by Jenna Isherwood
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The house is one of a cluster set up on stilts way down at the swampy bottom of the state, where it seems land and water are vying with each other for their say over the way things are going to be. A truck even older than Kelly’s is parked underneath and the yard is full of old boat engines, fishing tackle and rusty oil drums. You could mistake the place for a junkyard.
‘Jesus Joe, you never going to throw any of this away?’ Kelly leaps out of the jeep and straight into an enormous bear hug.
‘Aw Kel, this is conservation right here.’
He releases Kelly from the hug and holds her out in front of him, looking her up and down like a grandparent would do, even though he must only be a few years older than us at most. He’s not what I imagined—weathered like a seafarer for sure, but with a youthful softness to him. ‘Yeah you’re not looking too bad, Kel. You been taking care of yourself like I told you?’
‘Something like that, Cap’n.’
I’m just standing there smiling in this semi-awkward void before the introductions happen.
‘Caitlin, right?’ Now I feel more certain of myself, guessing that maybe Kelly does actually want me to be here. I put out my hand. ‘Joe. But everyone round here calls me the Cap’n. So Kel tells me you want the manatee tour?’
‘That would be amazing.’
‘Well I can’t guarantee a sighting. No matter what those advertisements say, there ain’t no push buttons on Mother Nature. And those idiots that bring ʼem up to the boats with food, man I could—because that’s how they come to get hit half the time. The manatees think those boats bring food when really they’re just bringing some retired Burger King exec who’s going way too fast to miss an endangered fucking species.’
Now I’m not sure whether these two are judging me for wanting to see this thing or not. On the drive down to Joe’s, Kelly has chided me for being a tourist because I suggested paying for a boat trip, as if her two years in Florida have made her a local. I got the idea of manatee spotting from the dog-eared cartoon sea cow dangling from Kelly’s rear-view mirror, its air-freshening chemicals long-since expended. ‘Hey you know we don’t have to go looking if you guys think—’
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get at you.’ Perhaps now the Cap’n remembers we’ve only just met. ‘I think people should see manatees. They need to know what’s going on under their boats, right?’
‘Damn straight!’ says Kelly, with a salute and a hint of the silly side I remember. ‘Anyway, Caitlin’s been Instagramming photos of those stupid manatee mailboxes already so we need to find something real for her to show the hipsters back home.’
Before I can figure out what Kelly means by this, the Cap’n gets her in a friendly headlock and they tussle together as we head back down to the dock. He is wearing denim cut-offs, his legs brown all the way up to the frayed edges, covered in thick curls of dark hair. His beard extends in a compact wedge down to his chest where an open shirt reveals yet more hair. The actual shape of his face is anyone’s guess and, for all the apparent sharpness of his opinions, the overall effect is of a great big nest of a man—the kind you want to curl up in, who could hold you safe. I wonder about Kelly and him. She looks smaller and bonier, perched alongside him now as he unties the boat from its moorings and we head out into the channel.
‘I’ll take you back up towards the island. Hardly an unspoiled paradise but there’s a good chance we’ll find you a manatee round there.’
He leads us slowly between what seem like hundreds of indistinguishable mangrove islets. It’s a wonder he doesn’t get lost, but you can tell he knows the place. He tells us about shell mounds left by native people, about the way the black, white and red mangroves filter salt water, and about the birds that come and go as the seasons change: the Great Blue Heron, the Snowy Egret, the Roseate Spoonbill. I’ve never been big on this stuff but in his voice and in this place the facts become pictures and stories, making the sun-drenched scene appear brighter still. I relax and time expands. We reach open water and a pelican smashes down just in front of us then emerges into the air, guzzling fish in its beak. Once the bird has moved off, the Cap’n revs the engine. The waves rock us gently and then we start to bounce harder as we pick up speed. It’s too windy to talk now so I stare at the horizon, looking for dolphins, until—after a stretch of time and water—I see white beaches with glistening condos looming up behind them.
The Cap’n slows down and surveys the view. ‘All man made in the fifties and sixties actually.’
‘Yeah. This whole place. It was just swamp, even when my parents were kids. Hard to get your head around.’
Something about the speed and scale of this change—this complete overhaul—grabs hold of me. ‘Totally.’ Sensing my interest, he continues.
‘So, basically, rich dudes spent two hundred years trying to figure out how to drain all the water out of south Florida, and they did get rid of a lot of it, but then some people were like, “Hey what about the ecosystem?” and now it’s all “Save the Everglades!” but really it’s just the same rich dudes carving it all up while pretending to care about the environment.’
