Six months after meeting Dennis, I stood over the kitchen sink in his parents’ home, washing dishes. It was January. Beside me Dennis’s mother, Gloria, smoked a cigarette. She held it more than she smoked it, and it burned away in her pale, thin hand. Although her mouth was closed, every few minutes her jaw worked, as if she were thinking aloud to herself. She tapped the ashes into the sink. This was the house where Dennis had been born and where he’d grown up. I’d been given the tour months earlier, including the room Dennis had occupied as a child, where neatly made twin beds lay under thin navy bedspreads and a University of Miami pennant hung on the wall.
Through the back window, I watched Dennis and his father, Grady, cross the lawn toward the canal that snaked along the back rim of the property. Dennis, slim in faded blue jeans, loped alongside his father in a way that drew attention to his joints. When they reached the short pier where Grady’s boat was moored, Dennis reached across his torso to scratch under his shirtsleeve. Grady was doughy where Dennis was lean; for every step Dennis took, Grady took a step and a half. Grady’s corkscrew sandy orange hair thinned at the crown of his skull; his gestures when he spoke were controlled and deliberate. Grady stood with his hands in his pockets, and after a few minutes—though they faced away from the house, I could tell they were talking by the way their heads moved—he stooped to wipe debris from the pier’s planks with the flat of his hand. Dennis reached down and without bending touched his father’s shoulder blade with his fingertips. When Grady stood again, Dennis’s hand briefly rested at his father’s waist.
Gloria whistled a long, low note and pulled a tea towel from her shoulder, where it had perched all afternoon. She dangled it over the sink and let it drop. “They’re like women, aren’t they?” she said. “The way they chatter.”
I smiled politely. Gloria had given Dennis his slender frame and light eyes. She was two inches taller than I was, at least an inch taller than her husband. I glanced her way and caught her staring: the blunt tip of her nose was pink and her eyes were damp. Unlike my own mother’s face, whose features were broad and suntanned and matted with freckles, Gloria’s face was delicate and pale. Her chin came to a point. Earlier, she’d served coleslaw and chicken salad on the back deck, then filled our glasses with fruity rum punch and returned to the kitchen. In the months I’d known her, I’d learned that she rarely ate a meal during the daytime. She ate breakfast and might nibble on a salad at lunchtime, but eating an entire meal in the afternoon nauseated her. I’d also learned that she thought eating outdoors was distasteful, but agreed to it because she knew other people found it appealing. She took a nap every day and always had, even when Dennis and his younger sister Bette were children. “She just lay down in the playroom while we horsed around,” Dennis had told me, “and a half hour later she got up again.”
Gloria said, “If you were expecting a quiet house, you were mistaken. My men are talkers.” She smiled weakly and turned away, and not for the first time I found myself unable to answer her. She had a dead-end way of conversing; no obvious next step presented itself. But as I watched her walk out of the room, then turned back to the window through which I could see Grady and Dennis standing together on the pier, separated from me by a wide expanse of unmowed green lawn, two thoughts crystallized in my mind. One thought was that, in spite of the fact that she considered it in bad taste to travel hundreds of miles to visit a boy one barely knew, Gloria liked me. The second thought was that Dennis was planning to propose marriage, and soon. This was the topic being discussed outside at that moment, under a sky dimmed by clouds. Dennis and Grady stood looking down into the well of Grady’s lapstrake boat—still the most impressive boat I’ve ever seen, with its polished teak hull and gleaming brass railings—which rested in its slip, laced by bright white mooring lines. Then Dennis stepped toward the house and Grady followed, and as they walked Dennis kept his eyes on the kitchen window—on me—and Grady continued talking, his hands in his pockets. By the time they reached the swimming pool, brief droplets had erupted into a rare winter thunderstorm. I swiped two towels from the laundry room, then greeted them at the back door and ushered them inside.
I’d been fired that week from my job at the bank. I’d missed so much work since meeting Dennis that the manager had called me into his office and asked me, not unkindly, to rearrange my priorities, which I’d promised I would. When I used the shared line in my apartment house to call Dennis and tell him I couldn’t visit for a while, he’d said, “Just come one more time, this weekend.” I suppose I knew then how it would go for us. Before I’d met Dennis, I’d liked my job well enough. I’d liked my small apartment and quiet neighbors and weekly dinners with friends and their husbands. I’d taken long walks on Sundays and spent weekend afternoons helping my mother in her garden. Some nights I opened a bottle of wine and cooked pasta for myself over a burner in the communal kitchen. But when I’d considered where my life was headed, I had not particularly liked the prospects. The men I dated did not woo me, the girls I knew who’d started families did not inspire me. My job, although wholly adequate, did not light anything akin to a fire in my gut. I was not yet sad, but I believed I was headed for sadness, and I blamed myself for having waited to be swept into a more thrilling life. For the first time, after meeting Dennis, I saw in my own future bright, unknowable possibilities. I’m a bit ashamed to have been a person without much agency in life, but I credit myself with knowing something special when I saw it.
In a period of six months, I’d visited Miami five times. I’d taken the train down twice, and three times Dennis had driven up to get me and stayed a night at the motel near my apartment house, then we had driven down to Miami together. During every visit, I saw Marse at least once or twice, for an afternoon shopping or on the boat. There are seven hundred miles of gray highway between Miami and Atlanta. The Sunshine State Parkway was barely a decade old, and it took more than twelve hours to drive each way. When I recall our courtship, I recall as much as anything else the landscape outside the windows of Dennis’s station wagon: the asphalt of the turnpike and the drone of the headlights and the stuttering orange groves. I’d fallen in love in Dennis’s car and under the fluorescent lights of truck stops. We’d spent so much of those six months in car seats that I knew his body as well seated as standing—the hard round caps of his knees, dimpled at the joint, and the bony elbows with which he jabbed me while shifting in his seat, unaware of his breadth.
Between visits, we’d had phone calls. The telephone I shared with the other tenants of my building sat on a wicker table in the hallway outside my room. The phone was butter-yellow in color, the handset heavy as a dumbbell, and when it rang the whole unit rattled as if mocking my heart, which lurched every time. He called most mornings before I left for work, and he would list for me everything he could see from his apartment balcony: two girls surfing, three men standing on the corner smoking cigars in the heat, an old woman wearing a housedress walking a poodle. Or he’d call in the evenings from the pay phone at the law library. “It’s a hundred degrees in the shade here,” he’d said once, “and everyone is studying without shirts on. Will you please tell me why I’m working so hard?” When Dennis spoke of school, he sounded drained.
“Even the girls?” I’d said. “No blouses?”
“Cover your eyes.”
“I’m wearing blinders, so I can see the books.”
He called late at night sometimes, too, and I dragged the telephone out to the porch so as not to disturb my neighbors. When we were together we spoke casually, about whatever happened to cross our minds, but on the phone he asked solemn, mining questions: What was my earliest memory? Did I prefer cats or dogs? Could I imagine myself living on a boat? What if it was a nice, big, clean boat? What was my favorite thing about my family? What was my favorite thing about him? Every thread of conversation stitched back to the topic of us.
I told him I remembered taking my father’s cigarettes from the countertop in my parents’ bathroom and bringing them to my nose—I liked the smell, even at age three. My mother found me and slapped my hand. Dennis remembered being carried on his grandfather’s shoulders through orange groves down south. His grandfather—Grady’s father—sang cowboy songs and whistled. Dennis remembered the smell of the fruit and the feel of the pomade in his grandfather’s hair.
I said I preferred dogs, and Dennis said he did, too. I said, “I would live on a boat for six months, no longer.” He said he would live on a boat for the rest of his life. “I’d like to fish for my dinner,” he said. “I’d bake in the sun until my skin looked like leather.” I told him that when I was a little girl, my father used to cook up reasons to take us for drives in the country, and my mother would let me wear some of her red lipstick, and my father would wave with one hand out the window at every car we passed. I told Dennis that I liked my father’s sense of leisure.
“I like my father’s patience,” said Dennis. “He’ll wait on the fish for hours. I don’t have the heart for it.” He said his father would come home from a day of fishing with small, exciting stories: He’d seen a barracuda jump across the surface of the water, its scales flashing in the sunlight. He’d felt a bump against the side of the boat, and looked down to see the domed back of a manatee. He’d seen a family of dolphins, the smallest no larger than his forearm. “My mother thinks he’s a bit simple, I think,” said Dennis, and I said, “He is simple.” I knew very little of Grady other than what I’d been told. Dennis knew I meant it kindly.
Dennis told me that his sister, Bette, younger by three years, used to sleep in the backyard in the summer. He’d come downstairs in the morning and find his sister and mother sitting outside on Bette’s sleeping bag in their pajamas, eating pancakes off Chinet.
“My favorite thing about you?” I said, thinking: You call me every day! You don’t worry about what it costs. You kissed me mere hours after meeting me. “You’re kind,” I said.
“I don’t know you all that well.”
“Yes, you do.”
“You have great legs.”
