Read Florida Online

Authors: Lauren Groff

Florida (13 page)

No rain is collecting in the crater, which she thinks is extremely bad, because it must mean that the water is dripping through small cracks below, which means there's a place for the water to go, which means there is a cavity, and the cavity could be enormous, right there beneath her feet.

She becomes aware of a stream of water licking its way down the end of her hair and into the collar of her slicker, and then slipping coolly across the bare skin of her shoulder and then over her left breast and across her lower left rib cage and entering her navel and unfurling itself luxuriously over her right hip.

It feels remarkable, like a good cold blade across her skin.

It is erotic, she thinks, not the same thing as sexual.

Erotic is suckling her newborns, that animal smell and feel and warmth and tenderness.

Laying her head on her friend's shoulder and smelling the soap on her skin.

Letting the sun slide over her face without worrying about cancer or the ice caps melting.

She thinks of Bartram in the deep semitropical forest, far from his wife, aroused by the sight of an evocative blue flower that exists as a weed in her own garden, writing, in what is surely a double entendre or, if not, deeply
Freudian:
How fantastical looks the libertine Clitoria, mantling the shrubs, on the vistas skirting the groves!

This, this is what she loves in Bartram so much!

The way he lets himself be full animal, a sensualist, the way he finds glory in the body's hungers and delights.

Florida, Bartram's ghost has been trying to tell her all along, is erotic.

For years now, she has been unable to see it all around her, the erotic.

The rain, impossibly, comes down harder, and even the flashlight is no help.

She is wet and alone and crouching in the dark over an unknowable hole, and now she locates the point of breakage.

Odd that it had taken so long.

Two weeks ago, she called Meg at eleven at night because she'd read an article about the coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico being covered with a mysterious whitish slime that was killing them, and she knew enough to know that when a reef collapses, so do dependent populations, and when they go, the oceans go, and Meg had answered, as she always does, but she had just put her youngest back to bed, and she was weary after a long day of helping women, and she said, Hey, relax, you can't do anything about it, go drink the rest of the bottle of wine, take a bath, we can talk in the morning if you're still sad.

That was it, that last call.

Poor Meg.

She is exhausting to everyone.

She would take a break from herself, too, but she doesn't have that option.

For a minute, she lets herself imagine the larger sinkhole below the baby one opening very slowly and cupping her and the house and the dog and the piano all the way to the very black bottom of the limestone hollow and gently depositing them there so far down that nobody could get her out, they could only visit, her family's heads peering once in a while over the lip, tiny pale bits against the blue sky.

From down there, everyone would seem so happy.

She comes in from the rain.

The kitchen is too bright.

Surely, in the history of humanity, she is not the only one to feel like this.

Surely, in the history of herself, all of those versions atop previous versions, she has felt worse.

It was called the New World, but Puc-Puggy understood that there was nothing new about it,
as almost every step we take over those fertile heights, discovers remains and traces of ancient human habitations and cultivation
.

—

She takes off the wet boots, the wet jacket, the wet skirt, the wet shirt, and, shivering, picks up her phone to call her husband.

The dog is licking the rain off her knees with a warm and loving tongue.

If she says sinkhole, her husband will race home in the rain with her children and their goodies.

They will put the boys to bed and stand together at the lip of the sinkhole, and maybe she will become solid again.

And so, when he picks up, she will say, Babe, I think we have a problem, but she will say it in the warmest, softest voice she owns, having learned from a master the way to deliver bad news.

She lets her hunger for her husband's voice grow until she is almost incandescent with it.

As the phone rings and rings, she says to the dog, who is looking up at her, Well, nobody can say that I'm not trying.

ABOVE AND BELOW

She'd been kept awake all night by the palm berries clattering on the roof, and when she woke to the sun blazing through the window, she'd had enough.
Goodbye to all that!
she sang, moving the little she owned to the station wagon: her ex-boyfriend's guitar, the camping equipment they'd bought the first year of grad school (their single night on the Suwannee, they were petrified by the bellows of the bull gators), a crate of books. Goodbye to the hundreds of others she was leaving stacked against the wall.
Worthless,
the man had told her when she'd tried to sell them.

