Read Florida Online

Authors: Lauren Groff

Florida (8 page)

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—

I sat in the bathtub, loving its cool embrace of my body. I have always felt a sisterhood with bathtubs; without someone else within us, we are smooth white cups of
nothing. It was thick black in the bathroom, sealed tight. The house twisted and shook; above, the roof peeled itself slowly apart. The wind played the chimney until the whole place wheezed like a bagpipe. I savored each sip of wine and wondered what the end would be: the roof gone and the storm galloping in; the house tilting on its risers and rolling me out; a water moccasin crawling up the pipes and finding a warm place to nest between my legs.

Above the scream of the storm, there came the hiss and sputter of a wet match. Then a weak flame licked brightly near the toilet and went out. There rose in its place the sweet smell of pipe smoke.

Jesus Christ, I said.

No. Your father, he said in his soft accent. He had a smile in his voice when he said, Watch your language, my love.

I felt him near, sitting at the edge of the bathtub as if it were the side of a bed. I felt his hand brushing the wet hair out of my mouth. I lifted my own hand and caught his, feeling the sop of his flesh against the fragile bone. I was glad it was dark. He'd been eaten from the inside by cancer. My mother, after too many gin and tonics, always turned cruel. She had once described my father's end to me. The last few days, she'd said, he was a sack of swollen flesh.

I hadn't been there. I didn't even know he was sick. I'd been sent to Girl Scout camp. While he slowly died, I learned how to tie knots. While he hallucinated about his village, the cherry trees, the bull in the field that bellowed
at night for sex, I kissed a girl named Julia Pfeffernuss. I believed for years afterward that tongues should taste like the clovers we'd sucked for the honey at their roots. When my father was forgetting his English and shouting for his mother in Hungarian, I stole a sailboat and went alone to the quiet heart of the reservoir. Before the dam had been built, there had been a village there. I took down the sails and dropped the anchor and dove. I opened my eyes to find myself outside a young girl's room, her brushes and combs still laid out on her vanity, me in the algaed mirror, framed by the window. I saw a catfish lying on a platter in the dining room as if serving himself up; he looked at me and shook his head and sagely swam away. I saw sheets forgotten on the line, waving upward toward the sun. I came out of the lake and climbed into the boat and tacked for camp, and didn't tell a soul what I had seen, never, not once, not even my husband, who would have made it his own.

I might have told my friends at camp, I think. I don't think I'd meant to keep the miracle to myself. But the camp's director had been waiting for me on the dock, a hungry pity pressing her lips thin, the red hood of her sweatshirt waggled in the air behind her. It stirred still, in my memory, a big and ugly tongue.

—

When we first saw this house on its sixty acres, I didn't fall for the heart-pine floors or the attic fan that kept the house cool all summer without air-
conditioning or the magnolias blooming their goblets of white light. I fell for the long swing in the heritage oak over the lake, which had thrilled some child, which was waiting for another. My husband looked at the study, mahogany-paneled, and said under his breath, Yes. I stood in the kitchen and looked at the swing, at the way the sun hit the wood so gently, the promise it held, and thought, Yes. Every day for ten years, watching the swing move expectantly in the light wind of morning, thinking, Yes, the word quietly piercing the diaphragm, that same Yes until the day my husband left, and even after he left, and then even after he died; even then, still hoping.

—

For a very long time, we sat there like that: my dad's hand in mine, in the roaring black. I waited for him to speak, but he had always been a man who knew how to groom the silence between people. He smoked, I drank, and the world tired itself out with its tantrum.

I lost awareness of my body. There was only the smoothness of the porcelain beneath me, the warmth of my father's hand. Time passed, endless, a breath.

Slowly, the wind softened. Sobbed. Stopped. The house trembled and moaned itself back to pitch. A trickle of dawn painted a gray strip under the door. My body returned to itself. I could hear only my heartbeat and rain off the roof when I said, Remember when you used to call your family in Hungary?

You were always so furious, he said. You would scream at me when I tried to talk. Your mother had to take you out to get ice cream every time I wanted to call.

I couldn't eat it. I just watched it melt, I said.

I know, he said.

I still can't eat it, I said. I hated that you opened your mouth and suddenly became another person.

We waited. The air felt poached, both sticky and wet. I said, I never thought I could be so alone.

We're all alone, he said.

You had me, I said.

True, he said. He squeezed the back of my neck, kneaded the knots out.

I listened to the shifting of the world outside. This is either the eye or we've made it through, I said.

Well, he said. There will always be another storm, you know.

I stood, woozy, the bottles clanking off my body back into the bathtub. I know, I said.

You'll be A-OK, he said.

