my boxer shorts. Outside, big, bushy branches had snapped off the palm trees and lay scattered in the driveways. White plastic furniture and tarpaulin had been thrown across the scarred lawns, unripe oranges littering the grass like abandoned tennis balls. Most of the clapboard houses in the retirement community had been blown down, their planks randomly piled against the laurel trees. The wall that separated the little front patio from the neighbour’s house had collapsed, and in the parking circle, their cream Mustang lay on its back like an upended beetle.
I picked my way down the path in bare feet. On either side, the houses had been punched in, leaving their contents exposed to the sky – upturned sofas, shattered TVs, PC monitors and old printers. Handicapped toilets lay broken, their cisterns cracked, guardrails unratcheted from the tiles. Wires dangled from the walls, pipes welling fluid into saturated flowerbeds.
Down by the artificial lake, the wooden bridge over the stream had broken off, and was bobbing, half submerged in the water. On the little island, the big willow tree had snapped in two, its branches dangling into the lake. Past the shuffleboard court, the swimming pool was overflowing and tennis nets hung over the fence of the court like ejected spools of film. I stood there for a while, as the sky lightened. I held my breath, and listened. Everyone had gone.
There was a circular flutter in the water. A reptilian spike sliced out of the lake, scaled arms gripped the collapsed side of the bank, and with muscled, determined grace, an iguana hoisted itself up, slipped, then gripped onto the earth with vestigial toes, heaving itself up onto the verge. Its fin erected, shivered, flattened back down again as it clambered up onto the court and splayed itself out there.
The air was fresh and pure. I stood there, on the tennis court, a gentle breeze blowing through the hairs on my arms. The nets shivered. Above the artificial lake, the sky was huge – at its rim, the lilac of dawn glowed steadily brighter, pushing against the indigo of the fading night. The horizon slowly fermented into bands of gold and crimson, and I watched, feeling a great, naked excitement, a startling, limpid beauty rising all around me - high up in the sky, was the silver glint of the morning star . . . In the wreckage of the retirement community, the breeze fluttered and played, and I stood there and watched the sunrise, the first man on earth.
Of course – it didn’t happen like that.
The hurricane was demoted to a Tropical Storm not far from Bermuda. By the time it finally made landfall, it wasn’t much more than an infantile Tropical Depression. The Weather Channel was disappointed, but got excited again later about a mudslide in Indonesia, a flash flood in Bangladesh.
We sat outside on the porch, the thick, hot night swallowing us. I told her I loved her, that I couldn’t carry on living in hope any more. It was about five in the morning by then. The newspaper boy would be getting here soon. She came over, sat astride me, put her arms around my neck. It was quiet.
Later, there was a thump and the shrink-wrapped newspaper slid toward us.
I hope that I don’t grow fat and old in Florida. I hope that I don’t die of cancer. I hope that one day I will find someone that I truly love, someone that loves me back with the same fierce intensity. I hope that we will grow old – and less beautiful – together. I hope that it isn’t already too late.
Even if everything in life doesn’t turn out like we hoped, then I hope, as the lights begin to go out, that we can just stay indoors, buried in a nest of blankets, together. We’ll watch the Weather Channel, wait for the air-con to fail, for the TV to die, as the families of hurricanes crawl in from the ocean.
We’ll hug each other as they make landfall. We’ll lie there together, warm and placid, as outside, the sky turns black, and the branches begin to quiver.