That Time in Key West

By Anne Glasner

The Miami airport was jammed with noisy Northern college kids on spring break, hungry for beaches and beer and each other. Impatient, the woman strode down the carpeted corridor towards the main terminal, outdistancing the crowd around her and wondering where the money came from for the families carrying endless suitcases, golf bags and tennis rackets. She was a tall, middle-aged woman, carrying a turn of the century Panama hat, the kind woven of fine straw with a wide, rolled rim. She made her way through a covey of dark-haired Cubans, all flashing teeth and dark eyes and speaking sibilant Spanish, but in mid-stride, she glanced again at her watch, and small lines deepened around her mouth and between her eyes.

She had left, with considerable relief, the endless grey Wisconsin winter and its complications of snow tires and driveway drifts, but here in Miami, she only felt the stale overburdened, sweaty air of the crowded terminal. What she wanted was to be out of it – all the elbowing crowd and the noise and chattering and the officially colorful signage, pointing, informing, instructing. “Christ,” she muttered, and realized she’d left her daughter’s flight number on an envelope by the kitchen phone. Was it Delta Sara was flying or Eastern? Couldn’t I ever, she thought, wearily, get it all together? The lines deepened around her mouth as she moved through the crowd to the Eastern baggage area. It was 12:52. I’m sure it was 12:52, she thought. She approached a big-bellied security guard who stood picking his teeth beneath a bushy mustache. “Can you tell me, please, is there a flight from New York that comes in at 12:52?”

Without moving the toothpick, the guard shifted his weight from one foot to the other and pointed vaguely towards the baggage area. “They tell you inside there.” She glanced at the long line at the information counter and faces, weary, tanned, impatient. I just can’t be at the wrong place, she thought. Not after all the plans and replans, and the long distance phone calls. Not after the cancellations and Beth deciding at the last minute to go to Daytona with her boyfriend.

The three of them were to have been together this Easter holiday. At any rate, that’s how she had planned it. On Good Friday, she had planned, Beth would be home from her freshman year at Madison, and the two of them would fly to Miami, meet Sara from New York, and drive to the Keys and be together. And then suddenly, it was the phone call, and Beth saying, “A bunch of kids are going to Florida. I’m going with them, with Harry.” She had visions of dragging Beth back, ordering, or even pleading, but dismissed each option one by one as she rehearsed them scene by scene in her mind. Ultimately, with Beth there under protest, there would be sullen glances, muttering under the breath, the stamping off, the banging doors. Her younger daughter’s maneuvers had always made the mother’s stomach hurt, and gave her the old familiar crowbar feeling in her back. There was a closing in Beth’s face that was a mirror of her daughter’s father. The child had not learned it; she’d been too young when he left. It was a matter of heredity, the woman supposed.

But Sara had been willing, indeed, eager for the vacation. New York had been full of slush and grime and defeat and frustration. The ankle Sara had injured so badly the August before was barely healed enough for her to dance, but the woman knew her twenty-year old daughter now faced the teeth-grinding prospect of auditions, the ego-shattering daily throw of the dice, a regime of rejection. After months of slow, tedious dance classes strengthening the injured foot and the relative confinement of Michael’s small apartment on the East Side, Sara seemed to welcome the trip to the Keys. She seemed to want to fling off the New York slush, the unrewarding discipline of the classes, Michael’s possessiveness, and said she wanted to walk barefoot on the beach in the sunshine and not think for a while. At least, that’s what she told her mother, and her mother needed to believe it.

So the mother stood in the Eastern baggage terminal with her stomach turning around near her spine, thinking that if she is in the wrong place, Sara would remember the feeling she had when she was five and the mother hadn’t come to pick her up at school. Sara had walked the long way home, sobbing. She had come in the back door, her face shiny with tears and her mouth pulled out of shape by the accusations of neglect. “Where were you? Where were you?” And her mother had gone chill inside. After the divorce, and after the thinking through, she had in her own germanic way, laid down an iron rule that the girls must be able to depend on her. Because there was simply nobody else. So when she had held the small, sobbing girl on her lap, alternate waves of empathy and guilt lashed her. “Where were you? Where were you?” Oh God, how incredibly awful it is to expect loving protection, to count on it, to need it for breath and life and then instead to find a void, a nothing, and only yourself, she had thought, and wept, too.

