Read Florida Online

Authors: Lauren Groff

Florida (7 page)

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The rain increased until it was loud and still my sweaty children slept. I thought of the waves of sleep rushing through their brains, washing out the tiny unimportant flotsam of today so that tomorrow's heavier truths could wash in. There was a nice solidity to the rain's pounding on the roof, as if the noise were a barrier that nothing could enter, a stay against the looming night.

I tried to bring back the poems of my youth, and could not remember more than a few floating lines, which I put together into a strange, sad poem, Blake and Dickinson and Frost and Milton and Sexton, a tag-sale poem in clammy meter that nonetheless came alive and held my hand for a little while.

Then the rain diminished until all that was left were
scattered clicks from the drops drifting off the pines. The batteries of one lantern went out and the light from the remaining lantern was sparse and thwarted. I could hardly see my hand or the shadow it made on the wall when I held it up. This lantern was my sister; at any moment it, too, could go dark. I feasted my eyes on the cabin, which in the oncoming black had turned into a place made of gold, but the shadows seemed too thick now, fizzy at the edges, and they moved when I shifted my eyes away from them. It felt safer to look at the cheeks of my sleeping children, creamy as cheeses.

It was elegiac, that last hour or so of light, and I tried to push my love for my sons into them where their bodies were touching my own skin.

The wind rose again and it had personality; it was in a sharpish, meanish mood. It rubbed itself against the little cabin and played at the corners and broke sticks off the trees and tossed them at the roof so they jigged down like creatures with strange and scrabbling claws. The wind rustled its endless body against the door.

Everything depended on my staying still, but my skin was stuffed with itches. Something terrible in me, the darkest thing, wanted to slam my own head back against the headboard. I imagined it over and over, the sharp backward crack, and the wash and spill of peace.

I counted slow breaths and was not calm by two hundred; I counted to a thousand.

The lantern flicked itself out and the dark poured in.

The moon rose in the skylight and backed itself across the black.

When it was gone and I was alone again, I felt the disassociation, a physical shifting, as if the best of me were detaching from my body and sitting down a few feet distant. It was a great relief.

For a few moments, there was a sense of mutual watching, a wait for something definitive, though nothing definitive came, and then the bodiless me stood and circled the cabin. The dog shifted and gave a soft whine through her nose, although she remained asleep. The floors were cool underfoot. My head brushed the beams, though they were ten feet up. Where my body and those of my two sons lay together was a black and pulsing mass, a hole of light.

I passed outside. The path was pale dirt and filled with sandspurs and was cold and wet after the rain. The great drops from the tree branches left a pine taste in me. The forest was not dark, because darkness has nothing to do with the forest—the forest is made of life, of light—but the trees moved with wind and subtle creatures. I wasn't in any single place. I was with the raccoons of the rooftop that were now down fiddling with the bicycle lock on the garbage can at the end of the road, with the red-winged hawk chicks breathing alone in the nest, with the armadillo forcing its armored body through the brush. I hadn't realized that I'd lost my sense of smell until it returned
hungrily now; I could smell the worms tracing their paths under the pine needles and the mold breathing out new spores, shaken alive by the rain.

I was vigilant, moving softly in the underbrush, and the palmettos' nails scraped down my body.

The cabin was not visible, but it was present, a sore at my side, a feeling of density and airlessness. I couldn't go away from it, I couldn't return, I could only circle the cabin and circle it. With each circle, a terrible, stinging anguish built in me and I had to move faster and faster, each pass bringing up ever more wildness. What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you. It cannot see you; it has always been blind to the human and the things we do to stave it off, the taxonomies, the cleaning, the arranging, the ordering. Even this cabin with its perfectly considered angles, its veins of pipes and wires, was barely more stable than the rake marks we made in the dust that morning, which time had already scrubbed away.

The self in the woods ran and ran, but the running couldn't hold off the slow shift. A low mist rose from the ground and gradually came clearer. The first birds sent their questions into the chilly air. The sky developed its blue. The sun emerged.

The drawing back was gradual. My older son opened his brown eyes and saw me sitting above him.

You look terrible, he said, patting my face, and my hearing was only half underwater now.

My head ached, so I held my mouth shut and smiled with my eyes and he padded off to the kitchen and came back with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, with a set of Uno cards, with cold coffee from yesterday's pot for the low and constant thunder of my headache, with the dog whom he'd let out and then fed all by himself.