Goodbye to the mountain of debt she was slithering out from underneath. Goodbye to the hunter-orange eviction notice. Goodbye to longing. She would be empty now, having chosen to lose.

The apartment was a shell, scoured to enamel. She breathed fully when she stepped out onto the porch.
There was a brief swim of vertigo only when she shooed the cat out the door. Oh, you'll be all right, she said, and reached for the silky fur between his ears, but as quick as a blink, he struck at her. When she looked up from the four jagged lines slowly beading with blood on the back of her hand, he had leapt away. Then he, too, was gone.

—

She drove past the brick university, where the first-years were already unloading their sedans, their parents hugging their own shoulders for comfort. Goodbye, she said aloud to the tune of the tires humming on the road.

After a summer with the power shut off, a summer of reading by the open window in her sweat-soaked underwear, the car's air conditioner felt frigid. She opened the window and smelled the queer dank musk of deep-country Florida. Out here, people decorated their yards with big rocks and believed they could talk to God. Here, “Derrida” was only French for rear end.

She thrust her fist out the window and released it slowly. She could almost see her hopes peeling from her palm and skipping down the road in her wake: the books with her name on them; the sabbatical in Florence; the gleaming modern house at the edge of the woods. Gone.

When she looked at her hand again, it was puffy and hot and oozing. She put it to her mouth. When she stopped at last at the edge of a little oceanside town and
gazed over the dune grass at the sea, her tongue was coppery with the taste of blood.

—

Someone had left a cooler on the beach, and it still held a bag of apples, a half-eaten sandwich, two Cokes. She sat, watching the dusk turn mustard and watermelon, and ate everything. Seabirds clustered on the wet sand, then winged apart into the air. When it grew too dark for her to see, she took the cooler back to the car and walked up to A1A to a pay phone.

She was poised to hang up if her stepfather answered, but it was her mother, vague and slow, saying Hello? Hello?

She couldn't speak. She imagined her mother in her nightgown in the kitchen, a sunset, the neighbor kids playing outside.

Hello? her mother said again, and she managed, Hello, Mom.

Honey, her mother said. What a treat to hear from you.

Mom, she said. I just wanted to let you know that I moved. I don't have a new number yet, though.

She waited, feeling the sunburn begin to prickle in her cheeks, but her mother said only, Is that so? absently. Ever since she'd been remarried, she'd had chronic idiopathic pain, treated, also chronically, with painkillers. She hadn't remembered her daughter's birthday for three years; she'd sent empty care packages more than once. One hot July day, when the girl had stared at her
sickening bank balance at the ATM, she'd considered calling for help. But she'd known, somehow, that the envelope would also arrive empty.

Over the line, there was the sound of an engine drawing close, and her mother said, Oh! Your dad's home. They both listened to the slam of the door and the heavy boots on the steps, and she thought but didn't say, That man is not my dad.

Instead she said, Mom, I just want you to not worry if you don't hear from me for a while. Okay? I'm all right, I promise.

All right, honey, her mother said, her voice already softer, anticipating her husband's arrival. Don't do anything I wouldn't do.

As the girl walked back on the road, headlights spinning by in the dark, she said aloud, I'm doing exactly what you would do, and laughed, but it wasn't very funny after all.

—

During the day, she lay in the sun for hours until she was so thirsty she had to fill her camping water bottle at the fish-washing hose again and again. In the rearview mirror, she watched her skin toast and her hair shift from honey to lemon. Her clothes flapped on her. She thought of the thousands of dollars she'd spent on highlights over the years: all that anguish, all those diets, when all she needed to be pretty was laziness and some mild starvation!
She ate cans of tuna and sleeves of crackers and drank an occasional coffee from the beach café for pep. Her money dwindled alarmingly. The scar on her hand turned a lovely silver in the sun, and she sometimes stroked it absently, signifier in lieu of signified, the scratch for the lost life.

