Mark’s mom tells us about the giant tortoises as soon as we get to the condo. “They’re out there in the yard,” she says, “and goats and birds and some sort of deer,” so we shed our winter boots and walk down the lane. Chicago in January had been grey and jagged. Santa Maria Island in January is blue and hot, tethered to the Florida mainland with impossibly long white bridges. On the drive over, Florida surprises me with its burst of color: an aqua store awning, a bus bench painted neon pink. I am used to brown and goldenrod and Midwestern restraint.
Mark has been my best friend since seventh grade. His parents paid for our plane tickets out. I’d been spending the winter crying and drinking kahlua in the bathtub. Because I was unemployed; because my landlord said I broke the dryer; because my mom died on the first cold day of October and I couldn’t sleep, because when I closed my eyes I saw her body.
When Mark asked if I’d like to visit his parents for a week in Florida, I deliberated in the tub with my knees pulled up to my chest. Thinking how the offer was too generous. Thinking how I should stay and apply for jobs. Thinking how my mom loved the ocean.
Dave and Jean welcomed us with white wine and party peanuts. “We’re so happy you’re both here,” Jean said.
And now we’re at this animal sanctuary, leaning against a white fence to see the tortoises and the goats and an impossibly delicate albino deer. It’s just a ranch house sitting square between two others. Cages peek from behind the garage. I don’t know what I expected.
One tortoise chews, bored as the other mounts it, slow and patient with his back legs sturdy on the ground. The top tortoise lets out a noise something between a bark and a holler—a rough, urgent sound with no hint of pleasure. “Holy shit,” Mark whispers and pulls out his phone to record a video.
A man comes around the garage and waves to us. The noise takes on a rhythm—a yelp, a yawp. “Come earlier in the day and I’ll take you on a tour,” the man jabs his thumb towards the backyard. We promise to return.
Back at the condo, Mark and I sit side by side on the palm-print couch updating our resumes. In December I worked one disastrous shift at a cupcake shop. The manager yelled at me for tying twine wrong around a box of key lime cupcakes, and I just didn’t go back. I never got paid. I did get a key lime cupcake.
I live off $2,000 my mom left me. There is life insurance money coming, but it’s tied up somewhere, somehow, in ways I don’t understand.
No one emails me back. No one emails Mark back. We push our laptops away and flop on the couch. I say, “No one will hire us because we are garbage people,” and Mark says, “Garbage people with garbage skills.”
Dave comes in and switches on the local news. A man with shaggy blond hair plays the didgeridoo. “Hey, you guys, you slackers!” Dave says as the instrument’s haunting thrum fills the room. “Look at this guy on the TV! He got a job!”
Dave and Jean believe in cocktail hour at five o’clock sharp. Dave drinks vodka sodas. Jean drinks scotch on ice in a big plastic tumbler. Mark and I drink jugged white wine, cold and sweet. We all sit on the balcony and play Mexican Train.
A round ends and Jean and I go into the kitchen for fresh drinks. Inside is quiet: ice clinking and air conditioner’s hum. She leans over the island towards me. “How are you?”
Wine sloshes the counter. “Oh,” I say. “I’m O.K.”
This has been my answer since October. I am not fine or good or alright. I am not even okay. I am O.K., the definitive thud of two letters, the way the K cuts into the roof of my mouth. I know that I am not really O.K., but I desperately want people to think I am.
“We just put my mom in hospice,” Jean says. “It’s hard, the not-knowing.”
I nod while I smear a finger through the wine on the countertop. “It’s hard,” I echo.
“Was your mom in hospice?”
My mom only enrolled in at-home hospice when it wasn’t up to her anymore; when she stopped waking up, my uncle signed the forms.
“Just at the end,” I say. I think of how old Jean is, how old her mom is. All those years, all that time. I grab paper towels to mop my spill and think about the hospital bed they installed in my mom’s bedroom. Her body in that bed, dying, dead. My mom was fifty-two years old. I am twenty-two. When I am forty-four, I will know her dead longer than I knew her alive.
“I’m sorry about your mom,” I say, and I do mean it.
Mark and I are walking along the nighttime beach when we fall into the ocean. We just wanted ice cream. One minute we’re firm on the sand and the next we’re in cold water up to our shins. The tide has carved away the shoreline, the hole invisible in the dark until we are standing inside it.
We clamber out, wet and laughing. My leather hiking boots will never recover. What a thrill—to be walking and then falling—when it all ends up alright in the end. We keep walking down the beach, shoes squelching along that strip of still-wet sand just out of the waves’ reach. At the ice cream shop, I get chocolate peanut butter.