That's no wisdom coming from you, I said. Everything's all right for the dead.

When I opened the door to the bedroom, the room was blazing with light. The plywood over the windows had caught the wind like sails and carried the frames from the house. There were rectangular holes in the wall. The creatures had left the room. The storm had stripped the
sheets like a good guest, and they had all blown away, save one, which hung pale and perfect over the mirror, saving myself from the sight of me.

—

The damage was done: three-hundred-year-old trees smashed, towns flattened as if a fist had come from the sun and twisted. My life was scattered into three counties. Someone found a novel with my bookplate in it sunning itself on top of a car in Georgia. Everywhere I looked, the dead. A neighbor child, come through the storm, had wandered outside while the rest of the family was salvaging what remained, and had fallen into the pool and drowned. The high school basketball team, ignoring all warnings, crossed a bridge and was swallowed up by the Gulf. Old friends were carried away on the floods; others, seeing the little that remained, let their hearts break. The storm had stolen the rest of the wine and the butler's pantry, too. My chickens had drowned, blown apart, their feathers freckling the ground. For weeks, the stench of their rot would fill my dreams. Over the next month, mold would eat its way up the plaster and leave gorgeous abstract murals of sage and burnt sienna behind. But the frame had held, the doors had held. The house, in the end, had held.

On my way downstairs, I passed a congregation of exhausted armadillos on the landing. Birds had filled the
Florida room, cardinals and whip-poor-wills and owls. Gently, the insects fled from my step. I sloshed over the rugs that bled their vegetable dyes onto the floorboards. My brain was too small for my skull and banged from side to side as I walked. Moving in the humidity was like forcing my way through wet silk. Still, I opened the door to look at the devastation outside.

And there I stopped, breathless. I laughed. Isn't this the fucking kicker, I said aloud. Or maybe I didn't.

Houses contain us; who can say what we contain? Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.

FOR THE GOD OF LOVE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD

Stone house down a gully of grapevines. Under the roof, a great pale room.

Night had been drawn out by the way the house eclipsed the dawn. Morning came when the sun flared against the hill and suddenly shone in. What had begun as a joke in the dark came clear to the man in the fields who was riding a strange sort of tractor that straddled the vines. He idled, parallel the window, to watch. Amanda thought this was a very French thing to do. The heat in her face was not because of the nudity; rather, the plagiarism. Her idea had come from the tractor's first squatting pass in the window. She slapped her husband's stomach below and said, Finish.

A minute later she strode off the bed and went to the window and, leaning for the curtains on each side, pressed
her chest against the glass, to tease. The man on the tractor wasn't a man but a young boy. He was laughing.

In the curtained dark again, they heard the tractor moving off, then the flurries of roosters down in the village.

Nice surprise, Grant said, sliding his hand down her thigh. Hope we didn't wake them up. He stretched, lazy. Amanda imagined their hosts in the room below: Manfred staring blankly at the wall. Drooling. Genevieve with her passive-aggressive buzzing beneath the duvet.

Who cares, Amanda said.

Well, Grant said. There's Leo, too.

I forgot, she said.

Poor kid, Grant said. Everyone always forgets about Leo.

—

Amanda went down the stairs in her running clothes. She passed Leo's room, then doubled back.

Leo stood on the high window ledge, his wisp of a body pressed against the glass. Here, the frames rattled if you breathed on them wrong. There was rot in the wood older than Amanda herself. Leo was such an intense child, and so purposeful, that she watched him until she remembered hearing once that glass was just a very slow liquid. Then she ran.

He was so light for four years old. He turned in her
arms and squeezed her neck furiously and whispered, It's
you.

Leo, she said. That is so dangerous. You could have died.

I was looking at the bird, he said. He pressed a finger to the glass, and she saw, down on the white rocks, some sort of raptor with a short beak. Huge and dangerous even dead.

It fell out of the sky, he said. I was watching the black go blue. And the bird fell. I saw it. Boom. The bad thing, I thought, but actually it's just a bird.

The bad thing? she said, but Leo didn't answer. She said, Leo, you are one eerie mammer jammer.

My mom says that, he said. She says I give her the wet willies. But I need my breakfast now, he said, and wiped his nose on the strap of her sports bra.

—

Leo bit carefully into his toast and Nutella, watching Amanda. She'd never met a child with beady eyes before. Beadiness arrives after long slow ekes of disappointment, usually in middle age. She had to turn away from him and saw the light spread into the pool and set it aglow.

Are you a kid or a mom? Leo said.

Jesus, Leo, she said. Neither. Yet.

Why not? he said.

She didn't believe in lying to children. This she might
reconsider if she had one. Grant and I've been too poor, she said.

Why? he said.

