When I was 9 years old, my stepfather bought a resort in the Florida Keys. From just outside of Detroit, Michigan to Islamorada, Florida was definitely a change, in the end not necessarily a bad one but for me, living in a childhood fraught with the dangers brought on by the alcoholism and narcissism of both my mother and stepfather, moving away from my grandmother and aunts (my mother's two best friends Cindy and Georgette, who were more mother to me than anyone else save for my grandmother) was terrifying. Up to that point I always knew that when anything was truly out of hand or dangerous, I could call them, or manipulate my mother into somehow giving me to them, and I would be safe. And happy.
But now, it would be my mother and her husband, (or M&M which is what I called them in my head, and which stood for Manhattan and Martini), coral snakes, palmetto bugs, wolf spiders, scorpions (and yes, I was stung by one!), tropical storms, and cigarettes. Lots and lots of cigarettes. The move took place in January so you may think, “Damn kid, you're lucky! You missed winter in Detroit!” Uh huh. But I was a socially awkward geek freak starting at a new school in the middle of the year. And (and you're not gonna believe this) they were going to send me to a public school! Coral snakes were one thing, but this was barbaric.
Yes, I was a bit of a snob, but to be fair I had never gone to a public school before and with an echoic and eidetic memory and a ravenous, knowledge-devouring nature, I was sometimes "off-putting" to other kids. I know now of course that my academic knowledge may have given some adults a run for their money, but my emotional intelligence was in its infancy and my Brainy Smurf, know-it-all behavior could be irritating and even painful for others. I remember one of my mother’s girlfriends saying, right in front of me, “How can you stand to be around him? I mean he is always correcting people.” Yikes.
So most kids didn’t like me and who could blame them. And now, I would be attending a public school, in Florida! Despite NASA, Florida, the land of strippers, gators, and more than a few of our favorite serial killers was not known for intellectual prowess, although it would be 20 years before the entire nation discovered that Floridians couldn’t count. Fitting in at a private school chosen specifically for academics was hard enough. With a new school, a new state, a new everything looming, how would I ever survive without my Grandmother?
I never said anything of course. When my mother said it would be an adventure, I smiled and agreed. I cried in my room, or out on the jetty, but never so she could see. Every day, anytime I was alone, for the first several months...I missed my Grandma so much. But then the most remarkable series of events...
The very first day in my new school, I walked in and the teacher was kind. Sweet-natured. And so was the next teacher, and the principal. And the other students were smiling at me. By the end of the first two weeks, my teacher recommended testing for the gifted program (we didn’t have a gifted program in Catholic school!). And suddenly I was surrounded by little freaks who were just like me. We went on field trips, and cared for the classroom animals and aquariums, and did projects together. We had a weekly visit from a ranger and naturalist from the Everglades. And because we were all freaks, none of us was made to feel like one. This was heaven!
And because school was going so well, I didn’t feel that awful emptiness, all the time. It was just the break I needed. Suddenly, it seemed I might not die from missing her. I wasn’t done crying and there would never be a time while she was alive that I didn’t want to be next to her at the kitchen table, eating plate after plate of her spaghetti or smelling her banana cake cooling on the tile counters, or making her laugh so hard she would have to run out of the kitchen to a smaller room with tile counters, yelling at me the whole way, accusing me of doing this to her on purpose, and of course she was right. After all, is there anything better than making your audience pee with delight? She was the greatest audience, had the loudest cackle and the purest heart, and was the best friend a boy ever had. She never judged me, always showed up, and never disappointed. But I was nine now. It was time to grow up, give it my best shot, and make her proud.
I worked hard in school and at the resort, and I began to open up to new experiences of all sorts. My stepfather had grown up poor during the Depression in the hills of Oklahoma. He hated his background, and nearly anything that reminded him of it. They had fished and hunted to survive and though you would think these two activities would fall prey to his self-loathing, they instead became the most celebrated pursuits of his existence. He was a real estate magnate but he still scrubbed down the boat after a long day of fishing. He was a seasoned, licensed, and frankly, superb captain and as much as he frightened me, I never felt safe unless he was driving the boat. In one instance, we were deep sea fishing and the waves were 20 foot high. It was the most terrifying thing you can imagine, staring up from the murky canyon as twin, 20 feet towers of solid green sea water rise on either side of you. We were going to die. I don’t think anyone on that boat that day believed otherwise. Except for him. It was like watching a great cellist or violinist. His hands moved so quickly, his focus never tested as he deftly kept us pointed into each wave as we soared up one wet mountain and down the next, over and over. It was something to see. And of course we made it. He kept us safe that day, the Great Fisherman did, and that was the day a new fisherman was born.
When I wasn’t at school, I was out on the dock fishing. I didn’t know what I would catch just yet. When we were out on the Atlantic, we caught yellow-tail, red snapper, grouper, swordfish, and once we almost caught a full grown 10 foot tiger shark because it wanted the yellow-tail more than we did, and so it followed the hooked fish to the surface and nearly took my stepfather’s arm instead. But from the jagged little jetty and old wooden dock, I had no idea what would come my way, but there was something about being surrounded by the sound of the waves, the sunset, the great herons, stingrays, horseshoe crabs, pelicans...I didn’t have to feel so alone. And when I did, when I missed her too much, I didn’t have to cry alone.
So off to the outermost point, with my rod and reel and long bright lures, and I began casting as far as I could, over and over. And from the very first day, there was a presence there, beneath the surface, powerful, wise, and watching. The lure, moving home to shore as quickly as my hands could spin the reel, was being followed. Not by one but by two, three, sometimes five or six. But they were fast and they weren’t biting. They followed, but they never took the bait. And suddenly I knew what they were. Barracudas. Silver flashes, long and thin, they ranged in size from one to five feet long, and they were fascinated by, well, by me. At least that’s how it felt. They never took the bait but they always followed, and just when it looked like they would be dashed by the rocky shoreline, they would veer off and move back out to sea. I would cast and they would come. No matter the time of day or the weather or the season. A good day at school and my wise friends were waiting. A drunken brawl between my mother and stepfather, the unwavering silver specters would be there to console me. They never judged me, they always showed up, and they never disappointed. Just like...
Everyone needs saving at one time or another. It turns out, in terms of lifelines, there isn’t much to distinguish a warm midwestern kitchen from a tropical sea.