My cousin Diane landed in deep doo doo for mouthing off to my Dad’s sister one too many times and got shipped from Ohio to reform school—i.e. my life.
We sailed to Key West, fetched Di from the airport, and anchored off Marathon Key.
Di made a tiny haystack of fish bones on the edge of her dinner plate.
Sure, she got the sarcasm gene passed down on the Fetterman side just like I did, but I couldn’t imagine her sassing Aunt Barb (who always kissed me on the lips). And no one but Mom ever backtalked Dad.
I could tell by the way Di darted looks at Dad that she was buying Dad’s somber cheeks-sucked-in face that indicated he meant business.
He always meant business. The face was probably for Mom’s benefit.
Mom chatted about how much fun Di would have sailing, swimming, toasting her alabaster skin. We’d visit the restored mansion, Vizcaya, Mom’s favorite tourist attraction. We’d get meatball sandwiches at Joe’s on the Miami River.
I perked up. Joe’s was a bar, but families with kids could sit on the porch and feed dimes into the ski ball bowling game. We went religiously—once a year. And twice a year we snagged Chinese take-out from a place on Coral Way, brought it home, and cooked our own rice. Maybe we’d get Chinese while Di was here, too. Things were looking up.
Mom went on, “And then, there’s Venetian pool. I bet you’d meet lots of cute boys—”
Dad abandoned somber and shot Mom The Look of Death.
“There are lots of teenagers at the marina,” Mom backpedaled. “I’m sure you’ll meet some nice boys.”
Di wore a hopeful look, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her the teenaged boys at Dinner Key Marina had gross zits or grosser personalities.
After lights out Di and I sat on my double-wide aft bunk.
She lamented the absence of phone, TV, electricity, and running water.
I nodded my agreement, trying to look suitably miserable, even though I’d long ago gotten used to these deprivations.
Moonlight caught on the shiny back of a two-inch long palmetto bug running from the lumber pile across the hull.
The eew meter in my chest shivered.
I shushed her, knowing she’d get a lecture from Dad on how bugs benefitted our existence. Spiders ate mosquitos, but even Dad couldn’t think of a purpose for palmetto bugs. From my Catholic schooling, I extrapolated that the creation of bugs coincided with the fall of man.
I lit the Coleman lantern and hung it on a nail over our bed. At Di’s insistence, this became a nightly ritual, earning me two months of no roach sightings and mega points with Di—points I needed due to my being the eleven-year-old annoyer and Di, the fifteen-year-old annoy-ee.
Washing down the decks and painting the interior of the main cabin weren’t any more fun for Di than they were for me. But Miami’s steam-bath made everything thing worse for Di.
The cherry on top of Di’s exile was cutting her foot on a barnacle. Despite Mom’s Registered Nurse training, the wound festered.
Di limped across the dock, slid dimes into the pay phone and begged Aunt Barb to let her come home.
She called the next week.
Di turned to me. “How do you stand it?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Something inside appreciated Di’s confirmation of my sucky existence, which nobody else but me seemed to get.
I herded Di into the dinghy and rowed to the island.
By this time she’d abandoned Johnson’s Baby Oil and smeared zinc oxide on her pink skin. With our blonde hair and clown paint we looked more like sisters than cousins as we waded around the point and plunked down on shady sand.
Boats fanned from their anchor lines in the lee of the island, blown into military formation by the breeze.
The sandbar stretched a pale finger to the far island where winds had pushed the pines to a landward list.
Cotton bunched overhead on a cerulean canvas.
“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Di said like she did every time we came here, her voice reverent.
I smiled. Mission accomplished.
On a rare break between private duty cases, Mom whisked Di and I off in our beater Plymouth Valiant to shop on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables.
We pushed through the heavy glass doors of Saks Fifth Avenue.
Air conditioning rolled over us, evaporating the sweat on our skin and all our complaints.
We twirled in front of three panes of mirrors in clothes we could never purchase.
Di blew the whole fifty bucks Aunt Barb sent her for the summer on a fringed hippie purse.
Another day Mom and I took Di to the famous Jewish restaurant, Wolfie’s, on Miami Beach for bagels when bagels were still Jewish.
Not to be outdone, Dad hauled Di down to the University of Miami’s Olympic sized pool to teach her to swim. Dad’s chest puffed out. After all, he’d attended the U of M on a full-ride swimming scholarship and captained their swim team. He’d taught Mom to swim at twenty-eight.
But Di’s terror of putting her face in the water, combined with her capacity for non-compliance, set Dad up for certain failure—a new concept.
In the face of his disappointment, Dad was so dazed he sprung for tacos on the way home.
Tacos notwithstanding, Di was over our fish, fish, and more fish diet as much as R.J. and I were. She spent her earnings from babysitting the Canfield kids on cookies and crackers she shared with me in the aft cabin. I didn’t tell her how fond palmetto bugs were of crumbs or my long-standing rule of no food in the aft cabin. Having been raised on a two-cookie limit, I’d scarf down all the cookies Di cared to share.
Di must have come down with temporary amnesia… or insanity… because she returned the next summer and brought her older sister, Cathy, and their cousin, Denise. Maybe Cathy and Denise ticked her off during the winter, and this was revenge.
Or maybe my life wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.