I watched him. He gleamed. My little son woke but didn't get up, as if his face were attached to my shoulder by the skin. He was rubbing one unbloodied lock of my hair on his lips, the way he did after he nursed when he was a baby.

My boys were not unhappy. I was usually a preoccupied mother, short with them, busy, working, until I burst into fun, then went back to my hole of work; now I could only sit with them, talk to them. I could not even read. They were gentle with me, reminded me of a golden retriever I'd grown up with, a dog with a mouth so soft she would go down to the lake and steal ducklings and hold them intact on her tongue for hours until we noticed her sitting unusually erect in the corner, looking sly. My boys were like their father; they would one day be men who would take care of the people they loved.

I closed my eyes as the boys played game after game after game of Uno.

Noon arrived, noon left, and my husband did not come.

At one point, something passed across the woods outside like a shudder, and everything went quiet, and the boys and the dog all looked at me and their faces were like pale birds taking flight, but my hearing had mercifully shut off whatever had occasioned such swift terror over all creatures of the earth, save me.

When we heard the car from afar at four in the afternoon, the boys jumped up. They burst out of the cabin, leaving the door wide open to the blazing light that hurt my eyes. I heard their father's voice, and then his footsteps, and he was running, and behind him the boys were running, the dog was running. Here were my husband's feet on the dirt drive. Here were his feet heavy on the porch.

For a half breath, I would have vanished myself. I was everything we had fretted about, this passive Queen of Chaos with her bloody duct-tape crown. My husband filled the door. He is a man born to fill doors. I shut my eyes. When I opened them, he was enormous above me. In his face was a thing that made me go quiet inside, made a long, slow sizzle creep up my arms from the fingertips, because the thing I read in his face was the worst, it was fear, and it was vast, it was elemental, like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.

EYEWALL

It began with the chickens. They were Rhode Island Reds and I'd raised them from chicks. Though I called until my voice gave out, they'd huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing. Fine, you ungrateful turds! I'd said before abandoning them to the storm. I stood in the kitchen at the one window I'd left unboarded and watched the hurricane's bruise spreading in the west. I felt the chickens' fear rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers.

We waited. The weatherman on the television repeated the swirl of the hurricane with his body like a valiant but inept mime. All the other creatures of the earth flattened themselves, dug in. I stood in my window watching, a captain at the wheel, as the first gust filled the oaks on the far side of the lake and raced across the water. It shivered my lawn, my garden, sent the unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells. And then the wind
smacked the house. Bring it on! I shouted. Or, just maybe, this is another thing in my absurd life that I whispered.

—

At first, though, little happened. The lake goosebumped; I might have been looking at the sensitive flesh of an enormous lizard. The swing in the oak made larger arcs over the water. The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance.

The wine I had been drinking was very good. I opened another bottle. It had been left in a special cooler in the butler's pantry that had been designed to replicate precisely the earthy damp of the
caves
under Bourgogne. One bottle cost a year of retirement, or an hour squinting down the barrel of a hurricane.

My neighbor's jeep kicked up hillocks of pale dust on the road. He saw me standing in the window and skidded to a halt. He rolled down his own window and shouted, and his face squared into his neck, which was the warm hue of a brick. But the wind now was so loud that his voice was lost, and I felt a surge of affection for him as he leaned out the window, gesticulating. We'd had a moment a few years back at a Conservation Trust benefit just after my husband left, our fortyish bodies both stuffed into finery. There was the taste of whiskey and the weirdness of his moustache against my teeth. Now I toasted him with my glass, and he shouted so hard he turned purple, and his hunting dog stuck her head out the back
window and began to howl. I raised two fingers and calmly gave him a pope's blessing. He bulged, affronted, and rolled up his window. He made a gesture as if wadding up a hunk of paper and tossing it behind his shoulder, and then he pulled away to join the last stragglers pushing north as fast as their engines could strain. The great rag of the storm would wipe them off the road. I'd hear of the way my neighbor's jeep, going a hundred miles per hour, lovingly kissed the concrete riser of an overpass. His dog would land clear over the six lanes in the southbound culvert and dig herself down. When the night passed and the day dawned calm, she'd pull herself to the road and find herself the sole miraculous survivor of a mile-long flesh-and-metal sandwich.