She shrugged. Student loans. I work with homeless people. His company is getting off the ground. The usual. But we're trying. I may be someone's mom soon. Maybe next year.

So you're not poor anymore? he said.

You practice radical bluntness, I see, she said. We are, yes. But I can't wait forever.

Leo looked at the giraffe tattoo that ran up from her elbow to nibble on her ear. It made him vaguely excited. He looked at the goosebumps between her sports bra and running shorts. My mom says only Americans jog. She says they have no sense of dignity.

Ha! Amanda said. I know your mom from back when her name was Jennifer. She's as American as they come.

As they come? As who comes? Genevieve said from the doorway. So much coming this morning! she said, showing her large white teeth.

Sorry about that, Amanda said, but she didn't mean it.

Genevieve walked lightly across the flagstone floor and kissed her son on his pale cowlick. Her tunic was see-through silk, the bikini beneath black. She wore sunglasses inside.

Hi, Jennifer, Leo said slyly.

Too much wine last night? Amanda said. Was the restaurant worth all of its stars?

But Genevieve was looking at her son. Did you just call me Jennifer? she said.

Aunt Manda told me, he said. And someone
is
coming today. The girl. The one that's taking care of me until we can go home.

Genevieve propped her sunglasses on her crown and made a face. Amanda closed her eyes and said, Jesus, Genevieve. Mina's coming. My niece.

Oh my God, Genevieve said. Oh, that's right. What time's her flight? Three. She did some calculations and groaned and said, Whole day shot to hell.

Because you had some extremely important business, Amanda said. Pilates. Flower arranging. Yet another trip to yet another
cave
to taste yet another champagne. Such a sacrifice to take a few hours to pick up Mina, who's basically my sister, the person who will be watching your child for the rest of the summer for the price of a plane ticket—

I get it, Genevieve said.

—a ticket, Amanda was saying, that Grant and I bought so that we could go out to dinner at least once on our only vacation in four years, instead of babysitting for Leo for a week while you go out.

The women both looked at Leo, flinching.

Whom I love very much, Amanda said. But still.

Do you feel better? Genevieve said. Some people just don't mellow with age, she said to her son.

Leo slid off his stool and went out the veranda doors, down the long slope toward the pool.

If I didn't love you like a sister, I'd throttle the shit out of you, Amanda said.

Her boy gone, Genevieve's smile was, too. The skin of her face was silk that had been clenched in a hand. I guess you have the right to be upset, she said. I've been using you. But you know that food's the only thing that wakes Manfred up and Leo can't go to those restaurants.

Amanda breathed. Her anger was always quick to flare itself out. She came slowly over the distance and hugged her friend, always so tiny, but so skinny these days, her bones as if made of chalk. I'm just frustrated, she said into Genevieve's crown. You know we're mostly fine with it, especially since you're letting us drink all of your champagne.

Genevieve leaned against Amanda and rested for some time there.

Oh, my. Well, hello ladies, Grant said, having come down the stairs silently. His lanky arms suspended him in the doorway, his eyes lovelier for the sleep still in them. So beautiful, her husband, Amanda thought. Scruffy, the light on the flecks of white at his temples. Unfair how men got better-looking as they aged. He'd been a little more beautiful than Amanda when they had met; but maybe he only masked his beauty under all the hemp and idealism then.

When the women stepped apart, Grant said, Even better idea. Let's take it all upstairs, and he winked.

Big fat perv, Amanda said, and kissed him, her hands
briefly in his curls, and went out into the driveway, walking a circle around the dead bird before setting off on a run down the hill toward the village.

Genevieve and Grant listened to Amanda's footsteps until they were gone. Grant smiled. Genevieve smiled. Grant raised an eyebrow and nodded upward toward the room under the eaves. Genevieve bit her bottom lip. She looked down the lawn; Leo was all the way past the pool, in the cherry orchard, huddling over something in the grass. She looked at Grant wryly, and he held out his hand.

She moved toward him, but before they touched, they heard a step heavy on the stairs. Manfred.

Fuck, Grant mouthed.

Later, Genevieve mouthed. She clicked the gas on the stovetop, pulled eggs from the refrigerator. The flush had already faded from her cheeks when she cracked them in the pan.

Grant set the espresso maker on the stove; Manfred entered the room. His hair was silvery and swept back, and he carried himself like a man a foot taller and a hundred pounds lighter.

The old swelling in Genevieve's chest to see him in his crisp white shirt and moccasins. He sat at the scrubbed pine table in its block of sun and lifted his fine face to the warmth like a cat.

Darling, she said. How do you feel today?

I'm having difficulty, he said softly. Things aren't coming back.

