Here, I’ll write it, like disaster: Ten years ago today, I left Florida.
My time in Florida is tinted with a beautiful technicolor nostalgia of a fading mid-twentieth century paradise that never fully existed, much like the enduring legacy of America’s Postwar Golden Age. For me, Florida is not a place so much as it is an era of air-conditioning and colonialist faux-Hawaiian Mai Tai bars, of circus people’s winter homes, of estate sales for New York’s exported and rapidly fading old people, of faded postcards for sale a dime apiece in second-hand shops, of the intersections of infinite possibility among the toxic stew of different communities, traditions, and groups. Who goes to Florida? People who want to start over; almost everyone born there else flees once they are able. I went to Florida, and even though I know I’d have hated it if I had stayed, I miss it and love it still. Miss it and love it in every bone, every cell of my body.
My time in Florida was bookended by two hegemonically horrific and highly mediated (to say nothing of alliterated!) events, one primarily and immediately affecting white, wealthy people in my New Jersey homeland (i.e., 9/11) and the other primarily and immediately affecting those who’d been long forgotten by those hateful elites in charge of America (i.e., Hurricane Katrina). I arrived in Florida in early-mid-August, 2001, and I left on September 4th, 2005. Not-quite forty-nine months, less a couple of summers and obligatory holiday visits. That is the hyphen of my life, that is the hyphen (The Dickensian even supposing— ) that has defined my existence. Even-supposing and even-still.
These two calamities and my evolution in understanding them defined my youth. Childhood was everything before 9/11; adulthood, everything after. In between, however, were my years in Florida, a liminal state belonging to neither childhood nor adulthood, just as Florida itself belongs properly to neither the South nor to the North. Consciousness may have dawned in New Jersey, but my understanding of myself as an autonomous human being occurred in Florida. My first term of college, as a Russian major: vi Flu-Ree-dyuh. The lessening of shameful shackles to my family: vi Sara-sot-yuh. A sense of myself: Mee-nyeh zavoot Mir-an-da. (I gave up on Russian after one term)
You show me those numbers like that on my dying bed, I will tell you this. I will tell you, I will narrate this to you because narrative is important – everyone has got a story! I still believe, I still really believe this. And my story, my colonialist myopia, still involves a technicolor super-saturated Florida that was never mine, never existed, a place slowly dying out but that was irrevocably mine for the taking and the reworking into my own story. Even now, my mental construct of this place seems to exist only as it serves my needs. This is because I had the privilege to leave.
In the deceptively and poetically small space of that hyphen, I lived a million lives, more or less. I became a real person, not one defined by her parents’ unending war or the shortcomings of the public education system. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a place that was all my own, where I discovered music (that others had discovered well before me), where I embarked upon life with a sincerity now unfashionable.
All I knew or continue to know, is that I could walk to the bay, and I could feel the life pulsing through everything around me; if I stayed too still in one place, I always thought, the tendrils of a plant would wrap around me and then I would just be part of the system. I felt so alive in every cell in my body, the world was so resplendent with infinite possibility.
Here I found friendships that last until today, here we ran around barefoot in a multi-mile radius, here we snuck into buildings and fountains at night and swam, here we danced all night and talked all day and sucked dry the vegan protein marrow of life. Here bookcases sagged and we memorized ISBN numbers (or at least, I did) of Critical Editions and here we analyzed the discourses of modernity, here we protested hegemony and here we tried substances and expanded our minds and gave back to the community. Here we found and then lost one another.
Here I sat so many full-moon nights in the memorial chair on the bay, where that one student in the 1980s had apocryphally self-immolated, and it was here I regarded the mother fox. I did this late in the night every night for weeks and then we became tentative friends, of a sort. Before spirit animals were an ironic white girl thing, the fox was very sincerely mine, and I stayed up late nights to trot down to the bay and regard this wondrous creature as I listened to music on my headphones –
(there is also an important dash in “One Art,” you know)
Here I watched so many beautiful moons and talked of so many beautiful books, the inadequacy of words permeating every conversation about the beautiful world of language and its discontents. Here I had my heart broken once, twice, and thrice. Here I laughed and learned to be an adult far from my fatally toxic family. Here I learned to cook and research and wrote 250,000 words on my blog (not this one). Here I experimented, and tried, and yet despite everything, by the end of it I was still barely even a human being. Just as Joseph Campbell’s heroes must descend into the bowels of a hell – and I am no hero – I had to descend into what has become a decade of loneliness and isolation. Here I smoked a lot of pot and heard the “holy shit!” at the end of “O Comely” and felt at one with that beautiful synesthesiac world of sound. And you can still hear it, at the very end, on the left-channel, if you listen really closely.
