Down in Florida
From the age of nine months, Ella grew up in Fort Lauderdale. Her mother divorced her father up in Michigan and quickly ran south and east, to get far away from the gossipy and condemning former in-laws, and almost as quickly remarried an old college sweetheart, a Coast Guard man. Ella was tall and fair with red hair and freckles. She was a daydreamer and a romantic who was dying to take bold action to change her life completely, but kept her true self a tight secret: everyone else thought she was practical and down-to-earth and would never have the guts to do anything to shock anybody. She lived on the water and went to high school, and for fun on weekends, even though she was underage, she and her friends usually went out to discos, mostly to one called Mr. Pip’s which was just down the highway from her house.
The city of Fort Lauderdale was full of transients and drunks and drug dealers and well-off retired people from up north. Bars and discos and private social clubs lined every main drag. People drove expensive sports cars imported from Germany, Italy and England. The good houses were on the water and the bad houses weren’t. The deep-water port was always busy with cargo and passenger ships, and the marina alongside was always full of long, sleek private yachts stopping on their way either back up north or down farther south, to the islands of the Caribbean.
A main road called A-1-A ran along the public beachfront, between the strand and the big hotels. From Ella’s back door you could see one of the hundreds of canals woven through the city that led into the Intracoastal Waterway and from there to the harbor and the jumbled rock jetties where the tide rushed by and the Atlantic. The ocean was always beautiful, warm and flat, with a gradual change of color from green to blue to deep indigo along the horizon. The breezes always blew, the air like a caress on the bare skin, and the tropical flowers always bloomed big and moist like open throbbing hearts. From her back door Ella could see across the canal to U.S. 1, the oldest main highway lined with gourmet groceries and liquor stores and scuba diving shops and the endless procession of traffic to the beach. Sometimes all the tourists on the beach looked the same — white and puffy and greedy for the sun’s warmth.
One typical Friday night, Ella and her best friend Tami first went downtown to Lester’s Bar, where the mugs were heavy and frosted, the beer was icy-cold, and the hors d’oeuvres were free. Then they went over to Yesterday’s, on the Intracoastal. Tami and a guy named Peanut hung around together the whole time, and Ella felt weird sitting at the bar all by herself. Finally, Ella met someone named Jerry, who turned out to be a captain at Yesterday’s and she talked to him for a while. At Jerry’s invitation, all four of them went to the Brickyard, a private club just west of U.S. 1. Not once the entire evening had the underage girls been asked for I.D.s. Over margaritas at the Brickyard, Ella told Jerry how old she really was — seventeen — and he flipped.
He went off by himself but when Ella and Tami were getting ready to leave he came over to say goodbye. He asked Ella to please come home with him. She said she wasn’t ready for that. Then he walked Ella out to the parking lot, and they stood there and he gave her a tiny little kiss. Your lipstick tastes good, he said, too good. And he asked Ella, again, to please come home with him, but she said she was too scared. She asked him, would he still be friends with her, and he said sure. Then Ella said goodbye and got into Tami’s car, only she forgot she still had Jerry’s cigarettes. She got out to give them back, and asked him again, would he still be friends with her. He said, why are you so worried about that, and she said she didn’t know. Ella wondered if he really liked her or just wanted a piece of ass.
Then, on another Friday night, she and Tami went to a place called My Second Home to play pool. They ordered pitchers of beer and Ella teetered on her high heels and fussed over her lipstick between shots and got a little bit drunk. A youngish man named Jeff, with the deep tan and scruffy sun-bleached hair of a true beach bum, invited them over to swim at his apartment complex nearby. Tami said no, she’d rather play pool, but Ella went along with him — Tami just shook her head in amusement. Once they got to Jeff’s house, Ella didn’t feel much like swimming anymore. Jeff gave her a pair of cutoff shorts to wear and she went into the bathroom to change. When she came out, Jeff was waiting for her and he kissed her slowly and gently and his lips were soft, but his hands were hard and rough and insistent.
