Read Florida Online

Authors: Lauren Groff

Florida (16 page)

After ten minutes, human noise had scaled to nothing, and insect noise took on urgency. Her body was slick with sweat. When she stopped, she felt the first itch. She kept herself still and was so quiet for so long that the prairie began its furtive movements again. The world that, from the comfort of the fire, had seemed a cool wiped slate was unexpectedly teeming.

She could smell the rot of a drainage ditch some well-meaning fools had dug through the prairie during the Depression. The land had taken the imprint of their hands and made it its own. She thought of the snakes sleeping coiled in their burrows and the alligators surfacing to scent her in the darkness, their shimmy onto the land, their stealthy bellying; how she was only one living lost thing among so many others, not special for being human. Something crawled across her throat.

She was frozen. The sweat cooled on her body and
made her shiver. There was no relief in the sky vaguely filmed with stars, a web vaster than she could imagine. There was nobody around, nobody to deliver her back to the solace of people.


The night on the prairie returned to her during the long and terrible birth of her daughter, years later, after her mother's funeral on a hill white with sleet. A shot in the spine took the pain away, and she floated above herself, safe in the beeping of the machines.

But something went wrong very suddenly. The nurses' faces pressed in; the world shifted to frenzy. She was wheeled into a cold room. It was almost Christmas and a poinsettia hunched in the corner, making her think of the black dirt in the pot, all the life there. Her body shook so hard it rattled the aluminum slab she was lying on. There was an unbearable pressure inside her as the doctor pushed the knife in. Then the old panic returned, the darkness, the sense of being lost, the fangs she'd imagined on her ankles that were palmetto cuts, the breath of some bad spirit hot on her nape. Then she had seen the glow in the dark and stumbled back to the bonfire. How delicate the ties that bind us to another. A gleam in the dark. The bell on a nurse's neck chiming. The bodies leaning in, the pressure so intense she couldn't breathe, the release.


Babe, when Satan tempted Adam and Eve, there's a pretty good reason he didn't transform into a talking clam.

It was my husband who said this to me.


This statement of his has begun to seem both ludicrous and dangerous, like the three-foot rat snake my younger son almost stepped on in the street yesterday, thinking it a stick.


Walk outside in Florida, and a snake will be watching you: snakes in mulch, snakes in scrub, snakes waiting from the lawn for you to leave the pool so they can drown themselves in it, snakes gazing at your mousy ankle and wondering what it would feel like to sink their fangs in deep.


All around us, since the fall, from the same time other terrible things happened in the world at large, marriages have been ending, either in a sort of quiet drifting away or in flames. The night my husband explicated original sin to me, we were drunk and walking home very early in the morning from a New Year's Eve party. Our host, Omar Varones, had made a bonfire out of the couch upon which his wife had cuckolded him. It was a vintage mid-century modern, and he could have sold it for thousands, but it's equally true that the flames were a stunning and unexpected soft green.


I feel like a traitor to my own when I say this, but it's wonderful to walk beside a man who is so large that nobody would mess with him, toward your own bed, at a time when everybody is sleeping save for the tree frogs and the sinners. I have missed my walks late at night, my dawn runs. Even though my neighborhood is a gem, there have been three rapes in three months within a few blocks of my house. Nights when I can't sleep, when my nerves jangle me from one son's bed to the other's, then back to my own and then out to the couch, I can even feel in my bloodstream the new venom that has entered the world, a venom that somehow acts only on men, hardening what had once been bad thoughts into new, worse actions.


It is strange to me, an alien in this place, an ambivalent northerner, to see how my Florida sons take snakes for granted. My husband, digging out a peach tree that had died from climate change, brought into the house a shovel full of poisonous baby coral snakes, brightly enameled and writhing. Cool! said my little boys, but I woke from frantic sleep that night, slapping at my sheets, sure their light pressure on my body was the twining of many snakes that had slipped from the shovel and searched until they found my warmth.

Other nights, my old malaria dream returns: the ceiling a twitching pale belly, sensitive to my hand. All night scales fall on me like tissue paper.


I can't get away from them, snakes. Even my kindergartener has been strangely transfixed by them all year. Every project he brings home: snakes.

The pet project:
i thnk a kobra wud be a bad pet becus it wud bit me
, picture of him being eaten by a cobra.

The poetry project:
snakes eat mise thy slithr slithr slithr thy jump otof tres thy hissssssssssssssssss
, picture of a snake jumping out of a tree and onto a screaming him. Or so I assume: my child is in a minimalist period, his art all wobbly sticks and circles.