The dark tunnels in my mind became my only companion, in those years no longer bracketed by that humble hyphen (2005- ?). All my life, it supposedly only began when I got on the plane that day, and even my sarcastic even supposing with its precious and deliberate m-dash…how ephemeral life; how fleeting our consciousness. What even is it to be alive, within a world crawling with so much cruel and competitive life?
In the hours and days before I left, the news was covering nothing but Katrina: disaster porn and poverty porn and oh-shit this is America, our refuse, isn’t that a tsk-tsk-shame, give to the Red Cross and it’s all good, aren’t They walking all around raping women indiscriminately and looting anyway. This was nothing like 9/11, which had happened just hours, it seemed, from when I’d begun at college, and when I was too dumb to do anything but react and cry and look for names I knew on victim lists on Cnn.com. I had been able to see those towers from my hometown; parents of my childhood friends had died that day. But forty-seven months of protesting Bush, and reading widely, had made me far more critical of America’s corporate-fascist imperialist project, and all for what? And I regarded Katrina’s aftermath with bloodshot eyes, and a firm conviction that I had to get out of this hideous excuse for a country, at least for a little while, as long as someone else was willing to give me a visa…
(Esoterica: Katrina was the name of a close friend from middle school who had decided, in early seventh grade, that she hated me and would tell everyone my terrible sixth-grade secrets. I find the idea of her name becoming a vindictive and violent storm slightly vindicating)
The night Katrina hit Florida, I was volunteering for dog rescue drive. I had agreed, impulsively, to drive my trusty old ’93 Saturn up to, I think, Tampa and then down the Gulf Coast in order to take an adopted dog to his new home, since nobody else was willing to do the last legs of the rescue relay due to the hurricane, and I wanted to end my time in America with kindness to animals. With the hurricane nipping at my heels, I drove the perfectly sweet dog down to what turned out to be a nominally sober woman. She cheerfully informed me that she had lied about many important things in her Internet application to adopt the dog because “she needed him” and “they needed each other.” The dog, not cleared for a home with children, nervously regarded her grade-school-aged son as she almost literally thumped the AA Big Book.
A hurricane was hitting, I was leaving the country in a few days, and now I was worried this dog would end up thrown away again. I still wonder sometimes how that turned out (“even supposing –” a mordant inside joke from Bleak House that I use as a textual signifier for things that I can’t quite translate from my head).
I drove back to Sarasota that night, focusing only on the endearing image of the woman greeting the dog. The wind picked up and I drove faster, feeling that I was and was not dying anyway. I was twenty-two years old; I was invincible; I was leaving everyone and everything I knew and everyone I knew who loved me in order to go to a country I’d never even visited and live there; and somewhere in all of it I was mildly complicit in leaving a dog with someone so clearly not equipped to take care of him.
For me, the best time in my life always ends in that vacuum, the lonely gate in Tampa airport, waiting and waiting for that flight. One life ended then. Since, it’s been nothing but loneliness and loneliness. I ripped up my life once, twice, thrice, four-ice times, or maybe I didn’t. Sometimes I think I died then and everything since has been a terrible and occasionally wonderful nightmare. What really happened that day was not the glorious and well-intentioned teaching experience about which I had waxed rhapsodic to the admissions committee; instead, it seemed, I signed myself up for a lifetime of meals, alone; concerts, alone; movies, alone; reading alone at night. Going to be alone at night and waking up alone in the morning. The vibrant young person I had once been in Florida, dancing all night at parties, was no more.
Instead, I was merely scrambling to survive, and falling endlessly through a void. Christ, can I even say anything about my life anymore without it being some twee reference to Indie rock? Sometimes the endless referents make me feel more connected, sometimes – most of the time – they make me feel connected and unreal, as though all I have in life is a Kristevan web of masturbatory, indulgent and pretentious references that I’m trying, desperately, to translate into something the people around me can understand.
I don’t know. What is it to know? Wisdom, certainly, is knowing you don’t know, and the older I get, the more I’ve read but yet – the less I know. So I will leave it an exercise to the reader to determine the meaning of these words I have carelessly spewed forth into the uncaring and unforgiving digital void.
— even supposing —