Disturbing the Coquinas

This is an essay I wrote last year in response to a call for submissions for memoir from the journal Creative Nonfiction. It is not a humor essay, but it was important for me to write. I did not make the issue (I gave Lee Gutkind a virtual wedgie, imagined myself pushing him in the bushes and stealing his lunch money, and then moved on), so I am posting it here. I like this better. I am in charge here. My story. My voice. My way.

Disturbing the Coquinas

Sometimes when I come home from the beach house, I have so many sharks’ teeth that I find them in the bottom of my suitcases, and they fall out of my pockets and rattle around the dryer like forgotten pennies. The tiny black teeth litter the beach in front of my family’s home. They are not difficult to find; I just have to slow down and look closely at the sand. Usually they are no bigger than a fingernail. I was on the beach with my stepdad a few years ago, lingering and talking as he wrestled a PVC pipe into the sand for evening surf fishing. I leaned down and picked up a small shark tooth, dusted off the sand and held it out for him to see.

“I don’t ever see the big ones out here anymore,” he said.

I wandered around on the beach, just surveying the sand, kicking at shells with my big toe, and then I spotted a tooth the size of a silver dollar. I picked it up and placed it in the interior of my palm, hurrying back to where my stepdad stood tying on a lure, “Like this?” I asked, showing him the tooth and laughing. People find things they shouldn’t on Manasota Key.

Last summer I left my husband in Georgia and took my two kids to the key. I wanted a divorce, but I was scared. I could not see through to the other side, so leaving felt like jumping blindly into the fog. I loaded the kids and our suitcases into the van, slid into the driver’s seat, and took off my wedding ring. I dropped the ring in the coin compartment where it clinked against accumulated change and then looked over my shoulder at the kids strapped in their seats before I backed out of the driveway. Five hours later as I drove over the north bridge, I caught my first view of the Gulf beyond the bright and tidy parking lot of the public beach. I sobbed.

I remembered playing on that beach when I was just a little kid, hot feet hopping sand bags, weaving in and out of sun-tanned adults holding cocktails.  I built sandcastles. I witnessed houses burning down. New ones rising. Grandparents lived and died. I found buckets of sharks’ teeth. All of this prehistory was here before I ever considered getting married. I knew it with one glance at the sparkling turquoise water.

My grandparents on my mother’s side owned a ranch style house on the beach side of the key. The house had a deck on the roof and a modern pebble patio. They also owned a home with a pool across the street on the bay, and I never understood why they chose to live in the smaller house with no pool.  The allure of the Gulf had not yet yanked at my childish tides. They used the bay house mainly for entertaining, and my grandfather kept the garage fridge stocked with cans of soda—Seagram’s Ginger Ale and 7-Up—that he would let me drink straight out of the can. I spent a lot of time as a kid on the fringes of parties, loud laughter pouring in from outside the bedroom where I sat on shag carpet playing Legos. I remember the smell of liquor as I darted out to steal a Triscuit.

I have memories of visiting the key with both my parents as a baby, then I remember being there with just my mom and sister, and then my parents got divorced. My mother must have felt the sanctuary of the key. I played with a little tow-headed girl whose grandparents lived two houses down. We fluttered down the beach, playing house on the sandbags. As adults, we still flutter around each other, kicking up sand. I remember going to the door of her grandparent’s house, asking if she could play. I had no idea that I was knocking at my future, declaring myself a part of the family. My mother eventually married her uncle. Her grandparents became my grandparents. Her cousins became my step-sisters. We were a gaggle of girls, trying to make our own parties in tucked away rooms.

During the day we roamed the beach. We sat on our knees where the tide comes in and dug full fisted into the wet sand. We exposed a rainbow of pastel coquina shells, then watched as they squirmed diligently back under the protective blanket of sand. We moved further out into the breakers and dug down for sand fleas. We brought our hands up with heaping mounds of wet crushed shells and let it filter off slowly to reveal the little grey pearly backs, legs kicking frantically, trying to burrow into our palms. We put them in buckets and declared them families. The largest was a father, then a mother—we named them Sandy and Danny. The smaller ones were their children. We swam out to the sandbar and played like Porpoises, squeaking to each other. When our grandmother came out for her afternoon dip, she held out her arms so we could jump over, perform a trick, and then circle back around to catch a fake fish.