At night, she lay in the back of the station wagon and read
Middlemarch
with a penlight until she fell asleep.

When she smelled too strong for salt water to rinse the stink away, she walked into the gym of a fancy beachside condo complex in her running clothes. She waited for someone to yell at her, but nobody was watching. The bathroom was empty, and the vanities held baskets with lotions, tiny soaps, disposable razors. She stood in the shower and let her summer of loneliness wash away. Even before her boyfriend left her for a first-year master's student, she'd withdrawn into herself. Her funding hadn't been renewed, and she'd had only her TA stipend, which was barely enough for her half of the rent, let alone groceries. There was no going out, even if she could have swallowed her shame to look her funded friends in the eye. The boyfriend had taken everything with him: their Sunday brunches, the etiquette book he had unsubtly given her one Christmas, the alarm clock that woke them ten minutes before six every day. He had been a stickler for the proper way to do things—hospital corners, weight lifting, taking notes—and he'd stolen her routine from her when he left. Worst of all, he'd taken his parents, who had welcomed her for four years of holidays in their
generous stone house in Pennsylvania. For weeks, she had expected the mother, a soft-haired, hugging woman, to call her, but there was no call.

The door opened and voices flooded the bathroom, some aerobics class letting out. She turned to wash her face in the spray, suddenly shy. When she opened her eyes, the showers were full of naked middle-aged women laughing and soaping themselves. They wore diamond bands and their teeth shone and their bellies and thighs were larded by their easy lives.

—

She woke to a hard rapping next to her ear and struggled up through sleep into darkness. She turned on her penlight to see a groin in stretched black fabric and a shining leather belt hung with a gun in a holster and an enormous flashlight.

Cop, she thought. Penis of death, penis of light.

Open up, the policeman said, and she said, Yes, sir, and slid over the backseat and rolled down the window.

What are you smiling at? he said.

Nothing, sir, she said, and turned off her penlight.

You been here a week, he said. I been watching you.

Yes, sir, she said.

It's illegal, he said. Now, I get a kid once in a while doesn't want to pay for a motel, okay. I get some old hippies in their vans. But you're a young girl. Hate to see you get hurt. There are bad guys everywhere, you know?

I know, she said. I keep my doors locked.

He snorted. Yeah, well, he said. Then he paused. You run away from your man? That the story? There's a safe house for ladies up in town. I can get you in.

No, she said. There's no story. I guess I'm on vacation from my life.

Well, he said, and the looseness in his voice was gone. Get on out of here. Don't let me see you back, or I'll take you in for vagrancy.

—

She spent a few days on a different beach where people drove their trucks onto the sand and pumped out music until their batteries ran down. She dug again into the wagon's seats to find change for a candy bar but failed, then she walked the miles into town to consider what she should do, her legs shaking by the time she arrived.

The buildings on the town square looked like old Florida—the tall porches with fans, the tin roofs—but everything was made of a dense plastic in shades of beige. There was a fountain in the center: a squat frog spitting up water and change scattered on the blue tiles under the water. She sat on the edge of the fountain and watched the shoppers in the boutiques and the people eating ice cream cones.

At one corner of the square stood a small brick church flanked by blooming crape myrtles. She didn't notice the people gathering in front until they began to emerge with
hands full of styrofoam clamshells and juice packs. Some were stringy, greasy, the familiar life-beaten people who lived half visibly at the edge of the university town she'd come from. But there were also construction workers in hard hats, mothers hurrying away with kids in their wakes.

She wanted to stand. To be in the line, to get the food. Her body, though, wouldn't move. In the twilight, a family passed, and she thought how she had once been this blonde toddler on her tricycle, singing to herself while her parents walked behind her. How sudden the disturbance had been! Her father dead when she was ten, the struggle with money through high school, her mother marrying in exhaustion only to fold herself entirely away. The one safe place the girl had had left was school. But she'd been too careful in the end, unable to take the necessary scholarly risks, and they had withdrawn even that from her.