We go to see the manatees laying in the artificially warm water at the base of a power plant. They move like living rocks—grey and slow and confident in their own sturdiness. In the sand, a hundred crabs side-step in unison, so it looks like the entire beach is crawling away.
Jean and David like local historical societies and roadside hikes. They take us to a village with a one-room schoolhouse and a man who shows us how to build a boat. Mark and I bumble along like we are on a field trip. We try on historically accurate conquistador helmets and take each other’s pictures. The Spanish moss hangs pale green, soft and swaying.
I don’t really want to learn new things. What I want to do is sleep. I want to close my eyes to a blackness where I don’t have to deal with finding a job or scheduling a dentist appointment or carrying certain memories that ache in my chest like an infection.
In the weeks I spent in my mom’s apartment at the end, accepting casseroles and signing off on oxygen canisters, helping her move from the recliner to the hospital bed, listening to her moan in her sleep at the end of every breath, locking myself in the bathroom with the faucet running so that maybe she wouldn’t hear me cry—I really didn’t want her to hear me cry. In that stretch of days, I folded myself up smaller and smaller.
One night I sat next to her in the living room and said, “Don’t worry about me.” I said, “I will be okay.” She cried when I said that. It felt like giving her a gift. I will be okay, I will be okay, I swear to you that I will take care of myself when you cannot.
Here is a secret: When she was past opening her eyes, I sat next to her bed and I thought, “Wake up, wake up, I need you to wake up because I am so scared, and you are my mom, and when I am scared you take care of me.”
This is the role of a daughter: selfish, terrified, wanting and wanting and wanting beyond measure.
We walk with Jean to the wildlife rescue to collect our tour. The man takes us around the side of the house and we stand in front of a large cage with a grubby white bird.
“He belonged to a drug dealer who got busted,” the man explains. “Dealer went to jail. He came here. He talks a little—’Polly want a goddamn cracker?’“
The bird shuffles to the front of the cage, cocks his head at me, and says, “Hey, white girl.”
Mark and I inhale sharply and turn to each other, eyes wide in silent agreement. This is the greatest thing we have ever witnessed.
More cages along the back of the garage: a raccoon with mange, a pelican with a broken wing. A fox with one eye paces a kennel with the furious energy of being contained.
We go inside the garage to see the rows of incubators, aquariums, cages. The man pulls a Tupperware from under a lamp and pops off the hole-punched lid: two baby squirrels, impossibly small, huddled together on a blue rag. A baby squirrel must be bottle fed every two and a half hours, around the clock. They look fragile, fetal.
He bustles around the garage, checking thermometers on the alligator tank. The door to the kitchen stands open. His wife appears, smiling hello. They are both so normal, white hair and smile lines. I can see inside, to the pictures of grandkids on the fridge.
“You’re doing such good work here,” Jean says, and the woman nods.
“We try,” she says. “We can’t ever go on a vacation, but we try our best.”
On the walk back to the condo, I try to imagine it: The grunt of two tortoises in the yard. The growl of a cougar pacing a kennel. Waking up to feed baby squirrels through the night. How quickly did it all happen? A sick possum, a feral cat, a drug dealer’s parrot, and then this—your whole life swallowed up in trying to do good.
“I don’t really understand the animal rescue,” I say. “Like the tortoises and the parrots and the fox I get. But why the squirrels? There are so many squirrels. Why not just let them die?”
Mark makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. I wonder when I started saying things like that.
On my last night in town, we go to dinner. Dave and Jean asked if I’d stay another week, and I declined. Things to get back to, I said.
I order crab cakes. Dave gets the table a bottle of wine, and then another. A fat man plays acoustic Elton John songs by the light of the full moon.
When I stand up, I stumble. I hope that I can find the bathroom and then find my way back. You are very drunk, I tell myself, both surprised and delighted. The restaurant’s wide patio opens up to the ocean. White lights string from the tops of palm trees.
When I find the bathroom, I laugh, victorious. The fat man plays “Rocket Man.” What a nice night, I think. What a lovely, lovely night.
I shove my sandals and sundresses and still-damp swimsuit in my duffel bag with no fanfare. I hug Dave and Jean goodbye and Mark drives me back over that long, impossible bridge to the airport.
A month later, back in the February cold, I will lace up the hiking boots still stained with saltwater and I will go for a walk. The sky will be grey and the trees will be grey. The dirt path will wind by a railroad where three teen boys balance on the tracks, singing out of tune. I will look at the sky and I will look at the trees and I will think, She will not come back to you.
Original artwork by Megan Kirby.