We stood outside The Copa watching drag queens pull suitcases tied with feather boas, smeared with lipstick and glitter into the infamous nightclub. The air was thick and still. Instead of moving around, it pushed in and down on us, like gravity.
The barometric pressure drops lower than low before a hurricane.
My boyfriend, Jimmy, and I took a final breath before dragging our own things, two suitcases, sleeping bags, our cockatiel, Sonny, in his cage along with the tension of our precarious relationship through the doors of the Italian restaurant where we would be riding out Hurricane Georges – a category three hurricane headed directly for our island home of Key West.
Fourteen people, four dogs, two cats and our bird gathered in the restaurant to wait out the storm. While most of the residents and all of the tourists had evacuated the island, we’d opted to stay, and in little groups of threes and fours we listened at the back door and peeked through the cracks in the plywood covering the windows, waiting with a combined excitement, dread, for the forces of nature to remind us of our particular human- ness, to demand that we relinquish ourselves, powerless before the face of God as it surged forth from the heavens.
Dining tables were transformed into activity centers. Someone had set out puzzles on one, and another had a couple of guitars, and a harmonica. Another was covered with paper, scissors and paints. That’s where Maggie sat. The beautiful girl from Queens that Jimmy was falling in love with. It was obvious how much he was into her, preferred her company to mine. He told me he liked the way she said “Moms.”
“There’s a whole group of people here that get up in the morning and go kayaking and biking and aren’t hung over everyday.” He had said to me when he first met her.
I responded by looking at him like he was crazy talking.
While some sat around putting the puzzles together and strumming the guitars, others filled the bar stools sipping wine, rolling joints and giggling through hazy, gray smoke rings.
I was one of them.
The part of me that could deny my own rampant infidelity and nurture monster-sized jealousy of Maggie could fill the room, hang off the edge of the island, spill onto the reef and impale itself on the jagged edge of a wrecked ship.
I drank to that.
Jimmy said I should come home before dawn once in awhile.
I said, Don’t cramp my style.
By the time the storm hit, it was demoted to a category one. But it was still strong enough to bend palm trees in half, send rooftops flying like carpets down the center of Duval street and blow thousands of terrified little birds with bright orange and electric blue wings all the way from Cuba. One would land shivering underneath the Bougainvillea bushes outside the back door.
I tried to save it, cupping it in my palms and nestling it into a box with water and some of Sonny’s birdseed. I tried to save it by sheer-willing it to live. It was lying all cold and stiff the next morning, its tiny legs curled like telephone wire on its chest.
The parallel was completely lost on me.
We were fortunate to be connected to a small generator and propane tank and we heartily took to the task of emptying the walk-in refrigerator before the food spoiled and wasted.
By candlelight, the chefs prepared buffets of cheese and berries for breakfast, antipasto for lunch and for dinner we pushed tables together, set them with linens, silver and crystal stemware for family-style Italian dinners; heaping trays of medium-rare filet mignon, baskets of crispy carta de musica, toasty brushettas, pomodoro pasta and spicy arugula salads dripping with truffle oil.
Afterwards we sipped creamy cappuccinos till nothing was left but the sweetest, foamiest bits to mix into our tiny glasses of grappa. Like jet fuel, we joked. Drinking grappa made our eyes become glassy little slits, caused our laughter to break out in gusts.
As I worked my way to the back door to smoke my mind burned with the image of Jimmy, at dinner, leaning in to Maggie’s every word, unabashedly held rapt by her perfect bone structure and bright, salty eyes.
It was obvious.
I held onto the door jam for support, my legs, full to the thighs with Barolo and Aquavit, and lit the wrong end of my cigarette while the wind blew the whole entire sea right up onto the island with a howl, a force, a screaming gale that shook the walls, ripped holes in the rooftop, sent briny rivers down the sidewalks.
Cayo Hueso shook and rattled its long dead bones.
I’d like to scream that loud, I thought. I’d like to blow the whole world down.
I imagined Jim and Maggie would be caught in my outburst and be thrown out into the atmosphere until they were just tiny specks that eventually disappeared. Like debris.
During the ethereal eye of the hurricane that passed directly over us we cautiously opened the doors and took intrepid walks through an atmosphere, heavy and silent as a wool cloak, a vacuum. We said Hey to the drag queens peeking their stubbled chins out of the Copa before we all had to hide away again from a wind that blew in from the opposite direction, bending the palm trees over to the other side. Their fronds would be left vertical and askew, like wild, punk rock hair.
The giant banyan in the front yard of Shel Silverstein’s house on Williams Street fell over during this backhanded wind. Rumor said it was the tree that inspired The Giving Tree, a beautiful book about a tree that loves, unconditionally, a selfish little boy.
Its enormous root ball lay wet on the sidewalk, exposed and vulnerable, its trunk, cracked and broken.
I would read in the Miami Herald about the death of Shel Silverstein seven months later, an event that lay to rest a powerful piece of my childhood. He was downed, like his tree, by a massive heart attack at the age of sixty-eight.
We became goldfish in a bowl, swimming circles around the dining room during the second half of the storm. The novelty worn, everyone wanting a shower, some privacy. Round and round we passed, wearing expressions that said, “You again?” The smell of wet leaves, algae and unearthing seeped in through the leaking ceiling, dripped with a plipplipplip into plastic bus tubs on the floor.
Georges raged on by his own set of rules.
The great storm ended, as all things do, even trees, and birds and poets. Even love. It eventually dissipated, melted into driving, then drizzling rain, and moved up into mainland Florida late on a Sunday night. The next morning, as the sun peeked through the cloud cover, the DJ’s on the crackling transistor radio that had kept us connected to the world that week chose Jimmy Buffet’s Come Monday as the first song since the evacuations began.
Someone, maybe even Beautiful Maggie From Queens, turned up the volume.
Come Monday, it’ll be all right.
Come Monday, I’ll be holding you tight.
To this day, that song transports me.
And, of course, we were all right. We had survived the storm and would come, over the years to survive many other things.
But it was she, not me, that he was holding tight.