Somehow, they ended up in Jeff’s bedroom on his bed, and over a period of time he got most of his own and then Ella’s clothes off, and he climbed on top of her again and again, but each time she kicked him off with her legs. I don’t want to get pregnant, she said, which was true, but the real reason she didn’t want to have sex with him is she could feel he wasn’t the right person for her. You won’t get pregnant, he said. You’ll get your period at the end of the month just like you always do, he said. She kept her legs together and put her feet against his chest and pushed him away from her over and over. It happened so many times she lost count but the word rape never even entered her mind until the next day. He never did get it in. Finally he gave up and drove her back to the bar and in the parking lot sitting in his car with the engine running he leaned over and said to Ella, at least let me teach you how to kiss. Then he showed her how to leave off kissing a man delicately, with some transition, not to pull her lips away from his like one would somewhat abruptly pull the petals off a daisy while chanting, he loves me, he loves me not.
Then Charlie was at Mr. Pip’s one Saturday night. He had been done with college for a few years but still lived with his parents because he was more comfortable in his old room than he’d be in some affordable apartment. His mother and father were elegant, wealthy people and believed Charlie was the smartest boy they’d ever seen. Charlie had curly black hair styled in a small Afro and prominent brown eyes, and Ella noticed the way he had of staring right at the other girls and then her like his glasses were secret X-ray goggles from the back of a comic book. She liked his eyes because they were so very curious besides seeming a little bit dangerous but she never imagined she’d end up dancing with him or going out on dates with him.
Even though his eyes cut into her in a way that made her feel attractive and desirable, Ella didn’t like Charlie very much at first. She didn’t like the way he asked all those other girls to dance before he asked her. She didn’t like how he laughed at her when she initially refused to dance with him, though she liked how he didn’t take no for an answer. She hated herself for how she knocked his glasses off on the dance floor with her elbow while he twirled her around like a doll. She hated how his parents acted like she wasn’t good enough when he brought her home to meet them. But she liked how he stared at her, hungry and curious and patient. Staring back at him for any length of time made her feel funny, dizzy and small, like she imagined being hypnotized would feel.
All the time after she met him Ella wondered if Charlie would fall in love with her. He seemed too jaded for that. He talked about his college days and the hundreds of lovers he’d already had and Ella’s non-Jewishness and how his mother disliked Ella but his father liked her a lot. On their dates, he took her to good restaurants and gave her too much wine to drink, and stared at her with his hungry eyes, but he didn’t seem to be in love with her. He eventually got a job selling stereos, which his father said was a waste of his talents. Ella would go out with him every weekend, and stay out too late, and then her mother and her stepfather would make snippy remarks about her the next day as if she wasn’t even in the room. Ella decided she wanted to sleep with Charlie even if he hadn’t fallen in love with her.
She wondered if Charlie would ask her to get married after they slept together. If he didn’t ask her to get married, she decided that would mean he probably had never loved her. One week Charlie’s parents went to Italy on vacation, so Charlie invited her over for dinner at his house. He cooked heavily spiced Indian dishes, and served French white wine. The kitchen was full of gleaming copper pots and the countertops were polished slabs of green stone. They sat at a long, low oak table that Charlie said came from a nunnery in Spain. He unbuttoned her blouse while she sat eating some ground lamb and rice. She was starving but she didn’t take more than what he served her because she didn’t want to eat like a pig in front of him. She sat and spooned the food into her mouth like she was dreaming. He held her left hand and never stopped rubbing the back of it with his thumb. He had a blurry, bloodshot look like he’d been drinking before she got there.
After a while he led her by the hand into his parents’ bedroom, through their bathroom and into their sauna. His parents’ bedroom furniture was carved and gilded French, and the carpet was a primarily pale beige Aubusson and the bedspread was pale beige silk with a woven floral design, and all Ella kept thinking was how any little spot at all was going to stick right out and be totally noticeable. He undressed her in a room full of mirrors then took his own clothes off. She wasn’t relaxed in the sauna at all. When she saw him naked she felt afraid but also excited. His muscles were large and well-defined from lifting weights and he had a patch of fine curly black hair in the middle of his chest and a thicker, coarser patch of hair below. They sat in the sauna for a while then took a cool shower together, and he did most of the touching.