Why, of all beautiful creatures on this planet of ours, do you keep writing about snakes? I ask him.

Becus i lik them and thy lik me, he tells me.


As we walked home on New Year's morning, the night of the flaming couch, I was saying I hated the word
, that
takes the woman out of the adultery and turns it into a wrestling match between the husband and the lover. A giant cockfight, if you will. Giant cockfight! my husband laughed, because there is no situation in which that phrase would not be funny to him. My husband is an almost entirely good person, and I say this as someone who believes that our better angels are matched by our bitterest devils, and there's a constant battle happening inside all of us: a giant cockfight. My husband is overrun with angels, but even he struggles with things that appeal. For instance, Omar's wife, Olivia, was the kind of shining blonde who always wore workout clothes, and my husband always gravitated toward her at parties, and they'd stand there joking and laughing into their cups for a far longer time than was conventionally acceptable between two good-looking people who were married to other people. Sometimes, when I caught his eye, my husband would wink guiltily at me while still laughing with her. After the divorce and a few uncomfortable meetings, I only ever see Olivia driving through the neighborhood
while I walk the dog, and half the time I pretend I don't recognize her; I just look down and murmur something to the dog, who understands me all too well.


In February, one day, I found myself sad to the bone. A man had been appointed to take care of the environment even though his only desire was to squash the environment like a cockroach. I was thinking about the world my children will inherit, the clouds of monarchs they won't ever see, the underwater sound of the mouths of small fish chewing the living coral reefs that they will never hear.

I stood for a long time at the duck pond with my dog, who sensed she should be still and patient. The swans were on their island with the geese, and a great blue heron legged through the shallow water. I watched as the heron became a statue, then as it whipped its head down and speared something. When it lifted its beak, it held a long, thin water snake. We watched, transfixed, as the bird cracked its head down so hard three times that the snake separated in half, spilling blood. And the heron swallowed one half, which was still so alive that I could see it thrashing down that long and elegant throat.


This reminded me of the
For a bird had come upon [the Greeks], as they were eager to cross over, an eagle of lofty flight, skirting the host on the left, and in its talons it bore
a blood-red monstrous snake, still alive as if struggling, nor was it yet forgetful of combat, it writhed backward, and smote him that held it on the breast beside the neck, till the eagle, stung with pain, cast it from him to the ground and let it fall in the midst of the throng, and himself with a loud cry sped away down the blasts of the wind.

This was an omen, clear and bright.

The Greeks did not heed it, and they suffered.


But wait. You know that the moral of Adam and Eve is that woman gets pegged with all of human sin, I told my husband that night we walked home through the dark. We were jaywalking against a red light, but there were no cars anywhere around, our own minor sin unseen.

Yet another trick of the serpent's, my husband agreed sadly.


On the day I found the girl, the robins were migrating and the crape myrtles flashed with red.

Clouds rested their bellies atop the buildings. I went out for my run fast, because I knew rain was coming, and for a long time I have been sure that I will die one day by lightning strike. I have known this since the day when I was running across the parking lot at my older son's Montessori preschool and I leapt up the wooden steps to the
door and turned around and saw a lightning bolt crash and sizzle across the slick wet blacktop where I'd just been.

I turned back when the rain crashed down and made the shadows of the woods on both sides boil. There was a shortcut behind the bed-and-breakfast district, a narrow alley with overgrown rosebushes that snatch at your clothes. I didn't see the girl until the last minute, when I had to jump her outstretched legs, and came down slantwise on the cinders, and hit my hip and shoulder and knew immediately that they were bleeding. I rolled over, and crawled back to the girl. She stared at me darkly, and twitched her legs. She was alive, then.

I saw the rip in her T-shirt. I saw her bleeding hands, the swelling already beginning on the side of her face. And the cold place in me that I've always had, that I have carried through many dark streets in many cities, knew.

Wait here, I said, thinking I would run to a bed-and-breakfast and call the police, an ambulance, but the girl said hoarsely, No, with such panic that I looked around and saw how dark the overgrown alley was, and thick with twining vines, how a person could be hiding in many places there. Let me take you with me, and we can call the cops, I said, and she said ferociously, No fucking cops. No ambulance.

Okay, I said, and my brain had emptied out, and I said, I'll take you to my house. I'm only a few blocks away. She closed her eyes, and I took it for assent, and I
helped her stand and saw the blood dissolving from her thighs in the rain.

