A Love Letter to Key West from a Fresh Water Conch After Irma

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I parked my mom’s 85 Camry in front of the gate. I was there to leave him. I had just come from the bank, and in the trunk next to my rollerblades was a third of our savings in cash. I figured out how much of our debt was in my name, and the rest—along with the house—I left for him.

Our marriage counsellor said I was stupid to risk going back. I couldn’t leave my pets behind.

Our dogs were in the yard. I secreted out the Rottweiler before I went in the house. He lay across the backseat and grinned his slobbery doggy smile. The other dogs weren’t mine to take. I left them running back and forth in front of the fence.

We had two girl cats and two boy cats. The boy cats hunted small prey and could climb not only out the second floor window and down to the yard, but back up the house as well. The girl cats needed me—I would take them along. I found the first on the couch, and put her in car with the dog. I hoped he wasn’t watching out the window. Next was my jewelry box. Mostly little things, but things I hoped were worth pawning.

I never got the second cat or the suitcases I had packed with my best clothes and hidden in the closet. But I got out un-shot, un-hit, unbeaten.

He would say I was never in danger. That I was being silly. Dramatic.

Just because he never hit me doesn’t mean he never hit women. I had hired the lawyers to defend him against the charges. It is because I was small inside and unsure and easily confused by his words that I need to submit this fact as evidence. I need to show my fear was founded in something tangible.

I drove out of that world into someplace ephemeral. The end of the road. Mile marker zero, Key West.

I had a cat, a Rottweiler, and a borrowed car. Roller blades, jewelry and an envelope of cash. The clothes on my back. A small red notebook with directions to my aunt’s house hidden in my glove box. The strength of my family. My youth. The important truth that I was wounded but not broken.

I lived on discarded furniture and bought my clothes mostly from the Salvation Army and K-mart. The cash went for security deposits and old debt I couldn’t escape as easily as my marriage. I missed things like photographs and the nostalgic accumulation of twenty-six years, but knew they had no real purpose in my new life.

It was simpler to live without things. I started small. What I had: a broken heart, a new haircut. A week later, I added a job and a friend with benefits. New underwear and sheets for the rented bed in someone else’s house. One bowl, one plate, one fork and spoon. A black dress with white racer stripes bought used. Clunky sandals from Payless. An orange wallet embroidered with flowers. I made collages of pictures and words cut from magazines and hung them on my walls.

My mom could be gay here and I could say it out loud, and I told everyone, because it didn’t matter anymore. I told people that my mother was a famous lesbian, and she wasn’t really, but she wrote a weekly column in the gay paper so people did know her name. And everyone at church and bingo at the 801 bar knew my tall brother, and being his sister made me someone. We weren’t an old conch family but we were an old gay one, and here that meant something. Family pride was new and it made me the kind of person I used to envy.

I had the dog and cat and my brother and parents, and soon I had a best friend and then three. I kissed a girl, and then another, but I wasn’t proud of it—not because they were girls but because I knew it meant more to them than it did to me. My liberation shouldn’t come at another’s expense.

Every day after I work I rollerbladed along the beach. I bought a ten-dollar radio. Days of bright sun and nights filed with the scent of jasmine were worth more than anything I left behind. I even loved the roosters crowing in the dark of early morning. I walked alone at night and left my doors unlocked. I had never lived without fear before.

There’s something about leaving all your possessions behind and taking up residence in a place that can be blown away at any moment that is freeing. We were an island of emotional refugees—it seemed as if everyone I knew was mourning something or healing from someone or putting themselves back into who they meant to be before the world got ahold of them. And in between were the people born and raised there, who weathered storm after storm and knew you could keep your stories even if you didn’t keep your house, but the storms mostly turned and reporting was overblown. Palm trees bent under hurricane winds but rarely broke, and after the clouds cleared they righted themselves again.

It’s not that bad things didn’t happen. My dog died, my best friends left, and three times a roommate moved out the day rent was due. One day my boss put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was seventy-six and terminally ill, but he wrote his own story, all the way to the end. You could choose your own life here, and your own death, though we mourned him under the hot sun and the rock of the island was too hard to dig a hole to bury him.

It took me one year and my father’s help to get my belongings down to the island. When I got my things back from New York, I no longer wanted to be weighed down with an old life. Besides, I was never going north again.

Somehow swearing oaths makes you rescind them, and two years later I drove off the island with a new husband and a car full of new dreams. My brother left too, then my parents did as well. I mourned Key West as if it were a person. It was more than just the place I put myself back together or ate ice cream after bingo, or had my first adult sip of beer. It was the first place I loved for what just what it was. It was the first time I didn’t wish to be anywhere else. The island grounded me, kept me company alone at night, a living creature.

My parents returned to Key West a few years later, unable to resist the call of the island. Divorce and custody restrained me to a nonresident visitor, though I loved a man with a house there. Visiting hurt sometimes, to see what used to be and was now inaccessible. It was like walking into a photo album, but the faces I knew best had vanished, places changed names, structures housed different people, and everywhere was the superficial, tourist kitsch I never minded before. I missed the regulars on Mallory Square: Silver Man, Cat Man, French Bicycle Dude, Machete Coconut Man. Now, the only coconuts for sale contained a smoothie.

The iconic Atlantic Shores, with weekly tea dances under the stars, outdoor movies where everyone brought their dogs, and nude volleyball and swimming by day was bulldozed to make way for another unmemorable hotel. Gentrification is better called generic-ification. The quirk was ironed flat. Not everywhere, surely—there were still hold outs, but fewer and farther between, the roads to find them clogged with cars. I knew I had abdicated my right to criticize. I had left, moved on. Yet I knew that sour grapes could still be turned to wine, if only I had the ability to move south again. Like an old good lover, separated by circumstance instead of distain, the thought of reconciliation still teased my daydreams.

When Hurricane Irma hit I got in my car and drove, but west, not south. I needed to be with my family when the news reports came in. I knew the palm trees would bend and the rock island could never be blown away, and the conchs that refused to evacuate were hunkered down in their shells waiting. But faith is hard to hold onto in the face of storm models and inflammatory news. Faith slipped from me at 4 am Sunday and I lived in an inner storm, waiting while the wild wind and rain brutalized my island. I drove and listened to nonstop news radio: a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, an undrunk cup of coffee, a muffin missing only two bites. I was shell-shocked from not knowing. From leaving all those years ago. I felt as if I am an emotional usurper in mourning, when I had abandoned my island a decade past.

Without power, internet, or cell towers, the island went dark. It was up to those who remained to hunker down, hold on, ride the wind. We could only watch and wait. And after the clouds cleared, one by one the residents emerged. Landlines, aerial photographs, the old conch telegraph which once passed news and gossip from porch to porch was now online. The island survived, and all that was the best of Key West emerged as soon as the clouds blew north. The news that makes me cry is not of houses destroyed, but of people helping strangers, restaurants with generators feeding people, reports of cats that made it through the storm. The roads will be cleared, the houses rebuilt. The conchs that taught me about resilience and the impermanent island life remain unbroken, the island rock strong beneath their feet, the palm trees bending back up towards the light.

More than ever, I want to reclaim my place on the island.

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