Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Danger of Hurricanes

Hurricanes are scary. Their "downgraded" cousin the tropical storm is just as scary. I know. I've been through a few.

1999. Floyd was a dangerous Cat 5 that was supposed to slam directly into the east coast of Florida. My restless, ambitious and adventurous 22 year old self had decided to run away to a piece of her unexplained past. My five roommates and I were stuck in our Vista Way apartment, a set of the kind of light coral pink stucco buildings seen all over the Sunshine State. Right in-between I-4 and Apopka-Vineland Road near Kissimmee-and of course a 24 hour Walgreens.

Days before they decided to close the parks, the first set of winds had started coming in. In Florida that's a sure sign of trouble-the air is as void as a cave otherwise. "One thing these kids might see is a hurricane," said Mike. An older, slender man with abnormally tan skin, white hair and a set of black rim glasses from Pennsylvania. He and his wife Diane had moved down years ago and ended up working for Mickey. Diane worked full-time in the Christmas shop and still had her thick East Coast accent. She was one of my trainers, warned me how competitive the marketing department at Disney was, and always expressed pity at how little the company paid us "CP's."

Andrea, Mikki, Melissa, Kim, and the girl whose name I can't remember put cardboard and tape over our windows in preparation. We watched the news and listened to the radio until we realized we were just freaking ourselves out more than we needed to. I called my mom, wishing for the first time that I could somehow go home where it was safe. Where there wasn't such a thing as hurricanes. Just blizzards and the occasional tornado. Threats I knew how to deal with. She didn't know how to help me, so she called some friends who had been through one. She told me it was just like a blizzard, but with rain. And it was good that our apartment was on the first floor. It might flood and the ceiling might cave in, but at least the winds wouldn't be as strong at that level. The Orlando Sentinel's front page headline that read "Brace Yourselves" seemed to say it all.

It was one of the times in my life that I prayed really hard. I prayed for that storm to turn, like they said it just might. I didn't wish any harm on our neighbors in the Carolinas, but I didn't want to die. I wasn't ready. Not after I'd spent so much of my life just fighting to survive. Not after refusing to give into the temptation of the bottles of my father's pills at 14. Not after choosing to look at the light, see its beauty, and know that it was okay to dream-no matter how illogical or misguided. I was lucky; I had a future reflection to believe in. I had a light that was convincing and comforting enough to make me choose to keep traveling.

After the storm hit Melbourne, the rains kept pouring and the dark clouds kept swirling around the deep green landscape of crabgrass and sabal palms, we learned that the eye of the storm had started to turn. Worst case scenario for Orlando was 60 mph winds and a downpour. The perpetual parking lot of cars and semis that lined I-4 from Daytona to Tampa eventually eased as people realized it was safe to get a hotel. We were lucky this time. Florida was lucky. I even joked about it with Sally when Disney said it was ok to come back to work. "Brace yourself, we've got a 30 mph wind coming through." She burst out laughing, tapped me playfully on the arm and said jokingly "oh go back home, you Rocky Mountain person."

My former home wasn't so lucky a few years later. 2004. Storm after storm. Destruction. Death. Endless calls to the ex to see if he and the kids were ok. Despite the slew of different names, it seemed like the storms were the same unfrozen blizzard that kept coming back for some sort of past indiscretion. But that's a tale that doesn't belong on the pages of this blog. It's a story my characters might get to tell you, after their voices have been refined by my slew of mentors and the author channeling process.

"Seth" tells me that even in the midst of probable death and destruction that if you want to survive somewhere inside you have to choose life. You have to choose to look at the beautiful sunlight. You have to choose.

Alli, one of my friends from elementary school chose differently. We became separated after 5th grade since she stayed in the public school system and my mom steered me towards what she thought was a "safer, respectable" path. She gave up a lot and worked hard to make sure I had a private education. I'm grateful. I just sometimes wonder what would have been if I'd finished growing up with some of the people I first came to know.

I still have the pictures of Alli at my 7 year old birthday party. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Smiling face that portrayed an image of sweetness. She used to walk down the same street as me to get home from school. She used to roller skate under the red, purple, blue and yellow balls at the local skating rink with the girl scouts troop. At 18 she decided it made more sense to jump off a ledge in Rocky Mountain National Park. I don't know why. I stopped knowing who she was at 10 years old. But sometimes I wonder how someone who seemed so full of light could choose something so dark. I wonder if I could have somehow helped her.