“I’m going to marry you.”
I’d known a few men pretty well, and something I’d noticed about many of them was that for some reason they didn’t like to give you what you want, whatever it happened to be—reassurance or approval or attention. This seemingly was not because they couldn’t spare it, but because they wanted to teach you not to want it. But in my mind, people weren’t needy or independent—they were a swirl of both. I wondered if these men thought they never needed. I knew they did, but then their needs were sated so fully and with such generosity by the women in their lives that they didn’t recognize needing something in the first place. As I grew to know Dennis, it struck me that he was not one of these men. From the beginning, he did not withhold. This, ultimately, was the answer to his question, though I could not have formulated it at the time.
It would be disingenuous to say, however, that I had no doubts about Dennis. Once he’d snapped at me when we’d been driving for hours and I’d taken too long to choose a radio station, and one night he’d bagged a dozen fireflies in the woods behind my apartment house and let them go in my darkened living room, as if this would charm rather than irritate me. More important, I wasn’t certain I had the mettle to live in Miami, with its flash and heat and vanity. But still, Dennis seemed, from the start, inevitable. It hadn’t taken long for me to succumb, but I’d faked it for a while. Sometimes I’d hemmed and hawed about taking time off work for another visit. But from the beginning, the sight of him yawning in the television’s blue light, or running a fingertip across his eyebrow, or blowing on his coffee to cool it off, made me shiver with want for him.
Once when we were on the road, I woke up in the passenger seat and sat watching him while he drove, and it dawned on me that I could watch him for minutes before he noticed, because he was a man who lived inside his own head. I snapped my fingers and he looked over at me. “Awake?” he said. He reached into the backseat and rooted around. “Have an apple,” he said. I ate what he gave me, and fell back to sleep.
After I lost my job, my mother drove me to the train station, drumming her short, strong fingernails on the steering wheel. Since I had nothing to return for, this particular visit to Miami would have no scheduled end date. I’d packed two large suitcases. “I’m going to play it by ear,” I told her, and she raised her eyebrows at me. “I’d prefer you had a plan,” she said, but she offered to drive me anyway. Her muddied canvas gardening gloves lay on the seat between us. When we arrived, she loaded me down with pimiento cheese sandwiches and a brown bag of peaches for Dennis’s family. My mother was a tall, strong-backed woman with wide hips and a handsome face, and she spoke quietly and not often. She had been somewhat old-fashioned throughout my childhood and teenage years, but when my father moved out—I’d been in college at the time—she’d seemed to reorder her notions. She’d stopped going to church and started gardening. She’d let go of most of her old friends, one by one, and took up with a few single women, divorcees who drank and told bawdy jokes. I would stop by her house, the house where I’d grown up, to find a group of them sitting in lawn chairs in the backyard, drinking Bloody Marys at noon. She’d stopped wearing makeup altogether—this might have meant something or nothing; I never understood it. The changes she made seemed to me like the ones a widow would make. She wasn’t happy about the new arrangement, I would say, but she was willing to squeeze some advantages from it.
The girl who came to share my father’s downtown apartment was named Luanne. Although she was young—twenty-seven years old when they met, compared with his forty-five—she had a child from a previous relationship who lived with Luanne’s mother. When I called their apartment, she gave me a polite hello and handed the telephone to my father, and it seemed to me that she was keeping him close at her side at all times, though maybe the situation was reversed. When Dennis met them, he said he thought Luanne looked like a doll, and I shushed him. He said, “There’s appeal, to some men, with that kind of woman.” He swatted me playfully on the rear end. “But it’s not for me.” As a child I’d loved my father very much—he spoke enthusiastically about the physics of space flight and roller coasters, he liked to read about places he’d never been, he called in sick to work when I was five so he could finish building my tree house—but I never grew accustomed to thinking of him as the spoils in a battle between women.
My mother and I had more or less avoided the topic of what exactly I thought I was doing, disposing of my job and disrupting my life to visit a boy in Miami, of all places. But while we waited together on the train platform, she pursed her lips and turned to me. “Miami seems so . . . ” she said, “I don’t know. Far.” She wasn’t one to hold tight, but moving a plane ride away was another story. “It seems decadent.”
“I guess maybe it is.” I thought of the elaborate wedding I’d been to when I first visited, the giant water fountain a few blocks from the cathedral, the sprawling banyan trees lining the streets. I thought of the young girls I’d seen posing for photographs at the Spanish-style arches in Coral Gables, all gussied up for their
“What will I like about him?”
“I don’t know. Everything.”
“Does he remind you of your father?”
I thought about this. “No.”
“That’s better,” she said. She smoothed her chambray skirt and looked around, as if she’d forgotten something. My mother wore a ponytail every day of her life, even into her seventies. “Be nice to his mom, no matter what.”
“I will be.”
“Stay out of his bedroom.”
“It won’t be easy, but you’ll be glad you did.”
She sighed. “Maybe I shouldn’t be giving advice,” she said, and then a whistle sounded, and the white light of my train appeared in the middle distance, as if gunning for me.
In the six months since we’d met, Dennis and I had not slept together. When I visited Miami, I stayed with his sister, Bette, who rented a two-room apartment above a shoe store on Main Highway in Coconut Grove. The apartment had a small cement deck that overlooked the street, and a screen door on squeaky hinges, and at night we could hear the traffic and the people on the street below. Bette had a couch with a creaky, shifting bamboo frame and flat square cushions printed with hibiscus blossoms—an uncomfortable place to sleep, made slightly less uncomfortable by layers of mildewy sleeping bags. She was tall like her brother and very thin, with white-blond hair and sharp, tan shoulders. She tended to slouch. She was not beautiful, exactly, but she had memorable, sharp features and lovely skin. She wore huarache sandals—I would wear them, too, after a year or so of being around her—and sleeveless shirts and culottes, and she carried a large crocheted handbag. She walked everywhere; she didn’t have a car. After she’d graduated from high school, Grady and Gloria had offered her their old hatchback if she would go to college and stay in all four years; but she was an indifferent student and the most she’d been able to commit to was a couple of classes per semester. Three times a week after work she walked four miles to the University of Miami, then took the bus home. She took botany and biology and political science and comparative literature. She spoke German—she’d spent a year in Munich during high school, as an exchange student—and she could name every flower, bird, and tree in South Florida. She had never traveled north of North Carolina. She was at that time engaged to her high school sweetheart, Benjamin O’Dell. They’d been engaged for five years, since her senior year of high school, but they had yet to set a date.
Though Bette never said or did anything to make me feel unwelcome, I could tell by the way she lived that she was a private person, and probably didn’t revel in having a regular houseguest. I had the sense that she could snap shut at any time, that any bridge to her could collapse. To make myself useful while staying with her, I cleaned the apartment and left sandwiches in the refrigerator for when she came home for lunch. The apartment was across the street from Bette’s work. She was the groundskeeper for a private home called the Barnacle, which was owned by the family of the original owner, Commodore Ralph Middleton Monroe. Commodore Monroe had founded the first organization in the area—Biscayne Bay Yacht Club—in 1891, when Miami was little more than a fort. The Barnacle was nestled on the bay among ten acres of tropical hardwood hammock. No one lived there, but the family wanted someone on the property during the day, to make sure vagrants stayed out and the lawn was mowed and—most important—that the
From time to time I kept Bette company while she did her chores at the Barnacle. This is how I ended up lying on the Barnacle’s pier one Tuesday afternoon during that last long visit, after losing my job in Atlanta. I’d been in Miami for almost four weeks straight. It was January, but still we wore swimsuits without covering up, and the heat on the wooden pier spread through my skin like a warm blanket. Dennis was at class. That morning, he’d stopped by the apartment after Bette went to work, and we’d necked on the couch until the cushions stuck to our skin. This is what I returned to, all day: the rushing, splitting-open feeling of touching Dennis, of being touched by him. My mother was right: it was not easy, staying out of his bedroom.
Bette wore a scarf over her hair and a neon orange bikini top and cutoffs with a red velvet patch on the thigh. She squinted while she polished the brass fittings of the
I put aside the law journal I’d been reading, an article Dennis had published earlier that year. “Tell me,” I said.
She squatted on the gunwale of the boat. I shaded my eyes to look up at her. She said, “I found them on a wreck. A shipwreck.”
She pointed south across the bay. “Out there.”
My first thought was that surely it was not legal to remove items from a shipwreck. “Can you get in trouble for that?” I said.
She laughed. “I don’t imagine they’re worth much. But they’re beautiful. I found them in the forward cabin the other night. It took me two trips to get them all up.”
“You dove at night?” It seemed impossible that on those nights when she’d been out until dawn, she’d been scuba diving. I’d seen Bette’s boat—it was a seventeen-foot sailfish, a toddler of a boat. Surely it wasn’t fitted with dive lights. This meant she’d been diving with someone else, from that person’s boat.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I go with a friend. It’s safe.”