He pauses. ‘Sorry, I’m going on too much and you’re on vacation.’
Kelly reaches over and ruffles his beard. ‘You know, I can see you going off on one of those missions where you get in the way of whaling ships even though some guy’s about to harpoon the crap out of you.’
The Cap’n puffs his chest with mock-stoicism and then deflates with a chuckle and a shake of his head. ‘You know I’m way too soft for that. I give it all that but when it comes to actual confrontation—’ he laughs again.
‘Well I sure hope so cos you’re not leaving me here.’
The Cap’n stares hard at Kelly for a few seconds and then looks away at a small boat we’re passing. A guy of around sixteen is steering with his feet, balancing a huge vat of Mountain Dew in his crotch. There are two girls spread out in bronzed glory over the back of the boat. I reach for the sunscreen, my spent-all-summer-in-the-office skin no match for what is now becoming the blazing late-morning sun.
Past the beach, we take a turn down a channel heading into the island. Something about the place seems weird to me. I try to imagine the view when the island wasn’t overwritten with hotels, marinas and luxury homes. But these residences stand in proud defiance of the facts of nature, with their bug-net palaces, air-conditioned throne rooms, heated pools and boat docks dredged out of the swamp. Signs are saying ‘Manatee Area – No Wake!’ and the Cap’n has the boat chugging along at what feels like a near standstill after our race across the bay. He pulls the boat up a few meters away from an empty dock. There is music blaring from the adjacent property and outdoor fans whirring, but nobody seems to be home. He cuts the engine.
Big circular bubbles are forming on the surface of the water about six feet away from us. Kelly and I lean over the edge of the boat, barely breathing. There is a whooof in the water—a snout appears—and then a subsidence. I’m not sure I can believe it. ‘Was that—?’
The Cap’n puts a finger to his lips and we float, watching and waiting. Somewhere underneath is this big, rare thing we all so desperately want to see again. White light hits the surface of the water, turning it into a dazzling sheet of perfect stillness. I realise that I have tears in my eyes and I swipe them away in case Kelly notices. There are no more bubbles but we keep waiting just in case—until a gin-palace of a boat motors up, rupturing our mirror. We all turn and the Cap’n starts waving.
‘Hey! You guys need to slow down. There’s a manatee down here somewhere.’ But the boat keeps coming. A man appears—topless, darkly tanned and about fifty, with a big gold watch glinting in the sun and a tiny cell phone headset in his ear.
‘No, you need to get the hell out of the way of my property.’
The Cap’n looks at us and I am both hoping and fearing that he’ll unleash a righteous lecture on this man. But he seems hurt rather than angry. His shoulders slump and he starts bringing our boat around. The space is tight and we’re now really close to the much bigger motor yacht. For the first time I register the peeling paintwork on our older wooden vessel.
The man is shouting into his phone: ‘And I just said to him, listen—they develop that lot, that’s more people coming in here, more people using stuff, more of a drain on my taxes. You know I can’t get my boat out half the winter already? So many sons of bitches round here.’
‘You gonna have kids?’ The Cap’n says this to us loudly enough for the boater to hear as we glide by. Kelly and I both shrug. ‘Well if you do and if they grow up, sure as hell they ain’t gonna see no manatees.’
Somewhere underneath is the oblivious sea cow—huge, inconvenient and probably doomed.
On the way back I sit facing out the rear of the boat, noticing Kelly stood behind the now silent Cap’n, rubbing his shoulders. I am snoozing, waking on and off to see the line of foam extending behind us. Something about this brings back a memory of Kelly and me, thirteen years old, lying on a beach somewhere in Rhode Island as the tide is coming in. We are giggling while the water tests its way further up past our toes, our knees, between our legs, and up to our armpits. And, as the sand beneath us becomes wetter and our bodies sink further into it, we are holding our breath and spluttering, each waiting to see who will get up first. Then I remember the first burst of sea water that burned its way up my nose and the way my laughter threatened to turn to panic because I never quite knew what Kelly was going to do—whether she would get up with me and dive back into the waves to rinse off the sand and then run back up the beach for showers and dinner, or whether she really just wanted to let the sand keep sucking her down until there was nothing left of her above the water, nothing to show she had ever been there.