—

I began to sing to myself, songs from childhood, songs with lyrics I didn't understand then and still don't, folk songs and commercial jingles and the Hungarian lullaby my father sang during my many sleepless nights when I was small. I was a high-strung, beetle-browed girl, and the songs only made me want to stay awake longer, to outlast him until he fell asleep crookedly against my headboard and I could watch the way his dreams moved beneath his handsome face. Enervated and watchful in school the next day, I'd be unable to follow the teacher's voice, the ropes of her sentences as she led us through history or English or math, and I would fill my notebooks with drawings—a
hundred different houses, floors and windows and doors. All day I'd furiously scribble. If I only drew the right place to hold me, I could escape from the killing hours of school and draw myself all the way safely home.

—

The house sucked in a shuddery breath, and the plywood groaned as the windows drew inward. Darkness fell over the world outside. Rain unleashed itself. It was neither freight train nor jet engine nor cataract crashing around me but, rather, everything. The roof roared with water, the window blurred. When the storm cleared, I saw a branch the size of a locomotive cracking off the heritage oak by the lake and falling languorously down, the wet moss floating outstretched like useless dark wings.

I felt, rather than saw, the power go out. Time erased itself from the appliances and the lights winked shut. The house went sinister behind me, oppressive with its dark humidity. When I turned, I saw my husband in the far doorway.

You're drinking my wine, he said. I could hear him perfectly, despite the storm. He was a stumpy man, thirty years older than me. I could smell the mint sprigs he chewed and the skin ointment for his psoriasis.

I didn't think you'd mind, I said. You don't need it anymore.

He put both hands over his chest and smiled. A week after he left me, his heart broke itself apart. He was in bed
with his mistress. She was so preposterously young that I assumed they conversed in baby talk. He hadn't wanted children until he ended up fucking one. I was glad that she was the one who'd had to be stuck under his moist and cooling body, the one to shout his name and have it go unanswered.

He came closer and stood next to me in the window. I went very still, as I always did near him. We watched the world on its bender outside. My beautiful tomatoes had flattened and the metal cages minced away across the lawn, as if ghosts were wearing them as hoop skirts.

You're still here, of course, he said. Even though they told you to get out days ago.

This house is old, I said. It has lived through other storms.

You never listen to anyone, he said.

Have some wine, I said. Stand with me. Watch the show. But for God's sake, shut it.

He looked at me deeply. He had huge brown eyes that were young no matter how alligatored his skin got. His eyes were what had made me fall for him. He was a very good poet. The night I met him, I sat spellbound at a reading my friend had dragged me to, his words softening the ground of me, so that when he looked up, those brown eyes could tunnel all the way through.

He drank a swig of wine and moaned in appreciation. At its peak, he said. Perfection. Drink it now.

I plan to, I said.

He began to go vague on me. I knew his poems were no good when they began to go vague. How's my reputation? he said, the fingers of his hands melding into mittens. I was his literary executor; he hadn't had time to change that one last thing.

I'm letting it languish, I said.

Ah, he said.
La belle dame sans merci.

I don't speak Italian, I said.

French, he said.

Oh, dear, I said. My ignorance must have been so maddening.

Honey, he said, you don't know the half of it.

Well, I said. I
do
know my half.

I didn't say, I had never said: Lord, how I longed for a version of you I could hold, entire, in my arms.

He winked at me, and the mint smell intensified, and there was a pressure on my mouth, then a lessening. And then it was only the storm and the house and me.

—

The darkness redoubled, the sound intensified. There were pulsing navy veins within the clouds; I remembered a hunting trip with my husband once, the buck's organs gutted onto the ground. The camphor and magnolia and crape myrtles pressed their crowns to the earth, backbending, acrobats. My teak picnic table galumphed itself toward the road, chasing after the chairs already fled that way.

My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a horrifying diagonal across the window. For a moment, we were eye to lizardy eye. I took a breath. The glass fogged, and when it cleared, my hen had blown away. Then the top layer of the lake seemed to rise in one great sheet and crush itself against the house. When the wind swept the water into the road, my garden became a pit in which a gar twisted and a baby alligator dug furiously into the mud. From behind the flattened blueberries, a nightmare creature of mud stood and leaned against the wind. It showed itself to be a man only moments before the wind picked him up and slammed him into the door. I didn't think before I ran and heaved it open so the man could tumble in. I was blown off my feet and had to clutch the doorknob to keep from flying. The wind seized a flowerpot and smashed it through the microwave. The man crawled and helped me push the door until at last it closed and the storm was banished, howling to find itself outside again.

The man was mudstruck, naked, laughing. A gold curl emerged from the filth of his head, and I wiped his face with the hem of my dress until I saw that he was my college boyfriend. I sat down on the floor beside him, scrabbling the dirt from him with my fingernails until I could make him out in his entirety.

