Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
I always knew I would go to college, even though I was the first in my family to do so. I just never expected to be contemplating dropping out to sail to Jamaica with a possible drug smuggler.
You see, at twenty-years-old, I longed to see the world, but when I presented brochures about studies abroad in Rome, Paris or a Semester at Sea, they were flatly rejected by my parents. “Where are you going to find the money for that?” mom asked, knowing that I could barely cover my bills as it was. I started babysitting at ten, and by thirteen I was making a whopping $2 an hour watching the demonic 5-year-old twins up the street. By 15-years-old, I had a number of real taxable jobs…hanging clothes and stocking shelves at TJ Maxx, offering soup or salad plates to customers in line at Golden Corral, hand modeling for Black & Decker (my boss told me I needed to make drill bits seem sexier), and selling housewares, junior clothing and men’s ties at Ivey’s. I should probably have gone home for Spring Break Junior year and worked at my department store job, but I made a whopping $50 donating plasma, which was far less painful than babysitting the Shining twins, and figured that could easily last me for a week in the Florida Keys. I knew my only hope for adventure was seizing opportunities as they presented themselves.
So off I go with a car full of friends down I-95 with Van Halen 5150 and Dire Straits Brothers in Arms on repeated rewind, but our planned fifteen hour trip becomes much longer after we spend several hours at a rural Georgia gas station getting a blown tire fixed by a lanky dude named Possum who had two months of motor oil caked under his nails and two days of tobacco tucked under his lower lip. A red plastic Georgia Bulldogs cup filled with juicy brown spittle balanced precariously on his toolbox. We also discover that “Possum” was his real name, not a nickname. The whole scene would have been a great ad for why you should always carry a working spare tire and pepper spray. We finally arrive at our rental bungalow around 2am, totally exhausted and fall asleep wherever we find space. It’s raining the first morning when I wake up and climb out of a top bunk, navigating the suitcases and bodies buried in sleeping bags covering the floor, unsure which one is my college roommate or her best friends from UVA. We‘ve only been there one night and the bathroom is already littered with toiletry bags, toothpaste tubes and way too many strands of hairs of assorted shades and textures that I’m not even sure came off of people’s heads.
I tiptoe to the kitchen where I’m greeted by a pile of pizza boxes, bongs and beer bottles blanketing all flat surfaces. On the L-shaped couch in the living room, two guys are passed out like starfish with arms and legs draped over the cushions. I pour a cup of orange juice into a hopefully unused solo cup and quietly sneak out to the screened-in porch to take in the rain. It’s coming down hard. Puddles surround the palmetto plants that line the walkway to the bungalow where nineteen twenty-year-olds are sleeping in a rental meant for nine. Life is gooooooooood. I hear rustling and mumbled dialog from inside in the house. “Oh crap!” whines a female voice, “It’s raining! Now what are we supposed to do?” I hear the sound of a beer tab popping open. “Hair of the dog, am I right?” grunts one of the guys.
“Anyone seen my bag of weed?” asks another male. A girl starts panicking. “I needed to start my base tan today! Our Spring Break is ruined!” My best friend Cathy stumbles out to the porch, her hair a comical nest of tangles. She grabs my solo cup and takes a big swig of juice. “No Vodka?” she jokes, “We need to get away from this bunch. They’re too negative.” We pull t-shirts over our bikini tops, tie our hair into scrunchies and link arms as we skip down the broken flagstone pathway like Dorothy and the Scarecrow heading toward the Emerald City. We soon find ourselves soaked and giggling under the limited cover of palm trees outside the already bustling bar, Sloppy Joe’s. It’s 10am. And already it’s pretty obvious why it’s called Sloppy Joe’s.
With our flip-flops squishing, we plop ourselves on barstools. “Two slices of Key Lime pie and two Rum Runners please,” Cathy orders our “Breakfast of Champions” as thunder booms in the distance. We breathe in the scent of salty sea and petrichor and take in Papa’s Wall filled with photos of Hemingway, who once said “There’s no friend as loyal as a book.” I look at Cathy and know in my heart that she’s the exception. She still is. We are plotting our return to the bar later that afternoon for live music when a deeply tan middle-aged woman on the barstool next to us says, “Ya’ll look like fun!”
