I’d had my fill of Saturday-Sunday cruises, but my family nevertheless stowed fresh water, powdered milk and pasta for a three week sail around Key West and home to Miami on our thirty-six foot yawl—though Dad added the bowsprit and called it forty. Regardless, a mighty small space for a family of four to spend twenty-one days in each other’s back pockets.
On Day Two I suffered serious DT’s from forgetting to hit the library.
Mom broke out Gone With The Wind, which pretty much summed up my next three weeks. We read aloud, Mom skipping the racy parts, me ferreting them out later. Gone With the Wind ranked quite a few rungs above saltwater sponge baths with soap that foamed in seawater, but left an itchy residue on my skin. Reading beat staring at the Atlantic’s endless aquatic desert. I clung to a child’s security blanket of seeing land, and an adolescent’s cockiness that I could—if necessary—swim-float-swim to terra firma.
On Day Seven the wind died, along with everyone’s good humor. We drifted all morning.
My six-year-old brother and I sweated off our zinc oxide by ten a.m. I fixed myself a grilled peanut butter and powdered egg sandwich, which helped my mood not at all.
Finally, Dad threw out a tow rope, and we kids watermeloned into the glassy water behind the Annie Lee.
Cool, clear wetness swallowed us. Heaven.
R.J. played tug-of-war with the towline while I arced backwards, chasing my feet into a human wagon wheel. We played catch with a tennis ball, lazed across life jackets as though we floated in the Fontainebleau pool.
My gaze honed in on my folks in the cockpit, as though a sixth sense pulled me.
Dad’s jaw clenched.
Mom narrowed her eyes at Dad. Her lips formed a hard line. When she caught me watching, she pasted on a smile.
I shrugged. Whatever.
Day Eight—Big Pine Key ahoy! We took out one of our fenders sideswiping the sea camp’s dock while tying up.
I wanted to jump off and kiss the pier. I was never so glad to feel the scorch of sand on the soles of my feet.
I wasn’t sure whether I was more petrified there would be cute boys in residence or that there wouldn’t be. But we hit the camp between sessions and were treated to an anticlimactic, boy-less tour, then left to explore while the folks visited with the caretakers—our former Dinner Key Marina neighbors.
Next stop, Key West, the only horn I cared to round. But Dad dreamed of sailing the world. He’d scoped out Calvert curriculum decades before homeschooling was cool. The last thing on earth I wanted was to live The Swiss Family Robinson, minus the island and best-ever tree house.
We dinghyed onto Key West and walked Duval Street where Earnest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Harry S. Truman trod. We gazed at the southernmost point in the Continental United States monument. Dad said Big Brother lied—Ballast Key was the true southernmost point. We ate Key Lime Pie and pretended we were tourists who would spend more than five dollars.
After days of ocean, sun, and silence, Key West’s cacophony of civilization had Dad quickly carting us back to sea.
Sloppy Joe’s Bar, where pieces of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not surfaced, The Audubon House, and eating Cuban were on Mom’s list. “Let’s live a little,” she said.
But Dad herded us into the dinghy.
Mom muttered something about, “What’s good for General Bullmoose, is good for everyone,” as she climbed into the stern. I learned years later she was paraphrasing the satirical comic strip Li’l Abner. No wonder I’m fluent in sarcasm.
We sailed past keys with names more picturesque than they appeared in person—Sunset, Wisteria, Salt Pond, Buttonwood, Half Moon, Mallory, and Rattlesnake Lumps—until we came to a key so tiny I don’t think it had a name. We anchored in deep water and rowed in to explore.
The island was so gnarled in foliage the mosquitos and chameleons seemed to own it. We followed a rough path toward the heart of the island, daylight filtering through the canopy like a benediction after our day in, day out diet of sun.
I smacked mosquitos on my arms and legs till I looked like I’d re-met the chicken pocks.
Dad stopped short and we all plowed into him.
When I looked up, I saw a wood frame house too weathered to be a mirage. Its time-darkened screens sagged. Splotches of white paint stubbornly clung to the bare gray boards, broken down steps.
“Halooo,” Dad called.
“Nobody here but us chickens,” Mom said so R.J. and I would put our eyes back into their sockets.
We walked up to the screen door, Dad poised to knock, when an old woman shuffled into view.
Her words ran together and she smelled like Mom’s rum ball Christmas cookies gone bad.
We sat on the screened porch, safe for the moment from the mosquitos, in old metal chairs shaped like clam shells.
She went away on wobbly legs and brought back tin cups of water.
When the water was gone, the grown-ups said their good-byes.
I scurried back the trail, outrunning the shiver that ran down my back and the mosquitos—into sun and beach and the Annie Lee fanning peacefully from her anchor a hundred yards away.
My fingers fumbled with Dad’s bosun’s knot tying our dinghy to a mangrove root. We’d been toasted and sent on our way, and I ached for Dinner Key Marina like Scarlett ached for Tara.
If I’d known I was living the swan song of my parents’ marriage, packing memories like a thousand sea sponges into a dock box—maybe I would have rolled my eyes less. Maybe I would have savored these twenty-one days before they were gone with the wind.