Dennis stood beside the swimming pool in bathing trunks and goggles, snapping on a pair of bright yellow kitchen gloves. It was August 25, the morning after the hurricane, and we’d spent hours tramping through the debris that littered our property. Mr. Costakis’s royal palm stretched across our backyard, the deck sagged with split planks, and the swimming pool churned with foliage. Our street was impassable, crowded with shredded trees and a felled telephone pole, and the canal at the back of the house teemed with window shutters, patio furniture, palm fronds: little rafts escaping for the sea. Among the unsinkable, our boat listed against its battered pier, crowded but unharmed. We’d lengthened the mooring lines and padded the hull with fenders, imagining a storm that would lift the boat aboveground, then recede in a breath.
Upstairs, Margo and her new husband, Stuart, slept in her childhood bed. They were living with us that month, house-hunting in lieu of honeymooning.
Miami was still and cloudless, cruelly hot. Dennis and I had assumed, wrongly, that the electricity would return within days. I’d lived in South Florida for more than twenty years, and never had I faced August without air-conditioning; the prospect sent me into a mute panic. I was in menopause, prone to hot flashes. The hurricane, the tattered lawn, the leaky bedroom ceiling—these I could handle. But the heat and humidity coated the little woes like soot: it was all too much.
Maybe it was my heavy breathing as we crossed the lawn, or my profuse sweating—in any event, Dennis declared that we would skim the swimming pool first, so I would have a place to keep cool. He jumped into the deep end, then emerged with a bullfrog the size of a football squirming in his gloved hands. I shrieked. He ran down to the canal and tossed it in. When he returned, I lifted the camera—we’d brought it out to document the mess for the insurance company—and he posed, hands on hips and feet apart. “I am Captain Amphibian,” he said. “Rescuer of frogs.” His wet hair, the singed color of red clay roads after rain, lay flat against his forehead.
I skimmed the pool while Dennis fished out a few more frogs, and when the water was clear, I dove in. Dennis raked the yard, making piles, and the sodden leaves I’d trimmed dried in the sunlight, releasing a mulchy smell into the air. Dennis was just rearranging the junk, I thought. He was just moving it around, as Margo had done long ago with the vegetables on her dinner plate. He found a flattened soccer ball in the rose garden out front, and a windshield, scratched but not broken, in the bougainvillea. He found a whistle on a red shoestring, which he looped around his neck. Next door, Mr. Costakis whipped at shrubbery with a machete. I could see sunlight strike the blade between the tilting trunks of gumbo-limbo trees. Every so often a helicopter roared overhead, but otherwise, save for the whipping sound and Dennis’s raking, the world was quiet. There were no passing cars, no ringing telephones, no boats humming down the canal.
Dennis leaned against the rake and rubbed his neck. “I’d help,” I said, “but there’s a risk of self-combustion.”
“Stay in the pool.”
“I wish it were just a layer,” I said. “I wish we could just vacuum it all up.” I made a sucking sound, gesturing largely.
“I was thinking of forest fires,” said Dennis. “The way they nourish the soil. By April, we could have plants we didn’t know we had.”
“I want our old plants,” I said.
“No pouting.” He blew his whistle. I saluted.
There was, looming but unspoken, the matter of Stiltsville. Days earlier, when the National Hurricane Center had issued a storm watch for Dade County, I’d imagined the stilt house without its roof, the dock splintered—after all, the house had survived Agnes and Betsy and Hugo. When the watch became a warning, though, people started to gather provisions—batteries and flashlights and bottled water and canned goods—and I pictured the stilt house caved in on itself like a sunken cake. Then the storm arrived, and Dennis and I watched the wind bend our melaleuca trees until their branches brushed the ground, and I knew there would be nothing left.
A marine patrol cruiser made its way through the canal, sending the floating rubble into fits. The boat fenders rubbed against the pier. Dennis raised a hand and the patrolman waved back. There would be more of these good-natured greetings in the coming weeks. Overnight, Miami drivers would become uncharacteristically civilized, waiting patiently at stop signs and even signaling for others to go first. We would learn about a woman, a friend of Gloria’s, who volunteered to direct traffic for hours each day at an intersection near her house. Neighbors we’d never met would call out across the street or canal. We would exchange best wishes with strangers.
When hurricane season was still a distant and nebulous concern, faint breezes in the doldrums, Margo had called to tell us she was engaged to be married. She was twenty-one years old, in her last year at college. I answered the phone; a commotion in the background told me she wasn’t alone. “Mom?” she said. “Don’t cry.”
“You’re engaged to whom?” Beside me, Dennis dropped his newspaper. Margo had mentioned Stuart from time to time, but her references to him had been so casual, so incidental to our conversations—as in “Stuart and I went for barbecue and my car broke down and I changed the tire by myself!” or “I can’t talk long because Stuart is here unclogging my sink”—that I’d formed the idea they were not serious. When I’d visited her at school, we’d gone out to eat with a few of her girlfriends, but no boyfriend had been in evidence.
“Come meet him,” said Margo, her voice ringing with delight. It was this tone of voice that sent a shiver of excitement—joy, even—through my alarm. “Come tonight,” she said.
Dennis took the phone without asking for it. There was no telling how he would react; sometimes he took emergencies in stride, like when Margo was sixteen and woke us in the night to say she’d crashed Dennis’s car into a bridge down the street, and Dennis cleaned blood from her forehead and took her to the hospital. Since then, whenever we’d passed the scene of the accident, Dennis had made the same joke: “I think I see pieces of my headlights in that bush over there. Yep, there’s my back fender in the gutter.” A year later, though, when Margo had talked me into taking her to the gynecologist for birth control, he’d avoided her for two days.