Oh! he shouted when he could speak. He'd always been a cheery boy, talkative and loving. He clutched my
face between his hands and said, You're old! You're old! You should wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled.

I don't wear trousers, I said, and snatched my head away. There was still water in the pipes, and I washed him until he was clean. He fashioned a loincloth out of a kitchen towel. He kept his head turned from me, staring at me from the corners of his eyes until I took his chin in my fingers and turned it. There it was, the wet rose blossoming above his ear. He took a long swallow of wine, and I watched a red ligament move over the bone.

So you really did it, I said.

A friend of a friend of a friend had told me something: Calgary, the worst motel he could find, the family's antique dueling pistol. But I didn't trust either the friend or the friend of the friend, certainly not the friend to the third power, and this act seemed so out of character for such a vivid soul that I decided it couldn't possibly have been true.

It's so strange, I said. You were always the happiest person I knew. You were so happy I had to break up with you.

He cocked his head and pulled me into his lap. Happy, eh? he said.

I rested against his thin young chest. I thought of how I had been so tired after two years of him, how I couldn't bear the three a.m. phone calls when he
had
to read me a passage from Benjamin, the Saturdays when I had to search
for him in bars or find him in strangers' living rooms, how, if I had to make one more goddamn egg sandwich to fill his mouth and quiet him and make him fall asleep at dawn, I would shatter into fragments myself. Our last month was in Spain. I had sold one of my ovaries to get us there, and lost him in Barcelona. For an hour, I wept at the center of a knot of concerned Spaniards until he came loping down the street toward me, some stranger's stolen Afghan hound tugging at the leash in his hand. A light had been kindled in his eye; it blazed before him, a herald announcing his peculiar self. I looked up at him in the dim of the stormstruck house, the hole in the side of his head.

He smiled, expectant, brushing my knuckles with his lips. I said, Oh.

Bygones, he said. He downed half of the bottle of wine as if it were a plastic cup of beer. A swarm of palmetto bugs burst up through the air-conditioning vent and paraded by in single file, giving the impression of politeness. I could feel the thinness of the towel between his skin and my legs, the way this beautiful boy had always stirred me.

My God, I loved you, I said. I had played it close to my chest then; I had thought not telling him was the source of my power over him.

Also bygones, he said. Now tell me what you're doing here.

The rowboat skipped over the lake, waggling its oars
like swimmers' arms. It launched itself into the trunks of the oaks and pinned itself there. I saw the glass of the window beating, darkness so deep in it that I could see myself, gray at the temples, lined from nostril to lip. The house felt cavernous around me. I had thought it would be full by now: of husband, of small voices, at the very least of chickens.

Do you remember our children? I asked.

He beamed. Clothilde, he said. Rupert. Haricot and Abricot, the twins. Dodie. Australopithecus. And Dirk. All prodigies, with your brains and my looks.

You forgot Cleanth, I said.

My favorite! he said. How could I have forgotten? Maker of crossword puzzles, National Spelling Bee champion. Good old Cleanth.

He lifted the back of my hand to his lips and kissed it. It's too bad, he murmured.

Before I could ask what was too bad, the window imploded, showering us with glass. The wind reached in and sucked him out. I clutched at the countertops and saw my beautiful boy swan-dive into the three-foot-deep pond that had been my yard. He turned on his back and did a few strokes. Then he imitated one of my dead chickens floating about in the water, her two wings cocked skyward in imprecation. Like synchronized swimmers, they swirled about each other, arms to the sky, and then, in a gulp, both sank.

—

I tucked two bottles and a corkscrew into my sleeves and pulled myself to the doorway against the tug of the wind. I could barely walk when I was through. The house heaved around me and the wind followed, overturning clocks and chairs, paging through the sheet music on the piano before snatching it up and carrying it away. It riffled through my books one by one as if searching for marginalia, then toppled the bookshelves. The water pushed upward from under the house, through the floorcracks, through the vents, turning my rugs into marshes. Rats scampered up the stairs to my bedroom. I trudged over the mess and crawled up, step by step, on my hands and knees. A terrapin passed me, then a raccoon with a baby clutched to its back, gazing at me with wide robber's eyes. Peekaboo, I said, and it hid its face in its mother's ruff. In the light of a battery-powered alarm clock, I saw rats, a snake, a possum, a heap of bugs scattered across the room, as if gathered for a slumber party, all those gleaming eyes in the dark. The bathroom was the sole windowless place at the heart of the house, and when I was inside, I locked them all out.

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