Kelly and I are back at her place with a couple of beers in hand, towels binding our hair and the air conditioner chugging in the background. The apartment, you can tell, is still full of Kelly’s mom’s old stuff. Big shells gathering dust. Dried-flower arrangements. I scout the living room for clues about her new life but there isn’t much to go on. I’m telling her about what happened to this guy Drew we used to know who organised house shows and drove bands around the East Coast. Even by normal standards it’s a good story: one day he just upped and left and for a few months no one knew where he was until someone found out he was in India. Kelly says ‘uhuh’ a few times and laughs a bit when I tell her about how he later showed up back in Providence with a huge scar down his head—‘he thinks he got hit by a bus, although the details are sketchy’—but gradually I feel her hold on the conversation loosen and she’s just staring around the walls as if there’s something on her mind that isn’t what may or may not have happened to Drew, or any of those other peripheral folks who populated our world two years ago.
‘You know I’ve been meaning to paint this place since forever. I have ten cans of red paint under my bed.’
‘So now I know why you invited me here all out of the blue.’ I laugh so she’ll see I’m kidding but she turns to me all serious looking and the air seems to go out of the room.
‘I wanted to see you, Cait. It’s been weird not knowing what’s going on with you.’
There it is: the scrap of recognition I’ve been waiting for since arriving. But something holds me back from crushing Kelly in a hug. As kids we used to hug all the time—at home, in the schoolyard—with the full lengths of our skinny little torsos pressed together in long, lingering embraces. So lingering in fact that a teacher told us to stop it else people would get the ‘wrong idea.’ But today there is no hug. She gets up to fetch the paint and brushes and when she comes back I launch into an ill-chosen anecdote about some work conference I went on as we start lifting the lids off cans. I realise once I’ve committed to the story that the punch line has far too much to do with an office in-joke about Carol Reeves, this madly intense woman from Accounts who’s always going after the nerdy young guys. ‘And they’re like totally terrified of her, and me and this kid Kenny who went to Brown and is actually kind of cute if you don’t mind that skinny look, and he does grow a ʼtache sometimes, but anyway, he ends up climbing over like three balconies to get to my room cos Carol’s outside his door at 2 am yowling to come in.’ I might be paranoid, but the crease of Kelly’s forehead seems to tell me she doesn’t want to hear about this person she doesn’t know. This person who’s acting crazy over the same desperate fear of ending up on her own that neither of us wants to talk about. Devoid of any connection between Kelly and Carol, the story just sounds cruel. So my confidence in the telling of it peters out into a silence that reverberates with one brutal question: is this what your life has become?
It used to be I couldn’t have told a story about someone Kelly didn’t know, or at least know about, so entwined were my stories with her own. These days, I tell tales about Kelly and me to anyone who will listen—stories about those nights out where we wound up together with actors or artists or husbands gone astray, where we rode on strangers’ motorbikes, or accepted powders of unknown provenance. It occurs to me that if I pan for my best memories, Kelly is always there, curator of those invincible years of my life, years that passed without the drastic comeuppance promised to those who make ‘bad choices’, years that still retain a shining glow even now that this life we once shared has morphed into something separate and unexceptional. Tonight, I want to gather those years and their stories back up in my arms, and Kelly with them, but it’s already too late to go back to the bubbling moment when I could have hugged her. That moment has gone now and everything has settled.
So we start painting in silence but every now and again we do get talking, circling around the things that I know brought Kelly here: her mom chasing rich retiring men down to Florida, catching and losing them, and then losing her health and winding up alone in an apartment, miles from all the people who might once have cared.
‘It must have been rough when you got here,’ I test.
We paint on past midnight, knocking back way more beers than would realistically allow for clean edges around the window and door frames. ‘We’ll do those bits later,’ Kelly says, painting furiously. On trips to the bathroom as the hours pass, the mirror shows my face coming up redder and redder, leaving me squirming over the outright uncoolness of getting sunburned. The day’s sun plus all the beer and unexpected painting make me sleepy but it feels good to be working on something with Kelly. It’s clear that the new colour clashes awfully with Kelly’s mom’s salmon-pink couch. I decide not to mention this though. And, by the time the apartment’s main room is mostly red, Kelly finally starts filling in some details.
‘The last few months she was at this old folks’ place, cos there was nothing more the doctors could do and I couldn’t do everything she needed here. Joe kept trying to help but I couldn’t let him. It wasn’t his problem.’
‘She must’ve been way younger than everyone else there.’
‘Mmm. And the thing that really used to get me about that place was the signs on the bedroom doors. They were all in the past tense. I’m Marg Muller from Buttcracksville, Illinois. I was a home-maker and enjoyed beading and crochet. Mom wouldn’t have one. Imagine hers! I was a marriage-wrecker from Providence, Rhode Island who enjoyed spending other people’s money and making my children hate each other.