Dennis snapped his fingers at me and covered the mouthpiece. “Do we know this person?” he whispered. I made a gesture with my hand:
We drove to Gainesville the following morning. I watched the orange groves through the window, parting and seaming, and chewed my fingernails. “Stop that,” said Dennis, pulling my hand from my mouth. “This is not some stranger we’re talking about here. This is our daughter.”
“She’s impetuous,” I said. “She’s romantic.” In fact, I’d never before thought she was either of these things.
“Those sins,” said Dennis.
They were sitting on the front steps of Margo’s apartment building when we arrived. Through the windshield, I watched the boy stand to greet us: he was short—Margo’s height—and sinewy, with a mop of dark hair that swept across his forehead and crowded his eyebrows, making him seem pensive and fierce. Margo hugged my neck and Stuart shook my hand. “The mysterious man and the concerned parents meet at long last,” he said, then forced a chuckle. He was muscular and his voice was deep, which together with the height and haircut gave his appearance a confused quality, manly and boyish at once, like a cartoon superhero.
“Let’s get out of the heat,” said Dennis.
Margo linked her arm through mine and led me inside. We sat in her living room, drinking mango juice blended fresh by Stuart, and Dennis and I interviewed the man who might—we still considered it a remote possibility—become part of our family. The juice was warm and oversweet. He was twenty-four, originally from Sarasota, and worked as a general contractor. He’d accepted a job with a builder in Miami—there was always something being built in Miami, malls or offices or condos, either on the outskirts of the ever-expanding city limits, or over razed buildings in the city center—which meant that Margo could continue with her plans to start a master’s degree program at the University of Miami the following fall. The degree would be in, of all things, modern dance. She’d stumbled on a passion for dance at the University of Florida, and had mentioned several times, proudly, that she would be the only person in her graduate program without at least five years of technical training. This made me feel inadequate, as if I hadn’t recognized the talent she had hidden away. Instead, I’d pushed ballet classes (not the same, she emphasized), sailing club, piano lessons, swim team, academics. It was like spinning a large wheel and hoping it would stop in exactly the right place. Dancing? How could we have known?
While the men talked—Dennis asked questions, and when the conversation paused, he took a sip of juice and started again—I studied Stuart’s body language. He sat straight-backed on the edge of the sofa cushion, rubbing his hands together, as if preparing to spring into action. I waited for him to leap away, and also waited to recognize something—anything—that might coax from inside me some seed of goodwill. Margo sat cross-legged, listening to Stuart and glancing at me. My skin surged with the early tingles of a hot flash. I stood up, interrupting the conversation. “I feel a nap coming on,” I said.
“Why don’t we plan to meet for dinner?” said Dennis.
“Absolutely,” said Stuart. I would come to recognize such expressions of certainty as one of his idiosyncrasies. “No problem,” he would say in the following weeks, when I called Margo and he answered and we tangled ourselves into awkward chitchat. “Definitely.”
Dennis and I spent the afternoon in our motel room, and I sobbed while he comforted me with one arm and flipped television channels with the other. “Big deal,” he said. “We know plenty of divorce lawyers. There’s Donald Tanner, and that Nordic guy—what’s his name—from the yacht club.”
“One has hopes for one’s only daughter.”
“He could be worse,” said Dennis. “Think of him as a grab bag—there’s a chance, at least, for a wonderful surprise.”
Dennis liked Stuart, despite me and despite himself. He liked the boy’s high-keyed energy, and he liked the idea of welcoming another person into our little family. I’d liked this idea, too, in the abstract, but I had never considered that it might happen so soon. When Margo and Stuart entered the restaurant that night—she in a dress and he in a sport coat—I forced a smile. We ordered wine.
“I was thinking it should be a small ceremony, just close friends,” Margo said. “I’d like to have it in the backyard.”
She was pretty in her sundress, tan shoulders and dark hair and freckled nose. She’d lost some weight in her face since last I’d seen her, which was—it hurt me to think it—four months before, at spring break, when I’d picked her up on the way to Atlanta and we’d spent a week with my mother. We’d hiked every morning and spent afternoons swimming at Anna Ruby Falls; she and my mother had worn straw hats and bathing suits, and I’d packed tuna fish sandwiches and cold dill pickles for lunch. Margo had brought my mother a copy of a novel she was reading for class—I’d read it years before, and declined to repeat the experience—and in the late afternoons they had reclined on opposite sofas, each reading and piping up every few minutes with a comment. After dinner, they’d discussed the novel at the kitchen table while I cleaned up. Margo had mentioned Stuart once or twice during the trip, I recalled, but only in her casual way. You are too young, I thought. “When?” I said.
“August,” she said. Hurricane season. Her eyes searched my face. “We can put up a tent in case it rains, and I’d like Marse to be a bridesmaid, if she wouldn’t mind.” Behind her, a family sat around a table like ours. The father lifted a forkful of pasta, the teenage boy chewed ice from his soda, and the mother cut her steak. A quiet diorama. It seemed to me that my family’s stress must have been evident, each gesture insincere and jolting.
“That all sounds fine,” I said to her. Then I had a thought. “Margo,” I said a bit loudly, “you’re not pregnant?”
“No!” said Margo.
“No way,” said Stuart.
Dennis took my hand. “That’s good to hear,” he said. He raised his glass. “Look, we trust our Margo,” he said. “I won’t lie, young man, we wish we’d met you earlier. But we look forward to getting to know you.”
I raised my glass and took a long sip. This was my husband telling me that there would be no more self-pity. It was time for support.
