Mom scooped us from the sailboat we lived aboard in Miami, grabbed a new husband, and tossed us into a new town.
I landed on cat feet in Stuart, Florida, because I wanted freedom from Dad and our life on the Annie Lee almost as much as Mom did. But freedom came at a price. Even getting where I wanted to go would cost something, I’d learn.
Adults in general, my parents in particular, seemed disinclined to chauffeur kids around town. Or, when they did, payment was expected.
Like the day my stepfather walked into Amy Kuhns’ house, opened the fridge and helped himself to a red ball of Gouda cheese.
I snapped out of my weekend-long Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young mellow. “Hey! You can’t just take somebody’s food.” Mortification and outrage warred in my voice.
Ralph lifted a brow at me, fisted the cheese, and walked out the front door.
I shot an apology at Amy and slunk after him.
Another time, at six-oh-five a.m. on a Saturday I yawned and locked my bike to the streetlight outside my stepfather’s El Patio Restaurant. Despite the Mexican name, the only vaguely Latin menu item was a bowl of chili. Getting up an hour earlier had been too steep a price for a ride to work.
The wall of sliding glass doors had been pushed aside to open the restaurant to Osceola Street. Dawn burned yellow across the eight tables and six bar stools, my stepfather’s broad back bent over an omelet, hash browns, and bacon sizzling on the grill.
His size fifteen triple-e feet shuffled as he shot me a disgruntled look. “You’re late.”
Ralph opened his mouth to say more, but shut it when our first customer walked in.
Hank grabbed the fishing hat from his head and took a stool at the counter.
“Mornin’ Hank,” Ralph chirped like a bass-voiced bluebird of happiness.
I poured Hank’s coffee, mumbled hello, and scooped myself a bowl of grits from the pan steaming on the back corner of the grill.
The breakfast rush would swarm in any minute—construction workers, business men in their weekend Bermudas, most of them regulars like Hank.
The morning blurred by, Mom in her nurse whites, fresh off her shift at Martin Memorial Hospital, stopped to wait tables through the worst of it.
During the lull between breakfast and lunch, I poured salt into the shakers, gratitude flowing with each stream of grainy whiteness. I’d been freed from sand grating against my skin aboard the Annie Lee and Dad sandpapering my heart.
After lunch, I left Ralph mopping the floors and pedaled into sunshine. The smell of grease whisked away in the warm wind. A splotch of catsup had dried on my sneaker. Coins bulged in my apron pocket and clinked against my thigh. Life was good.
When I stopped to cross Ocean Boulevard, the grease stench wafted up from my T-shirt—not so different from how the Annie Lee clung to me through life.
The boat spanned half my life while Dad built her in our Miami backyard and we moved aboard for my folks’ long kiss good-bye. Divorce had been a steep price to exit dysfunction, but I’d never really be free of the Annie Lee. Dad named her for me. She and her angst were me.
My Miami friend Jody and I learned a lesson about the cost of transportation when she came to visit.
Desperate to get to the pool for a swim, we sweated our way along Ocean Boulevard for a mile. We had another two and a half miles to go.
Jody stuck out her thumb.
An old guy—somewhere north of thirty—pulled his Ford Cortina onto the sandy berm of St. Lucie Boulevard.
We climbed into the front seat, Jody first because she had guts.
After we told him where we were going, he said, “You girls put out?”
My knuckles whitened on the door handle. I could jump if I had to, pull Jody with me. I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but I knew the price of the ride was more than I’d pay.
“No, sorry.” Jody shrugged like it was a question fourteen-year-old Catholic girls got a lot.
My only hitchhiking experience ended when we were deposited creeped-out, but unharmed, at Sunrise Inn.
We cannon-balled and dove, and I bartered household duties for a ride home in Mom’s Duster.
That evening at the Civic Center, while Jody flirted with a blond guy and my boyfriend—pure black T-shirted hotness—shot pool, I played chess.
Jody disappeared with the surfer kid for less cerebral games.
Check-mated, I was happy to follow my boyfriend out the door and down to the river.
We dangled our legs over a cement culvert.
The lights of Stuart glittered across the Saint Lucie River—white like the THC tablet he held out in his palm.
No matter how enamored I was with his hair-in-the-eyes cuteness or how much he talked, I wasn’t slipping that pill between my lips. Like getting up an hour early for work or putting out—whatever that meant—some price tags I wouldn’t pay.
I rounded up Jody, and headed home—minus a boyfriend.
Thank God I’d picked up some decision-making skills traipsing around Stuart that kept me safe. My Catholic upbringing came into play, no doubt. And I think God built fraidy-cat into me for my own good. He knew I had a boatload of hurts to haul around already.
Several years later I landed on cat feet in God’s healing—a no-cost kind of freedom. But still, a long, long walk.
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