Manasota Key is located on the Southwest coast of Florida. The northern portion of the key—my portion—is in Sarasota County and retains a jungle-like quality, thick with mangroves and dark green vegetation opening onto a fickle beach. Some days the Gulf is calm and wide with clear water that makes the Caribbean ache with jealousy; sometimes it is raging and oppressive, pushing against banks, mocking self-righteous homes who gamble with the tides. Sometimes the waves lap gently, sometimes they crash triumphantly, but the beach always reminds me that I am not in charge. Letting my toes sink into the soft wet sand, staring at the horizon, noting the curve of the earth, I remember that I am standing small on a planet.

The southern portion of the key is in Charlotte County and opens up to concrete and a series of rectangles. Passing over the county line from the north, I squint and reach for my shades as I exit the protective thicket. I am instantly exposed, like exiting backstage into the blinding lights. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to a duplex at the Charlotte County end. My older sister, who was in high school, was forced to take the bedroom upstairs next to my mother and stepfather, and I was given a makeshift bedroom in the enclosed garage. There were sliding glass doors on one side and at night raccoons would scurry by or, worse, stop and scratch at the glass. On the other side of my room there were towers of boxes in a space used primarily for storage.

One morning I woke up and scampered up the stairs to find a deserted house. I ran up the next flight and stood in the doorway of my mother’s empty room. My ears rung from the quiet. I ran back down two flights to my storage room, just as my mom and stepdad were coming in through the door, weaving their way through the maze of boxes.

“Where were you?” I asked. My sister was in a car accident. She fell asleep at the wheel on the way home from a date with her boyfriend in Sarasota. Her car went into in a ditch, but she kicked her way out and then pounded on the door of a man’s apartment, blood streaming down her face. At the hospital, she had to get 72 stitches in her head. If she had fallen asleep seconds later, she could have gone off the North Bridge into the intercoastal. I stood at the end of the path of boxes. “You left me here all alone?”

My school bus drove over the South Bridge every morning and afternoon, and sometimes we had to wait for the drawbridge to open for a sailboat with a tall mast.  When we stopped, I climbed up on my knees, dropped my window, and hung my head partially out to stare at the water. There were usually small boats anchored in the shallows, rocking from the wake of the sailboats and yachts passing through to open waters. Sometimes there were porpoises. I knew my route was special, but those instances of recognition were fleeting. By the time I was in junior high, I stopped going out on the beach. I would ride my bike on the street and play in the elevator at the new set of condos built behind our duplex. When we moved off the key and into a smaller apartment in town, I wasn’t sad. I was happy to be out of the basement.

My mom and stepdad still did most of their socializing out on the key with family. As an adult, I see the attractive nuance of that arrangement. My mother’s parents moved away and into a condo down in Key Biscayne, so we spent most of our time at my step grandparents’ home. Our car would crunch into the gravel driveway, and I would run inside to find a hiding place to play, usually with my sisters and cousin. The adults would find cocktails and stand around laughing. That is what I was taught about family. When I interact with other families, those that sit soberly in rooms and talk quietly or not at all, I feel claustrophobic. The generations have shifted, but this is still how we connect. We have cocktails. We don’t sit down.

They started construction on a new home about a half mile down the beach. My cousin and I ran between the houses on the road, pretending we were spies. When a car approached, we hid in the bushes or scampered up the dense tropical driveways, hiding from unsuspecting drivers. We never went on the beach—certainly the most efficient way to walk between the houses—instead we walked the narrow shoulders of the curving beach road. The beach was for tanned old ladies in padded one-piece swim suits. We were girls of the jungle.

One night, my mother and stepdad loaded us into the car after a New Year’s Eve party. Before we got to the south bridge, we were hit head on by a drunk driver. I had a bloody nose, and I smeared it all over my face. I was sure I was dying, so I did my multiplication tables silently to convince myself I didn’t have brain damage. People filed out from the dive bar across the street to help. I remember a lady reaching in the car to pull us out; she lined us up on the curb, little girls caked in blood. As bad as it looked, all of us kids were fine. My mom broke her ankle, and my stepdad shattered his femur bone. He was stuck in the car. I was sitting in the back of an ambulance with my sisters as he looked out the passenger window. When they fired up the Jaws of Life to get him out, I covered my eyes with blood-stained hands. I knew even at that moment that he was glad that it was him. My family book-ended the key with accidents. Moments of survival.

