To live in Florida is to know water. To be soaked and gilled and fluid. You are always moving into, from, or through water. Even the air is more water than oxygen, so it feels like swimming through pudding when in fact you are just trudging across an expansive parking lot.
The aquifer that stores Florida’s water lies right under the surface, a limestone honey-combed structure of vast watery caves and narrow chambers. Carbonate gravel and sand, covered in sharp nooks and ragged surface texture, filters our water until it is crystal clear and potable. Our state’s gold waits in sloshy anticipation beneath our feet.
Limestone is made from sediment of marine animal bones, the ones that swam here when Florida was underwater millions of years ago. Geologically, Florida has been underwater in four separate eras, and has spent more time as ocean floor than dry land. The aquifer is a memory. A memory that ossified into a skeleton that the state is built on.
Sometimes, in some places, you can see the limestone karst at the surface. It is rough but makes me feel tender, this bleached skeleton of the land, an offering of bones whispering something inaudibly vulnerable.
I have a piece I picked up one day, a little hump of coarse grey rock with a pencil-sized hole worn away like a portal. Science tells me this is caused by water erosion. Mythology tells me it is a hag’s stone and if I close one eye and peer through I will see other realms.
It has sat in my repurposed bookcase, my cabinet of curiosities, for the last decade. I pull it out and look through the hole, and the dead moss that once covered it flakes onto my cheek. I do not see into a mystical world, but I do see everything through a silent film’s iris shot, that opening and closing circle frame that focuses attention. And that attention is a sort of magic, I suppose. A concentration and consideration of one thing at a time.
As a kid:
“The mosquito truck is coming, close the windows!”
(All sitting water breeds mosquitoes. Collected in puddles, planters, wheelbarrows, buckets, an upset shovel, little squiggling commas that look harmless, comic almost, spread illness. Malaria persisted in Florida until the 1950s, and still, cases crop up. Every year, there is a new mosquito-borne disease. But we don’t take them seriously. Mosquitos are everywhere all the time. They should – but don’t – cause fear in our hardy southern selves. As a mom, I yell out the back door: Get in here before you get the Zika/West Nile/Encephalitis … It is a funny game to us.)
A generation ago, kids danced in the soft DDT rain that mutated eagles’ eggs into tissue paper and nudged the birds towards extinction.
What if our municipality just sprayed Florida Water?
That old cheap perfume that smells like oranges and cloves and has been made in the Northeast, never Florida, for the last 100 years. The Italianate gold foil label that features Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth, offers a false history drenched in hope. What if they just sprayed Florida Water?
Grandmas would heft themselves from their chairs and wander out into the humid cicada-chirped night, hands straightening their hair, licking their lips. Parents, feeling cool and energized, headaches gone, would open their eyes and smile at everything around them. And kids’ skin would prick and electrify as heat lighting sang them to sleep with dreams of battles and conciliatory picnic celebrations between ant lions and love bugs.
When Lucille Ball lay dying, someone asked her, is there anything you want? She replied, my Florida water.
We all want our Florida water.
Black Water Creek is tannin-stained with fallen oak leaves, thick and crumbly, like desiccated shoe tongues. The slow flow is opaque, full of mystery.
To mark the end of the wetlands module in our Master Naturalist training, my eleven-year-old son and I are on a celebratory paddle with our classmates. We are the youngest in the cohort.
A bad omen before we start: my tie-in kayak seat is infested with a nest of fire ants. As I hit and spray and flick, the ants scatter in a frenzy, carrying their eggs in their mouths and floating off into the water. During floods, fire ants grab onto each other and conglomerate into floating islands that drift until they hit something solid like a tree, or an otter, or the side of a kayak. Even the terrestrial have amphibian skills here.
