This is a true story, at least in the sense that all the bits of it are true even if they’ve been re-arranged into once scene. My life often conspires to tell me things that defy description. This is only one of those conspiracies.
The rain dripped and spit as if to be insulting more than wetting. The western edge of the Alleghenies caught the leavings of a big continent and wrenched them out almost painfully in a pool of March air. The rusted red mountains trapped it and rendered it into the Ohio River, much the same as the steel mills rendered the mountains and sent them down the Ohio as steel. It was all a process in motion, never still or stable. But it was constant.
My feet moved through this spit in their own endless motion as I thought about this and nearly every other topic I could, except one. I never could understand how motion made me think, but it did. I meandered the streets of Pittsburgh in my long wool coat getting drenched, walking and thinking my way around what was in my heart.
What I was not willing to think about was how the first love of my life and I were drifting apart. Robin was at American University in DC, not all that far away from my own Carnegie-Mellon. We had seen each other for what we both knew was the last time just a few days before. Our love was made in a different place, an unchanging world in the tropics of Florida. It was not surviving our new experiences where reality is more dynamic and fluid. But I couldn’t think about that. I thought instead about the dripping cold rain and what paradise once looked like to me.
The Deering Estate was a long strip along the coast that was off limits to everyone in Cutler. It wasn’t the coral rock wall that kept us out, but the spooky aura that hung over it. No one really knew what was in there even though any of us could climb in without any trouble. Eventually, the mystery got the best of us and my friend Craig and I had to scale the low wall. We had to just check it out.
The first time into the place wasn’t a major incursion. We stayed inland, where the banyan trees formed a dark roof that shaded everything as dark as a starless night. Black iguanas were the only sentries posted, and they weren’t saying a word. The air was damp and cool and had the musty smell of either rot or life, depending on your attitude. As a child of the Everglades, it was always life to me.
Craig and I were like any boys that were nearly men in that we did things like this together that we’d never be brave enough to do on our own. We sat under a banyan and talked about what was on our minds. Craig always spoke first.
“This place is awesome!”
“I never knew it was here.”
“You can hide here and never be seen again.”
“Like these weird iguanas. Have you seen them anywhere else?”
“No, man. This is lizard central.”
“It’s so … primordial? It’s got that lizard brained feel.”
“Yeah, it’s all cool and cold blooded.”
“Speaking of which, did you finish that bio of G Gordon Liddy?”
“Yeah, I did. I dunno.”
Craig lowered his voice to sound more pompous and out of character as he quoted the book.
“I discovered that I was afraid of thunder, so during the next thunderstorm I tied myself to a tree.”
“Yeah,” I added, “That’s f***ed up. Isn’t it?”
“Yeah. That’s f***ed up.”
“It sure is. I mean, what was that all about?”
“The lizard brain was captive, man. That’s how I see it.”
“You mean he had to let it out?”
“Yeah, like he had to come to terms with it.”
“I’d rather spend times with these lizards and get to know their ways.”
“Not your own inner reptile?”
“I like these guys. They’re cool.”
The iguanas might have nodded their approval, but I didn’t see. This was only our first time in the Estate, but we would be back. Each time we were a bit bolder, checking out more and more of the place. Beyond the banyans, near Biscayne Bay, the canopy opened up to a sunny stand of Royal Palms planted in a triangular grid. They were even and perfect and stood twenty feet tall and more, sentries that watched over the banyan forest to protect it from seaborne raiders. The air was sunny and bright, carrying the scent of the bay and its aqua water up in a spray of wind. Like everything tropical, the palms stood there as if they had always been there, unchanging and reliable.
By the time we had gotten this far into the Estate, Craig and I had made an interesting discovery. If you take an old BB gun and pump it only once, you can shoot it at someone and they won’t really get hurt. It might sting a little, and they might get a small welt, but that’s about it. As long as we wore goggles and shooting range ear cups, the delicate stuff was protected. We could bang away and have one Hell of a time.
Naturally, this kind of war game needed space, so the Royal Palms were the perfect place to do it. The abandoned Estate never had any life other than the iguanas, and they weren’t too worried. We could hang out all day, blasting away and dodging between palms.
After a few hours, however, the heavy hot air got to be a bit much. We retreated to the cool banyans to catch some breath and cool off, drinking our Gatorade and counting our welts for posterity.
“I think I have five. How many do you have?”
“Seven, maybe more. You win.”
“That was fun. I’m nearly out of BBs.”
“Me too. Let’s catch our breath and head home.”
“This place is so incredible.”
“It’s like the Garden of Eden.”
“Can you imagine getting kicked our of a place like this?”
“You mean how we’re not supposed to be here at all?”
“Yeah, I mean, God kicks Adam and Eve out, so what do they do?”
“I’d break back into the place.”
“Damned right! Who’s this God to tell you what to do!”
“You know they’d break back in.”
“They’d trash the place, just to show him!”
“Yeah, they’d trash it!”
“F*** you, God! Hahaha!”
“Yeah, f*** you! Kick us out of paradise, asshole!”
We laughed and laughed about the idea of trashing paradise if we couldn’t have it. But we weren’t buying our own bullshit . We were in paradise, and it clearly wasn’t ours, but there was no way we were trashing it. We sat in the cool shade until it felt like time to go, carrying our kiddy rifles carefully so as not to alarm anyone we ran into.
The cold rain of Pittsburgh ran a little harder as this memory dissolved. I knew it was time to head inside and stop wandering around being petulant. Besides, my walk hadn’t solved anything; it only brought up memories of a world exactly opposite of where I was now.
I entered the dorm Donner Hall to get out of the rain. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but there were many options. Since it was Friday night, I could be the Shabbas Goy for Steve, and Orthodox friend who appreciated a little bit of light in the evening. Instead, my attention was turned to the big teevee in the student lounge where a small crowd had gathered to watch “Miami Vice”, then a hit show. I squished my way over to see what the episode was all about that night.
I stood behind everyone as my long coat dripped and steamed out the Pittsburgh air that had nearly saturated it. There, on the screen, was G Gordon Liddy, guest star for the night, dodging bullets as the bad guys shot at him. As the camera panned out, I could see it was a Royal Palm he was hiding behind, and there were dozens of them. This could only be the Deering Estate. They had filmed an episode of Vice there because our secret wasn’t very well kept, even with the black iguanas to watch over things.
I stood there steaming and dripping. I stood there just about ready to cry, but unable to. I stood there watching what they had done to a memory that I held more closely than any other. They made it into something cheap and stupid. They didn’t understand that this was paradise, they simply took it and used it.
I stood there for a long time. Now that I stopped walking, my thoughts all caught up with me in the glow of the teevee screen. There was no more going around it. I resolved many things right then, the most important one being that I would never, ever trust teevee again. Never.
I didn’t accept the reality of my situation with Robin, however. I accepted reality and the situation that came along with it. My first real heartbreak wasn’t going to rip out my heart, but it would be changed. I now knew that I could carry paradise with me wherever I went, and more importantly that my heart was the only place that could carry it.
When I closed my eyes to understand this, I think I saw the black iguanas bobbing their heads in approval.