She sat like a second frog on the edge of the fountain, hunched over her hunger, until the clock clicked to an impossibly late hour and she was alone. She rolled up her jeans and stepped into the water. She felt along the bottom with her feet until she came upon a coin, and dipped her arm up to her shoulder, but almost all the change was glued to the tile. By the time she had gone entirely around, she had gathered only a small handful. When she peered at the coins in the dim light from the streetlamp, she found they were mostly pennies. Still, she went around again. She saw herself from a great distance, a woman stooping in knee-deep water for someone else's wishes.

Most days, she found food—bread and bruised fruit—heaped, clean, in a dumpster behind a specialty grocer. She hid the station wagon at the far end of a supermarket parking lot, next to a retention pond and shielded by the low branches of a camphor tree. The smell entered her dreams at night, and she'd wake to a slow green sway of branches, as if underwater. There was a Baudelaire poem this reminded her of, but it had been erased from her memory. She wondered what else was gone, the Goethe, the Shakespeare, the Montale. The sun was bleaching it all to dust; her hunger was eating it up. It was a cleansing, she decided. If pretty words couldn't save her, then losing them, too, was all for the best.

—

She was baking on the beach when a leaf slid up over her stomach. She caught idly at it and found that it wasn't a leaf at all but a five-dollar bill.

That night, she went into the poolside showers of an apartment complex and washed herself carefully. When she caught sight of herself naked in the mirror, she could see the ribs of her upper chest and the pulse in the curve of her hip bone. But she blow-dried her hair and put it into a ponytail and applied makeup that she'd bought a few years ago. She no longer looked like herself: diligent, plump, prim. She looked like a surfer girl or a sorority sister, one of those quivering dewy creatures she had always silently disliked.

She walked three miles to a beach bar, listening to the ocean break itself again and again. The place was full when she came up through the back door, the huge televisions blaring a football game. Once, she would have been invested in the game, if only because it was the lingua franca of the southern town, the way to put a freshman comp class at ease, to converse with a dean's vapid wife. But now it seemed silly to her, young men grinding into one another, war games muted with padding.

She ordered the dollar-special beer and gave the bartender another dollar for a tip. His fingers brushed hers when he handed her the change, and she was startled at the warmth of his skin. She peeled the label of her beer and took deep breaths.

Someone climbed onto the stool beside hers, and she looked at him when he ordered two gin and tonics. He was a sweet-looking sandy boy with large red ears, the kind of student who always got a B‒ in her classes, mostly on effort alone. He slid one of the drinks toward her shyly, and when he began to speak, he didn't stop. He was a junior up north but had had to take a semester off and was working in his mother's real estate office for now, which really pissed off the old agents there, because there were few enough commissions right now, real estate going to shit in this shitty, shitty time. And on and on. After three drinks, she was drunker than she'd ever let herself be. She wondered, as he spoke, what had happened to make him take a semester off. Drugs? A hazing scandal?
Bad grades? When they stopped on the walk to his place and he pressed her shoulders against the cold metal of a streetlight and kissed her with touching earnestness, she felt the soft hair at the base of his neck and thought he'd probably had a nervous breakdown. He kissed like a boy prone to anxiety attacks.

But she liked him, and his apartment was clean and pretty: she could sense the hand of an overbearing mother in its furnishings. Before he touched her, he looked at her naked body for a long time, blinking. She saw herself, then, as he did: the clean white of her bikini pressed into her skin, the eroticism of the contrast. In gratitude, she came toward him.

But afterward, the softness of the bed was overwhelming. As the boy slept, she went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. It was so full, the abundance stilled her. She ate a slice of cold pizza standing in the glow, opened a jar of pickles and ate three, ripped a hunk of cheddar from the block with her fingers and gobbled it down. She didn't see the boy standing in the doorway until she reached for the orange juice. Then she noticed the pale gleam of his T-shirt, and she closed her eyes, unable to look at him.

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