The sun sank into Southeast Florida in the balmy butt-crack of winter. I’d just turned fourteen and this was my eighth move—a VW van, a sailboat, and six houses.
I glanced out the picture window of our cement block cracker box at R.J. and the neighbor kids riding their banana seat bikes in figure-eights on Stafford Drive.
In Miami, fear and tension had vibrated under the traffic noise—things I only noticed now, in Stuart, by their absence.
Ralph, my new stepfather, sat in his recliner in the Florida room in a cloud of cigar smoke and TV football like a guest who never went home. The dog, a German Shepherd, flopped across his lap like an overgrown purse dog. A super-sized glass of Vodka and ginger ale sweated on the table beside him. All my emotions were tangled in Dad, and it was a relief to feel nothing for Ralph.
My gaze skimmed over the identical houses—or they had been when they were built in 1957, the year I was born.
R.J. banged in the front door, sweaty and so smudged with dirt it was hard to imagine he’d been clean when he left for second grade this morning.
I scrunched my nose at him, caught the door mid-slam, and stepped into boysenberry sky dotted with palms.
Milton Turner, my age, but inches shorter, walked down the center of the street. Gary Bussell, towheaded, tall, and pencil-thin, kicked an under-inflated kickball back and forth with Ronnie Miller who lived on Krueger Parkway. Drool-worthy Clark Cason, a junior in high school, buried the top half of his torso under the hood of his MG across the street.
The only girl I’d met was Jenny Brooks, a sixth-grader. She practiced cartwheels in her front yard, but never joined us for Kick the Can. Nor did John Stortz, the best looking boy on the block.
Steve Fisher, a year younger than most of us eighth graders, yelled, “We’re burnin’ daylight, guys.”
I crossed my yard to the street.
“And Ann.” Steve shot me a cheesy grin. “You can be on my team.”
“There aren’t teams in Kick the Can.”
Unfazed, Steve kicked the mushy ball, tonight’s “can,” half way down the block. “Bussell’s it!”
We exploded away from the kickball like particles of a bomb.
A half-hour later I dove behind a bush in the Cason’s yard.
Clark poked his blonde head out from under his MG hood and quirked a brow at me in the half-light.
My heart rate surged.
Boys were fun, fascinating, really. They distracted me from the drama inside. They accepted me and didn’t ask questions.
The streetlights came on and I crouched closer to the bush, wondering which saint to ask for protection from bugs. Sweat slicked my armpits and I had to pee.
I didn’t want to eat supper, sleep, go to school, and board a Greyhound bus tomorrow back to my old life.
But Friday dumped me onto the curb of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami where Dad waited for me.
I ditched my comic books in my duffle so Dad wouldn’t call me on my crappy reading habits and headed toward Dinner Key Marina. I’d never learned to let his criticisms bead up and run off. Instead, they soaked in and poisoned every cell of me.
I climbed into the bottom of the dinghy.
Dad rowed toward the Annie Lee, the thirty-six foot yawl he’d built in our backyard and named after me.
Face-to-face in the rowboat, I read the pain in Dad’s eyes as he talked about our going for a Saturday sail. He hadn’t voted for the divorce.
Dad breathed his disappointed sigh.
What had I done to let him down? I hadn’t even stepped foot on the Annie Lee.
But I deserved any sigh Dad dished. Even though I never said it out loud, I’d wanted the divorce as much as Mom had.
I looked over Dad’s shoulder where the Annie Lee swung from her anchor in a ghost town of boats in the crook of the keys.
I glanced at Pier 1 where all my happy boat memories lived, but Dad liked the free rent of anchoring out better than electricity and running water.
We pulled alongside my namesake and I hoisted my bag aboard, scrambled over the gunwale. My fingers felt the grit of the sand Dad had scattered a couple years ago across my fresh paint to non-skid the decks.
Familiar scents of mildew and rotting mangos floated toward me in the salty air.
We ate—no surprise—fish, canned hominy, and black bananas for supper as the sun slipped into Miami.
The woodpile in the aft cabin had overtaken my bed. Instead, I curled up in R.J.’s bunk on a gritty sheet that likely hadn’t been laundered since Mom, R.J., and I left eighteen months ago.
I lay in the porthole-less cabin, inert in my old life. Body odor and onions hung in the cabin. Between the rocking of the hull I listened for the descendants of The Spider and all the palmetto bugs I’d known aboard the Annie Lee.
I knew I’d go home to cigar smoke and Stuart and Stafford Drive on Sunday, but aboard the Annie Lee, I felt dead-bolted to the past—my dysfunctional relationship with Dad and the flotsam of my parents’ marriage.
The next day I blurted, “I’m homesick. I want to go home.” I darted my eyes at the trees on the island all listing landward. Even the small swells lapped toward the shore—as though nature pulled for Stuart.
Dad stared at me.
I could hear the air sucking in and out of his nose. “I miss Mom and R.J. I miss my bed.”
Dad had to be remembering me at four, making my grandmother take me on two city buses across Miami because I wanted to go home. I heard what he didn’t say. Ten years hadn’t matured me much.
I met his eyes, then veered away from the hurt staring back at me. “It’s not you. I love you, Dad.” I blinked tears back, Dad’s I’ll give you something to cry about resurrecting from my childhood.
Two hours later I hugged Dad, said I was sorry, and climbed onto the Greyhound for the hundred miles home.
I didn’t know Dad would give up his dream of circumnavigating the world and sell the boat within the year.
I didn’t know that would be the last time I saw the Annie Lee.
I didn’t know I’d wear the guilt for life.
After my defection from the Annie Lee, Dad visited R.J. and me in Stuart. His visits, like the harshness of the sun, gentled on the sandy streets of Stuart.
I think God had a soft spot for fourteen-year-old girls with drama. For me. He parked me in the safe haven of Stuart to scramble back to my feet. And He gave me the balm of a street full of boys.