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Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade
I look out my window to the sea. For fifteen years I’ve wanted an ocean view, and now I finally have one. But on stormy days the white waves seem to crash too close to my window. Everyone agrees South Florida is sinking, the limestone below so porous not even a seawall can save us. Saltwater puddles appear in a park, startled fish circling their new small home. Something called a super moon floods the side streets, even though there hasn’t been a drop of rain. I keep rubber boots in my Honda’s back seat, sneakers in my office for overflowing parking lots. Yellow plastic ponchos. Umbrellas. Money in the freezer in case of a hurricane, in case the ATMs and credit card machines are down. The rest of the country blames us—our crazy politics and love of suntans, our reckless drivers and overdevelopment. I always thought Florida would be a great place to retire, but now I think South Florida and I have roughly the same life expectancy. You may have heard of senicide or geronticide, the Inuit practice of leaving an elderly person on a chunk of ice to float away and die. The last such known person was put to death this way in 1939. Now there are fewer ice chunks near the North Pole, the glaciers melting. I imagine all of Florida’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities filling with water, the beeping of life-maintaining machines drowned in salt. I think of my Florida town lovingly, like a spouse, hoping I die first.
My friend calls it Militia-gan, but I can’t help but feel hope for the earth even amongst the survivalists in their camo, the dudes with gun racks. When we get up to Walloon Lake, I think where are all the condos? The hotels? The theme parks? This is just one of 11,000 lakes, a local tells me. Instead of neon and tourist traps, there’s land and more land. Hiking trails, kids with fishing poles. As long as there have been writers and artists, there have been those who have idealized nature, seen themselves reflected in streams and mountains. It almost makes me forget Detroit where I flew in, and the cab passing by street after street of foreclosure signs, boarded up windows and overgrown lawns. Not so long ago, Detroit looked the rest of Michigan, before the colonists arrived, before industrialization, before the car industry, before cars. Though everyone agrees we are living in the Anthropocene and there’s no turning back, going to the lakes in Michigan is a way of at least imagining humans who used to live on a planet they only slightly influenced. Now nature is trying to thrive despite concrete, plastic, and carbon on a human-sphere. Everyone is having trouble checking their emails on Walloon Lake. There’s not great cell phone reception. The lodge is full of grumbles at first, full of people flinging empty water bottles into a recycling bin. But then we all look at our hands, shaped like Michigan, and, forgetting what we’ve done to the world, amuse ourselves by pointing out where we are.
Some sections were so depressed Mother Teresa couldn’t believe she was still in America. My friend drove me through the Delta, “the Mississippi of the Mississippi” in the state that has been called “the South of the South.” Black shoeless kids fished in water where the carp had high levels of DDT and Toxaphene. The pebbly road was lined with shacks patched with cardboard. Windows with broken glass or no glass at all. My friend had done her time as a social worker helping families without plumbing, families who drank Mountain Dew since there was no clean water. We drove past a sign for the ironically named Money, the town where Emmett Louis Till was killed in 1955. We were on our way to Oxford, also oddly named, I thought—Mississippi nothing at all like Great Britain. My friend said Oxford was indeed named after the famous university, the city’s founders hoping to secure state money to open a school. Maybe Money was also named as a wish, even though that one didn’t come true. Just a little over an hour away, Oxford was like another state unto itself, “The Square” full of high-end shops—Frock Fashions, Lulu’s Shoes, Cicada, Hinton and Hinton, Miss Behavin. We sampled treats at Insomnia Cookies and Holli’s Sweet Tooth knowing we were no Mother Teresas. Though we just missed the tour of William Faulkner’s house, we strolled through Pat Lamar Park with a fishing lake stocked for kids under sixteen. There were prizes awarded to the biggest catches for the white children competing in the “fishing rodeo.”
As a kid I was a fan of theme parks—Jolly Cholly’s in Attleboro, MA where the entrance was a clown in a top hat. You’d walk through his bowed legs to get to the Ferris wheel and clam cakes. At the iconic Rocky Point in Warwick, RI, a lobster tipping another top hat greeted you. The Shore Dinner Hall served chowder, steamers, and watermelon. My sister and I loved the Log Flume that landed in pond water and made us smell funky for the rest of the day, even when we dried. But my favorite was Santa’s Village in Jefferson, NH, where it was Christmas from June to October, where you could get your picture taken with a Santa, even if you were wearing a sundress. The first time our family visited I must have thought New Hampshire was The North Pole where elves were always preparing toys. Santa’s Village also had a permanent nativity scene. Three plastic wise men on what looked like hobbyhorses taken from the carousal approached the stable, the lush New England greenery behind them. In 1960s New Hampshire, Santa and Jesus coexisted without much fuss. NH was the “Live Free or Die” state, which I found kind of creepy. New to reading, I saw the motto over and over on license plates in the parking lot. I thought maybe it had something to do with Jesus, who was both a plastic baby at Santa’s Village and “the Son” who would one day rise again. Both Jolly Cholly’s and Rocky Point have closed, but Santa’s Village is still going strong.
As new adults, it was the first place we imagined moving—to a rustic cabin in the woods perhaps, or a pink stucco cottage near the shore. In some versions: chickens in the yard, kerchiefs in our hair, spritely green herbs fresh from the garden. Little tar-heel, my Love. Sweet Carolinian. And hadn’t I been wearing my Duke shirt from the thrift store since before we ever met? And wasn’t she born in Nashville—which rhymes with Asheville—which was also known for its fine melodies, its best of regional cuisine? Then, the letter came, on stationery so crisply white and navy blue it glowed nearly nautical. Accepted, graduate school, UNC-Wilmington! “You don’t need a teaching fellowship,” snapped the man on the phone. “You can work as an extra on Dawson’s Creek.” We cried then, but later, we laughed. Thirteen years into our future, I read of this land where we have often traveled but never lived: “On Wednesday night, North Carolina became the most anti-LGBTQ state in the country.” Remember when we climbed those dunes together in Kill Devil Hill’s, two women hand in hand inside an hourglass, the whole world shifting beneath us, the sharp wind stinging our eyes? Everything was beauty and blisters. In July 2015, NCDOT began offering license plates that read “First in Freedom” as alternative to the traditional “First in Flight.” Now critics rail: “North Carolina has been given unprecedented, unconstitutional license to discriminate against sexual minorities.” Freedom from what exactly? Freedom for whom?
“Florida” previously appeared on the Best American Poetry blog.
Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade have published collaborative essays in many literary journals, including Arts & Letters, The Bellingham Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Common, Fourth Genre, Green Mountains Review, The Louisville Review, Nimrod, No Tokens, PoemMemoirStory, Prairie Schooner, Quarter After Eight, So to Speak, Story Quarterly, and Tupelo Quarterly. Their first co-authored book, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, is forthcoming in January 2018 from Wild Patience Books. They both teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.