Fort Myers Beach, Florida
I look down at the water, waves crashing up against the boats, causing them to rock back and forth. The water has a grayish-blueish-green color, making it murky so I cannot see very deep. I was always searching for a shark fin to be sticking out of the water.
Ma is like a storm nowadays. Her doctor diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, but she doesn’t think anything is wrong, so she refuses medication. Sometimes she calls my mom crying. Sometimes she calls my mom yelling, asking where Pa went. I’ve called my grandma and grandpa Ma and Pa since I was a baby, and that’s the way it stayed.
My sister and I ran to the second pool in the condominium that my grandparents lived in, called the Boardwalk Caper. That pool had a hot tub. The older people who lived there to retire in peace gave us nasty looks as we sank ourselves into the boiling hot water. After getting nice and warm, we would jump out of the hot tub and run into the pool, screaming and splashing, breaking three different pool rules at once to get this amazing feeling on our skin. The quick switch in temperature would give us goosebumps, and we would giggle and float with our legs up and arms expanded out, lying on the surface, looking up at the stars, as the humid Florida heat brushed over our noses and toes.
I heard Ma yelling. Her voice was sharp and slurring. I couldn’t make out the words, or I just didn’t want to remember them. Ally and I were sitting at the top of the stairs in the doorframe of Ma’s guest room that we called ours, just out of sight from what was going on downstairs. I heard a slap and the sound of clothes scuffling together, as if someone was pushed. I peeked my head down and saw Pa sitting on the pristine white couch, while my Ma stood over him and my mother stood in between them.
I quivered by the edge of the pool, feeling cold even though the water was warm, and the sun was glazing my back. I sat curled with my hands hugging my knees into my chest, watching my sister, Ally, dive deeply into the pool and do flips in the water. “C’mon, Court!” She directed at me. I stood up, but my stomach jolted, and I ran directly for the bathroom to project out my stomach contents: water and ice chips, again. We had just arrived in Florida the day before this happening, and I was completely fine. My mom thinks I caught a twenty-four-hour bug on the plane. She was right. It only lasted a day.
Mom yelled at Ally and I for going in the hot tub. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t go in when everyone else could. They said it was because it was on the Pool Rules bulletin board that children under the age of thirteen were not allowed in. The next time we went to Florida after that, the hot tub was under construction, and we couldn’t go in it. And then the year after that we didn’t stay at my grandparents when we visited anymore. I didn’t think that would be the last time I was in that hot tub.
My family and I were walking over the bridge that connected Fort Myers Beach to Fort Myers, hundreds of feet in the air, high enough that crab and fishing boats can pass through. The bridge is a pale sky blue and looks sort of like the arch in St. Louis. Even all the way up there you can hear the ocean flowing, crashing into the concrete beams. It’s windy up there, but the air smells like fresh salt water, so I didn’t even care that my hair was messy and getting in my ice cream. I would turn and look at the high-rise resorts down the island at the top of the bridge, watching the sun set with vivid purple and pink colors and clouds that looks like horsetails.
It looked like my mother had stepped in between Ma and Pa because she was out of control, trying to strike him. Her voice was loud and her arms were flailing about, with her wine glass in hand spilling white wine all over the white walls and the white carpet. I stood up fully so that everyone in the living room could see me and it got really quiet. The room stagnant; I was holding my breath. My sister, still hidden in the doorway, looked at me like I was crazy, she had so much fear in her eyes and was motioning me to come back to the white room.
Before we left Chicago, my ex-boyfriend and I agreed we wanted to have sex on the beach. We wanted to do something sexy, something hot, something different. It was hot and different, but not how I expected it to be. No passion. No comfort. The sound of the waves crashing on the beach at night terrified me more than put me at ease. They seemed angry. They were aggressive. The white caps the waves created on the surface were visible in the moonlight, they were that large, I remember because they made my heart sink in a way that made me feel small, and I was small compared to the ocean before me. I couldn’t tell where the ocean ended and the sky began. I couldn’t feel the ground around me. It’s because there wasn’t much around me, or at least ahead of me, the surface was buried in water.
It wasn’t until I was older I realized I could’ve gone in the hot tub if I didn’t scream and jump in the pool afterwards. It was an adult privilege. But now when I sit in a hot tub, I get anxious because the steam is thick and makes it harder for me to breathe. I begin to sweat heavily, the feeling of my sweat running down my body makes me shake, and I breathe in and out rapidly until I stand up from the water and get out, feeling like I’m being cut from a noose. The joy I once found in them isn’t existent if I can’t be childish.