Invasive water hyacinth has clogged the small river. It is just for a spell, we are told, it should be clear after the bend. Our group pushes through, chopping at the thick leafed obstinance with our oars and finally using our bodies and inertia to jump and scoot and slide over the top of the vegetation. An older woman jumps in the water to pull us through. I do not like this but she seems so comfortable and understands the danger better than me, like she knows the water. Suddenly she slips down deeper and black water skirts her chin. “Just a gator hole,” she yells, and she swims out and continues pulling and clearing the river. After a while, even River Woman gives up and climbs back into her kayak. We are stuck.
We sit and catch our breaths, wondering what to do next. The murmuring of the river is hypnotic. Gentle splashes, wind through Spanish moss, a heron’s squawk, chirping frogs and insects lull us in a quiet reverie. And then fish, I don’t know what kind, begin to fly out of the water and into the kayaks. Every few minutes the silence is interrupted with a thump and surprised scream. We all wait for it.
I stop brushing the spiders off my legs and watch in a trance as they make thin cobwebs between my opened knees.
This river is trying to pull us in. It won’t let us out.
Weeds grow as we watch, they fill in behind us and reach up into our plastic boats. Alligators and turtles bask on the banks and atop logs disinterestedly watching us through half-lidded eyes.
Late in the afternoon, we finally call for rescue and an airboat chops its way to us. We hear its motor and propeller, clogged with vegetation and high whinnying for an hour before it arrives to pull us out in little groups of three.
Next to every ill-conceived neighborhood is a drainage pond. The Everglades were drained. Swamps all over the state, treated as useless land, were filled to create solid ground for development. A crust of concrete and asphalt suffocate the land. Ribbons of roadways connect things like fiberglass dinosaur parks to u-Pick strawberry fields to icy cold shopping malls and chain restaurants serving colorful mixed drinks and greasy appetizers.
Now where will the water go?
Into square drainage ponds that are filled with slimy water and abundant with life immediately. Mosquitoes come first, then turtles, great blue herons drop in on lofty wings at eveningtide. Then there is the resident gator, eyes and nose floating at the surface, camouflaged by duckweed and crumpled plastic bags and aluminum cans. More than once, I have read a story of a convict, on the run, trying to hide in a drainage pond only to be eaten by an alligator.
There is always a shopping cart knocked over by the edge of the water, as if someone was shopping in the cattails and just vanished.
I am eight years old, on a boat in a local lake. The dad grabs me, hands digging into my ribcage, and throws me in the water. I go down through layers of cold and spots of warm; there is no ground, no pool floor for my toes to touch. I think I will never reach the surface, the air again.
But I do and the kids bobbing at the surface scream and splash frenetically. They love this. And beg to be thrown and dunked again. I want to go home.
By early evening, when the sky turns violet and bruised at the edges. The boat is pulled up the ramp, leaking water and duckweed, an embarrassing incontinence. What once flew across the water is now heavy and unwieldy. The dad loses his keys in the water. His kids begin to cry and cower as his anger grows. He swishes his hands through the oil rainbow, floating cans, and cigarette butts. It is the same energy I felt in his fingertips as they gripped me earlier. For some men, it is always there, under the surface ready to explode.
There must be a frustration for these Florida men. They work hard and save enough to buy a boat. But it fails to live up to the dream of domination and adventure. They (the boat) needs care and are expensive and finicky. And no one really appreciates it, no one feeds the ego of the captain. Families just sit there bored and whiny and opening Pepsi’s but not drinking them until they get warm and thrown away half-full. So, a maniacal attempt at a good time is conjured up. They drive the boat too fast, throw the kids off too hard, and yell at everyone by the end of the day.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge connects a four mile expanse of Tampa Bay. Sixty-thousand travelers a day go between Tampa and Saint Petersburg. Workers rush to meetings, tourists stop travel-fighting as they look at the water and shudder in awe at how high they are, and children in backseats watch the sky like a filmstrip through the bright yellow cables.