Was she in the wrong place again? The woman stood sweating in her neat linen suit, twisting the Panama back and forth. Suddenly she caught a glimpse of the high curved forehead, and then Sara, long-legged and laughing, was there with arms outstretched. Under the unkind florescent lights, she seemed pale and there were lavender shadows beneath the blue eyes.

The woman hugged her and felt the thinness of her back through her daughter’s heavy sweater. She could not tell if it was sweat or tears that blurred her vision. “Mom! Oh Mom, am I glad to see you.” And the words, the mother thought, were true.

Outside, the air was heavy and tropical and laced with the smell of car exhaust. Magically, the woman had wished they could have stepped out of the airport onto quiet sand, with no sounds of cars accelerating, no endless half conversations of other people, no screaming toddlers, no waiting in line for a car, no confusing stretch of freeway to drive. Finally, all that confusion was behind them, and in the silver rental car, the mother, still unsure, still tense, said “You navigate, kid, and I’ll drive. And find out what all those buttons on the dashboard are for.”

Sara grinned and began pushing buttons on the dashboard.

“You don’t want air conditioning, do you?”

Finally, the mother’s face eased into a relaxed grin. “Roll down the windows and we’ll be the only car on the highway not using the lousy thing. For crying out loud, real palm trees.” The trees were dry and sere and interrupted a steady progression of McDonald’s, You-Come-In Bar and Grill, and Ted and Don’s Auto service. But they were real. “I remember when I was here last year with Michael, it’s Route One.”

I could have done without that, the woman thought. Let it rest, she replied to herself. Turn it off. She turned it off and swung the silver car onto the Route One lane.

The Keys began to race past. Strangely named places. Musket Key. Lost Island Key. The landscape was a yellow-green scrub and the earth itself, sandy and un-fertile looking. They stopped at a lonely little roadside shack and bought mangoes and limes and tomatoes. “I’ve never had a mango,” Sara said as she picked up the mottled green fruit and sniffed it. A sand-colored cat carefully picked her way through a pile of limes. “Oh mom, look,” Sara stroked the cat’s thin back. “I miss Cocoa, mom. I want to get a kitten in the worst way, but Michael says it isn’t in his lease, so we can’t. But I think there must be a way to sneak it in. I miss having a cat around.” She sighed and brushed back a strand of brown hair from her forehead.

They crossed the Seven Mile Bridge. Sara had insisted on driving so her mother could simply look. There were pelicans, riding in the water, pompous and indolent, easing themselves back and forth on the waves. And suddenly it was dusk with the sun radiating an orange fire that began to sink into shreds of grey-mauve clouds that vanished into an ombre stretch of sea that had no horizon.

In the thick darkness, they pulled into the quaint motel Michael had recommended. It was in the old section of Key West and the courtyard was lit with lamps, burnishing the stiff leaves of the shrubs in the overgrown courtyard with a luminescent gold. Sara frowned as they stepped inside the tiny room. “Crap!” she muttered, and stepped out of a sandal. She grabbed it in one hand and swung at the plaster wall, smashing a long brown beetle against it.

“What was that thing?” the mother asked, looking at the brown pulp on the scabbing wall.

“A roach, maybe? We kill them all the time. I used to hate them and scream a lot, but now I just step on them. That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen. On the fancy East Side they don’t come that big. Well, I told Michael I’d call him so I’d better. I saw a phone booth by the office. Let me in when I knock, huh?”

Quickly the woman peered into the bathroom. The window was recaulked and the walls were a grey shade of crumbling green that smelled of mildew. She decided not to unpack.