Margo and Stuart stayed in Gainesville after graduation—we drove up for the ceremony, and I sniffled while Dennis snapped photos of Margo onstage in her gown—and the summer that followed was busy with weekend visits and wedding-themed phone conversations. I grew used to Stuart, if not quite fond of him, and felt alternately exhilarated and saddened by the situation. They moved home the first week of August and we held the wedding at the house, the air conditioner on high and the lawn bedecked in ribbon and sunflowers. Bette flew home from Santa Fe, where she and Suzanne had bought an adobe bungalow behind a strip mall, and she and Marse came over early to help me dress. Marse wore a sleeveless red floral dress with a sweetheart neckline, and her chest was rosy from the heat. Bette wore a lavender suit that I thought aged her; I guessed that it had been selected by Suzanne, who preferred a more conservative look. Dennis was already downstairs, dressed and waiting for guests, and Margo was in her own bedroom with Beverly Jovanovich, who was her maid of honor. Marse insisted on plucking my eyebrows—it was something she’d wanted to do for a decade, but I’d never relented until now—and Bette brought up a bottle of white wine from the kitchen.
My bedroom door was closed, but still Marse lowered her voice to speak. She said, “Am I the only one who thinks this is a little old-fashioned? She’s practically a teenager.”
“Marrying young is back in fashion,” said Bette. I was reminded of the day years earlier when she had prepared to wed in the same backyard.
“That Stuart is handsome,” said Marse.
“In a way, I suppose,” said Bette.
“He’s a flirt. Margo will have to keep an eye on him,” said Marse.
They both looked at me, waiting for a reaction. “I hadn’t noticed,” I said, though I had. Just that morning a young girl had arrived with the florist’s crew, and he’d pulled a daisy from a bouquet to give her, he said, as a tip. He’d done this right in front of me, which told me that there was nothing beneath the gesture, no murky undercurrent.
“You could stop her,” said Marse to me.
“I could not,” I said.
“Well, I could,” she said.
“No one’s stopping her,” said Bette.
Marse studied my brow. “You’re done,” she said. She handed me a tube of lipstick and turned to Bette. “How’s life in the desert?”
“It’s just fine,” said Bette. “Come for a visit. We have a very nice guest room.” She topped off her own glass, then Marse’s and mine. In the time since she’d moved, this was as much as she’d revealed to any of us: Santa Fe was fine, the house was fine, Suzanne was fine. It had been rough for Suzanne to break into the real estate business, but things had been picking up. They took long walks in the dry heat with their dog. I scrutinized each conversation for some hint that she might move back but didn’t find one. She did not seem overjoyed with her new life, but she did seem settled.
“Do you miss home?” I said to her.
She squinted, as if considering the question. “You know what I don’t miss? Dating.”
“I can imagine,” said Marse.
“Do you miss us?” I said.
“What a silly question,” Bette said. For a moment no one spoke and I wondered, ever so briefly, if it was silly at all. Then she said, “It’s like I moved away from my heart,” and I had to turn away.
When I’d composed myself, I stood up and started toward the door—it was time to lend Margo a hand—but then I turned back. My two friends looked at me, Bette in her suit and Marse in her low-cut dress. Their faces were as familiar to me as my own. I said, “Maybe it will be just fine.”
“It just might be,” said Bette.
“She has good role models,” said Marse. “It makes a difference.”
“Thank you for saying that,” I said.
That evening, I accepted the good wishes of our friends with a bright smile, and was surprised to feel a swell of optimism as Margo said her vows. Of course I hoped for her sake that the marriage would last, but I also hoped something more personal—more selfish, I should say: that Margo would come, through marriage, to understand Dennis and me in ways she never had before. I hoped Margo would learn that the cement of a marriage never really dries, and she would apply that understanding to her parents, and value the work we’d done to survive.
The city of Coral Gables had closed the canal to private traffic—we’d found neon notices stuck to the front door and the boat console—so we’d resigned ourselves to not knowing the fate of Stiltsville until the canal cleared or the telephones worked. Several times a day, helicopters beat overhead and a marine patrol boat cruised by the house, dragging a net glutted with debris.
“They’re looking for something,” said Dennis about the marine patrol. We were in the backyard, taking an ax to Mr. Costakis’s royal palm. Dennis was clumsy with the ax; he had a hard time hitting the same spot twice.
“They’re cleaning up,” I said.
The cruiser puttered away. “No,” he said. “They’re searching.”
“What else?” said Dennis. “A person.”
This seemed unlikely to me. I took the ax from Dennis and hoisted it over my shoulder. “Here comes that dark side of yours,” I said. I brought down the ax.
“I’m tired,” said Dennis. His shoulders sagged and his face was red. He sat down suddenly—or did he fall? I replay it in my mind, the slow bend of his knees, the arm reaching out.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Nothing. Just the heat.”
I crouched beside him, surrounded by a dozen chunks of royal palm. “This is not our job,” I said, meaning Mr. Costakis’s tree.
“That doesn’t matter.” He stared at his shoes, then looked up at the canal. “If the stilt house is gone, I don’t want to rebuild.”
“All that work, just for a few more years—doesn’t it make you tired?”
“Are we getting old?”
“No way.” He stood. “Spring chicks.” But his steps toward the swimming pool were sluggish and wooden.
Businesses were closed, including Dennis’s firm. Grady and Gloria had fled to Vero Beach to stay with friends. There had been looting—we saw footage on the portable television—and a curfew was in effect for all of Dade County. We stayed home, playing cards and taking walks and living off food we’d stockpiled: deli meat and eggs and fruit and bottled water, all nestled in squat white coolers. Every day, the National Guard passed through our neighborhood, heading south. We raised hands to them as they passed. Down in Homestead, the Red Cross built a tent city for the newly homeless. Our neighborhood felt to me like an island refuge—like Stiltsville, in a way—isolated from a continent of disaster and disaster relief. Our block buzzed with people working in their yards, grateful that their troubles were limited to landscaping, broken windows, a few irksome leaks. Marse stopped by once or twice when she could manage it. She lived in a condo on Biscayne Boulevard downtown, and in her neighborhood the phones were working and the roads had been cleared, but the lobby of her building had been transformed into a command station for the National Guard. Every morning, she spent an hour helping them field calls.