I thought of Benjamin, a ruddy-faced bear of a man who spoke softly and had the habit, I’d witnessed, of lifting Bette over his shoulder until she battered him into letting her down. I stood up and stepped over the railing of the
For whatever reason, though—she was excited, bursting—this was not a secret she wanted to keep. “I met this woman,” she said, throwing me for a loop. “Her name is Jane. She’s a professional salvor. You know what that is?” I shook my head. “She has an engineering degree or something, and she works with dive teams to raise shipwrecks. They have to do it without hurting anything, inside the wreck or outside it. It’s very complicated work. Anyway, I met her at the club.” The club was the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, where Bette taught sailing lessons on the weekends in exchange for a discount on her boat slip. “I’m teaching her to sail.”
“And she’s teaching you to—salve?”
“Salvage,” she said. She looked off, as if remembering. “No, we just dive together. She knows the best spots. There’s a wreck she’s bringing up soon, and sometimes we just go there to hunt around, see what we see. It’s an old hull freighter that sank on its way from Venezuela. Nothing valuable aboard, just trinkets. Memories.”
I couldn’t think of anything I’d ever done that was nearly as exciting as scuba diving in a sunken ship. “Does Dennis know?” I said.
“Of course not. Are you going to tell him?”
“Not if you’d rather I didn’t.”
“Jane said we should keep quiet about it. I guess the state wouldn’t be too happy that she was diving the wreck before bringing it up.”
“When are you going out next?” I said.
“Tonight, probably. I don’t know why I told you.”
“I’m glad you did.” We sat quietly for a moment, and Bette returned to polishing the railing. “Are you ready to get married?” I said.
She dropped the polishing cloth onto the pier and stepped over the railing. “I guess not,” she said. “Are you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. But I believed I was.
She dropped her shorts to the pier, pulled neon snorkeling gear from a bag, and put it on—first the flippers and then the mask. She held the snorkel in one hand and a flat metal tool—for shucking snails and barnacles off the boat’s hull—in the other. “It’s not as simple as it always seemed, is it?” she said. Her voice was nasal from the mask, but she was unself-conscious. She walked to the end of the pier and turned her back to the water, then put her hand over her nose and mouth and stepped backward into the air. Once I’d heard her resurface and begin knocking around the hull, I relaxed. I felt we’d just had our first real—albeit stilted—conversation, and now could become friends. With no end to my visit in sight, this was fiercely important to me. To have a few friends in Miami—Marse and Bette, plus Dennis—felt like the start of a real collection, a treasure trove of my own.
That evening, rather than wait for Dennis to pick me up after work, I dressed in a linen sundress and walked half a mile to the bus stop, where I caught a bus to the University of Miami. There, I waited on a low cement wall under the wide canopy of a poinciana tree outside the law school until Dennis emerged, carrying a satchel in one hand and combing his hair with his fingers. I could not reconcile the disheveled student, sunburned nose and shaving nicks, with the suited lawyer he was working to become. Dennis saw me and waved, and as he walked toward me, in the moment between being alone and being with him, I experienced the sensation of being stunned by the instant. The breath left my lungs. I looked at the boy coming toward me, who in my arms, by my side, seemed familiar, but in those baffling seconds revealed himself to be a stranger, essentially. It was like moving too quickly toward a painting, such that it distorts in proximity. Was this person my boyfriend? This lanky gait, this lazy posture, this wide smile? He reached me finally, and swept me into a hug that seemed to start before he was even beside me, and the moment of disorientation I’d experienced dissolved, the painting snapped back into perspective.
That evening, we made our way not to Bette’s bamboo couch but to Dennis’s apartment on Miami Beach. The pretext was that Dennis would cook us supper—a noodle dish he was fond of, a bachelor recipe with too much soy sauce—but I suppose during the long, windy ride down the palm-lined highway, I knew we had both signed up for something more, and I was nervous as we drove. We had both slept with other people: I with a boy in college, a close friend, just three times after we’d studied together and opened a bottle of wine, and Dennis with his ex, with whom he’d lived for three months.
Inside Dennis’s apartment, it was quiet and dark. He dropped his keys on the kitchen table and went to open the balcony doors. In blew a salty breeze that smelled of warm sand. He offered to make margaritas—this was a drink he knew I was fond of—and started rooting through the refrigerator. After a moment, he declared he was out of limes and would run to the market on the corner. He kissed me quickly and left. I went to the balcony and leaned against the metal railing. The sunset had started. Below, two Cuban men stood at the entrance to the caf? downstairs, talking animatedly in Spanish, and when they parted to let a third man by, I saw that the third man was Dennis, coming out of the building. He greeted the men and one of them raised a hand, and then Dennis walked a bit, tossing his keys into the air every few steps. He was happy. Any outsider could have seen it. He was happy because of me. After he went into the store on the corner—he called it the bodega—I watched the ocean, its rolling persistence, its calm fortitude. There were a few people still scattered along the beach. The sky was the color of bruised peaches, the sand bluish in the fading sunlight. Dennis emerged from the store with a brown bag under one arm. He came closer, then looked up and gestured toward the beach and the sunset. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he called up to me. “Isn’t it paradise?”
“Yes!” I called.
I cut the limes and he squeezed each half into a small glass pitcher. He dipped a finger in the juice and brought it to my lips. I tasted it and made a face, and he laughed. “We’ll improve on it, I promise,” he said. “There’s nothing like fresh margaritas.” As he spoke, I brought the knife down through a lime and felt it slice through my fingertip. I yelped and Dennis grabbed a dish towel from a drawer and pulled me into the bathroom, holding my bloody finger as we went. He sat me down on the toilet and rummaged through the medicine cabinet.
“It’s not that bad,” I said.
“It’s a geyser,” he said. He held my finger under the faucet while the cold water ran. Blood billowed and dissipated. “This is why I should never sharpen my knives,” he said. “Clumsy female visitors, bleeding all over my kitchen.” He smiled and I laughed. He toweled off my hand and spread a little ointment on my finger, then wrapped it in a small bandage. “Too tight?” I shook my head. He kissed my finger. “I don’t like seeing you bleed, lady,” he said. “I love you so much.”
This was only the second or third time the word had been said. I’d said it, too, of course, but he’d always said it first. I kissed him. After a few minutes, we went together into the bedroom, where the bed was unmade and discarded sneakers lay in front of the dresser. The sun was almost gone. Before we even lay down, I thought about afterward, when we would sip margaritas on the balcony. Dennis would be sweet. He would make the dinner he’d planned and rub my back and with every glance in my direction check subtly to see if I was happy. He didn’t know I’d already done my reckoning. As we made our way to the bed, I had no doubts.
He started slow but that didn’t last. Dennis made a joke about it having been a while, and I said it was like riding a bike, and he said not exactly, from what he recalled. Up to this point, we’d done some heavy petting on Bette’s couch and in Dennis’s car, but we had never been naked together. Still, his body was familiar to me, even the red hair between his legs and the warm, probing penis. What was most unfamiliar was my own body, the greediness of it, my eager response to his hands, his fingers. I was a me I’d never known before, a person who wanted baldly. Looking back, I realize that it was all relative, the sacrifices I believed I was making, the risks I believed I was taking. Many people do much more for love than travel to another state and ignore their mother’s advice. But you have to understand that to me, it was like falling with no net. It felt good, but it did not feel wise.
I returned to Bette’s the next day, with Dennis, to change clothes. We found her sitting on the couch in the living room, smoking a joint with an ashtray balanced on her bare, bony knees. By this time, I’d seen Bette smoke several times and had even tried it with her twice—where Bette became calm and wide-eyed, I became silly and had difficulty finishing a sentence. For this reason, I’d decided marijuana was not, for me, a dignified option. The apartment smelled of bacon. “You’re alive,” she said. “Good to know.”
“I should have called,” I said. This was not something I’d even considered.
There was rustling in Bette’s bedroom, and Benjamin emerged into the small open kitchen, wearing only slacks. “Want some bacon?”
He held out a plate, and Dennis stepped forward to take a piece. Benjamin cracked eggs into a bowl and whipped them with a fork. I sat down next to Bette on the couch. “Did you go back to the wreck?” I said quietly, so only she heard.
She shook her head. “Jane backed out. Something about her husband.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I got excited over nothing. They’re bringing it up next week.”
“Won’t there be another one?”
“We’ll see,” she said.
It was clear that something had changed. Benjamin stepped into the living room from the kitchen, holding a spatula. “Did you tell her?” he said to Bette.
“Tell me what?”
“The first of April,” he said. “Springtime.”
“We set a date,” said Bette. “My mother’s on her way over.” As if realizing this fact for the first time, she put out her joint and sat up straight.
“Congratulations!” said Dennis. He shook Benjamin’s hand, then leaned down to kiss Bette’s cheek. She stretched to meet him, but her eyes were dull, her mouth still. Her cheeks were pink, probably from the marijuana.
“We don’t have much time,” said Benjamin. “Less time to get caught up in the details, said this one.” He gestured to Bette.
She squeezed my arm. “My mother is making me shop for dresses. You have to come.”