‘Have they been down here, Kyle and Tony?’
‘Not once. Apparently they were too smart to piss away their twenties in fucking Florida.’ Kelly finishes up the last patch over by the front door, pressing hard enough to make the bristles on her brush splay out and leave a scratchy texture on the wall. She steps back to take a look at what we’ve done. ‘This kind of looks like shit doesn’t it?’ I try to gauge whether I’m allowed to agree with this or not. She’s right though. The ragged edges have more than a hint of crime scene about them.
‘You might have to put it back if you want to sell the place.’
‘Guess I didn’t think of that.’ She has a long red streak up her left leg. ‘But I’m here now. And it’s beautiful and weird and mostly full of the kind of people I swear I would never want to become—but how can I go back? There’s nothing for me up there either.’
She’s answered the question I was really trying to ask and now I don’t know what to say. ‘I’m still there.’
‘I know but you’ve got your life now, Cait.’
There are a lot of things I don’t tell her at this moment. On my mind is how I came down here wondering if I’d be able to get my old friend back and maybe get both of us back to where we were before so much space and time got in the way. But the brazen newness of Joe—and his obvious place in Kelly’s life—has made me confront how little else has changed since she left Providence. With all that she’s lost, I can’t find a way of telling her how the passing months seem to have offered me so much more-of-the-same and that, in the end, more-of-the-same starts to feel like less. I don’t tell Kelly about the stinging zap when Kenny from work casually put me and Carol Reeves in the same bracket: ‘You mature ladies are out there,’ he said, giggling on my bed after flopping off the balcony and sharing a flask of bourbon over a selection of the best me-and-Kelly stories.
‘I’m twenty-seven,’ I told him.
I don’t admit to Kelly that I can’t remember the last time I made a new friend; that I catch myself envying the way she’s been forced to make a hard new life for herself down here; that somehow it’s easier for me to imagine her future than mine. I just say, ‘It’s Joe, isn’t it?’
She looks back at me and the expanse of our two years of non-friendship seems to open up again. If my skin wasn’t already burning it would be now. It’s like Kelly can see into my soul but she’s giving nothing back. I’m staring at the surface of the water, wishing for those circular bubbles, but all I can feel is the hot red sun glaring back in my face.
The next day, Kelly gets called in to work at Beachside Breakfast and Lunch. ‘Sorry, it sucks. But hey, I’ll make dinner and we’ll go out for drinks later. Get Joe to come. Call it a going-away party for you.’
I’m annoyed Kelly couldn’t have swung something and maybe she can tell because she strokes my arm and says, ‘Thanks for coming, Caitlin. I mean that.’
It’s only the second time we’ve touched since I arrived but the awkward gesture softens my conflicted feelings into a surprisingly simple sadness. ‘I’m just sorry I didn’t come before.’
‘Don’t sweat it. I don’t blame you. Woulda been a shitty tour guide then anyway.’
She lets me take her jeep and I head out down the Tamiami Trail, the highway that severs the tip off south Florida. Signs for gator wrestling and airboat rides flash by and I swivel my head to try to make them out whilst also taking in the swarming bugs, unfamiliar long-necked birdlife, and regular splotches of road kill. A few miles down the trail there are two hulking great hogs dead on the side of the road and a couple of police vehicles pulled up alongside. I ease off the gas to go by them and then stamp on it again. It’s hard not to see the speed limit as a gauntlet thrown down on this flat, straight racetrack of a road. After a few miles I have to slow down to look out for the road we took yesterday down to Joe’s—an embankment with water on both sides. The Cap’n has offered to take me kayaking while Kelly works. I find him in the yard, moving bits of his debris around. Perhaps there is some system behind this after all.
‘Caitlin.’ He nods a greeting and smiles, setting down a newly coiled length of rope. ‘Someone caught the sun.’ I blush, no doubt deepening the red of yesterday’s gleaming burn across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose. ‘You sure you’re ready for another day in the great outdoors?’
‘Well, it’s my last day here.’
He drags a couple of kayaks out from under the house and I help him hoist them into the back of an old pickup and then lash them down with the rope.
‘I’ll take you down some mangrove tunnels. Less chance of manatees round there but we’ll find you some shade.’ I tell him this sounds great and we head off, travelling back the way I came at first and then turning off and delving deeper into the surrounding swamp. As we go, new shapes and details emerge from the foliage, which is no longer a simple blur of green but a complex palette of light and shade. It occurs to me that we might see alligators today.
