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Another Day in Paradise, Finding Hope in Surreality
Screaming out of the neon jungle of Miami from I-75 to 821 in Homestead, and then onto Route 1, I head into The Keys.
My music is blaring and I know I will make it to the southern-most city in the contiguous United States by early evening. Something about going down to Key West seems symbolic to me. The nearest large city to there is Havana. I haven’t gotten out of town since COVID-19 first locked things down. I still haven’t gotten a haircut.
I’m on my way to visit my mother and stepfather. They used to live in a beautiful yellow shotgun bungalow on Petronia street near Old Town. I haven’t visited in a few years. The drive is oddly emotional. Odd for me, anyway. I didn’t expect to feel sadness.
In the morning, the lilting, sonorous sound of Dawn Penn’s voice waivers through the air, “No, No, No, You don’t love me and I know now…” It lingers in the Florida heat, the reggae backbeat hammering it home like the thrum of a heart. It’s not noon but the temperature in the sun is near 90 degrees already. It’s The Keys—day drinking is acceptable, but the sunlight is blinding enough without an intoxicant.
As a kid, I felt helpless during my parents’ divorce. I knew they loved my sister and me. I knew they were preoccupied with each other’s perceived injustices, whatever they thought they were. My sister and I were simply hit with the cataclysmic waves of emotions they both exuded.
Like the air on my skin, exhaustion clings thick to my mind. I’m struggling to see results from the last year’s efforts to change my life. I feel discouraged despite knowing I’m right. People grow and change. I don’t know who my wife is. There is a faint smell of gardenias, or maybe some other tropical flower.
What’s purposeful, or important? What’s useful? What’s right? Does it actually matter?
My grandfather was a great lover of gadgets—hub cap covers that don’t spin so they could hold advertising, automatic plant waterers for plant owners who want to go on vacation, radios that had emergency beacons and odd bandwidths—little, seemingly useful things. He’d smile broadly as he held and explained them, almost with reverence, imagining what they would bring the world. Imagining how they would change his life. These gadgets brought him hope. The hope was the important part of his gadgets.
I’m not young. I’ve had children and spoken with thousands of people over time. Thousands—it’s been a privilege. It’s a side effect of my various jobs in restaurants, hospitals, prison, and in assorted communities. Change can be rapid or slow and controlling; it is often dubious. I know this.
Purposelessness? When is something purposeless? I think I know it when I see it. I know I feel it when I feel it. It’s both palpable and hollow at the same time.
My past no longer serves the purpose it did—although I am not sure what purpose that was. My children are grown and successful. Having them was a bit of a guide—at least there were things to do and not to do. I’m proud of them.
The last time I was in The Keys, I was with my father, his best friend, and my uncle. We went to visit my sister who was living in the bungalow on Petronia. Coincidently, it was my birthday then, like now.
My father’s grief and my sister’s anger converged, leaving all of us in a strange, drunken haze that evening after joining my sister, who went to watch a little person stripper named Cassie. Key West doesn’t purport to follow the normal conventions of what is generally accepted to be civilized behavior. It’s possible we were all traumatized that evening.
I’m finished with worrying about others, about what is best, and how others will feel. Selfish? Maybe, but it’s not. I still care. I have simply lost interest in worrying. People make choices and take consequences.
I don’t think there is a gadget to help me.
Petronia street terminates at the cemetery. There’s very little shade there. It’s a mixture of burials, above ground cement tombs, and mausoleums. The heat is nauseating, and I can’t remember where my mother and stepfather are exactly. I should have taken a right but had gone forward to the wrong condominium of niches. One of the tombstones along the way says, “I told you I was sick.”
It’s not clear if inaction, the lack of apparent movement, or simply chemistry—likely a combination of them all—provides the sense of constriction that has risen. Could be depression. No movement, for anything alive, is death. Quotable quotes credits WC Fields for saying, “Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.” I’m not sure if I am swimming or a dead fish.
As quickly as moods, emotions, and situations arise, they go. They’re temporary. There’s a greeting in Florida, “Another day in paradise.” It can be said with satisfaction or with a wry irony. Usually, it’s a quick comment about the weather with the tone and timing of the statement denoting an unspoken, underlying experience. It can mean, “all is good.” It can mean, “I can’t begin to tell you all the crap going on.”
There are two seasons here, hot and hotter. Most animals bite, some will make a meal of you, and the insects are generally venomous. There is even a chance that an amoeba will crawl into your nose and eat your brain if the pool you swim in isn’t chemically balanced. Another day in paradise.
I try to think and change directions. The heat lingers in the humidity, a hot, damp blanket wrapping around me. I should have worn a hat, but it still would not have been enough shade. The temperature rises, each step lingers, and my legs feel shackled by the heat.
For brief moments, there is a breeze, and if there is by coincidence, shade, the gentle wind becomes a sonorous, wordless song, a melody, providing a moment of respite. I can move again, less constrained.
Stepping across plots and passing statues of angels, I find my way to mother and stepfather’s resting place. I’m soaked in sweat, dehydrated, dizzy, and burning under the sun. I set the daisies I have been carrying for my mother on the wall beneath her and my stepfather’s name. I open a pack of Camel cigarettes, light two, and set one on the wall for my stepfather. I quit smoking years ago; he never quit but hasn’t had one for years.
I find tears on my face and ignore them. I tell my parents that things have been pretty hard for everyone for the last few years, but the boys are now successful men and I thank them for helping me to be able to help them get there. I realize that perhaps that’s my gadget. Their success gives me hope. It’s another day in paradise.