“Of course,” I said, thinking that I wanted nothing less than to spend a day shopping with Dennis’s mother. “Wash your face before she gets here,” I said, and Bette nodded and got up, but Benjamin swung her into a bear hug and carried her into the bedroom. Her laughter was high and reluctant and his was baritone and booming. Dennis stepped out onto the little patio to try to fix the squeak in Bette’s screen door, and I went to change my clothes and brush my hair in the apartment’s small bathroom. When I joined him outside, Dennis said, “Good for them.”
I wondered if this would change the timeline of our own engagement, then decided it didn’t matter. “I guess I’m going shopping.”
He took my hand. He was squatting and there was sweat along his brow and under his arms. We’d decided, during the ride from the beach, that I would stay at his apartment from that time forward. “I’ll pick you up here, after. We’ll go to Scotty’s for fish, and then you can help me study for my exam.”
“How do I do that?”
“Keep me from drinking too many margaritas.”
“What about your mother?”
“My mother isn’t invited.”
“Be serious. What do I tell her?”
“Tell her about what?”
“About where I’m staying.”
“Frances, my mother doesn’t care.”
“Of course she does.”
“Well, she won’t tell you if she does. And she won’t ask.” He stood up, and I heard his knees creak. We are not so young, I thought. Most people our age were married with children. He said, “Call me when you’re all done with the ladies.” Below us a car horn sounded, and we looked down over the porch railing to see Gloria in her shiny sedan, waving through the windshield. I called for Bette, and she came out looking freshly scrubbed, and we went downstairs together.
At a bridal shop on Miracle Mile—one in a row of them—Bette ended up in the dressing room with half a dozen gowns, sobbing while her mother snapped at the saleswoman to bring more options. Gloria tried in her own way to soothe Bette through the dressing room curtain. She told Bette it didn’t matter what she wore, of course, she would look lovely, and all she was saying was that it would have been nice to have enough time to plan a
“Then you should buy it,” she said.
“Maybe I will,” I said, ignoring her tone. I checked the price tag. The dress was $450. It all seemed a bit much all of a sudden, a bit quick. I could see how a person could become overwhelmed. I said, “Bette, do you have an idea of what you want?”
She seemed stymied by this question. “I guess not.”
“Then you’re not going to find it today,” I said. “Get dressed.”
She looked at me for a moment, then nodded and reached for her blouse.
Over time, I’d gotten a good idea of the role Bette and Benjamin’s engagement had taken in the family—Grady teasingly called Benjamin “my son-in-law-to-be” or referred to their relationship as “timeless.” Gloria fussed over Benjamin when he was around, and chastised Bette whenever she was glib or cross—Gloria was afraid, I assumed, that Benjamin might set off in the dead of night and never be heard from again. I had seen enough to know that this was not going to happen. When I’d met Benjamin over cocktails at Dennis’s parents’ house, I hadn’t realized how long they’d been engaged and had asked him, stupidly, if he was looking forward to the wedding. He’d shrugged and looked sheepish. “I’m a regular guy,” he said. “She knows that here.” He touched his forehead. “As for here”—he touched his chest with a meaty hand—“I’m not sure.” He seemed to me like the sort of person who might stroll headlong into his own broken heart.
While Bette dressed, I found Gloria on a love seat by the front store window, looking at the street. “This isn’t going anywhere,” I said.
“That is apparent,” she said.
“She might be happier in something simpler. Something other than a gown.”
“That’s a good point, dear,” she said. She was placating me. I sat down beside her, exhausted. I felt I should make some admission: I’m sleeping with your son. Or, I love your son. Or, your daughter doesn’t seem to really want to marry Benjamin. She said, “You imagine certain ways of celebrating certain things. But your children have different ideas.”
“It was very nice of you to take her shopping. I’m not sure she’s ready yet.”
“She’d better get ready.”
She stood and smoothed out her pants suit and walked to a row of dresses in the corner. She pulled a sleeveless beige shift from the bunch and held it up. “Now this, Bette would like. It looks like a burlap bag. Not for the wedding, of course, but maybe a luncheon.” She took it back to the dressing room. After a few minutes Bette brought the dress to the counter and Gloria paid, and then we left the store for the bright afternoon.
I moved from Bette’s apartment to Dennis’s later that week. Bette sent me off with a joint rolled in a paper bag and a bottle of wine, and the way she repeatedly thanked me for cleaning and cooking convinced me, finally, that I’d been as much a pleasant diversion as a burden to her. I unpacked my suitcases into two of Dennis’s dresser drawers, and we went shopping for groceries and bought a hanging plant for his balcony. In the mornings before he went to school, we ate breakfast and took walks on the beach. At least twice a week, I drove his car downtown to meet Marse for lunch or for drinks, or to pick up Bette from the sailing club and run errands or take her shopping. I’d never known anyone who’d lived with a boy before marriage. If Marse or Bette disapproved, or if Dennis’s parents knew—we took pains to hide our situation—they didn’t show it. Ultimately, I asked myself if I disapproved—and the answer was yes, but not so much that I was willing to change anything. Looking back, I’m proud of my otherwise traditional younger self.
The weeks passed in a sunny blur. On the weekends, we went to Stiltsville with Dennis’s parents and Bette and Benjamin. The boys slept on the porch, Bette and I slept in the bunk beds, and Grady and Gloria slept in the big bedroom. Sometimes Marse came out in her Boston Whaler, and sometimes Bette took off in her sailboat in the morning and didn’t return until evening. Gloria took naps in the hammock with an open book on her chest, and Grady took long walks on the wide sandbar that stretched between Dennis’s house and the Becks’ stilt house to the east—this area was called the flats. Sometimes I walked the flats with Grady and he pointed out starfish, sea worms, fire coral. One weekend, Marse insisted on teaching me to windsurf, so we took her boat to the Becks’ house to borrow a windsurfer from Marcus Beck—merely a year later, Marcus’s wife, Kathleen, would sponsor me and Marse for the Junior League—and within a couple of hours I managed to surf inelegantly across the flats on my own, my arms shaking and my knees bent. From the dock, Marse cheered me on.
Each week, new developments emerged in the planning of Bette’s wedding. Gloria found a caterer, and she and Bette and I went to sample cakes at a bakery. We spent an hour taking bites from each sample and eventually chose a lemon cake with vanilla frosting. The following week, Bette and Benjamin arranged for the pastor from Grady and Gloria’s church to perform the wedding. Then a week later Dennis was instructed to make sure his suit was ready and I was asked if I had a dress. Both Bette and Gloria asked me this, on separate occasions, and I had the feeling they’d discussed the question beforehand: Does Frances have anything to wear? What if Frances shows up at the wedding in the same sundress she’s worn every other day for two months? (I’d packed two large suitcases, but they were not nearly enough—I’d been in Miami three months at this point.) Marse and I went to Burdine’s and spent an hour trying on clothes in the same dressing room, until the sales matron told us that our behavior—we were laughing and talking loudly—was disturbing the other customers, and we were asked to quiet down or leave. I ended up with an avocado-green shift and matching sandals from a consignment store, and Marse bought a wide-brimmed straw hat to wear with a white Easter suit she already owned. Instead of going back to Dennis’s that night, we called him from a pay phone and had him meet us at Scotty’s, and the three of us ended up going from one bar to the next, until at dawn we found ourselves at a tavern in Coconut Grove, sitting at a sticky wooden table in front of a dozen empty beer bottles.
I’d decided to stay in Miami through the wedding. The question of what would happen after was unresolved. I was out of money, of course. Dennis gave me some from time to time; he left twenty-dollar bills on the kitchen counter and joked that I was his courtesan, which I’d let him know I did not care for. I told myself that if Bette’s wedding came and went and no plans had been formalized and still I didn’t care to return to Atlanta, I would get a job and maybe even an apartment. Whether I would make these changes without a ring on my finger was not a question I allowed myself to consider.
But at this point I was so removed from my previous life that when I called home and my mother inquired about the future, I lied to her. I told her that I’d found a secretarial job at a bank, which I had not, and was looking for an apartment, which I wasn’t. I told her that my supervisor’s name was Millicent (she’d asked if I liked my supervisor, possibly because she suspected that I was fibbing, though I never knew for certain) and that Millicent was very strict. She asked if I could afford an apartment on my wages, and I said I was making almost twice what I’d been making in Atlanta. I told her I saved money by eating lunch in the bank’s cafeteria and keeping half for my dinner. The cafeteria served a very nice meat loaf, I told her. I tried to avoid mentioning Dennis, as if my lies would reflect poorly on him. Every time I hung up the phone after having expanded my story in some way, I cried a little. I didn’t recall ever having lied to my mother about anything more important than whether I was eating well or keeping my apartment clean. When my mother hinted that she thought I might be behaving irresponsibly—if only she’d known the truth—I rushed to reassure her. The fact that I lied to her so easily, with some regret but every intention of continuing, made me feel hardened and sad. When I told Dennis that I was lying to my mother, he took a breath and nodded, as if he understood the toll this exacted. This was the only pressure I ever put on him to move things along.