A marine patrolman knocked on the back door a week after the hurricane. It was early, and Margo and Stuart were asleep. The patrolman apologized for disturbing us and said he was opening the canal to traffic. Dennis invited him in. “Did you find anything?” he said.
“Still looking,” said the man.
I could tell by the way they spoke that they’d met. Probably out back, when Dennis was working in the yard. They shook hands and Dennis closed the door.
“What was that about?” I said.
Dennis looked at me.
“What?” I said.
“Let’s take the boat out now. Let’s get it over with.”
“Is that what you want?” I said.
Dennis stared out the window, then nodded. “I’ll get the kids,” he said.
I stood in the hallway as Dennis knocked on Margo’s bedroom door. “Rise and shine,” he said loudly. In the kitchen, with the patrolman, I hadn’t been shy about my prebreakfast ensemble—one of Dennis’s old button-downs and slippers—but in the hallway, I felt exposed. Around Margo alone, I’d always been casual. Too casual, perhaps—she was constantly telling me to button the next higher button or tighten the cord on my bathrobe. I wanted to dash to my dresser and pull on a pair of shorts, but Margo’s bed creaked and feet slapped the floor, and the door opened. There stood Stuart, rubbing his face. “Morning,” he said, a throaty croak.
Behind him, Margo shifted under the bedsheets, revealing the pale underside of her upper arm. Dennis faced away from the doorway. “Swimsuits,” he said.
“Pardon?” said Stuart.
It was a game Dennis and Margo played: she had to guess a destination from a list of clues. Margo usually resisted playing, but it was the kind of game in which one automatically participates; even as she declined to answer aloud, her mind took guesses. In a sleepy voice, she said, “Where are we going?”
“Swimsuits and towels,” said Dennis.
Stuart went to a duffel bag and pulled out a pair of blue swim trunks. “Swimsuit, check,” he said to Dennis. To me, he said, “Towels?”
“In the laundry room,” I said.
“Towels in the laundry room,” said Stuart. “Check.”
Margo stirred until we could see her face. “Just tell us where we’re going,” she said.
We looked at her—me over Dennis’s shoulder and Dennis over Stuart’s and Stuart over his own. I felt a chill pass through my husband as he realized she was naked beneath the sheets. It is one thing to hide from one’s child the indignities of middle age, the sagging and emissions and diminished libido and hot flashes. But for a parent to witness a grown child’s sexuality—how were we meant to respond? Dennis kept his eyes on Stuart. “Sunscreen,” he said.
Stuart turned and scanned the room, then took a bottle of lotion from the dresser. “Sunscreen, check,” he said. It was just right, this playing-along. But I confess that every time I felt myself warm to Stuart, the impulse fled as soon as I recognized it.
“The beach,” guessed Margo.
“You’re warm,” Dennis said.
“What else?” said Stuart.
“Sunglasses,” Dennis said. “Snorkeling gear.”
Margo sat up, clutching the sheet to her chest, and Dennis shifted backward. “The boat?” she said. Her hair was a mess. She was lovely. “Really?”
“We leave in fifteen minutes,” said Dennis.
We shut ourselves inside our bedroom. I took off my shirt, feeling the muggy air on my breasts. Dennis stepped into shorts and eased his hands into the pockets. He was lean and tan from a summer of half days at the office, afternoons spent jogging or boating. Before the wedding, we’d spent a long weekend at Stiltsville, and he’d worked out an exercise routine in which we swam laps around the house in the morning, then stretched and did sit-ups on the dock in the evening. He liked activity and goals—this was the same man who used to swim to the Becks’ house and back when he could have used the boat—whereas I was content to lie in the hammock on the porch, reading or watching the sky darken over the skyline. “This is strange,” he said.
I thought of Stiltsville, likely gone, and Margo, married. “I know,” I said. “I can hardly think.”
He looked at me. “What? I’m talking about this.” He motioned to his chest. He wore a Hawaiian shirt with the buttons undone.
“What is it?” I said, but then I saw: he was trying to button his shirt, but the fingers of his left hand trembled. “Oh, baby,” I said. “Let me.” I buttoned his shirt and pressed myself to his chest. His heart beat against my forehead. “It will be OK.”
The boat engines sputtered and smoked when they started. I handled the lines, and Stuart and Margo perched at the bow, their legs dangling over the water. Our wake lapped at the low stone walls that edged the waterway, where an occasional heron stood blinking at us, unperturbed. We cleared the mouth of the canal and the bay unfurled. Normally, Dennis would accelerate beyond the channel markers, but today he downshifted into neutral and we stood facing the miniature boxes that dotted the horizon. Our stilt house had stood seventh from the right. We counted under our breath: one, two, three houses remained, all west of where ours had been. The house was gone. From a distance, the breach seemed neat and deliberate, as if God had plucked our stilt house from its stem. I could only imagine how violent the destruction had been, and ached to think of it as I’d ached to think of Margo being teased or scratched when she was a child. Warm, wet winds ricocheting through our kitchen, living room, bedrooms. Floors buckling and mirrors fracturing into shards.
Dennis brought down a palm on the console, sounding a hollow thud. “Goddamn it,” he said.
“Dad?” Margo started toward him, but he held out a hand.
“Sit down,” he said. “We’re moving.” He shifted the boat into gear. I held on to my visor and turned away from Stiltsville, then watched the shore recede. To the east, the Cape Florida lighthouse stood at the tip of Key Biscayne, the sole structure on a beach darkened with debris. I imagined pieces of our stilt house stranded there—shutters or dock planks or even the hurricane tracking map that had hung in the kitchen, its little red and blue magnets scattered across the bay floor.
The boat slowed as we entered the channel. We passed one of the remaining stilt houses and waved to a man who stood on a ladder on the dock, boarding up a window. He raised one arm, a lonesome hello. Two other houses were missing dock planks and sections of roof. We passed slowly by, wayfarers through a ghost town.