‘Gators? For sure.’ He says this in a matter-of-fact way. ‘Money back if not!’ He laughs and I feel dumb about asking him if it’s really OK. ‘They eat fish and birds. You don’t look too much like either of those things, do you?’
‘Trust me. We’ll keep our distance and they won’t bother us.’ I decide to believe he’s right, even though there’s a small part of me that questions why I should. After all, we barely know each other, a fact that seems clearer now on the lonely banks of the swampy river with Kelly waiting tables some miles away.
We get our feet wet climbing into our kayaks. The river is shallow and warm like bathwater, the temperature alone telling me I am a long way from home. I’m nervous but I don’t want to say so. ‘You know I’ve never really done this before.’ At this, I get a short paddling demonstration and then we go. The perfunctory introduction leaves me off-balance but it’s hard to imagine what could have prepared me because the mangrove tunnels are like nowhere I’ve ever been. We enter an enclosed world where ragged trees peer over our heads, their waxy leaves crowding out the light and their roots exposed. As we pass by, these roots come alive with little crabs scrambling up them like anxious tell-tales. I notice glove-sized spiders stringing webs across the tops of the tunnels and try not to flinch as the Cap’n leads me down narrower and narrower channels. Sometimes we have to swipe branches out of our way or lean forward to duck under them. I paddle with tentative half strokes, not wanting to get too close to the silty banks and the roots reaching out from them like skeletal hands, grasping.
Even so, in this cocoon of strangeness, I find myself sinking under a very mundane sense of foreboding. Perhaps I’m feeling nervous about going home to the empty apartment; about the pile of work waiting on my desk at the office; about facing the inbox festering with emails. Or perhaps there really is something else lurking in these creepy tunnels. A mosquito bites me and I steel myself and resist the urge to rub and scratch. I want to catch up with the Cap’n and for him to start a conversation that will shake this gloom. He looks top-heavy in the tiny kayak but he propels himself forward with smooth, firm strokes, introducing his paddle to the water with barely any splash. I resent his apparent ease of movement, the way he seems able to rise above the challenges of this wetland journey—the heat, the water, the bugs—and the way he seems to belong to this place. It’s boiling hot but I don’t want to stop for a drink in case I lose him. So, I focus on his broad back, in particular the upturned triangle of sweat pointing down his green T-shirt, and pull hard on my paddle. At first it’s a struggle to keep the kayak in a straight line but soon my balance readjusts to the increased effort. Little-used muscles in my arms and shoulders seem to wake, yawn and protest, but I start to gain on him.
‘Y’alright back there, Caitlin?’
‘Think so.’ I’m puffing hard and relieved to notice him pulling into a narrow but sandy inlet.
‘Only think so? That’s no good.’
I glide up onto the sand and lift my feet out either side of the kayak. Once again I am surprised at the warmth of the water. Bracing myself, I try to stand but my legs give out in a rebellious wobble and I sit back down with a little splash.
‘Here.’ The Cap’n has already dragged his kayak further up the beach and started emptying drinks and snacks out of his dry bag. Now he walks over and steps into the water astride the front of my boat. He holds out his arms.
Safely ashore, I lay back on the sand, balancing my hat over my burned face to shield it. ‘You okay?’ I ask him. I’ve been expecting a continuation of yesterday’s wildlife tour but my guide has been unforthcoming.
‘Yeah. Sorry. I’m still kind of annoyed how much I let that douchebag yesterday get to me.’
‘He was a douchebag.’
‘I know!’ Even though I can’t see through my hat, I can sense he’s sat up and facing me now, more attentive. ‘And do you ever get that thing where you just keep going over and over something in your mind, coming up with all the stuff you wish you’d said, even though you know it’s not worth it?’
‘Just going along having a fantasy argument with a fucking millionaire retiree from god-knows-where. Pathetic.’
It strikes me as funny that we’ve both been paddling through the tunnels in our own anxious little worlds but when the relief seeps out of me in a sudden cackle I don’t tell the Cap’n why I’m laughing. He hands me some kind of salty corn snack and tells me to reapply my sunscreen. I am grateful for his concern and ask him to get the backs of my shoulders for me. He agrees and the rolling motion of his hands on my skin makes me shiver a little despite the heat. A heron takes off from somewhere in the thickets behind us.
‘That’s good. My shoulders were starting to seize up from the paddling.’
