People of the Glades
Save every bit of thread.
Have you a little chest to put the Alive in?
(Emily Dickinson letter 233 to Thomas Higginson)
—Anne Carson,Sumptuous Destitution
My grandmother told me not to jump into the bay because it was too shallow. I wouldn’t have gone in anyhow—I’m terrified of the water. Also, I hate the name. Chesapeake. It’s a perpetual grey color, like skin on a rotting body, pallid and ashy. Even on sunny days, the water looks dark and rough. Also, the bay is full of jellyfish. They float by, tangling each other with their tentacles; their bodies pulsing like huge muscles, like a heartbeat. Once, my brother pulled one from the water with a stick. When we brought it to the surface, it was the size of my fist, with tentacles like knotted dreadlocks. Setting it on the wooden deck, we thought it would flop around like a fish. It didn’t. He called it Seviche. We weren’t sure if it was dead and we were both afraid to touch it, afraid of the sting. He dared me to throw it back in. I told him he should, because, Jesus Christ, he was the one who pulled it out, anyhow. He said he was afraid of being stung. I didn’t tell him that I was, too. I suggested he kick it in, gently, so he didn’t step on it. He said he was worried about squashing it, and that I should do it because I have smaller feet. And what if it got wrapped up in its own tentacles and strangled to death? I said that jellyfish can’t breathe, but even as I said it, I wasn’t sure. We decided to leave it there, on the deck. The next morning it was there, shriveled, like an old plum. I picked it up, cupping it in my hands, to throw it back in. I felt a quick, sharp jolt as its tentacles brushed my fingertips. Still, I was happy to be on vacation. The novelty of this place was still pleasant. Chesapeake. Each time I said it, it rolled off my tongue like a curling wave.
In Florida, we live by the Everglades. I used to hate the Everglades, appalled by the lack of romance and glamour. How Sawgrass can grow to be ten feet tall and is razor sharp. You can kill someone with that. Slash right through the nothing flesh of their neck. On weekends my grandfather would take me for kayak excursions or trail hikes. Each time I’d walk along the stony paths with him, I would put my right foot down, slowly, to make sure that I wasn’t stepping into quicksand. Heel, toe. Heel, toe.
Once, I saw a snake eating a frog, the two hind-legs perpendicular, sticking from the snake’s jaw. Then, I read that Indian bones and shipwrecked Spanish treasure were buried in the Everglades. Indians had lived there for thousands of years until the Spanish came and made them move onto reservations. Before the Spanish came, they ate shellfish and turtles, crafted dug-out canoes from giant trees. They used seashells for hammers, and fishhooks, knives, and drinking cups. Then the Spanish came and used the same seashells to build forts along the cost, to protect themselves from the Indians. Ponce de Leon came searching for the fountain of youth in the Everglades. Instead, he found over ten-thousand islands, long-haired natives, and sugarcane. Then, he was killed by a native’s arrow, poisoned with the sap of a Manchineel tree. Even with all of the old bones buried under the weedy paths, the Everglades still smell like dust and eucalyptus.
This one family of Indians started a business on their little plot of land, called Jonnie’s Swamp Safari. You pay thirty-five bucks and they take you out on a rusty air-boat, in circles around their two dinky islands. Then, they take you back to the main island where they have a rotting wood amphitheater with twenty bench seats. Jonnie’s daughter brings out a rabbit and a snake, and she lets you pet them. After the show, you can buy popcorn and alligator shaped lollypops at the gift-shop. A one-legged dog hobbles around the property. When we ate our lunch, packed turkey sandwiches on white bread, I fed the dog my turkey. He nibbled at it, then stumbled away, lethargic.
There are two cages of show-animals, sunk into the mud. In one cage, some dusty birds peck at themselves, picking pebbles and twigs from behind their wings. Their thick black tongues loll against their beaks. In another cage, the alligators lay in the mud. I went to the safari with my seventh grade class. Some of the boys threw their popcorn at the caged alligators, and were disappointed when they did not move. We expected them all to rise up on their clawed feet. We wanted them to try to bite at us through the cage with their jaundiced teeth. If I didn’t see their scaled stomachs inflate, I would have thought that they were dead.
Maybe I am too much like Emma Bovary. I always want to find the romance in places. I imagine myself too often in love with people who won’t have me. I’m sick of where I am and where I am not. On a transcontinental flight, I watched a documentary on India. When people die there, their bodies are thrown into the Ganges. This terrified me, but when their bodies were thrown into the water, they were wrapped in the most beautiful multicolored fabrics. As the stiff bodies fell into the river, the fabrics bloomed about them like camellias. Then, the tide carried them off and the documentary ended.