The water was ankle deep in the roads already; the drivers had pulled off, waiting to be able to see. She was light. The side of her face next to mine was beautiful, long eyelashes, full lips, perfect skin, a sore-looking nose piercing. I helped her inside and rushed around to get towels and draped them over her and tenderly dabbed the shining drops of rain from her hair. She would not take tea. She would not let me call for help. She would not let me make her food. She just snapped, Fuck off, lady.

I fucked off. I let her sit and sat beside her in my kitchen. And when, after she stopped shaking I asked if I could please take her to the hospital, she barely spoke when she said, No. Home.

I put a towel on the passenger seat, and we drove through the empty wet streets with their dripping oaks and palms, and we came into the neighborhood between La Pasadita Grille and the Spanish church, and she said, Left, Right, Left, and Here.

After a storm, the sunlight in this town pours upward as though radiating from the ground, and the sudden beauty of the stucco and Spanish moss is a hard punch at the center of the heart.

I looked at the small green cabin in its yard of sandspurs and neglected orange trees and rotted fruit shimmering with wasps, and everything caught the sun and
shined like blessed objects. Then I saw the broken windows and the black garbage bag on the porch spilling its guts and felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. Please let me help you, I said. She said, Don't fucking say a word to anybody. And she got out of the car, slammed the door, and shuffled up the path and into the cabin.

My boys and husband were already at home. He was making dinner. That's a lot of blood, my older son said, pointing at the piles of towels on the chair. My husband was looking at me with worry in his face. I picked the towels up and backed out the door and took them with me to the police department where I described the girl, between sixteen and twenty, probably Latina, but they could or would do nothing, until one officer succumbed to my white-woman insistence and drove to the cabin with me.

It was dark by then. I watched his flashlight go up the path, the circle of light on the door growing smaller and clearer as he neared. He knocked and knocked. Then he tried the doorknob and went in. When he came to the car, he said, Looks like she had you take her to an abandoned place. And later, dropping me off at my car, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, Those people, they're like children, they have no— But I shot him a look of death and he stopped. But when I couldn't stop crying, at last in frustration he said, Listen, maybe immigration was an issue, I don't know. But lady, you can't help people who don't want your help.


On New Year's morning, my husband and I reached our house when the sky had lightened to gray in the corner. We went in. Our children were at their grandparents', but we were so tired and had been married too long to make much use of that fact. He went straight to bed without brushing his teeth. I peed in the dark, thinking about the one time Olivia and I had met up after the divorce for awkward drinks and she'd said she'd known her marriage was over when she found a snake in the toilet bowl. I know myself enough to understand that even if I suspected something, I would never look.

I stripped off my clothes and took a shower. Under the warm water, I thought about how, before I met my husband, I'd dated a nice man for a summer in Boston. He was good-looking, cried at movies, played ultimate, was a socialist, a nice guy, everyone said. One night we came home when the bars closed and both of us were drunk and I thought it was funny to shout, Help, help! I don't know this man! but it made him so angry that he stalked home ahead of me and was already in bed by the time I came into his apartment. I smelled like sweat and spilled beer and cigarette smoke, and decided to take a shower that night, too. Halfway through, I heard the curtain open and only had time to say, Wait, before he'd pushed himself into me, and I pressed my cheek against the tile and let the soap sting my eyes and breathed and counted
by fives until he was done. He left. I washed myself slowly until the water went cold. He was snoring when I came into his bedroom. I stood naked and shivering for a very long time, so tired that I couldn't think, then moved and touched his dresser and opened a drawer and found a T-shirt that smelled like him and crawled under the covers to get warm enough to think again, to get it together, to go back to my own place. Instead, I fell asleep. What had happened seemed so distant when we woke up in the morning. We never talked about it. I never told anyone, not even my husband. When we broke up in a few weeks, that man dumped me.

When I came out of the bathroom, the birds were singing in the magnolia out the window and my husband was snoring. I put my wet head on his chest, and he woke up, and because he is a kind man, he hugged it and stroked my nape. My eyes were closed and I was almost asleep when I said, Tell me. You think there are still good people in the world?

Oh, yes, he said. Billions. It's just that the bad ones make so much more noise.

Hope you're right, I said, then fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, I woke and stood and checked all the windows and all the doors, I closed all the toilet lids, because, even though I was naked and the night was freezing, in this world of ours you can never really know.

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