He stops now and puts the lid back on the bottle of cream. ‘You should get Kelly to give you a proper massage when you get back to her place.’ My blank face must help him spot that I’m missing a connection here. ‘Cos, you know she’s saving up to train for her certificate and get herself out of that restaurant? I said I’d lend her the money up front but she wouldn’t have it.’
‘Yeah, she told me that,’ I lie, wondering again how much more there is that I don’t know about.
Inside the house on stilts, the air is close even though the windows are all open. The interior is wooden like we're in a tree house. I notice the smell of sweat, awful and delicious at once. There is no air conditioning.
‘Me being pig headed, really. I just feel that if we wanna live in these places we should live in them as they are, not just blasting fake air in our faces all day.’
He’s only wearing cut-offs now. I study the frayed edges, trying to work out if they’re the same ones as yesterday, without thinking where I’m looking.
‘That was a decent bit of paddling you did there, Caitlin—for a rooky anyways.’ He brings over iced teas and we sit on the couch, condensation from the glasses dripping down onto our bare legs. I set my glass down and notice that he watches my hands as I wipe the drips away from my lap. It feels important to keep talking. ‘I guess I never knew there was so much going on in a swamp.’ He seems to think long and hard about this. I like this about him; he makes you feel like he recognizes some deep insight in what you’re saying, even if you don’t see it yourself.
‘People think of swamps as stagnant places, but this one moves—just real slow.’
I reach down to a newly erupting bug bite on my ankle, giving in and scratching it. I catch him following my hands again and look up so he can see that I’ve noticed.
‘Scratching makes ʼem worse.’
‘I know. Take my mind off it, please.’
To oblige, he starts telling me about the guys who built the Tamiami Trail in the 1920s. ‘Got to have been one of the worst jobs in the world. Ten-hour shifts, feet in the swamp all day, swarms of mosquitos, hundred-degree heat. It was some achievement, you have to admit.’ As he talks, I stretch my arms above my head, catching one elbow with the opposite hand and flexing against the mounting tightness from today’s exertions. ‘Of course it’s an ecological nightmare now, cos the flow of the water downstate is—.’ He stops so I look straight at him to show I’m still listening, but he suddenly looks lost, as if confronting the sheer futility of his concern. I imagine curling myself around him, teasing my fingers thorough his hair, telling him it’s going to be OK. He takes a sip from his iced tea and then my hands take his glass and set it down on the floor by his feet. As I lift myself back up I lean towards him and swing over so I’m kneeling in his lap. I quickly find his lips in the small gap amongst the hair on his face. He feels warm and moist with sweat and I feel a hopeful stirring as I try to burrow myself in further. But soon there are two big hands flat on my face, pushing me away. Not harshly, not roughly, but with a firm and deliberate pressure. For a moment we hold this pose: me pivoting forward into his open palms. The heat is weighing down on us and I am trying to choose my words, but really there is only one:
There’s a long silence, open yet unrevealing like the ocean. Unknown birds squawk outside. When he finally speaks he is still holding my face and I feel the slightest stroke of his thumb against my cheek. My sunburn is raging.
‘She’s been through a lot these last few years.’
‘I figured. I mean, I never heard from her. And I really wanted to, really want to—’
‘Be there for her?’
He lets his hands slide from my face and folds me to him. My mouth is pressed against his shoulder and I taste salt from his sweat and my tears mingling with it. Everything and nothing is making sense. This place is not mine and I am so far from home, and yet here is what it would mean to feel welcome and understood. I feel the possibility of just being as we are, together. I feel it now, all over the tingling surface of my skin. But there is still a nagging buzz inside my stomach, which is rooted to a dull, aching truth: there is no future for me here.
When I’m ready to let go, I roll sideways onto the couch. He stands up, readjusts his cut-off shorts and shakes his head, as if trying to dispel the threat of a smile.
‘And there was me thinking you just wanted to see a damned manatee.’
I drive back down the trail to meet Kelly after she gets off work, remembering that we’re going to the bars so I can drink cocktails out of a pineapple ‘like a tourist.’ Kelly is probably phoning Joe to ask if he’s still coming like we said. Now I’m pushing the jeep until it starts to judder. Before I scoured the landscape for every new detail but now I just focus on the rolling gray triangle of the road ahead with its conveyor belts of green passing by either side. The day is ending and the bugs are billowing and splatting onto the windshield. Those that had been freshly fed leave flecks of blood on the glass and I smear it all away with the wipers and try to find the button for the washer fluid and a way to explain what I have done.
Kelly is painting her toenails in her red living room when I get back. It feels like I’m stepping into a little box of rage. She laughs. ‘You look like hell.’