Dennis had steered his way to that plot of watery land a thousand times. He could have done it blind. When he cut the engines, the boat drifted to a stop in front of four pilings that rose, slanting, from the water, no dock between them and no house behind. Dennis looped the bowline around a piling and I stood beside him at the starboard gunwale, staring into the sunlit water. I could see a few girders and joists embedded in the sand and some planks of wood, and that was about it.
Eighty yards east, where the Becks’ house had stood, there was a dock but no house. To the west, our hermit neighbor’s house had vanished entirely. My mind rested on the hermit: Where had he gone? Had someone entreated him inland? Dennis leaned over the gunwale and knocked on a piling. He turned to Margo. “Your grandfather built that house,” he said. His voice shook. “These pilings are buried fifteen feet into the bedrock.” He pushed against one and the boat carried us away, then jerked on its line.
When Margo was six, she’d sneaked down the stilt house stairs and slipped off the dock. Dennis had heard her cry out and jumped from the porch into the water, then swam frantically until she was in his arms. I wondered if she remembered. Once she was old enough to drive the boat, she’d spent time at the stilt house without Dennis and me; probably it was those days she remembered instead, friends and boys and sunshine. “I’m getting in the water,” said Margo. She retrieved a snorkel and mask for herself and one of each for Dennis, but when she handed them over, he just put them down. I felt his sadness blanketing my own, and it was difficult to breathe.
“There’s nothing to look at down there.” To me, he said, “What’s for lunch?”
“Egg salad sandwiches,” I said.
“How do we know until we look?” said Margo. She stepped onto the bow and untied the drawstring of her shorts, then kicked the shorts to the deck. She stood in her turquoise two-piece, our colorful and curvaceous bowsprit, then stepped over the railing and dove into the water.
“You should go,” I said to Dennis.
“Me, too,” said Stuart.
“Eat later,” I said. “Go.”
Margo swam beyond the pilings and over the scattered debris. Her snorkel branched into the air and her rump crested the surface; she kicked her pale heels. I handed Dennis the mask and he put it on and sat on the transom, the snorkel dangling.
“What are you waiting for?” I said.
I thought of him teaching Margo to ski, to ride a bike. “Want me to push you?”
Stuart spoke up. “Want me to go with you?”
“Sure,” Dennis said.
There was a mask for Stuart but no snorkel. The men sat side by side on the gunwale, then counted to three and pushed off. I opened a diet soda and watched them swim. Margo and Dennis kept their heads down as they kicked around, but Stuart kept righting himself to breathe. Once when he came up for air, he called out, “Frances.”
I looked up. “What?”
He lifted a hand and waved. “Come in.”
I shook my head.
“I’m fixing lunch,” I yelled, though I was finished.
“Spooky down here,” he called, then lowered his face to the water. I didn’t want to go in—someone needed to stay on the boat, near the life preservers—but I gleaned a certain satisfaction from the invitation. I lay on the gunwale, a boat fender my pillow. The sky was vast and blue, and the site felt lonely and remote. It was a treasure, this sense of isolation. How would we achieve it, if we didn’t rebuild? Many of our friends had bought cabins in the Carolinas, but we didn’t have the money for that, and it wasn’t the same. Over the years, Grady and Gloria had used the house less and less, and rarely stayed overnight; the decision about what to do now would be up to us.
Dennis hauled himself onto the transom, arms shaking with exertion. I brought him a towel and we sat at the stern, eating halves of the same sandwich. “I think we should rebuild,” I said.
He looked at me. “We’ve got ten percent of what we’d need here, at the most.” He stared down the channel, toward the houses that remained. “Let’s let it go. Can we let go?”
It would be only five years before our lease ran out, permanently, no matter what we did. And Dennis had never seemed so certain to me, or so weary, so I didn’t argue. Margo and Stuart climbed aboard, and after we were done eating, we made our way back down the empty channel.
Stuart came downstairs one morning while I was drinking my coffee at the kitchen counter. He said, “Margo would sleep until noon if I let her,” and I said, “Since she was a teenager.” He filled a mug from the carafe and stirred in creamer. The spoon clinked against the sides of the mug. Dennis was in the backyard, shoveling my rose plants—dead, every one of them—into a wheelbarrow. When he bent at the waist, I could see the faint, ridged trail of his spinal column under his T-shirt. Come here, I wanted to say. I wanted to say it all the time, whenever he was more than a room’s width away from me. Come here, sit down.
“Is Dennis OK?” said Stuart. “He seems tired.”
“He is. We all are.”
Stuart nodded. “The house on the water meant a lot to him. To you, too, I imagine.”
“Memories,” I said. I thought of telling him that when Margo was ten she’d spent an entire weekend lying in the stilt house hammock, reading
Oh, let her tell him, I thought.
The night before, in bed, Dennis had remarked that Stuart seemed more self-confident than most short men. The comment struck me as both sensitive and callous—Dennis was tall, and so it seemed indelicate of him to comment on another man’s stature—and I wondered if Dennis was as good a sport as he seemed. We spoke regularly but obliquely of Stuart, the way we would come to speak of the hurricane: by listing each feature, struggling toward perspective. It continued to unsettle me that my daughter had become engaged to a man I’d never met. Did Margo not consider my opinion worth gathering? My mother had met Dennis during our courtship; I hadn’t asked for her blessing, exactly, but I had given her the opportunity to speak her mind. I worried not only that Margo did not want to hear what I had to say on the subject, but that she simply didn’t care. This wasn’t Stuart’s fault, of course, but it felt like it was.
Dennis took the wheelbarrow around the side of the house, and when he returned it was empty. Stuart dumped the remainder of his coffee into the sink and went outside to help.
That night, we lay on top of the sheets, craving breeze, listening to the crickets call up through the window screens, and I remembered that there was something Dennis had forgotten to tell me. “That policeman,” I said, “in the kitchen—what was that all about?”