During the day they roamed the streets of Key West. They laughed at the too tight shorts and the varicose veins of the middle-aged ladies and the fat man and his wife in matching wildly flowered shirts. “Touristos,” Sara lifted the corner of her mouth in a fake sneer. Later in the silver rental, she drove them past the beaches where tanned young bodies littered the white sand, like so many well-oiled shipwreck victims cast up by the tide. Sara found an out-of-the-way inlet with only a maroon van and a bearded man fly casting into the water. The water was clear and warm and the water’s stone edge was a shelf carved out from the reef itself. The mother, shaded by the brim of the Panama, dangled her pale feet in the water as Sara waded along the edge of the coral reef, poking among the tiny black clams that hung tenaciously to the old calcified skeletons of another species.

“Sometimes,” Sara said later, as she sprawled to dry on an old beach towel, “sometimes I still want to be an oceanographer. But then I don’t. I’ve worked so damn hard to get where I am, and I don’t even know if I can do it yet.” It was the opening gamut. A feeling out, the mother knew.

“When do you start rehearsing with the company?”

“Right after I get back from here. Oh mom, I really needed this time to get my head together. And I needed to talk to you. I’m scared of it. What if I can’t do it? The others in the company seemed to want me, and I understand more about working intelligently now than I ever did. But what if it doesn’t work out? What if I can’t do it?”

The woman shook her head slightly. “You sound like Granny, crossing all her bridges before they’re even built. Play out the thread to the end, Ariadne. If you like the thread.” And in the bright sunlight the woman remembered sitting in darkened theaters transfixed by the arcs and shapes of her daughter’s dancing under the stage lights. Sara had told her, only a year or so ago, that when she was a little girl and had begun to take classes again, that she went to sleep with her legs in fifth position. “So God would see I wanted to dance.” And the woman caught her breath when her daughter told her and realized that you don’t ever truly know somebody else, even though you live with them.

“Mom, did you want me to be a dancer?”

“Not unless you wanted it,” and the woman paused. “What people love, they’ll do well. It’s a gift. Maybe that’s a talent. It’s also a compulsion, I think.” Her forehead wrinkled beneath the wide brim. “I only know you shouldn’t turn into a pillar of salt later. I’ve said all this before. You must get tired of it.”

“No,” Sara said softly. “I need to hear it. Because sometimes I think about being an oceanographer.” She sat up suddenly. “You know, in that audition, for the first twenty minutes – there were sixty dancers. Sixty! And for the first twenty minutes, all I could think about was ‘I want out of here. I’m going to Florida to study oceanography and I can’t remember the combinations she’s giving and I hate it, and I’m fat, and…’”

“Oh, kid, my darling kid.”

“…and my mind was all kinky and then I took a look,” she continued, “and I said ‘Oh shit, I don’t want to be an oceanographer.’ And then I danced. I really danced and it was all so simple and not hard anymore. And they took me, just me!”

Her mother lifted her head to watch a flight of gulls banking and soaring over the tiny lagoon in Key West, Florida. “Yes, they did” she said.

At dusk that evening they sat at what Sara called a “pish-posh place” and drank pina coladas as the widely touted Florida sun sank again out of sight into a far off depth of sea. The mother envisioned it there, below the sea, turning the fish to shades of gold, and shadowing ebbing seaweed in copper and gilt. On the deck of the luxury hotel, which overlooked a small and immaculately tended strip of beach, the mother and daughter sat without talking, watching as the performance on the beach played out. Bikini-clad bar girls with trays leaned over what Sara was sure were the New York types there for the Easter holiday. The well-built beach boys raked the sand. The mother leaned back in her chair and tipped the Panama forward over her nose. “Wonder what the poor folks is doin’ these days.”
“You know, all the time we were growing up I thought we were rich,” Sara said.

“Oh boy,” the mother sighed, remembering the checkbook agonies, the planning from project to project, and when the checks would come in and what bills they had to cover.