‘The Cap’n sure put me through my paces.’
I hide in the shower for the longest time, turning the tap colder and colder. When I get out, Kelly lunges for the door like she couldn’t have hollered at me to hurry up. Or like we haven’t peed in front of each other a million times before.
‘Joe called,’ she says when she re-emerges. I haven’t seen her wear make up the whole time but now she has streaks of metallic green across her eyelids. They flicker like the wings of a tropical bird when she blinks. ‘Sounds like you guys had quite a day.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Oh, just that you might be in need of my massage skills.’ Her eyes sparkle at me.
Kelly leads me to her bedroom and soon has me lying down on her bed. My face is nesting between two pillows that smell like her favourite shampoo. I breathe in this old familiarity, holding onto my secret bit of knowledge about Kelly’s brand-loyalty like it’s a small and unexpected gift. She is running her hands down my back, finding these little knots of tension and pressing them, coaxing them towards some kind of undoing, some kind of release. At first I resist—the pressure is almost painful and I’m not sure if Kelly is doing it right—but gradually I yield to her hands. My simple, physical weariness is wrapping itself around my other worries, making them feel distant and surmountable. I am sinking down and down, losing myself in sand and water, and I have no idea how much time goes by before Kelly finally pulls me up for air.
Lou’s Lagoon looks out from a nondescript strip mall but inside we’re supposed to believe it’s a Polynesian paradise. The Cap’n is already nursing a beer at the bar, looking out of place among the perma-tanned old people, murals of grass-skirted topless women and no-way-authentic woodcarvings. He seems a little down when he says hello and tells us we look nice, but then Kelly starts telling him off for wearing me out and he says, ‘Caitlin can give as good as she gets.’ My stomach muscles wobble. ‘Let’s go sit outside on the deck,’ he says. ‘It’s ridiculous in here.’
The bar backs on to a jetty, which is dotted with little thatched huts. Around the bay you can see new houses guarding their bits of the shore and a few vacant lots still shaggy with mangroves. Joe is speculating about the history of twentieth-century American Tiki-culture or something while Kelly is pretending to yawn.
‘Dude you know we can just look this stuff up on Wikipedia.’
Actually it is kind of interesting but I notice he’s not really looking at me. He’s opposite Kelly, with me off to her side. For a while, my seat’s as good as empty and their words slip by me. I’m already packing up my memories of this trip—have been the whole time, I realise. But slowly the Cap’n and Kelly welcome me back into conversations swelled by rounds of drinks that are sweet and heady—all going down oh-so-easy, like the old days. When Kelly goes inside for more cocktails, Joe and I just sit staring at the ocean, watching the sun sliding down towards the horizon. I realise we’re surveying it all without really needing to talk—like we’ve found a comfortable place, like it used to be with Kelly and me. ‘Dolphins,’ he finally says, with a motion to my right. I shiver and breathe deeply in and out. Somehow the world seems bigger and more beautiful, with no explanation needed or possible.
‘Cap’n, finish that or you’ll get left behind,’ Kelly shouts on her weaving way back from the bar. She’s wedged three of something blue with umbrellas in the triangle of her fingers.
‘You know I don’t drink that stuff.’
‘Tonight you do. It’s a special occasion.’
The cocktail glass looks tiny in Joe’s massive hand. Kelly and I notice together and laugh. He sways. ‘You two are killing me.’
Kelly wobbles then raises her glass. ‘To stuff that actually matters!’ We find each other’s eyes as we toast.
‘Like goddamn manatees!’ The Cap’n downs his cocktail in one. ‘Now will someone please get me another beer?’
‘I’ll go.’ The ground seems a long way from my stool and I reach out to steady myself. My hand finds Joe’s leg, near the hem of his shorts.
‘Easy now,’ warns Kelly as Joe shifts and I take careful steps away towards the bar. Inside, the AC slaps me to attention. There are other people in the room for sure but in my memory there is only one: the tanned man from the expensive boat, still wearing that giant nugget of a watch. The man who didn’t care about our manatee. There he is, with two kids on their phones, a boy and a girl, and a wife in silvery-grey linen, all of them sleek and bored-looking. He’s talking to the greeter at the door who is obliged to laugh at his joke as she’s leading him to the restaurant area on the deck. From the bar I can see Kelly and Joe outside. They’ve seen. Joe looks hunched. Kelly is ruffling his beard again. I am desperate to get back so just order three bottles of beer and ferry them over as quick as I can.