The weekend before the wedding, six of us—Dennis and I; Marse and her brother, Kyle; and Benjamin and Bette—packed into Dennis’s station wagon and drove north on Highway 27 toward Lake Okeechobee, to Fisheating Creek. We stopped at Fisheating Creek Inn—a shack in the middle of a freshwater marsh, with a lunch menu that featured frogs’ legs and alligator tail—and rented three canoes, then set off to a campground eight miles down the river. Dennis shared a canoe with Benjamin, Marse shared one with Kyle, and Bette and I canoed together. She sat in front and paddled distractedly. We took our time. The creek was wide and high for the season, and we portaged only twice during the trip. Fisheating Creek was flanked on both sides by bald cypress swamp and hardwood hammock dotted by oak trees and palm trees and ferns. Air plants clung messily to the trunks of the oaks; during the summer red and yellow flowers would sprout from their bellies. Along the edges of the water, between the knees of the knobby cypress roots, bloomed brilliant yellow flowers. “Butterweeds,” Bette said, pointing. The flowers’ bright faces were reflected in the black water. Bette pointed out an ibis, a hawk, an osprey. In the narrowest parts of the creek the forest encroached so heavily that the sunlight reached us in ribbons. Bette said that a century earlier, the creek had functioned as a highway to Lake Okeechobee, which supplied freshwater to all of Florida. She said that in the summer, thousands of swallowtail kites migrated to the creek to gorge themselves on water snakes and fish and rabbits, to prepare for the long flight back to South America. She told me to keep an eye out for panthers, black bears, burrowing owls, and of course alligators. It was like she was listing all that there was to fear around us, and as we passed I peered into the shadows of the swamp, alert for creatures that might strike or swoop. The first to appear was an alligator skulking among the cypress roots, its eyes hovering above the waterline. Once I’d seen one, I saw another, and before we’d gone a mile I’d seen too many to count on both hands, including babies as thin as snakes, sunning themselves on roots. The larger gators slunk into the water when we came close, and I tried not to think of them under the still black surface, swimming inches below my feet.
The others had already pitched the tents by the time Bette and I arrived at the campground, which was little more than a small island rising from the marsh, enough room for the canoes and tents and a picnic table and a few folding chairs. A tributary ran behind the mound of land, and a stand of cypress trees provided privacy that turned out to be irrelevant: we wouldn’t see another human the entire weekend. Dennis used a machete to lop off the knobs of cypress roots that grew through the island’s flattest parts, and the boys started a fire. We wore jackets over our swimsuits and cooked beans and hot dogs. We’d forgotten to bring bowls, so we ate out of mugs and cans, and once we’d settled in and darkness had fallen, the wildlife closed in around us. Owls made their strange humanlike calls, and every so often the muscular tail of an alligator splashed and a bullfrog croaked. “This place is creepy,” said Marse, “but I can’t seem to go a year without a visit.” Her grandfather owned an old swamp house nearby, in Big Cypress—the government had been trying to buy him out since the preserve had been established twenty years earlier—and she told stories about using the outhouse and listening to panthers scavenging in the trash cans. During a lag in the conversation, I heard a grunt, and when I asked what it was, Bette answered, “Those are swamp pigs, rooting. They only come out at night.” I could barely tell where the sounds were coming from, there were so many, and when finally Dennis and I crawled into our sleeping bags, I lay awake for an hour or more, listening.
In the morning, the men took off in two canoes to fish and Bette and Marse and I stayed behind. The river’s glassy surface reflected the trees and tall grasses. Marse turned on a transistor radio and found a calypso station that barely came in. I had taken to wearing a swimsuit almost all the time, even when I wasn’t planning on going in the water—this was something Marse and Bette did—and had even bought a new one, an orange-red halter with a zodiac pattern. Over the suit, I wore an old pair of Dennis’s jeans that I’d cut across the thighs without hemming. I was tanner than I’d ever been and several pounds thinner, and had grown comfortable spending time outside in the sun, under a fishing hat Gloria had handed me at Stiltsville. We talked about Bette’s wedding and Marse’s love life—there was a guy from her office, a fling—and they asked me questions about Atlanta. No one asked when I was going home. No one ever asked.
It was South Floridian spring, which meant bright warm days and few mosquitoes, and nights as crisp as seventy degrees. We drank coffee until noon, then switched to cans of watery, ice-cold beer. After we’d been drinking for an hour or so, Bette wandered off to go to the bathroom, and Marse started cleaning up the campsite. I wanted her to sit down and relax with me, to enjoy the sunshine and the privacy and even the strange hollow calls of the wildlife around us. “We should do this again,” I said to Marse.
“I mean it. We should make it an annual thing.”
She looked at me strangely and started to speak, then stopped.
“What?” I said, but she didn’t answer. I couldn’t see any problem with what I’d said, but then it occurred to me: I’d taken to acting as if I was certain of my future in Miami, but at this point there was no ring on my finger. In Marse’s mind, I might have been a placeholder in Dennis’s life. “Marse,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“This isn’t a lark. I’m not . . . ” I couldn’t think of the right word. “An
“I know you’re not.” She took a breath. “I just wish we could forget what I told you when we met, about Dennis.”
She stuffed beer cans into a trash bag. “It was really no big deal. Nothing would have come of it.”
“I wasn’t in love with him or anything.”
I hadn’t realized all that had gone unsaid between us. I wanted to say to her: I know what a crush is. And I know how difficult it is to look into your future and see nothing real, and how easy it is to conjure excitement out of thin air, just to have something to keep you going. I said, “I behaved badly, I know.” This was something it had taken me a while to admit to myself, though of course I didn’t regret what I’d done. I said, “I was hoping you’d forgiven me.”
There was a streak of mud across her forehead and another on her shorts. She wiped her brow with her forearm and pulled another beer from the cooler. She handed it to me. “I forgave you a long time ago.” She sat down beside me. After a moment she said, “Maybe we’ll do it again next year. But after that I’ll be living in the south of France with my rich husband, and you two will be having babies and all that nonsense—”
Bette, returning from the trees, caught the tail end of Marse’s sentence. “Not me,” she said. “No babies.”
“You don’t think you’ll have them?” said Marse, and Bette said, “No way.”
Bette rummaged through her bag and Marse and I stood up to finish cleaning the campsite. After I’d filled a trash bag, I turned to say something to Bette—I don’t recall what—and I noticed that she had a pair of silver scissors in one hand, and a good-sized chunk of her blond hair in the other hand. “What are you doing?” I said. She smiled, then closed the scissors. Marse and I gaped at her.
“You’re crazy,” said Marse. “Benjamin is going to kill you.”
“Benny doesn’t care about my hair.”
“Your mother is going to kill you,” I said.
“I don’t care about my mother.”
“Why are you doing this?” Marse said.
“Why not?” said Bette. “Do you have a mirror? I want to make sure it’s even.”
“I have one,” I said. I went to my tent and fished a compact from my bag. When I returned, Marse caught my eye and shook her head. I handed the compact to Bette. “Much obliged,” she said. She opened the compact and looked at the part of her head where the hair was gone, then tried to resume cutting while holding the mirror in one hand.
For a moment, Marse and I watched her snip awkwardly behind one ear. Then I sat down on the bench next to her. “Here,” I said, taking the mirror. I held it up, but I couldn’t get the angle right and she kept having to adjust it to keep sight of herself. I said, “Give me the scissors.” She hesitated. “I know what I’m doing,” I said. I’d cut my mother’s hair twice a year for more than a decade. I handed her the mirror and she handed me the scissors. I sat behind her, facing her back.
“Holy Moses,” said Marse.
My hands shook a little. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“Let’s not get sentimental,” said Bette. “It’s just a bit of
The scissors were sharp and cut easily. Her hair fell to the ground in feathery blond bits. I spent a long time making sure all the pieces were even before I stopped. Her new do was less than an inch in length, as short as a boy’s. She looked in the mirror. “Much better,” she said. She stood up and walked a few feet away, then turned around to pose like a model in a catalog, touching her head with both hands. “It’s adorable, isn’t it?”
“It is kind of adorable,” I said.
“Hell of a job,” said Marse to me.
“Let’s go for a ride,” said Bette.
We launched the last canoe and climbed in. Bette sat in front and Marse sat in back, which left me cross-legged in the well between them. As we made our way down the shadowy creek, I leaned against the yoke of the canoe and looked up at the cypress canopy, at the river of sky that flowed between the trees. It was like paddling down the nave of a cathedral. I closed my eyes. After a few minutes, I was jarred by a wild splashing and the tipping of the canoe to port and back to starboard, and when I opened my eyes Bette was standing at the bow, legs wide, wielding her paddle like a jousting stick against a large alligator a foot away. We had startled it—perhaps Bette had bumped it with her paddle when passing—and its top jaw was open and its teeth bared, its tail curled upward, and its strange pudgy claws spread wide against the marshy bank. Above it, Bette stood brandishing the paddle like a warrior and looking straight into its eyes. Marse gave a quick thrust and Bette pivoted as we passed, keeping the paddle inches from the gator’s jaws. Once we were at a safe distance, she sat down. Slowly, the alligator lowered its jaw and settled deeper into the marsh. “Goddamn it!” said Marse. “What the hell happened?”