“Well, I did. I never really looked around until Beth said something one time. That we never had any magazines at home. We never did, did we?”

“Couldn’t afford them,” the woman said, matter of factly.

“I told Michael about all that, and I don’t think he believed me.”

“What didn’t he believe?” The mother was cautiously curious.

“I told him that Beth and I had everything we wanted, I mean we always had toys and books and clothes. But you said we were poor.” And the cogs in the woman’s mind spun, remembering the dresses she’d made, the stuffed dolls, the playhouse made out of a refrigerator carton. The girls stringing wash lines between the trees in the back yard to hang out their freshly washed doll clothes, and in the hot July sunshine, their mouths and fingers pink with raspberry juice from the berries they picked in the garden.

The woman eased back into the deck chair. “We didn’t have much money. Michael can believe that.”

In the bright expectant morning sunshine, Sara’s mom and Sara strolled arm in arm.

“I’m glad you’re my mom.”

“I’m glad you’re my kid.” It was kind of a litany between them. “If I’d ordered one from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue,” the litany went on, “it couldn’t have been better than you.” Sara hugged her mother, as they walked toward the boat docked at the pier. “You’re going to love this! When we get out to the Great Reef, you can look down through the glass bottom and see the whole floor of the sea.” Sara’s eyes sparkled like the sun on the sea. “Michael and I took this last year and it was wonderful.”

They sat themselves on seats in the prow of the launch, crowded with polyester tourists. The boat chugged past the great red brick gingerbread Custom House, and past the shabby, galvanized tin sheds where the Cuban refugees landed. Breakfast had been Cuban bread and Heineken under a ramada hung with dry vines. The night before, they had dined, not eaten dinner, but dined on the wide and candle-lit veranda of an old Key West house converted to “fine dining.” They had ordered Yellow fish, poached in the French fashion and a glazed dessert and a good white wine, flinging diets and prices into the gentle trade wind to carry off to haunt someone else.
Slowly, the mother could feel the press of obligatory visits to her dying mother in the glacial Wisconsin night, the press of correcting endless papers and shoveling endless snow begin to drift away into the warm and unkempt atmosphere of the town, and in the company of her daughter. Her graceful, smiling daughter.

That afternoon, pleased with her knowledge of the town, Sara had driven her mother past the small, unassuming white clapboard cottage that belonged to Tennessee Williams. Azaleas, drunk with color, sprawled over the chain link fence. “I knew you’d want to see where a famous playwright lived,” Sara had said. “So when you get to be rich and famous, you can have a place like that,” she laughed.

Sara had eased the rental car down the narrow streets until they came to a yellow plaster mansion, surrounded by an ancient brick wall. Sara said triumphantly, “It’s where Ernest Hemingway lived.”

The mother was suddenly caught in an emotional flood from another time and a love in another time that had vanished. In college, she had read them all. The Sun Also Rises, Up in Michigan, For Whom the Bell Tolls, In Brightest Africa. She had wanted to love that one, but she couldn’t. The old Africa of Osa and Martin Johnson in Papa’s hands had turned to ego and hunting and this had confused the woman. She remembered Death in the Afternoon and “if you talk about it, you’ll lose it.” She sensed exactly who the man was and what he was. Nobody, not her college professors nor the male intelligentsia who condescendingly included her in their knowing discussions would listen to her. But she knew who Hemingway was. And thinking back, she should have known who the man she loved was as well.
The house itself was a towering plaster affair, shaded by enormous tropical trees, hung with bougainvillea. There was a seediness, a mildewed shabbiness about the place. Inside, the Spanish- tiled kitchen was bare of life, uninhabited.