‘Don’t,’ Joe says to Kelly, half smiling but unsettled. Kelly is staring the man out but he hasn’t realised yet.
‘Caitlin, help me out here.’ She doesn’t break her stare. This was an old trick of ours, weirding out guys who’d wronged us in the bars of Providence.
‘Kelly,’ says Joe. ‘No.’
I’m being forced to choose here and this time it’s Kelly who has my loyalty. I shunt my stool alongside hers so our thighs are touching and she leans into me.
‘Whoever looks away first gets the next round.’
‘Deal.’ We have a thing going on now. An Important Plan: a mission to avenge the humiliation of our friend—no matter he wants nothing to do with it. Soon enough the man catches my eye. Then Kelly’s. Then goes back to his breadsticks. Joe can’t help but look over as well.
'Seriously you two.'
The son, whose back is to us, turns round to see what his dad’s looking at. We keep staring, almost cheek-to-cheek, and now the sleek wife turns around too. Kelly does a big sleepy stretch, rolling her shoulders, licking her lips. The wife looks agitated and now it’s too much. I crack into giggles and put my head in my hands. ‘You win.’
But Kelly isn’t finished yet. She downs her beer in one, angling her head awkwardly to the side to keep her eyes on the man. Finally she slams the bottle down and turns away.
‘Your round, Cap’n.’
Joe’s path to the bar leads close to the restaurant area and we watch as the man stands up to intercept him, as if nothing can stop the tidal pull of their meeting. We can’t hear what they’re saying but people are starting to look. Ripples are going out. Servers are floating nearby. We pick up our bags and circle towards the commotion.
'Let me tell you something—'
‘No, you can’t tell me a damn thing!’
Someone who looks like a manager is advancing across the deck in collared shirt and chinos. Joe is raising his voice:
‘That house of yours is gonna be underwater by the time your kids—’
We gather the Cap’n in our arms and steer him away as he paddles against us.
‘The hell you know about my kids?’ The man shouts across the deck and the manager watches us leave.
But the night goes on and there are more bars and more drinks of more colours and tastes and more talk of the way things are or should be. So Joe rides out his sulk and forgives Kelly and me and hugs us both and says ‘You two are killing me’ again. And his hug kills me a little too and I come back to thinking about how things were with Kelly and me and how they probably won’t be again. And my mind swoops over these hazy changes, which start to loom more and more heavily in the background until we find ourselves back on Kelly’s couch—Joe at one end, then Kelly, then me—all leaning in, giggling quietly, a lot at first, then less, then not at all.
‘He’s asleep. Come with me.’
Somehow I now have my head against the window of the jeep, which is making my slurred words vibrate: ‘You should not be driving right now.’
‘I know.’ Kelly looks decisive. She looks beautiful. ‘It can’t be far. Just trying to figure out where to—’
We swerve off the main drag then swerve a few more times for good measure.
‘Jesus Kelly! Where are you taking me? Why are you—?’
I jolt forward. We’ve stopped. Outside, the night-time bug world is screaming but the houses are quiet. It’s an exclusive street, newly developed with properties perched like plastic shells, empty and luminous with uplighters. We’re somewhere inside the island’s network of man-made channels leading out to the bay. On the lawn straight in front of us is one of those manatee mailboxes I was photographing when I first arrived. A mother and her calf stood unnaturally to attention, cradling the box in their plastic flippers as if presenting a gift. I lose sight of Kelly as she darts down the side of the house towards the water behind. But before I can follow her, she’s here again, running round to the back of the jeep.
‘This is it! Quick!’
‘Wait, this is where?’
My vision is swirly and it seems Kelly has got something out of the trunk and is now leaping over onto the lawn. I stumble after her, ending up on my knees in the prickly grass. I look up to see a wave of red hitting the manatees, dripping down over their goofy faces. It’s horrific and wonderful. Kelly hurls an empty can at the house and it bounces off the first set of columns before hitting the front door. I shriek. Kelly is punching the air, reaching up into the sky. I crawl towards her and she pulls me up. We stagger. She grabs my head with both hands and we stare. At the manatees. At each other. Our breaths fall in sync as they slow. She is glistening, alive, holding me in a delicate bubble of time before something else has to happen.
Jenna Isherwood is a writer based in Leeds where, amongst other things, she is a co-organizer of the writers’ night, Fictions of Every Kind. Some time ago she studied literature at University of Leeds and Bowling Green State University.
jennaisherwood.wordpress.com . Follow her on Twitter @JennaIsherwooo
Bob Miller is an American photographer. View more of his work on Flickr.