“We got too close,” said Bette.
“Goddamn,” said Marse again. I’d never been around a woman who swore as freely as Marse did. “That thing looked hungry.”
“It might be hungry,” said Bette, “but it doesn’t want to eat us.”
One might assume, given the prevalence of alligators in South Florida, that attacks on humans would be more common. Over the years, there was the occasional anomaly: once a gator chased down and mawed a young boy riding a bike down a boardwalk in Shark Valley, and once one found its way into a private swimming pool in Coral Gables and drowned a full-grown man. But for the most part, alligators eat fish and ducks. Despite their ability to outrun a human, they wait for their prey to come to them. Years after the incident at Fisheating Creek, I saw a photograph of an alligator being swallowed whole by a Burmese python (for some reason, many South Floridians come to own exotic nonnative animals, then release these animals into the wild when they become tiresome, and they multiply) and I remembered that day, when we were inches from an alligator’s open jaw, and I felt sorry for it.
Down the creek, we met the boys head-on. Kyle held up a string of jewel-toned bass, and we turned and followed them back to the campsite. When the boys noticed Bette’s hair, Kyle said, “Wow!” and Dennis said, “Can’t we trust you girls to be left alone?” I thought I heard an undercurrent of irritation in his voice. I supposed he’d witnessed a lifetime of impetuous decisions on Bette’s part.
“God, woman,” said Benjamin, “you went ahead and did it, didn’t you?”
I was relieved to know that the haircut had been discussed prior to that afternoon. I realized that Bette had brought the scissors for this purpose. When we were all standing on dry land, Benjamin touched Bette’s head, laughing, then patted her butt affectionately. “You’re something else,” he said. He turned to me, because I was closest. “Isn’t she something else?”
“Frances did it,” said Marse.
Dennis said, “You cut her hair?”
“I have a little experience,” I said. “I think it looks pretty good.”
He looked at me as if he wasn’t quite sure what to think. “You’re not going to do that to yourself, are you?”
I put an arm around his waist. “You never know.”
That night, Dennis taught me to gut a fish, and I helped him cook it and made potatoes in a skillet. The meal was as good as any I’d eaten in my life. We told the boys about our encounter with the alligator, and Dennis squeezed my knee and told me to be careful, and I caught Marse watching us in the firelight. Also in the firelight, I watched Bette bring a hand to her hair. Her gaze was deep and private. Though she and Benjamin were planning to wed in a few days, I knew in my bones that this would not happen.
We set the timer on Benjamin’s camera and took a group photograph on our last morning at the campsite. Marse, Bette, and I sat cross-legged on the ground and the men stood above us. Dennis was behind me, Benjamin was behind Bette, and Kyle was behind Marse, waving at the camera. I wore a diamond-checked minidress, Marse wore a red Swiss dot jumpsuit, and Bette wore a crocheted halter top and long canvas shorts. The men were shirtless. All six of us were smiling so you could see our teeth. I love this photograph. All these years, I’ve loved it. And one day my daughter found it in a chest filled with other old photographs, and she framed it and propped it up on her bookcase, first in her dorm room and then in her home. Once I overheard her pointing it out to a friend: “These are my parents,” she said. “This is my aunt Bette, and this is my mother’s best friend Marse.” In the way that old photos sometimes do, looking at it makes my heart ache a bit. But also I enjoy remembering my younger self this way: as an adventurer, as carefree. Mostly, I don’t think I was these things, but I guess sometimes, in Miami, I could be.
On the morning of Bette’s wedding, Dennis and I drove from South Beach to his parents’ house with the windows down, trying to dry our hair by the time we arrived. We’d gotten up late, after making love in the warm patch of sun that came in through his bedroom window. Gloria had specifically asked me to be there early to help set up, and I’d promised we would be—in matters of timeliness and politesse, the woman is always held more accountable than the man—and I was panicked to think I would disappoint her. But when we arrived, Gloria was upstairs with Bette and the caterers had commandeered the kitchen and backyard. Flowers were already in vases on the tables, and a row of silver chafing dishes lined the buffet. A bartender was arranging liquor bottles on a table down by the water. Grady called up the lawn from the pier, waving, and Dennis squeezed my arm and took off down the green expanse, his hands in his suit pockets. When I turned toward the house, I saw Benjamin sitting in a chair on the back deck, facing the water. He didn’t seem to notice me. I climbed the deck stairs, and when I stood right beside him he looked up, shading his eyes with one hand. “Hello there,” he said.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Bad luck to see the bride, or some such. The pastor’s late—car trouble.”
“That’s too bad.”
“We were going to practice.”
“Maybe you don’t need to practice.”
“Maybe.” He reached over and opened his palm. In it was a plain gold band: Bette’s wedding ring. “This is it.”
He seemed to want me to take it, so I did. “Very pretty.”
“It’s what she wanted. All of this, even the dress, is what she wanted.”
“The dress is lovely,” I said. The dress Bette had chosen was actually a suit, a fluted skirt and fitted jacket made of creamy brocade. I’d seen it hanging on the back of a closet door at her apartment, and I’d complimented her taste. “I’m airing it out,” she’d said, and I’d said, “Is it wet?” I was always confusing things she said, taking her literally. “It’s soggy with starch,” she’d said, and again I wasn’t sure if she was speaking figuratively. It was an experience I would continue to have for as long as we knew each other.
“But it’s strange,” said Benjamin. “Don’t you think it’s strange? Don’t you want more?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t think it was strange to not want gowns and diamonds and fancy parties on one’s wedding day. I didn’t think in itself this was alarming at all.
“Frances, I can afford a diamond. I want to buy my girl a diamond.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want a diamond.”
He looked at me for a long moment, then forced a laugh. “Girls with heads on their shoulders—a mixed blessing.” His hands twitched around each other in his lap. He was not nervous about marriage, of course: he was meant for marriage. He would be content in its warm headlock. But Benjamin knew, as I knew, that Bette was not made for marriage, and that if she didn’t know it that afternoon, she would figure it out one day, perhaps in the grocery store while choosing a melon, or at the tennis courts on a sunny Saturday, or outside their child’s school before the ringing of the final bell. He wiped his face. “Ignore me. Just jitters, I think. I’ll make myself a drink.” He walked off the deck and crossed the lawn to the bar. I watched him pour something into a glass and drink it and stand there alone, holding the table with one hand.
Inside, I knocked on Bette’s old bedroom door, and Gloria’s voice said, “Who’s there?”
The door opened, and there stood Gloria in a brassiere and girdle and stockings. Behind her, Bette was lying on her bed fully dressed, complete with white patent leather shoes, wearing more eye makeup than I’d ever seen her wear. Her short hair was blown dry and styled smartly. “Did the caterer find the wineglasses?” said Gloria.
Because I’d seen wineglasses on the bar outside, I said yes.
“Did they replace the wilted flowers?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
Bette sighed loudly at the ceiling.
“Is my husband still tinkering with his toy?” said Gloria.
“I think so,” I said.
“What is Benjamin doing? Is he practicing his lines?”
I nodded. “He said the pastor’s late.”
“That pastor is always late,” said Gloria. To Bette, she said, “I warned you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Bette quietly.
Bette’s old bedroom was large and bare, with beige walls and a light blue carpet that had seen heavy traffic. Her bed was high, with an antique wooden headboard, and each time she shifted it squeaked and knocked lightly against the wall. A car door slammed outside, and then another, and when I went to the window I saw that guests had begun to arrive. Grady was on the front porch, directing parking. He wore a blue seersucker suit with a red bow tie, and his hair was, as usual, uncombed.
Gloria joined me at the window. “The Tanners are here. And the Becks. And who is that? The Everests. People certainly are punctual, aren’t they?”
She stepped to the closet and pulled a lavender suit from a dry cleaning bag. While she dressed, I leaned over Bette. She was staring at the ceiling and humming softly. “What’s going on in your head?” I said.
I could see her deliberate between fibbing and telling the truth. “I’m just lying here, minutes before my wedding, thinking about diving.”
“Just diving, or diving a wreck?”
She nodded. “There’s one in the Keys, an albatross—that’s a plane, not a boat. Jane asked me to go down this weekend.”
“You’re busy this weekend.” In fact, Bette and Benjamin planned to take Grady’s boat to Bimini for their honeymoon.
“Yes, I am.” She blinked. “Mother, could you please leave?”
She said this as nicely as possible, but still Gloria, who was not yet zipped, was surprised. “I beg your pardon?” she said. I rushed to help her zip up. “Thank you, Frances. Dear, I will leave, but only because I want to check to make sure they didn’t bungle the order of the buffet.” She paused before leaving. “You look very pretty,” she told Bette. “Refresh your lipstick. You have ten minutes.”