He sat up and looked at the wall of our bedroom, where moonlight sliced by palm fronds interrupted the darkness. “Oh, Frances,” he said. “The Kleins’ oldest son—he’s missing. No one’s seen him since the day of the hurricane.”
The Kleins lived in the house across the canal. We’d been invited to a barbecue when we’d first moved in, but had scarcely said more than a few words to them since. Every so often we were in our backyard while they were in theirs, and we all waved amicably to each other. Their youngest son was named Ezra, but I wasn’t sure how old he was. Their oldest, Elijah, was at least eighteen, a few years younger than Margo. The night of the storm, Dennis explained, Ilena Klein had thought Elijah was at his father’s office, where he’d been all day. When the telephones had stopped working, she’d assumed that both men were stuck there. David Klein had arrived home alone the next morning; he hadn’t seen Elijah since the previous afternoon. “I didn’t want to tell you,” said Dennis. “I knew you’d be upset.”
I had a distant memory of Elijah jet-skiing down the canal in Bermuda shorts, chubby around the middle like his father. The image dissolved. I would find that my mind wouldn’t focus on Elijah. Instead, he teetered on the edge of my awareness like a slowing top.
We took long drives in the evenings, luxuriating in the car’s air-conditioning and gawking at the devastation: homes stripped of walls and ceilings, lots stripped of homes. But Dennis’s car—the junkier of our two—was running low on gas. We didn’t want to harm mine by driving it through debris-filled streets, and lines at gas stations were a mile long, so we decided to siphon gasoline from my car into his. I stood shading my eyes from the sunlight while Dennis inserted one end of a garden hose into the fuel tank of my car, then took the other end between his lips. He drew a breath and made a face, then moved the hose to his car. A splash of fuel hit the ground. He spat and I handed him a glass of water. “Disgusting,” he said, smiling.
Just then, a harsh and forgotten sound came from inside the house: The telephone! Civilization! The sight of land through desperate binoculars. We ran inside. Margo had the phone to her ear and was writing on the palm of her hand. She said good-bye and hung up.
“Who was it?” said Dennis.
“Penny Morales,” said Margo.
“Who?” said Dennis.
“The woman selling that house in Coconut Grove.” Margo and Stuart had decided to save money by not using an agent—his work paid well enough, but he was just starting out—and this had slowed the house-hunting process considerably, even before the hurricane. They’d called half a dozen home owners before the hurricane had brought down the phone lines. “She’s going to open up for us on Friday,” said Margo.
“We’ll go with you,” said Dennis, who was concerned about Margo’s poker face. He wanted to knock on walls and declare them sound.
Margo yelled upstairs for Stuart. “What?” Stuart called.
“There’s a house!”
Oh, just go up there, I thought.
“A house!” she called again.
Stuart’s steps on the stairs rattled through the kitchen, and he appeared. “Was that the phone?” he said.
“It was that woman from Battersea Road,” said Margo.
He took her in his arms. “Which one was that?”
“The two-bedroom we saw in the paper.”
He swiveled her and she dipped. I looked away. “Excellent,” said Stuart. To Dennis, he said, “No offense, but we’re ready for some solo time.”
“So are we,” I said. I hadn’t intended to say it. Margo and Stuart righted themselves and stepped away from each other. I turned to the sink and opened the faucet, then busied myself washing dishes. Margo and Stuart left the room, and Dennis put his hands on my shoulders. He reached over me to turn off the faucet.
“All right,” he said. “You have to be nicer.”
“She’s my daughter,” I said, thinking: I want someone different for her. Someone taller, smarter, richer, more handsome. Things I never would ask for myself, I want for her.
Dennis turned me to face him. “This isn’t like you,” he said. “You’re generous.”
“I feel stingy.”
“None of it will matter. They’ll stay together or they won’t.”
“You think they’ll break up?”
“Who knows? Either way, you’ll want to know you were fair.”
Dennis was so reasonable, so conscientious. “I’m trying,” I said.
“No, you aren’t,” he said. “You are not trying.”
We set out on foot—this was Stuart’s idea—to meet Penny Morales at her home. We carried mosquito repellent and bottles of water, and upon arrival received a delightful surprise: electricity, that elusive and munificent commodity, had returned to a several-block radius in Coconut Grove, including 4044 Battersea Road. We stood in the living room as the sweat dried on our skin, grinning. Dennis had given Margo and Stuart a little lecture about keeping their opinions to themselves in the presence of the seller, so we did not speak, but I’m sure our faces gave us away: the place was great. An oasis.
It was not, beyond the chill in the air, a remarkable house. The kitchen lacked counter space, there was no room for entertaining, and the closets were small—but the bedrooms were large and the ceilings high. Margo and I walked through the back den, which was flanked on two sides by sliding glass doors, and I saw a shadow of anxiety cross her face—surely she could not choose a house without evaluating its safety, even in a good neighborhood like this one. But then the look was replaced by determination, and she led me away, toward the dining room. There, our attention went immediately to the floor: glossy dark green tiles patterned randomly with dime-size black shapes. Margo checked over her shoulder for Penny Morales. “I love this floor,” she whispered.
I nodded. I loved it, too.
Stuart came in. “What in heaven’s name?” he said, staring down.
“You don’t like it?” whispered Margo.
“It looks like squashed bugs.”
“I think it’s elegant,” she said, and he looked down, reassessing.
Dennis joined us. “She’s out front,” he said in a low voice. It was great fun, this conspiring. “We have a few minutes.”
“How did you get her to leave us alone?” said Margo.
“I asked her to,” said Dennis.
In the kitchen, Margo opened all the cupboards and I watched her, imagining the dinners they would prepare there, stir-fries and omelets and shish kebob: newlywed food, no recipes required. Before we’d added an addition, our first house had looked much like this one, with its particleboard cabinets and cheap windows. We’d supplied charm in small doses, with area rugs and fresh paint.
