Like every morning, I pedaled hell-bent down Dinner Key Marina’s Pier 1, nearly rattling the teeth out of my head. Dad’s never-ending boat chores and a night spent cohabiting the aft cabin with a spider the size of my hand sloughed off me. I could almost see Dad’s list and the spider slipping through the cracks in the dock into the murky green water.
Indigo clouds boiled over Biscayne Bay.
Miami City Hall squatted wide and white at the end of Pier 1. A steady wind chased me past the basement tunnel that led into the dank catacombs of the marina showers.
I pursed my lips and pumped my way across the sea of parking lot around the Coconut Grove Convention Center. At the annual boat show, my five-year-old brother and I climbed boats like jungle gyms. Last week Jim Morrison was arrested at a Doors concert while I slept in my bunk two hundred yards away.
I rounded the corner from Bayshore Drive onto McFarlane Road, moist wind off Biscayne Bay churning at my back. I stood to muscle my way up the incline beside Bayfront Park. Three hippies—I could tell by their mangy tie-dye and surplus hair—had passed out on benches near the playground where I sometimes played. I wondered if they’d been to Woodstock last summer, a debauched concert so notorious it nearly upstaged Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon.
I sped down Main Highway, the sky darkening by the minute.
The marquee high over Coconut Grove Playhouse read Hair. The actors performed naked. I rode the outer edge of the sidewalk like a balance beam, as far away as possible from the eew.
I flew up Charles Street, eyeing the shanties that lined the three-block outpost of Colored Town. My teeth bit into my bottom lip. I hadn’t been afraid of blacks when our family tent-camped on St. John’s beach in the Virgin Islands. Coffee-skinned children had tried to rub the white off my skin with the pads of their fingers. But things were different in Miami. It was 1969, a year of precarious calm sandwiched between Miami race riots in 1968 and 1970. I gulped down the metal taste of fear in my mouth.
St. Hugh’s Catholic School hunched behind chain link at the end of Charles Street, one point eight miles from our boat. Beyond the school, on Douglas Road, a city bus coughed exhaust onto the playground as it blew by a braless woman on a bicycle whose breasts never broke their pendulum swing.
A familiar bubble of gratitude rose in my chest. Last summer, Mom and I knelt on the cool vinyl kneelers and crossed ourselves beneath the kaleidoscope of stained glass at St. Hugh’s Catholic Church. Mom said Hail Marys for an open spot so I could wiggle into the parochial education she had growing up in Cleveland.
I wanted to wear the uniform.
I parked my bike in the rack and skimmed the school yard. White-shirted boys darted helter-skelter in forest green Toughskins. Little kids played hop scotch and four square on the basketball court. Nuns dotted the yard, their voluminous purple habits flying like flags in the wet wind. Sister Sheila—my favorite—caught my eye.
Shy, under the gentle wattage of her smile, I dropped my eyes to her dark stockings peeking between her skirt and black, lace-up shoes. But the smile had done its work and welcomed me.
I fought the wind for my skirt, clenching green and white pinstripes so fine you couldn’t see them from three feet away. I patted the monogrammed pocket to make sure I still had juice money and headed toward the flagpole where my class would line up when the bell sounded.
Jody, Arjelia, Robin, and Barbara swallowed me into their chatter and I felt a belonging that went deeper than our matching dresses. We said the Our Father and the Pledge and raced up the stairs as rain splattered our necks and the backs of our legs.
Mrs. Griffiths, round and squat with hair teased three inches above her scalp, talked about fractions, but my eyes kept drifting toward the rain sluicing down the windows. I was safe and warm inside St. Hugh’s, no matter what went on outside.
After school I retraced my morning route. Spent rain steamed up from the pavement and mingled with my sweat till I smelled like Harry Ferguson after recess. My legs slowed the closer I got to home and my other life.
My bike veered across McFarlane, and I jumped off at the Coconut Grove Branch Library. I couldn’t help it. The “me” who lived underneath the ever-peeling and freckling nose, below the muscle and bone that made my bike go—craved the peace I found here.
I glided through the air conditioning that hung in the still air and down the steps to the children’s section. I’d outgrown The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew would follow, but I didn’t want to give up my sanctuary. I sat Indian style on the varnished wooden bench.
Through the glass, leaves tossed in the breeze. Sun spackled the tiny crests of water in Biscayne Bay.
My stomach growled. Too many hours had passed since I’d pitched my one hundred percent whole wheat crusts—bleeding purple and peanut butter onto my fingers—in the trash can under the St. Hugh’s trees. I fished a browned apple core from my book bag and ate the last three bites.
I pulled a Madeline picture book into my lap and flipped the pages, dreaming of life in a French orphanage where the girls paraded two by two in matching hats. At least I had the uniform. I slid the book back into its spot and sucked in a last lung-full of quiet before I faced the cacophony of my parents’ too-silent stand-off.
Outside, the benign blue sky and cotton-ball clouds didn’t fool me. The real storm, the invisible one, had yet to hit.