When she’d left, Bette hopped off the bed and stood by the window, biting her nails. “We’re serving cocktails first. That was Benny’s idea,” she said. “He said he wanted people to relax and enjoy themselves.” She started to cry. When I stepped forward to console her—how I would do it, I didn’t know, she wasn’t a particularly consolable person—she raised a hand to stop me. “Don’t. I deserve it. It’s my fault.”
“He wants you to be happy,” I said, which was not quite the truth. He wanted her to be happy with him.
She stopped crying and stared through the window at the driveway. More car doors slammed. I stood next to her and watched as carload after carload of people—older people, mostly, Grady and Gloria’s age—stepped out, holding their hats and smoothing down their skirts. “There are Benjamin’s parents,” said Bette. She waved ineffectually at the window pane. “Hi Maggie, hi Bud,” she said softly. To me, she said, “They are such nice people. All of these people, all the people who are here, are really nice. It was kind of them to come.” She turned toward me. “You should marry Dennis,” she said. “You’ll have a beautiful wedding. You’ll look so pretty, and he’ll look so handsome, and the way you two look together—the way you two look at each other—you should marry him.” She glanced back out the window. “Will you?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Promise?” she said, and again I said, “Yes.”
“My mother will be pleased. She likes you. I didn’t tell her you cut my hair.”
“I appreciate that.”
She started to undress, shoes and stockings first. Then off came her skirt, then her jacket, and then she was standing there in just a camisole, shivering. I handed her a pair of blue jeans and a blouse from her closet. “Are you absolutely sure?” I said.
“I’m so sorry.” She had her hand on the doorknob. “Will we still be friends?”
“Of course.” I reached out to touch her shoulder, and though she was not fond of displays of affection, she turned and hugged my neck, hard, before stepping through the doorway and hurrying down the stairs.
I found Dennis on the back porch with a bottle of beer in his hand. “Is the girl ready yet?” he said. “My mother is restless.”
Gloria was below us, on the patio by the pool, standing with a couple I’d never seen before. I caught her stare. Seeing my expression, she took a tentative step toward me, then stopped. She pointed at the back kitchen door. Dennis asked where I was going, but I didn’t stop to answer him. She reached the kitchen before I did and closed the door behind us. Inside, two black women in white aprons were stacking dishes and wiping down the counter. “Could we have a minute?” said Gloria, and the women left the room. She took me by the shoulders. “What is it? What did she do?”
“Gloria, she’s left.”
“No!” She smacked the counter with the flat of her hand, wincing, then smacked it again. “That little brat,” she said, but in the next moment her lip started to tremble. “Get Grady for me?”
I stepped out of the kitchen and signaled to Dennis. He came forward with long strides. “Get your father,” I said. He started to step into the kitchen—he could see his mother bent over the counter—but I stopped him. “Hurry.”
I led Gloria to the kitchen table and got a juice glass from the cupboard. I poured from a bottle of wine that was open in an ice bucket on the counter. She took several long swallows, then started to cry. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she said.
“That doesn’t matter.”
“I know it’s not your fault.”
It had not occurred to me, until that moment, that she might think this was my fault. How could it be? But the timing of events—my arrival on the scene, Bette’s assent to setting a wedding date, our burgeoning friendship, and now this horror: I suppose it was possible my presence had stirred the brew of their lives, however subtly. Gloria finished her wine and handed me the glass. “More, please,” she said, and I rushed to refill it. Grady came in the back door, Dennis behind him, and in a second Grady was kneeling beside his wife’s chair, and she was in his arms, sobbing. “It’s my fault,” she kept saying. “That spoiled little girl.”
Grady shushed her softly and said, “Sometimes things just go haywire.”
Dennis pulled me to his side and we watched his parents. “Where is she?”
“She left. Someone needs to tell Benjamin.”
“I’ll do it,” Dennis said. I stepped onto the back deck to give Gloria and Grady some privacy, and Dennis crossed the lawn toward the bar, where Benjamin stood with a small circle of friends. Dennis led him toward the house, and when they were far from other people, he put his arm around Benjamin’s large shoulders and started talking. Benjamin stopped short, then put a hand over his face. When his hand came down I saw that he was not angry, not upset. He looked calm but weary, and he nodded and took several deep breaths. He even looked around a little, as if hoping to see her, then turned back to Dennis and shook his hand. Together they made their way back up to the house.
Back in the kitchen, there was some discussion of who should be the one to make the announcement. Benjamin volunteered, then Gloria, then Grady—it was as if they were fighting for the unpleasant task, attempting to revive the good manners one expects on a wedding day. But Gloria was a mess—it was clear she’d been crying—and Grady seemed unable to leave her side, even to refill her glass, which I was called on to do a third time. In the end, it was Dennis who stepped onto the back deck and tapped a spoon against a glass to get the crowd’s attention. The rest of us huddled behind him. Fifty pairs of stylish couples and the odd single (including Marse, whom I’d spotted standing with Dennis’s friend Paul) peppered the lawn and the limestone patio, and in a moment all eyes were on Dennis. He held on to the wooden deck railing as he spoke. His voice shook. “Good afternoon,” he said, then cleared his throat and raised his voice. “We are so pleased all of you could make it here today to celebrate with our family.” He paused. It seemed, from his first sentence, that he was going to make a very different speech. “I love my sister,” he said. “I know you love her, too. But let’s face it, she’s an odd duck. And that’s part of what we love about her.” There was some nervous chuckling. “We want you to stay and eat and enjoy the afternoon, please. But I’m sorry to say there is not going to be a wedding.” A gentle gasp passed through the crowd. Benjamin’s parents, who were standing by the swimming pool, clutched each other and his mother put her hand to her mouth. Dennis raised his glass. “To love and friendship,” he said. “In all its forms.”
Dennis and I left the backyard together and walked around the side of the house, out of view, and once we were alone, he bent and put his hands on his knees. “You did great,” I said, and he said, “I thought I was going to vomit. I could kill Bette.” But when he rose up again, he was smiling. “I never said it would be dull, did I?” he said. I laughed, and then he started laughing. He took his keys from his pocket and pulled me toward the front of the house, then stopped: his car was buried several deep in the driveway. He took my hand and we weaved through the cars until we reached the far side of the driveway, and then we ducked under a ficus and emerged onto the neighbor’s lawn.
“Should we leave your parents?” I said.
“They’re fine. They’ll host.” He loosened his tie, and, not letting go of my hand, pulled me up to the neighbor’s front door. When a man answered, Dennis said, “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Costakis, but I was wondering if I might borrow a car.”
“Your sister’s on the lam, is she?” said Mr. Costakis. I guessed that he’d been spying and had seen her flee from the house. He chewed tobacco and ran a hand through his slick gray hair. “I should drop by for some grub.”
“Yes, it’s all very amusing,” said Dennis.
Mr. Costakis handed Dennis his keys. “Bring it back with a full tank,” he said, then extended a hand to me. “I’ve heard about you. You’ve taken a bite of our boy’s heart.”
I blushed. “Nice to meet you.”
We drove away then, and with the windows down I could hear the noise from Dennis’s family’s backyard, and from that distance it sounded no different from your average party, with glasses clinking and conversations humming. “Where are we going?” I said to Dennis.
“Wherever we want. ” He reached for my hand and brought it to his lips. He seemed content, driving through the early evening in a strange car. We took the highway north to Rickenbacker Causeway, then paid the toll and crossed onto Virginia Key, past the windsurfers off the narrow strip of beach, past the line of palm trees that shaded the sand, then over a second bridge onto Key Biscayne. We drove to the far tip of the key, then turned around and drove back. The sun was starting to set over downtown, and the buildings—the city seemed large to me then, though it would double in breadth and height and population during the time I lived there—reflected the pink-orange light. The water was dark blue, spitting whitecaps in the wind, and as we left the causeway behind I breathed deeply, inhaling the smell of the ocean. We wound down Bayshore Drive past Vizcaya, where we’d spent a magical night under the stars soon after meeting—it seemed a long time ago, even then—past Mercy Hospital, where almost every room had a bay view, past the coral rock houses of Coconut Grove and Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, where Dennis’s parents were members and one day we would be, and past Scotty’s and Dinner Key Marina and Dennis’s old elementary school. I had learned my way around, but I didn’t know how or when it had happened.
I suggested we head to the Hungry Sailor, a dark bar in downtown Coconut Grove where Marse and Bette and I had found ourselves many nights among a crowd of regulars, under walls ringed with colored Christmas lights. We parked, and Dennis led me up to the rooftop, where patio tables were scattered on tar matting overlooking Grand Avenue. Dennis ordered a round of margaritas and looked down on the crowded street. A rickshaw passed, carrying a tourist couple who hooted with laughter as the driver dipped and circled to entertain them. On the corner, a woman with a high Afro handed out fliers, and down the block a group of kids sat in a circle on a cement patio. Dennis took my hand and sighed. “Good Lord, my sister,” he said. I saw that he cared enough about his sister not to care much about the ruined wedding.