I hear my mother on the phone with my Ma sometimes. Ma’s still in Fort Myers Beach, but now she is alone. She kicked out Pa, and he has gone back to Indiana for a little while. Her voice over the phone scares me. It reminds me of the comedy-tragedy mask, happy one second, sad the next. If only it had a third face representing anger.
The tiles feel so good on my steaming hot legs as I raise the motel toilet seat to vomit. My puke is thick and yellow, like the grainy motel walls.
My mother and I met eyes when she saw Ma looking at me. “Go back upstairs, Courtney,” She told me. I frowned, thinking I made the situation worse. I went back upstairs and began to pack up my bag. Ally followed along. As we swept the room for our belongings, we talked about where we would go, and how we didn’t know. We needed to contact my dad. I went into the white bathroom and saw our swimsuits hanging up on the shower rack, still dripping wet with chlorine-infused water. I rinsed them, wrung them dry, threw them into a plastic bag, and tied it. I wanted to cry because I felt like my trip was being taken away from me. I never felt a sadness like this before in this place, where looking at the palm trees comforts me, where the beach is just a walk away, where I can hide from my problems and listen to the ocean.
My ex-boyfriend and I had each taken a bar of Xanax, it swished in our stomachs along with the Coronas and the mojitos and the tropical punches and the mai tais. Stumbling south along the beach, we found a naked spot of sand surrounded by tall grass except for the large entrance to the spot where you could see the ocean.
I’m at the beach, inhaling the breeze that smells like raw ocean. It’s a pleasant, almost sewage like smell. You’ll never get that scent here, in Chicago.
We are watching one of Ma’s soap operas. I’m resting my feet on the center table, a stone carved dolphin as the base, holding up a thin sheet of glass. The air conditioning strikes the stone, and it feels smooth on my hot feet. My Ma tells me to knock it off.
I’m watching my boyfriend Sam walk out along the water and think about how lucky I am to have him here. He’s never been to Florida before.
My ex laid the towel down on the spot, and I flopped on top of it, instantly he started taking off my shorts and sliding his tongue up and down my thigh. My back was being poked through the towel by sharp sticks and my spine felt jolted from being pressed into the uneven lumps of sand. I was uncomfortable. I tried to look up at the stars and forget about where I was, even though I was at my favorite place. He started to take off his shorts and begin to put himself inside of me when we heard a man’s voice.
One year when we visited, I took my friend Allie down with us. We went adventuring down a boardwalk that went straight into the Gulf. It was made of thick brown wood that could withstand the ocean’s waves. This is when I saw a man fishing and his entire poll was pulled in, followed by a shark fin down below swimming away. It was horrifying.
I love the colors of the town. Buildings made with cement sand and painted with creamy pastel colors like blue, yellow, and pink. If you look close, some of them have large chunks of shells embedded in them. It’s a cooling surface to lean on after a long walk.
Ally and I grabbed the bags, I looked back at the clean white room, completely empty, and closed the door. I remember how sick I felt, and how small I felt in the world. I felt unprotected, like I could be hurt and nothing could save me, not even in my safe place. We came thumping down the white carpeted stairs, and I walked over to Pa, who was still sitting in the same spot on the white couch, and hugged him goodbye. Ma kept asking my mother where we were going, begging us to stay, sobbing. “I don’t need this shit,” my mother told her, and we were out the door.
I’m in our condo, my parents are laughing, and I am crying behind the door because my boyfriend has already flown back to his hometown, and I’m here, packing away beautiful memories and dressing myself for the unforgiving cold back home, ready to report for work while my family enjoys the sun for a little bit longer.
The next thing I knew, my ex was in the face of this angry man. They started yelling at each other, cursing, about to swing at one another, and I got in front of my ex. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Why would you ruin this time together for us?” I began to sob and my voice was cracking. I continued, “Fuck you!! I took you to Florida to have a good time with my family, and you ruin everything! You fucking asshole. I fucking hate you!” I couldn’t stop. I kept pushing him back and back until he stopped trying to move forward, my face was itchy and wet with tears and sand. The man said something, but I couldn’t make out what it was. He spit on the ground, and he walked away as my ex and I argued. He kept his eye on the man, and I wanted to slap him.