After the accident, I was forever tethered to my own mortality. I learned to be afraid, and I applied it to everything: cars, planes, elevators, emotions. When I got home from the hospital, I wouldn’t look in the mirror for several days—I had no lasting injuries—my face was just bruised and puffy. I was scared to go to sleep because I was not sure I would wake up. One night, I dozed off in my mother’s bed, and when I woke up it was completely dark. I thought I had gone blind, so I just silently searched the room for something I could see, and when I found a square of light on the floor coming from underneath the door, I caught my breath.  I wandered around numbly for days—in shock. Eventually I snapped out of the funk, but I was scarred with an odd sense of hypochondria. When I am stressed, I become paralyzed by the fear that I am going to die. Not with some long-standing illness, but that I am just going to drop dead. In an instant. Hit head on.

There were stretches of years between teenage angst and twenties lethargy that I never set foot on the beach. I never touched barefoot to sand; I never dug deep into mud for colorful coquinas. I continued to visit the key to see grandparents as they aged inside the big house on the beach, which had grown quiet, like Gatsby’s after the parties came to an end. The walls sighed slowly, heavily. Outside the windows and open doors, the waves relentlessly swished, gentle at times, roaring at others—waves of seven reminding me: I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here. I will always be here.

My absence from the beach meant that it could be rediscovered. I remember staying on the key the week before I was married and taking a friend for a walk on a particularly calm morning.  She walked with wonder. I saw the sanctuary with new eyes. I stopped and looked out at the horizon, smudged gently into the sky, and remembered the magic. We never passed another person on our walk, and we stopped occasionally and waded out into the clear, tranquil water. A few days later I was married.

Once we had kids, I took them to the beach often, and I sat in a chair—the sun baking the tops of my thighs—and watched my son ride the waves, swirling in the middle of foam, momentarily disappearing beneath the surf, causing me to lean forward with my breath held until he surfaced closer to the shore. He stood up, rubbed his eyes, and then leaped back out over the breaking waves to stand with his body facing the shore, looking over one shoulder for the perfect wave. My daughter knelt in the sand at my side playing with collected seashells, calling them families and building sandcastle estates. Occasionally she fluttered to the edge of the breaking waves to rinse her hands or to collect water in colorful buckets, and sometimes she sat and let waves crash over her legs, digging her hands down into the wet sand, disturbing colonies of coquinas.

At sunset, the adults found their way onto the beach, and we all mingled in the sand, ice clinking in high ball glasses, the kids weaving in and out like they were doing a Maypole dance, kicking up sand. Then we wandered back up to the house and stood around in the kitchen, grabbing at food, refilling our drinks, loud laughter pouring into bedrooms where piles of sisters, brothers, and cousins lay on blankets across the floor, watching movies. The waves crashing outside triumphantly.

I stayed at the beach with my kids for two weeks before I went home and filed for divorce. My family came and went; we celebrated the Fourth of July. Before they arrived, everyone knew that I was trying to decide whether or not to pick up the axe, to chop down my family tree. Word had spread, not insidiously but like a whisper of “timber” that rustles the leaves, and the trees nod, knowing what they must do next. With each conversation I became more confident. My cousin and I walked within sight of my kids playing in the surf, keeping the fossil collector’s pace, our heads down, looking for shells. She told me she was sorry. I bent to pick up a seashell. “Look at this one,” I said, holding out my palm. As she examined my shell, I added, “I just don’t love him.” We looked out towards the horizon, squinting into the sun, not needing to say anything more.

Later I walked the beach with one of my sisters. We dodged a wave, our feet synchronously searching for more compact sand, and I confessed, “One day I was standing in my closet, hanging up clothes, and I thought that I might have a chance for a better life if he died.” The thought terrified me when it had happened, maybe a year before. I remember clutching an empty dress, not sure who I was anymore, saying it to another person made me shudder.  She stopped and looked at me, wiped a strand of brown hair away from her face, and hugged me. We kept walking. The Gulf ebbed and flowed at our side.

The day before I packed the car to head home to Georgia, I stood on the beach, my toes sinking in the soft wet sand. I watched my kids running towards the surf and then darting away from incoming waves, just like sandpipers. On that particular day the beach had a wide trail of crushed shells set between the soft sand and the wet sand from the lapping waves. I walked back and forth, head bent down, picking up sharks’ teeth and dropping them into my own cupped hand.  I stood up straight and looked out at the horizon towards a line of dark clouds that interrupted the otherwise seamless blue. I closed my fist tightly.

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