The current architectural wonder replaces an older cantilevered bridge of the same name. In 1980, a barge rammed into the bridge, the platform broke, and seven cars and one Greyhound bus plunged into the bay, killing thirty-five people. Images of Richard Hornbuckle’s car, fourteen inches from the sloped edge, shown on the news, stuck in my mind and nightmares for years.
I always strive to have the quick reflexes of Richard Hornbuckle. How did he do it? How did he avoid it?
The bridge has always been a popular suicide site and numbers are rising. Every month, one or two people drive to the top, stop their cars, run to the edge, climb over the railing and jump one-hundred-eighty feet into the bay. The water is warm, but it is unlikely the jumpers ever feel it. Their three-second flight ends when they hit the rocks and concrete just under the surface. I wonder if the jumpers think it will be a gentle pillowed fall into the water. I wonder if there is a small hope that they will simply transmute into a dolphin or manatee and swim away from all their problems. Icarus flew too close to the sun, while these souls die because they leave the sun, literally jumping from its ascendant rays into a watery underworld.
A curious fact: many times the jumpers leave their car doors wide open. Maybe they want to be certain they can jump before they are apprehended. Jumpers who are caught are not held and consoled, they are handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. The bridge is monitored by Florida Highway Patrol twenty-four hours a day and there are live cams along the bridge as well as six crisis phones leading to the apex creating omnipresent eyes and ears. Concerned citizens have added signs with hopeful messages along the bridge. They say things like : the world is a better place with you in it. And, if you are looking for a sign, this is it. If you had to create a sign specifically to save someone’s life, what would it say?
Why do they choose to go this way? Is it because jumping has a higher rate of success than overdose? Or the notoriety of bridge jumping is attractive? A website devoted to the attempts and successful jumps is filled with comments and stories from family members and friends. It’s an ongoing virtual funeral and memorial service. I think for some, it is a romantic idea. There is a beauty and hope in doing something so dramatic and from such a storied site. They are choosing to be a part of a community as they cleave from life. Their last moments might be a sublime but spectacular sadness. And maybe that is better than a secret death, all alone.
If the bay were a goddess, she would gather the broken bodies in her arms and return them to a primeval source deep in the ocean.
I talk to my friends and find that many of them, like me, have a fear of heights. Bridges, skyscrapers, mountains, precipices. The fear is less about an accident and more about feeling, the draw, the urge to go over the edge. A secret, we admit to each other is we have all heard a siren’s call on high and fight not to jump.
It takes substantial planning to camp in the Dry Tortugas, a national park located 70 miles west of Key West, past the Marquesas Keys, an atoll created by a prehistoric meteor that hit the ocean and directly north of Havana. You have to drive to the edge of Florida and then some, gather three days of provisions, and board a catamaran when the morning is still dark.
After three hours, the Yankee Freedom, our vessel, docks and a park ranger comes aboard to give general safety guidance about the coral reefs, the heat, and the crocodile that lives in the moat and swims in the sea. The campers are informed on the proper procedures for nightfall landings by Cuban refugees and also alerted that the crocodile sometimes walks around the campsite at night, so it is advisable to bring a flashlight when going to the compostable toilets.
After our camp is set up, island fatigue settles over my body, gravity pulls every bone and muscle deep into the sand. I spend my days sleeping and lazily snorkeling while my kids kill and eat the fish as quickly as they catch them.
Snorkeling is like sleeping. I float on the surface of the water looking at the coral growing along the Civil War era brick foundations and see wary fish dart into the wall. Silvery barracuda and colorful parrot fish swim by, but I am looking for the shark my friend Tekla excitedly told me she swam with in this exact spot a few months earlier. After my trip, she was diagnosed with leukemia and died within months. The only sound is an expansive arrhythmic breath that must be mine – but feels too big. The ocean laps over my burning back and splashes into my air valve. Linear existence snaps free, I am untethered, and the lucent sea is time; it takes willpower to not go back to breathing water and sinking down into this surreal timelessness. It actually feels possible, like a choice that can be made.