She measured out his pills into her hand and poured sparkling water into a glass. It hasn't been three weeks yet, she said. Last time you got it all back at around three weeks. She handed him the pills, the glass. She pressed her cheek to the top of his head, breathing him in.

Eggs are burning, Grant said.

Then flip them, she said without looking up.

—

The bees above Leo were loud already. Grass cold with dew. Leo was careful with the twigs. He wouldn't look at the vines beyond; they were too much like columns of men with their arms over one another's shoulders. Beyond were tractors and the Frenchmen in the fields, too far to pluck meaning out of their words:
zhazhazhazhazha
. There was a time before Manda came, and after his father returned from the hospital looking like a boiled potato, when there had been a nice old lady from the village who had cooked their dinners for them. She'd let Leo stay some nights with her when his mother couldn't stop crying. Her pantry had been long and cold and lined with shining jars and tins of cookies. She'd had hens in her yard and a fig tree, and she got cream from her son. That's where he'd go if Manda didn't take him when she left. With the thought, his body buzzed with worry as if also filled with bees. Manda was his beautiful giraffe. He'd set all the rest of them on fire if he could. When he was finished with his work, he went back up
the hill. In the kitchen, Grant was drinking coffee and reading a novel, and Leo's father was slowly cutting a plate of eggs to bleed their yellow on a slab of ham. There was yolk on his chin. Leo took the poker and shovel from the great stone hearth. There was a tiny cube of cheese in the corner that Leo looked at for a long time and imagined popping in his mouth, his molars sinking through the hard skin into the soft interior. He resisted. Outside, the falcon was heavier than he imagined it'd be. He had to rest three times even before he passed his mother doing cat pose beside the pool. She always tried to get him to do it with her, but he didn't see the point. Corpse pose was the position he preferred to do himself. In the orchard again, he put the bird on the pile of twigs that he'd built. He stood back, holding his breath. The wind came and the bird's feathers ruffled, and he watched, feeling the miracle about to bloom. But the wind died again and the bird remained stiff on the nest he made for it, and it, like everything, was still dead.

—

As soon as they were in the car, Amanda felt lighter. She didn't like to think this way, but there was something oppressive about Manfred. A reverse star, sucking in all light.

We may as well get lunch in the city, Genevieve said as they wound through the village.

I can't believe we're going to Paris, Amanda said. She
thought of pâté, of crêpes, neither of which she'd ever had served by an actual French person. Her wet hair filled the car with the scent of rosemary. Leo in the backseat flared it, eyes closed.

You've never been to Paris? Genevieve said. But you were a French major in college.

Those were the years their friendship had gone dark. Genevieve had been shipped up to her fancy New England college, had gone quiet among her new friends. Amanda had been stuck at UF, pretending she hadn't grown up down the street. They reconnected a few years after graduation when Genevieve took a job in Florida, though Sarasota barely qualified.

Never made it to France at all, Amanda said. I had to have three jobs just to survive.

But that's what student loans are for, Genevieve said. When Amanda said nothing, Genevieve sighed and made a circular gesture with her hand and said, Aha. I did it again. Privilege. Sorry.

After a little time, Amanda said, My mom once quit smoking and saved the money so I could go. But my dad found her little stash. You know how it goes with my family.

Sure do. Yikes. How is that hot mess?

Better, Amanda said. Dad got put into a VA home, and Mom's wandering around the house. My brothers lost the forklift business last year, but they're okay. And
my sister's in Oregon, we think. Nobody's heard from her in three years.

Even Mina? Genevieve said. You said she was in college. She hasn't heard from her mom in three years?

Even Mina, Amanda said. She's been living in our spare room to save money. It's fantastic to have her around, she's like a beam of light, does all the dishes, takes care of the garden. But then again, I basically raised her, even when I was pretty much a baby myself. You remember. I had to change all those fucking diapers so I couldn't even try out for soccer. Sophie was such a whore.

Genevieve laughed and then saw Leo watching them in the mirror and stopped, blowing her cheeks out. My parents are the same as ever, she said. Marching clenched and seething toward eternity.

Remember that Frost poem we used to say when we were wondering which of our families would kill us first? Amanda said.
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.
Et cetera. I would have given anything for a little ice.

At least you had some joy in your family. At least there was love, Genevieve said.

At least your family never made you bleed, Amanda said. Constantly.

Forgotten from the backseat, Leo's little voice: I thought you were sisters.

God, no! Genevieve said, then looked at Amanda and said, Sorry.

Amanda smiled and said, I wouldn't mind sharing some of your mom's genes. Her pretty face. At the very least, her cheekbones. What I could have done if I'd just had those cheekbones. Ruled the world.