He led her up the stairs to his bedroom, both of them naked, and from the stairwell across his parents’ wide living room, through the huge glass doors leading out to the terrace and the Intracoastal beyond, she could see the lights of boats like glimmering fairy jewels — red and green and white, doubled by their reflection off the water, every ripple of water caused by the outgoing tide sparkling, too. The carpet of the stairs was soft underfoot and so thick her toes sank into the pile and caused her to wade up the stairs, struggling against the nap of the rug like gooey caramel. His room had dark green walls and dark green sheets and there was a huge cabinet filled with stereo equipment against one wall. He stopped to put on a record, some soothing instrumental jazz — slithery clarinet and round fat saxophone punctuated by the rasp of a brush across a drumhead. She stood in the light from the hallway and let him take her to the bed.
They rolled together in the bed, the smooth fine sheets and the cool pillows. His hair brushed her all over as he worked and she lay there thinking of nothing except what it was going to feel like. She could hardly concentrate on what he was doing and she had no clear idea of what it was she was supposed to be doing. He placed her hands on himself in various locations and told her to imagine she was touching herself. He padded to his bathroom and came out with a box of Trojans. He put one on and knelt over her, resting his weight on his knees and his elbows and with his glasses off his eyes were huge and dark and poring over her face like searchlights. She felt part of herself tear loose and dematerialize and go up and into his eyes as though they were portals to outer space and though she hadn’t planned on it and certainly had no intention of saying it out loud she thought to herself with a bit of a shock, this is the right time and the right place and the right man.
There was a warm feeling all over her body and in her thighs and her belly there were occasional jabs of what was almost but not quite like pain, delicate lightning bolts along the nerves that felt like silent music. She willed herself open to him, mind, body and soul but her body remained uncooperative. He moved confidently and gracefully between her legs but all that happened for what seemed to her like hours was a dull ache centered around a point of resistance as if she were being prodded with a dry stick. She blamed herself for being dry and closed up and she was ashamed of it and thought she probably looked ugly to him. He didn’t seem to lose any of his enthusiasm for the task but kept right on fiddling around trying to get it in. Finally it slipped past some sort of barrier and it still hurt but now there was a liquid feel, a dark slow movement inside her, a curious hungry swallowing up of something. It still hurt but it seemed to be going the way it was designed to go.
Afterward she felt lassitude in all her limbs, a leaden weight that could not be defeated and she lay on Charlie’s bed looking out the window toward the water and every now and then she heard the horn of a boat waiting for the bridge to rise, waiting to get into the open passage to the sea. The bed was soft and warm and sweet, and Charlie slept beside her breathing shallowly like a child and his arm rested against her hip and her throat was full and the room seemed to pulse in and out, in and out like when she had a fever but she knew she had no fever now. She lay there for a time listening to Charlie breathe and when she turned to get out of bed his arm reached for her and he sighed and his eyes fluttered open. Where are you going? he said. I have to go home, she said, my parents. You’re kidding, he said. No, I have to go, she said, and she got out of his bed and went down the stairs alone through his parents’ room and put on her clothes.
Between her legs was a soreness impossible to ignore and through her panties the seam of her slacks rubbed against her and instead of fabric felt like the bark of a tree. Charlie was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, barefoot and shirtless but wearing a pair of trousers. He had his glasses on and he was looking at her face with his usual patient hunger but his eyes were at the same time distant, trying to look past her, as if he too was feeling something he had not been expecting to feel. He put his arm around her shoulder and they walked to her car. Please stay, he said after she got in the car and closed the door and rolled down the window.
I can’t, she said.
Call me when you get home, he said.
Okay, she said.
She drove off and in the rearview mirror she watched him standing in the driveway until she rounded a corner and could no longer see his house. There was a slight chill and the vinyl upholstery of the car felt cold and damp. It was late and there were few cars on the road and as she drove along the streets which were nearly deserted but still lit up and gaudy with neon, she was astonished by the strange new rawness inside her. She had not expected to feel so much; she had not expected to love him. She had not really known what she was giving up nor what she was receiving: that place within her which always before seemed complete, that place which she now thought of as wonderfully empty, waiting for the next time it would be filled by her lover.