The margaritas were tangy and cold. I let my shoes drop and propped my feet on the low wall of the rooftop, and I held Dennis’s hand. The sun went down, and it grew a little chilly. Dennis put his coat around my shoulders and ordered another round. It seemed we were celebrating after all. Dennis pointed below us, to a mannequin in the window of a lingerie shop across the street—but then I saw that she wasn’t a mannequin at all. She was a live person, wearing red bikini underwear and a lacy pink robe, her legs tucked beneath her in a white wicker love seat, her chin propped on one hand. “What a job!” I said.
“Boring as hell,” said Dennis.
“Some people love to be watched.”
Dennis was looking at me. “When it’s our turn, you won’t run.”
“No,” I said. I knew that all I had to do was turn and meet his eyes. I knew that if I did this, he would sink to one knee and take off his college ring and slide it onto my finger, where it would feel as heavy as a stone. But maybe because we were living a stolen evening, an evening allotted for another activity entirely, or because my love for him raged so wildly that I felt it throbbing in my teeth and pressing against my lungs, I did nothing but sip my drink. After a while, the model’s shift ended. She stood and stretched and tied her robe around her waist, yawned, and walked into the fluorescent innards of the store.
Looking back, it seems that the whole episode, from meeting Dennis to marrying him, went by in a blink. When Dennis did propose—kneeling, on the stilt house dock where we’d met—I believed my love for him was strong. Now, though, I know it was a blip, a farce. A thousand times, my love might have dampened instead of swelled. I had no idea then what would happen to my love, what nourishment it would receive, how mighty it would grow. I thought: I love him. And so, as if it were the only answer I could give, the only answer available to me, I said yes.
We married in Atlanta, in the Baptist church I’d attended as a child. I wore an empire-waist gown with lacy cap sleeves and satin Mary Janes with chunky heels. I was so stunningly, stupidly happy that I remember little outside of what is frozen in photographs: Dennis’s grip over mine as we cut the three-tiered cake; my mother spreading my veil and my father pumping Dennis’s hand; Grady extending his arm in a toast; me posing on the chapel steps with my mother on one side and Bette and Marse on the other. Back in Miami, Dennis’s parents threw us a reception at their yacht club, and then Dennis and I spent a week in the Keys, hopping from island to island in his father’s boat and camping on shallow beaches. One night we woke to the sight of hundreds of glowing anemones drifting by. In the morning, dozens had washed ashore and lay sickly at the foot of our tent. Dennis gave me a book of Wallace Stevens poems with certain pages dog-eared, and sometimes we read the poems to each other before falling asleep.
Dennis graduated from law school and passed the bar exam and was hired by a firm downtown. With inheritance from his grandmother, we bought our own home in Coral Gables, a three-bedroom ranch with a large backyard and a ponytail palm in one corner. We culled spare furniture from Dennis’s parents’ garage and secondhand stores, and hung paintings I’d made during college. Within the year I was pregnant. We had a little girl and named her Margo, ostensibly after Dennis’s maternal grandmother but in truth because I loved the name: I thought it was earthy and wise and unmistakably South Floridian, a tropical name for reasons I couldn’t explain. Margo was a fleshy, contemplative baby with Dennis’s blue-green eyes and my pointy-tipped ears. My mother took the train down and stayed a month in our guest room, and during the day we took turns changing Margo and giving her long, warm baths. We sat on a blanket in the backyard and made plans for her future: my mother predicted she would be a stunning beauty, possibly a fashion model, and I predicted she would be a career woman with expensive handbags and a busy social calendar. We told her there had never been a sweeter baby. After my mother returned to Atlanta, it was, oddly, Grady who took time off to help me while Dennis was at work. He brought groceries and held the baby so I could shower, and stepped out to light a pipe when I opened my blouse to breast-feed. While I nursed Margo, she looked up at me as if she didn’t quite know who I was, but she was willing to accept my love anyway, to give me the benefit of the doubt. When she was sleepy, she blinked in a slow-motion way that reminded me of a sloth I’d seen in a nature show on television. Instead of dividing, the focus I’d previously reserved for Dennis multiplied; in the early months of Margo’s life I found myself stunned at my luck. I’d found a person to love, and together we’d made another person to love. It was simultaneously exactly what I’d wanted and more than I could have asked for myself.
When Dennis was home, we took long walks with Margo in her stroller, and on the weekends we put her in a life vest and went to the beach, or out on Grady’s boat, or to Stiltsville, where I held tightly to her and stepped carefully, fearful of falling with her into the water. She clung to Dennis’s chest as he walked the flats and giggled maniacally when he dunked her. She got sunburned and the pediatrician reminded me sternly about sunscreen—the only bottle we owned back then sat on a shelf in the downstairs stilt house bathroom, crusty at the neck and watery with time and disuse. She and I spent hours together in the hammock downstairs, napping and reading, sweaty locks of hair plastered to her forehead. She took her first teetering steps in the stilt house living room, from Dennis’s lap to mine. After that, the stilt house became a kind of disaster area for a time, where I was called on to be ever-vigilant as she darted in each direction, small enough to fit through the porch railing or steps, clumsy enough to slip from the dock. Dennis and I had talked briefly about putting up netting or fencing, but with so many hazardous surfaces—the entire downstairs, the wraparound porch, the T-shape dock—it wasn’t feasible. Instead, Dennis started teaching her to swim when she was just ten months old. When she was two, she spent hours on his lap as he fished off the dock, clapping each time he reeled in a fish. When she was almost three, Marse bought her an orange bikini with yellow polka dots and she wore it every day of the summer, refusing every other garment in her closet. When she was four, she and Bette put on elaborate performances on the porch, wherein Margo played a pirate or schoolteacher, and Bette played a damsel in distress or an insubordinate student, and by the end of the day they were both sweating through their T-shirts and glassy-eyed with exhaustion.
Those early years of Margo’s life, of our marriage, were uncomplicated to a degree that I’ve never experienced again. But every so often, during this period, I would find Dennis sitting in front of a bottle of beer at the kitchen table, or alone on the porch at Stiltsville, and when I asked him what was wrong he would say simply that he did not like his job. I suppose if we had let it, this could have become the ruling discontent in our home. But he was not the kind of man who took to moping, and for years this was a back-burner issue, a low-grade nuisance.
We tried for a time to have a second child, and then when Margo was three I miscarried, and then eight months later I miscarried again, and then five months later, again. It was a terrible time. I felt as if our lives had been put on hold; the future darkened. It’s incredible to realize that one can’t have children simply by taking the usual steps. Doctors couldn’t seem to help, and I might have become bitter in the face of this fact, as so many people do, but later in my life I would need to trust doctors, to be guided by them, so I am glad this wasn’t the case. Then, some months after the third miscarriage, I chaperoned Margo’s kindergarten class on a field trip to the Everglades, and we were walking in the early evening down a swampy path when our guide pointed to an owl perched on a high branch, and Margo’s freckled face when she searched the sky for a glimpse of the creature was so open, so full of joy, that I decided (or I realized, I’m not sure which) I didn’t need more children. Dennis had wanted a noisier household—this was difficult, knowing how he wanted it—but eventually he followed my lead. I concentrated on Margo, our marvel, and the sadness of losing the pregnancies ebbed over time, and I thanked God for her.
As for my new hometown, I’d fallen quickly and surely in love with it. I loved to drive through the dense neighborhoods with my car windows down and smell the rotting sweetness of a ripening mango tree. I loved to eavesdrop on the loud conversations of the ladies at the deli counter, ferreting out select phrases using the lazy Spanish I’d acquired over the years. I loved the lychees and star fruit that fell into my yard over the neighbor’s fence, and I loved the bright bougainvillea that dropped its papery pink petals onto my lawn. I loved the rusty barges loaded with stolen bicycles that plodded down the Miami River and out to sea. I loved the half-dozen chilly February nights, all the windows in the house open and the fireplace going. I loved the limestone and the coral rock, the fountains and the ocean and the winding blue canals. I loved the giant banyans and the dense wet mangroves and the gumbo-limbo trees and the many-sized, many-shaped palms. I loved the pelicans and manatees and stone crabs and storms and even the thick, damp summers.
Miami is the only place in this country where Stiltsville could exist, and for a while I had the good fortune of spending time there.
I lived in Miami through scandals and riots, through dozens of tropical storms and one devastating hurricane, through the Mariel boat lift and the cocaine cowboys. Outside Florida, I’ve never met anyone else who lived in Miami or cared to, or even anyone who is not somewhat surprised to hear that I lived there for half of my life. Perhaps what is still most surprising to me about Miami is that in spite of its lurid excesses and unreal beauty and unreal ugliness, it was possible for me, a girl from Georgia, to create a life there. Overall, an excellent life. A life I knew even as I was living it, I would miss when it came to an end.