Stuart opened the sink faucet and out ran a steady stream. He’d told Dennis he knew a lot about commercial real estate, but next to nothing about residential. “What should we be looking for?” he said.
“Well,” said Dennis. He walked to the refrigerator, opened and closed it, then spoke in a hushed voice. “It’s no bigger than the houses around it—in fact, it’s a little smaller. That’s a good thing. You see why?”
“Resale,” said Stuart.
“Right,” said Dennis. “The wiring’s been updated. The water pressure’s good. We’ll check the water heater and hire an inspector. I’d like to see what happens after a heavy rain.”
“What about a hurricane?” I said.
“Good point.” He lowered his voice. “Otherwise,” he said to Stuart, “there’s no telling what will happen until you move in.”
“Honey?” said Stuart. Margo looked at him and they seemed to communicate: What do you think? I like it. Do you? I like it, too.
“I think this is our new house!” said Margo loudly, and Stuart rushed over to cover her mouth with his hand.
We were bystanders, Dennis and I. Within the year, Stuart would help Dennis plant our new rose garden and fix the flashing on the roof and—this took my breath away—drive the boat, navigate the bay. They would camp in the Everglades, something we hadn’t done since Margo was a child, and boat down to the Keys to go fishing. I wonder now if Dennis looked forward to the relationship he would form with this boy, this new incarnation of fatherhood. And I wonder if he was relieved to welcome another man into our lives, someone to whom he might entrust responsibilities. In many ways, they were alike, he and Stuart. They were both curious and unself-conscious and sometimes serious; they both itched with activity. But of the four of us, Dennis and I were the romantic ones. Despite the hasty wedding, Margo and Stuart were more sensible than we’d ever been. One wishes a million things for one’s child, and many wishes are not realized. For Margo, I wished for a man who made magic from ordinary life. Maybe Stuart could have been that man, but Margo—my own daughter, unlike me in as many ways as she was my twin—preferred hard reality to magic.
Dennis and Stuart walked out of the kitchen toward the garage—and as they went, it seemed to me that Dennis’s left foot dragged for a step or two. But in the next moment, the next step, I thought I must have imagined it. Margo was at the oven, turning on each burner to test the flame. “We’ll have an alarm installed,” she said, nodding to herself. “We’ll get the best one there is.”
“It’s a good neighborhood,” I said, but I could see that this was not reassuring. The Williamsburg Village Apartments had been in a good neighborhood. I knew that she believed that in our home she was safe, and really nowhere else.
“Mom?” she said.
“Yes?” I went to the window, where I could watch the men walk to the garage.
I turned toward her. What she wanted to say—I knew it even then—was that she was sorry for keeping her romance with Stuart a secret, for shutting me out of her life and wrenching me back into it, for always doing everything her own way. A flame of irritation rose inside me, and I knew it was Margo—not Stuart—I resented for the secrecy and the bombshell, for rushing me into accepting this next stage of her life. “Then I am, too,” I said.
I excused myself and left the house, and the heat hit me like a cobweb in the face. I wanted to return to the air-conditioning, but I’d been spotted by Penny Morales, who stood on the lawn in a jogging suit, smoking a cigarette. She wore a heavy gold-twist necklace and several rings. She had a sharp patrician nose and high cheekbones and smooth tan skin, and though I thought she wore too much eye makeup, her face was beautiful. She spoke with a heavy Cuban accent. “What do you think?” she said. “Good enough for your daughter?”
“I hate to leave it. Divorce.”
She motioned inside with her cigarette. “They’re newlyweds,” she said. “I can tell. Something is wrong with me—I see a happy couple and I want to tell them to enjoy it while it lasts.” She looked at me. “You probably think I’m a monster.”
“Not at all.” Actually, I’d been wondering what she must have thought of us. I’d met several Cuban ladies at the YMCA, and in their presence I always felt mild-mannered and drab. Miami was more than half Cuban at this point, and yet I could count the Cuban couples in our social circle on one hand.
Dennis emerged from the garage and Stuart and Margo followed. We told Penny Morales we would be in touch, then started walking. Soon the blue dim of evening settled. We followed a winding trail through piled debris. There was citronella in the air, which reminded me that inside the dark houses, whole families lived and breathed, impatient for a time when they could close their windows against the heat. We approached our neighborhood from the south side of the canal, intending to cross the bridge and circle back to the house, but then a ways off we saw that a house on the street behind ours was brightly lighted. When we got closer, we saw that it was the Kleins’. Light spilled from every window onto the lawn, just short of the sidewalk. The sight was as striking in the darkness as a lighthouse seen from the sea. A rapid-cycling motor rumbled from the side yard: generators. They must have spent a fortune.
Through the windows we could see a number of people—detectives, probably, plus some family and friends—milling about in what appeared to be the Kleins’ living room. Ilena Klein sat in an armchair, staring up at a man in a suit who had his hands in his pockets. I couldn’t see his face, but I could tell he was speaking. She lifted a hand to touch her hair, then returned it to her lap. Whatever the man said—an update on the search, perhaps—appeared not to make much difference. The man walked out of the room and Ilena Klein turned to the window. I feared she would see us standing there, but we were cloaked by the night.
“Frances?” Stuart’s voice came out of the darkness behind me. I turned. Stuart stood with his hand under Dennis’s arm as Dennis crouched on the sidewalk on one knee.
“Did you fall?” I said. “Are you OK?”
Dennis opened his mouth. He looked at me but didn’t speak. His eyes were bright and fearful, but his face was blank.
“Oh, my God,” I said.
“Something is wrong,” he said.
“What is it?” I said, but he just stared at me, his blue eyes. “OK,” I said. I helped him stand. “We’ll get a doctor. You’ll be fine.”
“Should I call an ambulance?” said Margo.
“No,” said Dennis.
