Near the Inlet
by REBECCA HUVAL
My family heard news of capsized boats in Florida’s Jupiter Inlet, but kept motoring through that aquamarine keyhole to the Atlantic. Its insidious current swallowed revelers from the adjacent park and overturned nautical professionals. Indifferent to irony, the water lapped up wading tourists—and their rescuers. Several years ago near the inlet, my mother’s friend with decades of scuba diving experience drowned.
There’s something sinister in that tropical wind. Elizabeth Bishop recognized the mercilessness of Florida’s seascape, despite its grace—the dead oysters that “strew white swamps with skeletons” and the seashells “arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico.” Like a siren, the state with the prettiest name draws admirers only to ensnare them in its maw. As a child growing up in South Florida, I flung myself at the crushing waves barbed with jellyfish, shielded by a sense of youthful immortality. At dawn my mother and I plowed our kayaks through the surf to arrive at the placid horizon, shadowed by spinner sharks that I suppressed from my thoughts. We coasted through the swamp waters of the Loxahatchee, eye-level with alligators. Once, my 12-year-old brother forgot about gravity and tried to kayak up a small manmade waterfall in the Loxahatchee River, capsized, and forced my mother to rescue him as water pounded the boat down on his head.
We didn’t always walk away unscathed. When I was kneeboarding, water pooled over my board, and as the boat sped up, the tip pounced on my forehead. Blood masked my face. My father drove me to the ER and, as a doctor, he stitched a slanted Frankenstein line on the left side of my forehead. Hardly chastened, I started 5th grade proud to wear bobbed hair and a battle scar. But later, my brother suffered more acutely. While he was wakeboarding (the equivalent of snowboarding behind a boat), he lost control of the board and simultaneously sliced his knee and popped out a front tooth by the root. The brackish intracoastal waters infected his knee badly, and my physician parents swabbed out the wound daily. I remember his screams. He was too ashamed to smile and reveal his fake front tooth for years, and still errs on the side of concealment though his teeth are immaculate.
Karen Russell has joined the pantheon of Florida writers who chronicle its treachery and machismo. Her 13-year-old protagonist of Swamplandia!, Ava, wrestles alligators. Like me, she was a fearless girl who courted Florida’s deadliest features and was proud to overcome them. Like me, she often went too far, like when she nearly had her feet snatched by an alligator. There’s a beauty in this danger that Russell and Bishop both acknowledge. In her poem named after the state, Bishop ends with that same iconic creature: “The alligator, who has five distinct calls: friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning—/ whimpers and speaks in the throat/ of the Indian Princess.” For Bishop, the spirit of oppressed Native Americans lives on in the alligator, sublimating Florida’s shameful past into something lovely, dangerous, and unknowable.
Floridians don’t always heed the alligator’s warning. In 2007, Justo Padron was breaking into a car at the Miccosukee casino west of Miami when he heard police sirens. He tried to escape by jumping into a nearby lake with a sign warning potential swimmers: “Danger Live Alligators.” His dead body was found the next day perforated with teeth marks. Death awaits the criminal and the innocent, the forewarned and the oblivious alike. The year before, 28-year-old Yovy Suarez Jiménez stopped along her nightly jog to dangle her feet by a canal. Construction workers later found her floating body, and her arms were discovered in the belly of a 9’ 6” alligator.
My mother’s friend, Eva Schwartz, drowned surrounded by her friend and her fiancé. She was snapping underwater photos of fish, their “shapes like full-blown roses/ stained and lost through age.” Eva was a nurse in the pediatric ER where my mother worked. She spent most of her free moments diving and told my mother what would later seem ominous: “I would rather be underwater than above water.” She signaled to her diving partners that she was going to the surface, but they never saw her alive again. The autopsy results didn’t reveal why such an experienced diver would drown.
Last December, my brother once again glided on his wakeboard through the mangrove-lined intracoastal near our childhood home. He lifted the board in the air and sailed across the boat’s bumpy wake with ease.
As we nervously looked on, my mother confessed that his leg had been so badly infected by the brackish water, “he nearly had to have it amputated.” When everyone pressured me to get back in the water, I refused. My childish bravery has left me. I recognize Florida for what it is—a place where, as Bishop writes, “Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,/ over something they have spotted in the swamp.” A paradise riddled with peril. When we reached the Jupiter Inlet, we turned the boat around.
Rebecca Huval is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find her twitter here, and her tumblr here. She last wrote in these pages about her life in Mexico.