My grandmother used to sew me dresses out of different patterned fabrics. On Christmas, it was a reindeer pattern. On Easter, one with long-eared rabbits. There is a family portrait hanging in my parent’s den where I am wearing an itchy plaid dress puffed with tulle. For my seventh birthday, she bought me a sewing canvas with a huge fat cat. I tried a few stitches, pricked my finger, and gave up, burying the canvas under my bed, as if I was humiliated by it. For weeks, I couldn’t sleep, dreaming of the unfinished cat under my bed. I half expected it to grow claws and attack me in my sleep, digging its paws and teeth into my wrist, like Pet Semetary. At night, I would stare at the popcorn ceilings, watch the night-light flicker, listen to my father watching television downstairs. Then, just as I was falling asleep, I’d hear him sneak up the stairs, open my door, and gently turn on the fan. Minutes later, after I heard him tumble into bed, I’d scramble out of bed, turn off the fan, and fixate on the unfinished sewn cat under my bed.
Then, I cut my hair, read some Proust and moved out of the swamplands. I think back to the days when I would sweat through cotton t-shirts, sip Yoohoo from the bottle, pick ants from my calves, lay on the dry dead grasses and think of the romances I wanted, or maybe had. How maybe the Everglades were flooded with love. Sitting on a bench by the river, I remembered them—none native to the glades, but all born from it, sewed indelibly into its fabric.
Jonah used to make beaded bracelets during recess, when the other boys weren’t watching. Once, he spilled his beads in the sand. There were hundreds of them, small, like salmon eggs. I spent an hour sifting the sand through my fingers like a sieve, collecting each one. When I showed him how I had collected them, each one, cupped in my palm, he knocked them out of my hands and said that beads were for girls and queers.
Ferran and I sat on the hood of his car, a mile from the Everglades, and watched the lightning strike. I called it heat-lightening. He said that all lightning is heat-lightning, and then began to explain physics to me.
Ezra broke his arm in my back yard, jumping over a garden snake. Later, when he told me that he was gay, I wondered if either the snake or the broken arm had anything to do with it. His eyes were the color of an ibis.
Yael was delicate, like a heron or an egret. His mother taught piano and yelled at her students, andante! Andante!
Ollie and I slow-danced at his pool-party. He smelled like sweat and nervously inched his fingers around my waist, then after the song ended, excused himself to go to the bathroom and ran all the way home.
Jack would wink at me each time he made a vulgar comment.
Jeff buried me in sand and kissed my eyelashes before kissing my best friend on the mouth.
Judd taught me how to roll a joint and we sat together in a hammock as he smoked and told me stories about his friends who had died.
Greg had hair the color of loam. He said that he was a Communist and told me a joke about Trotsky, but I can’t remember the punch-line.
Matt first kissed me, and relieved, sighed that he was absolutely, definitely, unquestionably, surely, certainly, assuredly, positively, gay. Then he gently kissed my hand, and left my room. I wondered if maybe it was my fault that both he and Ezra were gay.
Dan said he liked to practice karate while in the muddy water because it made him feel weightless. When we walked across a footbridge one night, he pretended to push me in, and I was frightened.
Perry and I kissed while drunk and never spoke about it again.
Emerson was always nostalgic for experiences she never had, and would write moralistic journal entries about feminism and xenophobia.
Tom was afraid of the water so he stayed in his room all of the time. When I went over we’d watch movie trailers until I got bored and would make up a lie about family coming over for dinner. When I left his stale room, I breathed heavily, smelling the salty humidity.
Denny squashed a mosquito on my upper arm and I thought that I had cut myself. Then, he enlisted to go fight in Afghanistan and never sent postcards.
Alex got married to a woman with just as many freckles as I have, and I don’t think he ever knew that I loved him.
Michael slept with the journalism teacher in our high school, and he told me that he took her to a lover’s lane on Glades Road. I said, “I thought those only exist in movies and the 1950’s.”
Oz and I kissed in his grandparent’s shed, and heard an alligator floating to the surface of the lake behind his house.
Julian wrote music in the swamps and went to music festivals like Swampfest, where he shared a tent with a lesbian whom I had taken a literature course with. She had short black hair and a tattoo of a mermaid on her back. He said that at night, she and her girlfriend, an older Asian woman, would lie in each other’s arms and cry.
Pete told me that Judas really did love Jesus as we drank vodka cranberries.
Now, I am too nostalgic for the moments all lived through the people of the glades. This river is not enough, or too much. Sometimes, I feel like my heart is going to desiccate and crumple inside of my chest, and I won’t be able to stop it—like a stone, it will sink in the dark muddy waters of the Everglades, and I won’t be able to find it. I want to go back, back to the moment before the stone makes the water ripple, before its smooth tip crests under the water. Not to the place as I remember it, but to how it was a hundred years ago. Hanging mosses and ivies, thorny strangler vines, a Spoonbill whooping as Redfish nosedive into the waters. Back to when the bones were not buried, but still carving hollow canoes, floating down the waters like blue fabrics, alive, alive, alive.