“It’ll be quicker if we drive ourselves,” said Stuart. I nodded, thinking: ambulance? hospital?
We clustered around Dennis and started to walk, and before we turned the corner I looked over my shoulder at the Kleins’, and I understood that my life was going to change. It was terrifying, that knowledge. I have wondered, in rare, metaphysically inclined moments, if misfortune might be contagious. Perhaps the Kleins’ misfortune overwhelmed their house and spilled out with the light. Perhaps it stole across the canal to my doorstep.
Stuart knocked on our bedroom door a few mornings later. Dennis and I were awake but still in bed. Sunlight saturated the room. Dennis’s hand was on my stomach, his thumb stroking my skin. I find that the lens of memory focuses on him, regardless of what held my attention at the time, the heat or hot flashes or miscellany. “Swimsuits and towels!” called Stuart through the door. “Sunscreen and snorkels!”
The state of Florida had notified us by mail that it would send a demolition crew to raze the stilt house remains—at our expense, of course. We could have fought the decision, but we didn’t. We were adjusting our bearings. It was Stuart’s idea to have a last look around. “You need closure, Frannie,” he’d said to me. He was the only one who had ever called me Frannie, and I’d found I didn’t much mind it. “We’ll just throw anchor and say toodle-oo, old house.”
Again we coasted past the herons on the retaining walls, and Dennis steered through the bay to our spot of land. Stuart stepped over the boat railing and clambered onto the flat top of a piling. He sat there, balancing. “You brought the camera?” he said to me. I nodded. To Dennis, he said, “Back up a bit, would you? I want to see how it feels.”
Dennis shifted into reverse and we drifted away, leaving Stuart to perch over the water. I snapped photos as Stuart posed, arms and legs spread. Dennis cut the engines and stood beside me. He leaned close. “Should we leave him?” he said.
“Yes,” I whispered, but the bile was gone.
Stuart tried to stand but lost his balance and sat down again. “Don’t fall,” called Margo, and Stuart blew her a kiss.
Dennis started the engines and put the boat into gear. When we reached the pilings, Stuart gestured to Dennis. “Your turn,” he said, stepping onto the boat. “It’s surreal.”
“Take the wheel,” said Dennis. Dennis stepped onto the gunwale, using the rail for balance, and my heart seized. I wanted to stop him—what if he fell again?—but I did not. He climbed awkwardly onto the piling and shifted until he was facing us, then sat still with his hands on his knees, his shoulders slumped. I saw the shadow of the boy he’d once been flash across his features, then disappear. Stuart put the engines into reverse, and Dennis, unmoving, grew small.
“What did it feel like?” I said to Stuart.
“Scary,” he said. “Lonely.”
The doctor at the emergency room had referred Dennis to an internist, who’d referred him to a neurologist. We’d scheduled an appointment but it was weeks away. I now think of this period as stolen time, time to which we were not entitled and which we did not appreciate: an interlude. In the interlude, Elijah Klein’s body was found. He’d gone out on the bay with friends, and they’d run out of gas and capsized when the storm hit. The entire crew had drowned. Elijah had been invited at the last minute, apparently, and initially hadn’t been counted among the fatalities. I could not conceive how Ilena Klein would survive, how she would not simply stop breathing.
Also in the interlude, the National Guard left south Florida, the electricity returned, and Margo and Stuart secured a mortgage to buy the house on Battersea Road. They used money my father had left Margo as a down payment, and on the day they closed we brought over champagne and cleaning supplies.
I searched through old photographs to show Stuart the stilt house—but in our photos, there is only a dock under Margo’s feet, a railing behind Dennis’s arm, a doorway framing my face. There was no photo of the house the way I remember it: from a distance, wholly intact. I did not understand, taking those pictures, that history must be collected while the subject exists. If not, what goes unrecorded can fill an ocean.
I do remember, though, the night of hurricane Andrew. Margo and Stuart stayed upstairs in her bedroom and I sat in the living room, watching the local weatherman’s updates on a battery-operated television. It was late and the house was dark. Dennis stood at the French doors, staring out at the backyard and the boat bobbing on the canal. I wasn’t concerned about the boat—if it was damaged in the storm, we would have it fixed; if it tore loose, we would find it, or we would figure out a way to buy another one. I was concerned, though, that debris would strike the glass door and it would shatter, with Dennis standing close enough to see his breath on the glass. “Dennis, please,” I said. “We should be near walls.” Still, I went to stand with him. Between flashes of lightning, the sky was purple-black and inky, more substantive than air and water and wind, as if the storm were its own form of matter. The melaleucas in the backyard bowed, nearing the ground and lifting, bending again. Leaves and twigs swept across the lawn, licking the surface of the swimming pool. A tree branch raced by, and there was a sudden, throaty crack of lightning. I saw the jagged light to the south, but the target—tree or house or other object—was concealed. In quieter moments, the wind relented and the trees righted themselves and the canal stilled. I hoped in these moments that the storm would ease, but then the water rose and lapped the pier again, the wavelets like little soldiers approaching battle on their bellies, and the wind returned, more furious than before.
One moment was quieter and lasted longer than the others. Dennis loosened his grip on me and went to check the news report. The eye of the hurricane—a black center on the radar screen, encircled by speedy strokes of red storm—had found our house. The yard and canal were still; not the stillness of a clear day, but that of a room with no windows, that of a bubble of air trapped underwater.
I knew that when the storm started again, it would be instantaneous, a dropped curtain. Dennis stood several feet away, his eyes on the television, and the promise that he would return to my side tethered us like a mooring line. I felt a calm anticipation, a sensation I recalled from when Margo was an infant, from late nights when she finally fell asleep. The storm would return, but for now the world was quiet. Dennis was not beside me but he was nearby, and this fact filled me with relief so intense that, as the wind started again in the trees, it welled inside me and spilled over, and I cried out for him.