Of course I realize this notion is somewhat misguided. Despite my desire to help everyone in distress that I come across, in the end the internal forces that are driving them to these types of choices are as uncontrollable by me as an impending hurricane. In the end people have to sort through their own mess. They have to decide to either rebuild or run away. They have to decide to either see destruction or see possibility.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dreamer

I walk through the halls of buildings filled with promise and youth. I drive through forgotten streets haunted with pictures of who I was. They're coming back in a bittersweet nightmare that makes me want to run. I realize how empty this vision is, how still, how decrepit, how plain. The gray square building sits there, silent and overgrown with trees that no one has bothered to cut down. A window on the second floor is still broken, boarded up with a piece of cardboard that probably leaks when it rains or snows. The two flagpoles by the left side doors are bare. Blue paint peels from the gym doors on the right, replaced by strips of rust and mold. Sunlight reflects back empty hallways and burned out fluorescent bulbs through the windows. The stone bench remains seated under two evergreens, engraved with the words that the sixty-four of us picked. A group of eighteen and seventeen year olds about to discover that we really didn't know anything at all. Even though we were labeled "snooty," "rich," "professors' kids," "gifted," "smart," "self-directed," "talented," "experiments," and "lab rats."

Our descendants moved to the other side of town, to a new building with the same name. They left the bench, the walls painted with murals of children, yellow, purple, blue and white paint. The gym floor where we ran laps at 6 am, ran up and down the bleachers and spiked balls back and forth across the net until we were too sore to even sit. I'm sure the balcony is still there, resting against the back ceiling, waiting to be filled with the warm flesh and screams of proud champions. The stage, with its long, heavy black curtain still hides the row of colored lights. Echoes of our voices and our lines heard by rows of invisible chairs. We're still in a circle, talking about our problems and our dreams, trying to be supportive, trying to realize that we're not alone. She still slams her locker shut next to mine, figuring out how to work the combination lock much faster than I ever could. Another girl still gives me that wistful stare as I brush my hair before darting to the bathroom to check my face. He glances in my direction as his buddies try to urge him to talk to me. He's wise enough to know he doesn't stand a chance, but not wise enough to realize I'm simply not interested.

I learn to escape to the library, where only a few friends know how to find me. I transform from clean-cut jock to a flannel covered, Doc Marten boot wearing artist with a pack of Marlboro Lights, purchased illegally from the gas station down the street. L shows me how. L still shows me how.

A, T and I stumble into Denny's after midnight and talk about our futures in-between puffs of smoke, bad coffee and a basket of seasoned fries dipped in Heinz. Sometimes we walk through the overgrown vines on the patio of Margie's, lit with tea lights and order grasshoppers and a slice of cheesecake. We feel like grown-ups. We feel limitless, free. We feel ready to touch our dreams. We're alive and it's all we need.

R tells me I remind her of make-believe I. B says our faces look the same. I'm flattered and mystified. I don't see the resemblance until I've forgotten how to pretend. Real I reveals the resemblance was always from within. The other L and I ditch prom in an early declaration of feminist independence. We never feel sorry. We still laugh about it when we see each other. We're still alone. By default or by choice, it doesn't seem to matter. Other L and I know we can always sit down to coffee, dinner or a movie. Best friends never desert each other. Even when one moves to Boston and the other finally starts getting ready to look out over the right ocean.

The parking lot sits empty. The grass is stripped. They say they're finally getting ready to tear the building down. Mr. T and Senor no longer smoke pot together on the sidewalk facing Candelaria Hall. Frau no longer greets me with "Wie hiesst du?" and Mrs. T doesn't pull me aside to discuss the astute political references in one of my papers. D no longer helps me start my mom's stalled Toyota or reminds me that I'm probably the most emotionally mature member of my family. I no longer read Shakespeare and Oedipus or sit in on meetings of the local Amnesty International chapter.

Mr. L's birthday present no longer holds my set of keys. His blue argyle sweater isn't sitting on top of his pressed white collared shirt or resting against his matching slacks. His head remains gray white, skin long wrinkled and sprinkled with brown spots. The philosopher, writer and artist takes us on walks down 14th avenue to see the ugliest building in town. He says there's a lot of them here, but this one takes the cake. His eyes never stop smiling. He gets especially excited when I challenge another student's assignment. I ask how can there be a heaven if there isn't a hell. He becomes my mentor for my senior project and never mentions my "quietness" on any of his written evaluations. Not like the other teachers. "Should participate in class discussions more." "Will gain more if she's not just an observer." "Thought-provoking when she speaks, but quiet." Like it's a bad thing. Like I'm supposed to change something they don't know I can't.

This place, this building. I walked its halls and its stairs. I sat in its rooms, gave speeches, read books, typed papers, wrote on notebooks, watched movies, ate lunches, giggled, cried, listened and spoke. I learned that in the midst of something bad, there's always something good. And what looks good and perfect isn't necessarily what it seems. It doesn't matter because there's always hope. There's always the chance you might get to fly.

I walked the stage in my white gown. Mr. T smiled up at me from his chair. I took the blue booklet containing my diploma. T, A, L and I left the ceremony in the white Toyota wearing our spring dresses and fancy heels, celebrating the end, the beginning and everything in-between.

The student had to be on a wait list for years, have good grades and write an essay to get in. The dreamer still hasn't learned how to get out.