Miami must sound more romantic from Ohio than it does when your skin is actually sizzling in Johnson’s Baby Oil under the South Florida sun.
I glanced at my cousin Di who re-upped for a second stint on the Annie Lee this summer.
She laid tanning on the fore cabin beside her older sister, Cathy, and their cousin, Denise, who both graduated from high school last month.
I sat in the shade under the cockpit tarp. Every pore of my body sweated.
Even Miami rain was rude—dumping its daily bucket of bathwater on our heads. Now, five minutes later, it steamed up from the decks and dock, creating a marina-sized sauna.
I shook my head. They were crazy for leaving the pretty green hills of Ohio.
Josh, the pelican, sat on a piling off the stern, nodding his head as though he agreed.
Later, while Di and I slept safely in my cabin, damp night air wafting through the open hatch, the older girls dozed on the aft deck. Only a four-inch high gunwale kept them from rolling into the bay in their sleep. But I didn’t blame them for choosing the deck over the cockpit.
They must have heard about the injured turtle with a shell the size of a hula hoop who convalesced in the cockpit this winter, smearing turtle blood on my pristine paint job.
The nurse and pet-lover in Mom made Dad pull over and pick up the reptile. When the beady-eyed beast perked up, Dad wanted to dump him overboard.
Turtles swam. He’d be fine.
But Mom insisted we return him to the berm of Biscayne Boulevard where she found him—another disagreement between my parents to add to the junk pile they’d already amassed.
Every night we opened a mystery can from the cache of dented, label-less cans Dad scored at Winn Dixie. And that’s what we had for supper—plus fish, of course. Tonight’s tin-can-keno drew hominy.
The girls groused that a disproportionate number of cans contained hominy.
But I loved the starchy, oversized corn kernels—mostly because they weren’t fish.
Later, we sat in the aft cabin, eating saltines and tuna the teens had bought on the sly. The irony that we were still eating fish was lost on us. At least we never found a bone in a can of tuna. Something you couldn’t say about the grouper Dad fished from the bay.
After Dad went to bed the new graduates chatted up some boys on the pier near the boat.
Di sat in the glow of a bare light bulb in the aft cabin, thumbing through a Tiger Beat Magazine and listening for the rustling of palmetto bug feet.
I lay inert beside her.
As Cathy swapped places with Denise on the dock box, she tripped over our electric cord and yanked it from its socket, starting a chain reaction.
Plunged into darkness, Di shot through the aft hatch like a geyser—screaming bloody murder about being afraid of the dark.
Next, Dad popped his head through the fore hatch and yelled at the girls to pipe down or go to bed.
Cathy plugged in the electric cord.
Di harrumphed back into the cabin.
I let out half a snore and rolled over—a skill that later played well raising four children.
The next day Mom’s friend from nursing school and her family—including a cute son my age—were coming for dinner aboard the Annie Lee.
We buzzed around the boat, making it shipshape, the cousins with less enthusiasm than I had.
Mom climbed up the companionway to buy meat.
Even my cousins scrubbed a little faster.
Dad bellowed, “If you buy meat, that’s it.”
Silence was so thick, I could eat it with a spoon.
My parents had Ph.D.’s in not fighting in front of the kids, much less in front of Dad’s nieces and a shirttail relative.
T-bone steak appeared on our plates—so I guessed Mom won. Even the rocky state of my parents’ relationship and a cute boy at the table didn’t deter me from bliss as I chewed.
Cathy, eighteen and wise to the world, later said this argument marked the beginning of the end of my parents’ marriage.
But it wasn’t. My parents’ marriage had been ending my whole life.
For the past year Mom had asked me once a week whether she should divorce Dad.
Yeah, I’d welcome space between me and Dad, but even I knew my shoulders were too puny to carry around a divorce. I told Mom to make her own choice.
The argument about buying meat might have been the last straw, however.
A few nights later, halfway through the girls’ two-week stay, Dad went to check out Jack Ott’s progress building a cement boat.
Jack’s boat wasn’t the only thing in danger of sinking.
Mom took the opportunity to pack me and R.J., the cousins, and our belongings into her blue Rambler.
R.J. later said this was the saddest night of his life. He was six years old.
We quieted as the car pulled up to a two-room cement block house huddled on asphalt in an octet of identical white buildings.
Our headlights shone through the black owl-like windows onto glassy terrazzo floor.
When Mom unlocked the door, our voices echoed around the sterile walls, stiff, cheap chairs, scratchy sofa.
As we unfolded the couch, cobbled together a third bed of cushions on the floor for Di, I thought about last time we ran away.
Dad bicycled the Grove, found us, and talked Mom into moving back to the boat.
This time, when Dad rode his bike to our door, noon rain still glistening on the bushes, Mom told him she’d filed for divorce.
Mom and Dad’s voices carried through the screen to where I stood.
“Jan, you know I don’t want this.” I heard Dad’s deep sigh that usually meant he was disappointed in me.
Then I heard the clicking of his bike gears growing softer as he pedaled away.
My throat hurt, as though emotions had lodged there and couldn’t get out.
When Mom opened the unmarked can of divorce, we all got something different.
My cousins got Mom—whom they always adored. And Florida. Denise stayed in Miami, met a guy, and married him. Cathy eventually settled in Sarasota. And Di now calls the Florida trips magical.
Mom got a new husband—who never supplanted Dad—and enough bitterness to last the rest of her life.
R.J. got a fatherless life.
I got freedom from a toxic relationship with Dad and teen years of relative peace.
I felt for my family and their separate sorrows.
But relief tsunamied over me.
I was the one who drew hominy in the keno of divorce.