“In the morning, Hemingway would eat his breakfast on this upper veranda, and then cross on a catwalk to his studio to write.” Their tour guide was a plump lady with many rings on her fingers. “Ernest’s studio was an airy room in the upper floor of the adjacent carriage house. His wife had the studio especially renovated for her husband’s use.” The bastard, the mother thought, had the perfect support system at work. Who couldn’t write?
Cats skittered through piles of tawny leaves and concealed themselves in the high weeds and cooled their bellies on the shaded tiles of the patio. “Hemingway had a total of sixty-six cats living within this compound which is one acre in size,” said the guide.

Sara tugged at her mother’s arm. “There’s one of the six-toed blacks.” A simian cat stalked with dignity past a knot of staring tourists. “I wish I could take it back with me.”

In the dining room the dusty head of an African buffalo hung high up on the wall, its glass eyes filmed over. Papa went deep-sea fishing off the Keys, while wife Irene stayed home and took his boys to the dentist and was there when they came home from school. He fell in love with Cuba and finally left Irene behind with the Spanish- tiled kitchen and the boys and the empty studio, where the trade winds blew all day.

On this, their last morning, in the dim hull of the glass bottom boat, the mother and daughter leaned forward to stare at the white sand of the Great Reef gliding past, at schools of striped fish darting through brown seaweed and jellyfish scuttling to conceal themselves. A small, bullet-nosed shark wavered through the luminous crags of the reef. As the launch paused in the turquoise sea, a school of bright fish frothed through the water by the side of the boat. The tourists pleased by the performance threw bits of crackers and the fish turned and dove, flashing gold and brilliant yellow, as if they had been choreographed in the brilliant water.
“Mom,” Sara cried in a stricken voice, “those are the Yellow fish. That’s what we had for dinner last night.” And so they had.

Neither one had wanted to leave. They delayed. They cancelled flight reservations for one day and made new ones for the next, easing out a few more hours. The change meant that Sara would have to fight Sunday evening mobs at LaGuardia and begin with the company the next morning, with no time to change pace. The mother would have no time to settle her wits before the last sprint to the end of the school year. Sara sat cross-legged in the middle of one of the two double beds in their motel room. Her mother, sunburned and freckled, rubbed herself dry from her shower and wrapped a towel around herself. “Mom, I have to talk to you about Michael.” The mother breathed in deeply and sat on the edge of the bed. “I don’t know where to begin. But I know you don’t approve of how I’m living. I don’t know what to say,” her voice trailed off.

“I know you don’t. And you don’t have to say anything. I love you and you do as you do.”

“He wants us to get married.”

The mother leaned against the headboard and pulled the damp towel closer. She was chilled by the room’s air conditioning and feverish from her sunburn. “And what do you want?”
“I love him very, very much.” She said it as a little girl recites a well-learned lesson in addition. One plus one equals two. Two plus two equals four…the tone of her voice was too earnest, too studiedly sincere. I will not contest her, thought the mother, nor ask her questions, nor challenge her. And once again, from a long, long time ago, the mother thought, if I do not move quickly, if I do not breathe too hard or too much, maybe the Awful Thing will just go away.

“But not now,” Sara said flatly. And then as if to protest, “Not now.”

“Then not now,” said the mother. She knew what was being bought and what was being sold. It was an old, old landscape. Older than the seedy plaster Hemingway house, older than the ridiculous brick forts at landsend on the Key built with ancient plans to repel invaders who never came. But the shrewd citizens salvaged the bricks for homes to repel the heat.

This was a lot like that. One tears out the bricks of old forts, the mother thought.

“I can think it all through,” the mother began. “I think it through, but then I begin to feel and I can’t cope. It’s an old thing inside. I have to think it through each time.”

“Mom?” Sara questioned.

“You’re important to me. You and Beth are why I get out of bed in the morning. But the rest isn’t important. Just you. And Beth. That you’re ok and unharmed.” They dressed in white and wandered off to drink one last pina colada in the Key West sunset. Two long-legged women, one middle-aged and one young. As they sat on the wooden deck of the pish-posh hotel, the mother knew that the two of them were as much tourists as anybody else there.

Until it was time to leave.