The plane set down on the Miami International Airport tarmac. Brakes grabbed below my feet, tamping down our speed. White bulbs winked along the asphalt as the plane hurled forward. But there were no taxiway lights for the sharp turn my life was about to take.
Oblivious to the coming change, I tucked away Blue Ridge Mountain memories from camp and pulled out Miami—our house on Hardie where we’d moved after the divorce, the peaceful, Dad-less year I’d spent puzzling about kisses and why Liz Colette had grown ta-tas worthy of a flowered bra when I had not.
The plane rolled toward the terminal.
My gaze shot around the sea of lights littering the grass. A decade ago the city had bought and bulldozed the house where I was born to install warning lights. The remains of that piece of our lives had been boxed and buried in the storage barn.
R.J. and I had helped Mom manhandle my parents’ bed and broken-down dining room table into a borrowed pickup. I’d run back into the fairyland of dust motes and mildew to root for the box labeled living room nicknacks.
I could almost sense the weight and slick feel of the cowry shell in my hands as the plane powered down. I sorted through the box in my mind. It probably held the hinged stone crab claw and the quartz ashtray we brought home from Mexico in our VW van along with his-and-her hepatitis that took Dad and Mom three months to recover from.
The cabin filled with a cacophony of conversation, seat belts unclasping, and a child crying.
I blinked away our family treasures—our history stacked in the sun-slatted barn—and edged down the aisle toward Mom’s hug and R.J.’s smile.
Maybe I deserved another dogleg jog in life—for wanting the divorce too badly. Out from under Dad’s thumb, I mouthed off to Mom, bickered with R.J., dodged doing dishes.
If I’d been paying attention, maybe I would have read the signs of change.
Before seventh grade ended Jody and I traipsed down the hill into Merrie Christmas Park—named for a girl, not the holiday. Gnarled banyans hunched over the park, dulling sun and traffic sounds, making me feel safe.
A guy in his late teens with shaggy hair too short to be a hippie stopped us. “You girls want some coke?”
I thought he meant soda, but Jody, always the savvier one, said, “Not today, thanks,” and walked on as though he’d really offered us Coca Cola.
In 2014 the City of Miami closed Merrie Christmas Park when thirty times the acceptable arsenic level was found in the soil. But for me, the park had been contaminated in 1971.
Another sign of change might have been my second kiss behind the skating rink. It came from a pockmarked boy who was more talk than action—about French kissing, of which I had a cerebral grasp, and other hazier terms that made him sound one step from sex offender. I considered myself fortunate to arrive at Confession with a correct—if gross—picture of French kissing and the rest still a mystery.
I was the last one done with tests and I never got the hang of the speed reading course I took last summer, but I was intelligent enough to speckle my report card with A’s and B’s and occasional C’s in math. But I wasn’t smart enough to expect Mom’s announcement in the florescent whiteness of the airport.
I unfurled from Mom’s arms and tussled R.J.’s towhead.
Mom’s Chanel Nº 5 still clung to my clothes when Mom said the words that tilted my world.
She’d met someone she might marry.
Mom hadn’t gone on a single date since she and Dad split. The only new members of the household were a divorcée who rented a room and a French poodle named Velvet who popped out a litter of puppies but never learned to poop outdoors.
Before I righted myself, Mom, R.J. and I day-tripped on a cruise ship to Freeport, Grand Bahama, to meet Ralph.
He unfolded from an MG in the muggy Bahama sunshine, and I looked up. And up. The guy was six-eight, nearly a foot taller than Dad and a hundred pounds meatier.
Mom must have liked Ralph because he was nothing like Dad.
He had a job.
He wore shoes.
He flipped burgers—not fish—on a grill on the lawn behind the apartment complex he managed. He talked in bass and laughed while he shook Tabasco onto his bun.
A few months later Mom relinquished Holy Communion, married Ralph, and moved him into our house.
After living with Dad for twelve years, stepfather sounded like an upgrade.
And maybe Ralph was.
He watched sit coms and nature shows and news and movies and reruns and football and if there was nothing else on TV, fishing. Dad watched the Olympics—every four years.
Dad could do fifty one-armed push-ups. Ralph eschewed all exercise that didn’t happen on the golf course.
When displeased, Dad communicated in sighs and the silent treatment. Ralph blustered and yelled till all the neighbors had front row seats to our business. But Ralph didn’t have the ability to knife me like Dad had.
Ralph’s saving grace was that he thought Mom was smart, pretty, and crazy for taking a chance on him. The attitude persisted through thirty-nine years of marriage and Mom’s dementia. It was a mindset Dad never mastered.
Ralph parked in the middle of my teens like a squeaky front porch glider. The worst thing he ever did to me was ineptly “trim” a foot off my hair. It grew back. And at the tail end of his life, Ralph unexpectedly played father for me—asking about my week and my writing when Mom was too mired in her mind to notice. I came to love him late, but not too late to count.
R.J., however, was six years old when Mom remarried, too young to see Ralph’s bellowing as harmless hot air. Ralph’s words mowed him down. Over and over. R.J. wore the tread marks for life.
Ralph broke R.J. like Dad broke me.
If there was a right answer for our family, I never figured it out.
My history still lives beneath the lights of Miami International Airport and at an apartment complex that now stands on Eleventh Street near Twenty-Seventh Avenue where Dad built the Annie Lee. Some of my history floats off Pier 1 at Dinner Key Marina. And there’s a house on Hardie Avenue a hair south of ritzy Coral Gables where I used to live.
But God jogged me out of my history, stepped in to Daddy me. He pointed me to a man who thinks I’m pretty and smart—who was crazy for taking a chance on me. Somehow we raised four happy, healthy kids. This isn’t the life I had coming. It’s a gift.