Growing up in New Hampshire, I knew that regardless of how schizophrenic the summer weather was I could always count on one thing: for several days in August the sun took seeming delight in carbonizing every last man, woman, and child. Insufferably, I did my best to make it through those brief heat waves as cool weather was always just a sleepless night or two away.
But now I realize that’s chump change. And in fact, it’s infinitely preferable compared to the Dante-esque purgatory my family and I experienced when we first moved to Miami, Florida.
We arrived a year ago. In August. When I told friends and family I was moving to Miami to take a teaching position, they first expressed surprise and confusion, as in What’s a bona fide Yankee doing in the ritz and techno-fueled glitz of Miami, where even the word ‘ostentatious’ comes off as a compliment? Then I told them I was moving in the dead of summer and they found it hard to stop laughing.
After a week of mind-numbing asphalt, my wife and two daughters following me in the SUV while I navigated the bright yellow moving van, shoveling endless piles of greasy road food and passing that infuriating stream of “South of the Border” billboards that knew, if you had kids, they had you by the balls, we arrived at our new home.
It was 92 degrees and the humidity was hovering around 60%.
The next day only got hotter. And then the next. I kept thinking it was an anomaly, that the heat would pass. Remembering my countless vacations to Florida to visit my in-laws, I reminded myself I always swooned in the Florida weather, gliding silently across crystalline water as I drowsed atop a rubber raft in the pool, my wife and daughters nearby and also enjoying the sun and endless blue sky. “But that was when we visited my parents in the month of February,” my wife Lisa reminded me as she dabbed at her feverish brow, her whole face glazed like a Krispy Kreme. “You know, when it was nice out?” Her voice was humorless as she rebuked me and my attempt to explain why this was such a good move. Then she got off the couch and banged on the thermostat, the living room growing warmer as the air conditioning faltered against the heat’s early evening assault. I turned back to the TV and its smiling weatherman, his five day outlook like mirrors repeating themselves: 94, 94, 94, 94, 94.
* * *
During the day, except for the occasional FedEx deliveryman or DirecTV installer, very few braved the sun. The palm trees hanged listlessly and every shadow was leached away by the heat and burdensome sky. My daughters and I killed time chasing the lizards that darted across the walkway, startling us, as if they were praying the heavy mercy of our feet would end their own agony of living under this sadistic, white orb.
When my wife and I walked our daughters over to the pool for the first time, I hoped for cascading waterfalls and rejuvenation. As we hurried down the white cement path towards the clubhouse, I remembered all those times I swam in lakes back in New Hampshire, the way the icy water ripped me from myself when I dove in, the shocked inhalation when I broke the surface, running my palms across my scalp to smooth down my hair, my eyelashes beaded with water, and then the extraordinary sense of feeling truly alive.
But the water in our pool was warm; too warm. And to make matters worse, it tasted salty, which creeped me out as I pictured countless fat kids washing their sweaty bodies in the pool instead of taking showers. After about five minutes of feigning playfulness, I told my kids I was climbing out to watch them, see if they wanted to race each other in the shallow end. I sat on the edge and dangled my feet in the water. The smell of chlorine began stinging my eyes and I looked curiously at all the chaise lounge chairs stacked up in a pile, unusable. I later found out that a couple of dirtbags in the community slashed the chairs with butcher knives, dumped a large bottle of Clorox in the pool, and filled the hot tub with powdered detergent until it foamed like a broken washing machine.
“Look at this,” Lisa said as she climbed out and onto the edge of the pool. She held her right hand up to show me her silver ring had turned completely black.
Dumbfounded, I didn’t have the chance to respond as my youngest daughter Sophie then pulled herself up and out. Originally, she had a bright and colorful Teletubbies image emblazoned across the front of her one piece; it had faded to the color of grey snow.
“We need to get out here,” Lisa said, rubbing her eyes.
* * *
Despite the early missteps, Lisa and I were determined to discover a place of our own. We scoured the internet, read local publications, asked around concerning all the ‘family friendly’ venues. And believe me, what we learned was Miami is chock-full of the stuff: endless parks, nature preserves, and a tropical garden that rivals some of the world’s best. There are museums, planetariums, and a sprawling, impressive zoo. But we also learned that unless you spent your time within the cool confines of an air conditioned exhibit, the outdoor stuff was as enjoyable as strolling through some Dickensian industrial nightmare after being set on fire.
We craved the beach, but the only problem was we didn’t know where any were located. Strangely, we lived less than two miles from the Atlantic, but finding a proper beach in southern Miami is near impossible. Yes, South Beach is beautiful, from the art deco hotels with their vibrant Cuban accents, to the expansive yellow sands, but it’s over an hour away with traffic and requires a bit more planning. Also, you have to go shoulder-to-shoulder with a stable of beautiful hipsters almost too painful to look at: all those white teeth and flashy, rippled abs.
Then we heard about a place called Matheson Hammock. It was on the shore, fifteen minutes away, and safe for kids to swim and play. Sounded perfect.
Driving up, it looked impressive enough: a rounded peninsula jutting into the ocean, the beach fringed with palm trees. But on closer inspection, the beach was really just a graveyard of smashed rocks and boulders like giant vertebrae left out in the sun. No matter. In the center of the peninsula was a large pool of water that looked kid-friendly at about two feet deep. The Parks Department was filtering in seawater and I could see the little manufactured bubblings here and there.