Mom, Ally, and I begin to walk down the Boardwalk Caper road. Mom decided to phone one of Ma’s friends that she knew that lived in the neighborhood, Liz. She welcomed us into her tiny apartment with open arms and offered us beverages and let us sit for a while as my mom figured out our next move while in Florida, now that we weren’t staying with Ma and Pa anymore.
My mom is packing my bag as I run around Ma and Pa’s front yard, trying to catch a lizard before driving hours and hours back home.
I am walking towards the Gulf of Mexico. The sand is burning my feet, and it feels good as the breeze gets stronger. My boyfriend S and I chose a spot in the trees, secluded from the rest of the beach world.
I’m peeing in the water on the edge of the ocean, I’m so drunk.
I’m looking for Easter eggs with my sister. We’re running around the backyard between the condo and the first pool, where it’s full of good hiding spots, like under woodchip hills that surround the palm trees, or in the bushes with the large magenta followers that smell so sweet. I’m not wearing shoes and the rough blades of grass poke my toes, but I’m too excited about the candy to care.
Ally and I sat on the fluffy carpet and played with Liz’s deaf dog. I don’t remember his name. Liz seemed concerned for us, she sat close to my mother and leaned in when she spoke. She understood how Ma could be since she had known her for a long time, and she knew about her alcoholism. Mom called my dad, and he was able to find us a motel within walking distance from the Boardwalk Caper. It wasn’t the nicest place he warned, but it’s all that he could do last minute. I remember feeling scared because I didn’t know where I was going. I was leaving what I knew and what I looked forward to, the pool, the food, the sun, the long walks on the boardwalk with my music . . .
We are sitting in Ma’s Cadillac. It’s black so it absorbs all the Floridian heat and makes the leather seats fragrant. I open the window with the backseat controller as far as it will go and inhale the salty smells of the city over and over again, implanting the smell into my mind so I can never forget and remember when I’m back home to the cold.
My boyfriend Sam and I are sitting in the back of the Cadillac going over the bridge that connects Fort Myers Beach with Fort Myers. My stomach starts to twist, and my mouth begins to water. I look over at my boyfriend and tap him, motioning him with my eyes to get my mom’s attention. She pulled over on the side of the two-lane bridge, and I let out a bunch of motel room wall.
I thoroughly wiped off all the sand on my feet on the woven doormat before entering Ma and Pa’s condo. Ma likes to keep the place clean, and if it’s not, she will complain or clean it or complain about cleaning it until it’s done. I wonder why she chose to make everything in her house and everything she owns white if she gets frustrated by cleaning. Just another thing that doesn’t make sense about her.
The shell beach is a lot different than the swimming beach. I like to hear the cracking of shells under my flip flops, it reminds me of the shell beach I went to as a kid. I could go to that same beach a million times and it wouldn’t be the same as that one day. When I found all the big shells easily. When my grandma and grandpa walked behind me.
When I would get seasick on the boats, the feeling of land under my feet comforted me so. Feeling grounded. Hearing the ocean in front of me and feeling this deep, pure emptiness, an emptiness that creates a peaceful energy inside of me.
Ma called to tell me how the weather is in Florida. It’s sunny and in the eighties and she’s going out to eat with her friends at Doc Ford’s, one of her favorite restaurants, then maybe play some card games. Did she tell me about the weather to talk or make me feel jealous? To make herself feel better and luckier and higher up than me? Probably both.
My ex told me he was sorry, slurry toned. I don’t think I said anything, I made him pick up the towel, and we stumbled back to the hotel. He fell asleep once we got back to the room, and he snored so loudly as I cried. I looked at the wall really hard and heaved heavily as I rocked back and forth. How could I feel so bad in such a paradise with someone that I supposedly loved, how could I always be so depressed, even among the things that make me happy, like premature coconuts fallen off palm trees on the road and the pastel colored houses and the way the burning sand feels on my feet and the way the air smells here and how it gives me goosebumps.
I don’t know when I’ll be back at Fort Myers Beach. I don’t know if it will feel as relaxing as it once did. I don’t know what my grandma’s new-found mental illness will bring to this place. I wonder if the sun will feel the same on my skin. The way it feels when you’ve been cold for so damn long. Or maybe it will make me sweat as I try to continue to move through these obstacles in which we call life. I don’t answer Ma’s calls anymore. My mom tells me not to. She leaves me voicemails, though, and I always listen to them even though my mother told me to block her. I want to be able to hear her voice. Even if the words aren’t right, I can pretend like I still have her.
Courtney Kiehm is a student in the Creative Writing program of Columbia College Chicago.