When my head reemerges from the water, I am confronted with the cacophonous cries of sooty terns, who nest on peninsular Bush Key which is attached to Garden Key and looks like a piece of bread dough pulled from a rising loaf and just left there strung out. This long strip of sand and scrub is covered with 80,000 nesting birds. The din of their squawking consternation is a wall of sound that does not stop, even at night. They sound like a battered cassette tape of screeching people being played on fast forward. I wake up in the middle of the night and hear them -unsure for a moment of where I am and who is screaming in my ear. I immediately think of the prisoners who lived in the fort when it served as a penitentiary over a hundred years ago. Locked in their cells, no real or reliable food, no fresh water, the stench of two thousand other residents and those birds. The “wide awakes” as sailors called the terns must have driven men mad.
These birds fascinate me because they spend up to 10 years at sea, rarely landing atop the waves; they can’t, their feathers are not waterproof. If they land on the ocean they become waterlogged and sink. They live in air currents, eat fish and squid skimmed from the surface, and sleep in two-second naps. They are of a space that is not a place, that is ever changing and described by ornithologists as “on the wing.” Their location is literally, “en route.”
At night, when the few campers are settled down in their tents or murmuring in their camp chairs, my son Oliver and I walk the moat encircling the fort; stars iterate the sky. The Milky Way is perspicuous and vulgar. There are almost too many stars and I feel their embers settle in my scalp; burning then sizzle-fading like sparklers.
The Straits of Florida lay limpid, barely breathing at night; whispers palpitate, waiting and watching us. Sky and sea collapse into each other and we feel a release from earth’s gravity. Or! Maybe, we are growing taller, like Alice, dizzily ascending into a holy absolute that protects us while hinting at dangers underneath. My son suddenly becomes frightened and aware of the immensity.
He cries and falls back to earth tear laden. Crouching on the concrete, he protests that he can’t go on. I insist, “You have to. We are out here. In the middle. You have to.”
He crawls, digging nails and skin into the rough path, scratching the softness of his knees away.
We breathe slowly and are expanded to take up all the space around us. Bioluminescent tarpon worms come to the surface as if heeding our call, our need to be not alone out here. They arrive and swirl their light into hieroglyphics at the water’s surface only to dissolve a trice later into cloudy, glowing nebulae. Watching and deciphering these primeval pulses of life and spectacle inspirits us. Rising, holding hands for balance, we tentatively pick our way back across the threshold, back home.
Gulf water is the viscosity of honey tears: thick, sticky slop. I can taste salt in the corner of my lips for days.
It holds my body as I let my head bend back until my ears are underwater and my neck muscles release. I am held not by salinity alone, but by some siren-ic ancient heart beat, a sapience with arms reaching in from the far past, a history glimpsed from the periphery. I think to cry, but don’t need to – I am buoyed by the tears of always. The space between shrinking and enormity vibrates through my body. Gulls ride thermals and scream, not noticing me. I dissolve and go under, weakly fighting the seduction to breathe in the water. I think it will feel good, like homecoming in my lungs, like a Sunday afternoon and a pot roast. My child’s shriek wakes me from the sloshy hypnosis and I am back. With the too bright sun and cracking skin and stinging nose and hardihood. Yes, I am back. Linger longer, the Gulf cries. I’ll be back, I say with my fingers playing on the surface. This is where it will end. In Florida, we all have riptide stories.
Amy Bowers is a Florida native currently living in Connecticut. Her writing explores domestic culture, the insect and natural worlds, and manufactured places and spaces. She is currently working on an essay collection about growing up in central Florida among amusement parks, alligators, and hurricanes. She holds an MFA in CNF and has work placed in [PANK], Washington Square Review, West Trade Review, Farm-ish, Assay, and LA Review of Books. Her essay “Manual” is published in A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays, edited by Randon Billings Noble and published by the University of Nebraska Press.