We laid our towels and beach toys out on the sanded cement area and gingerly made our way to the water. Children of all shapes and sizes seemed to be reveling in the pool, splashing and jostling in the shallow water. I felt hopeful. But when I was up to my shins my heart sank: the water was at a temperature more suitable for cultivating salmonella and I could see all these dark masses roiling about my feet. Confused, I then looked around and saw random kids with these vegetal globs sticking to their backs, their legs, clinging to their cheeks as they happily ran from the water. Good Lord, I thought. It’s one massive fucking petri dish.
Defeated, I ushered my daughters back and away. And after trying to make debilitated sand castles for twenty minutes, the sun insinuated itself again and we had to find cooler shelter; even our wide, blue umbrella was no match. We ended up driving away in a manner in which we’d become accustomed: windows up and AC blasting, my knuckles white as I gripped the wheel.
* * *
By October 1st., (my birthday), I was up to my ears in the most recent translation of Gilgamesh, while trying to simultaneously help my students figure out what exactly an ‘Epic’ was. Encircled around our table like a desperate wagon train, we discussed the tell-tale clues: A Hero, A Quest, and sometimes a guy lashed to a ship’s mast while fleeing a cadre of demonic Sirens.
Halfway through my last class, repeating what I had outlined with the previous three freshman classes, I began sweating and felt suddenly dizzy. I thought I was going to pass out.
I stared long and hard at the wastebasket until the feeling passed, but was completely rattled. My students didn’t seem to notice and I told everyone to write in their
journals for the remainder of the class. I gingerly stood up and made my way to my desk and was relieved when I found my seat and not the floor.
When the bell rang, I weakly dismissed everyone and waved goodbye, reminded all to check the homework I posted online. They moved back into their worlds of quick chatter and I let the stream of adolescent talk bounce and reverb past me as they filed out. I rubbed my face and counted back from ten, trying not to think about the nausea that was inches away from making me heave my lunch of ropa vieja.
When I got home later that afternoon, Lisa and the girls had me sit at the dining room table. They all radiated an air of excitement and proceeded to lay colorfully wrapped gifts in front of me, stacking them like small life preservers. Initially, I blinked in confusion.
Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday all three of them said, kissing me, wrapping their arms around my neck, my shoulders. I smiled and hugged back, fumbled with the paper. Then suddenly, I began to cry. Sitting there, trying to enjoy this moment, take in this love that was buzzing all around me, I sobbed and couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
The girls looked freaked out, as if afraid that maybe I didn’t like my presents. Then Lisa came to the rescue.
“Papa is so happy,” she said. Lisa kissed my wet face and I smiled and said yes, I was happy. The girls seemed relieved.
Afterward, I washed my face. I came out of the bathroom and registered surprise at the candles lit in a bright circle as my family began to sing. I made a wish. I blew the candles out. And the cake tasted very, very good.
* * *
My brother, who’s lived on Florida’s central coast for several years now, came down for a weekend visit shortly after my birthday. The first night he was there, we sat out on the patio until close to midnight, drinking Budweiser. The sluggish air clocked in at over 90 degrees.
“Dude, I think I made a mistake,” I said.
Brian smiled, taking a swig from his brown bottle. “Nah, you got it all wrong,” he said. “Seriously, come December, you’ll wish you could live here forever.”
Thinking that I hadn’t really fully begun my new job yet, let alone started stringing up lights for the holidays, I swallowed painfully. “I don’t think I can last that long.” I was embarrassed by how desperate I sounded and closed my eyes.
“Dude, chill,” I heard my brother laugh, his hand on my shoulder. I then heard him stand up and not move for several seconds. Shockingly, his advice of just two simple words made more sense than anything else I’d heard up to that point.
“Want another cold one,” he finally asked. I didn’t answer. I’d opened my eyes and stared out across the pond that serves as our backyard. The lights of the nicer houses on the other side reflected on the man-high reeds that line the brackish water. Everything was silent. I could even see a few stars twittering to the best of their ability deep in the southern sky. Good for you, I thought, looking at the bluish chinks of light. Even here in Miami, where light pollution is an art form, these few meager stars found a way to muscle through all that noise and make themselves heard. Good for you.
* * *
In its minimalist way, what my brother said that night carried me, helped me keep standing when all I wanted to do was lay down. Does this mean that I now consider Florida my home and plan on living here forever? Probably not. But at least I don’t cringe when I step outside anymore. Right now, my windows are open and the curtains lift in a cool breeze. It’s sunny and about 74 degrees. My daughters and I see the lizards less and less now—too cold. But families, I notice, are everywhere: I see them riding bikes together on shaded pathways, spread blissfully across blankets at the myriad parks here in Miami. Oh, so this is what it’s all about, I once thought without the least bit of irony.
Today, I’m thinking about one particular evening a few days before Christmas. My family and I were walking back from the pool and the sun was about to drop below the horizon. Everything seemed drawn in gold light. Dripping, we held towels and goggles, and our flip-flops smattered lightly as we walked. We had heard that a snow storm was raging back in New England, and we all agreed how happy we were to be here, right now and in the moment, and not back there, traversing icy snowdrifts or meekly gripping shovels. The girls couldn’t stop smiling. Lisa touched the back of my neck and for the first time I heard genuine happiness in her voice. All of us bounced, reveling in the belief that this world was created just for us, and that we alone were the luckiest of all.