I had forgotten how warm the water is straight out of the faucet in Key West. Open the cold tap, and you’ll get water warm enough to bathe in. The water comes down a pipe one hundred and sixty miles from Miami, solar warm under the hot sun, saturated with dissolved makeup they used to say, or pipe rust or medication probably. I drank it anyway and didn’t mind at all.
Cold hurts my soul. Winter always left me immobile-frozen to the sidewalk, eyebrows stinging needles, cold ache in my bones, fingers and toes blanched pale yellow. When it’s cold, people cut you off in traffic and they don’t have enough energy left to say hello to strangers, because all their molecules are busy keeping their body warm. It’s not their fault. We are all ice frozen. Our insides need to thaw to let the goodness out.
But not here. Here the tap water greets you with warmth as your brush your teeth. Here is where I came when I walked out of my life, got in the car and drove until the road ended. Driving is healing: singing Gloria Gaynor to drown out the cat crying in the backseat, eating soggy egg sandwiches on hamburger buns you bought at Wal-Mart along with some Hanes Her Way because you left everything back in New York, except your pets and rollerblades. Driving to beat blizzards and driving through snow as far south as the Carolinas. It was a hard winter that year you escaped, a hard life you had to lead.
Sometimes crazy is a decision. Sometimes you are on the brink of it and can fall off either way. And if you straddle the limbo life will choose your descent for you. Sometimes you flirt with crazy and let it flow in waves over your feet, beach-style, and a rip tide carries you out farther than you intended. And crazy is contagious. Sometimes when crazy is winning in your household you have to run away before it jumps on your back and digs its claws into your flesh. Sometimes you don’t run soon enough, and you’ll carry those scars for a while, but they will fade. Trust me, the mahogany lines turn pink, then silver, and in years to come you’ll look down and be surprised that you can still see them, and that they aren’t darker.
One day I drove and drove a stick-shift car, no cruise control, for four days. My dog, cat, stepmother riding along, radio blaring I Will Survive. I drove through fear. It ebbed like the snow as I got further south. His angry bald head —open mouth always yelling, shooting bb guns at the dogs, and a handgun in the backyard. Road rage, anger management and too many prescription drugs— it all receded in my wake until I couldn’t picture it clearly anymore. A good road trip will do that for you. I didn’t have to be the sacrificial lamb to the promise I gave in church to stay until death did we part, which seemed to be just over the horizon. Mine anyway. I got in the old car, borrowed from my mother, the same model as the first one I ever drove, and the light blue interior, worn-out seats, rusted doors, windup windows helped rewind me to who I had once been. I owned that car when I met him. It seemed fitting that in spite of all the new cars that came after, I left in the same model I came in with. I got in that car with my rollerblades and my favorite cat and one huge Rottweiler and five thousand dollars hidden in the trunk—my security, emptied from the bank right before it closed. I left him most of the money from the house fire insurance check, only taking enough to escape and pay the bills that were in my name. The road unraveled the ribbons of who I used to be until they fluttered free behind the moving car. The spool unwound until it was empty and I was ready to be wound in something new, wrapped up with who I yearned to be.
I pulled up in the driveway ten miles from the end of the road and the sky was filled with thoughts and stars. The air warm on my skin. All of my skin and hair was warm, even my toes and fingertips. And the cold-water faucet sent me more warm water.
I got a job, got a house, got friends, moved again and again and again and through all of it I was glad. I worked in gift shops with no air conditioning into the dark of tourist winter and I was never too hot. I did not crave winter or seasons or tulips as much as I craved night-blooming jasmine and bougainvillea and lizards running from my feet on the hot sidewalk like mice. The things that I craved I was given here over and over, and other things I did not know I needed, like a church I didn’t believe in but loved to attend, and bingo at a gay bar, and drag queens with sparkly pink lips. A gay roommate who chose my shoes and borrowed my clothes and taught me to watch The Golden Girls in bed after work, sometimes with wine even though he was underage, but just barely.
I got a boyfriend, then another husband I thought I wanted, and said I’d move north even though I had given away all my winter clothes because I had sworn that I was not going back, never. I was not crazy mad in love with him, but he glowed with a halo that was probably just his red hair in the streetlight, but it was easy to mistake it for destiny. We never fought, and he was looking ahead in the same direction I was, and I knew I couldn’t trust my heart to make good choices and I knew where crazy love got me before, so I knew I was better off without it.
We married in secret and this seemed to be the right path, so I quit my job, quit my life, quit my island, and packed the trunk with a thousand tiny bags and brought that same cat back off the island with me. The dog had been buried two years before. We got in my little red car, and I took down my sparkling drag queen fish that hung off my rearview mirror, because he said I had to. If it had to be done I would bury my own, not leave him to do it for me.
It turned out that looking in the same direction wasn’t enough to base a life on, and I found in the end I could not live without that fish hanging from my rearview mirror. Five years later I hung it in my car once again, though the two-door red coupe was now a gold minivan filled with children’s car seats, and this time I drove across town, not across the country.
I had my talisman fish but I couldn’t go back south. Sometimes things can’t be undone and this was one of them. And I stayed north where water flows cold from the cold tap, and snow falls from gray clouds on gray sidewalks.
But not always. There is summer and beaches and sunshine, and you forget that it isn’t always like this until September slaps your face with hard cold reality and you can’t drag summer out even one more day, though you beg and plead with the sky. And you say this year it won’t be so bad in winter and by and by it is not that bad anymore in winter.
Then one day you come back south for two moons and a day. You don’t remember streets or people’s names, and you’re a tourist not a local in what once felt like your hometown. And you realize you’ve lived north thirty-seven years and south only three, so why do you hang on to it as the place you were meant to live, when you were just a flash in the island’s pan of revolving residents fried in oil served with a plantain? You turn on the cold tap, and warm water floods your hands, and then it all comes back how the island loved you and always gave you what you needed. And the faucet is shaped like Aladdin’s lamp–unexpectedly bulbous–but it is granting you this wish, a promise that you can return. A promise that the warm Key West water that came all the way down the pipe from Miami will be waiting for your hands.