Her thick southern accent made all the thicker by what I’m sure wasn’t her first Piña Colada of the day. A man with faded tattoos sleeves comes up and wraps his arms around her. We have no idea who they are, but we hang out with them for a while when they ask if we’d like to join them and their new friend for a boat ride. “Sure!” we say. The sun is just beginning to break through and we have nothing better to do, and we’re too naïve and full of Rum Runners to think this is probably the perfect meet and greet for deranged serial killers. We head to the dock and follow the pair to a teak-sided sailboat. “Hey Jon!” The tanned woman calls out. A man with dark curly hair pops out of the hull. “Eh, good to see ya! Ready for a ride?” he asks. His accent is like a joyful reggae refrain. “We thought you wouldn’t mind if we brought a couple friends?” “The more the merrier, hop aboard!” It never dawns on us that none of our friends know where we are. Cathy’s parents don’t even know we’re in Florida, and likely don’t know it is Spring Break. They probably still think she’s in her dorm. Had she asked, they’d have forbidden her to go, especially if they’d known there’d be boys on the trip. My parents only know I’m in the Keys with my college roommate and best friend. They didn’t ask who else was going and I didn’t share. As long as I didn’t ask for money, it didn’t really seem to matter what I was up to providing I called home collect and spoke really quickly on Sunday when the rates were cheapest. If our new friends are deranged killers, they are at least entertaining and beyond generous as we enjoy an endless flow of drinks, snacks and weed while Cat Stevens sings about it being a Wild World, and we’re gleefully gliding on the water adjacent to the palm tree dotted shore. Like typical stoned and silly college girls, we crack up every time someone mentions poop deck. I duck down to use the head and catch a glimpse of a drawer filled to the brim with plastic bags of ganja and imagine our college friends would love to get their hands on some of our good fortune.
Soon we pull up to a dock with a bar set up along the side to serve the two or three boats able to squeeze into the slip. Jon orders bottles of champagne and platters full of oysters Rockefeller and french-fries. It is the grandest meal I’ve had in my life. Jon hands the waitress several crisp hundred-dollar bills and the other couple hops off. We figure we should as well, and get back to our friends. Jon offers to take us for a sail around Wisteria Island the next day. You can practically hear Keith Morrison from Dateline re-telling the episode. That evening, we reunite with our college friends at a long table at Margaritaville when mustachioed dude in a Hawaiian shirt joins the band. Before he even mentions Nibblin’ on Spongecake, we realize it is Jimmy Buffett and we all sing along at the top of our lungs. Sometimes life is simply magical. Cathy is hungover when we arrive for our second day of sailing, and she gets sea sick at the first sign of choppy waves. Jon pushes her into the water and declares, “That’ll cure you!” without bothering to ask if she can swim. You would think that would have been a bit of a red flag but thankfully Cathy can swim, and it did cure her hangover. We snorkel for a while, and it’s beautiful, with Jon pointing out parrotfish, angelfish and spiny lobsters.
Jon is in his mid-30s, so he’s pretty old in our book, but he’s a seasoned sailor, catching fish and then grilling them for lunch right on the deck. The ocean spray dances across our legs and I am devouring the possibilities of a future of decadence and excitement when Jon comes up from the galley carrying a joint the size of a cigar. The thick scent of Stuart Thompson’s basement after a high school football game wafts over to where Cathy and I are bronzing ourselves on the deck, me in my high-waisted yellow and black bikini like a burnt bumble bee and Cathy like Sophia Loren, glamorous in a string bikini, her hair bouncing into natural waves after her dip in the Gulf Stream. In contrast, my hair dries like matted straw and I resemble Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Still, I am on a boat off the Florida coast, living the literal high life. I sit up, squinting toward the cloud of smoke that briefly surrounds Jon before ocean breezes send it out to sea. I pull my towel over my stomach because, even at twenty, I am self-conscious about my belly roll. Jon walks across the deck, wind in his curly hair and passes the doobie to Cathy, who takes a deep drag. Bob Marley is singing Could You be Loved and rays of sunshine stream down from behind puffed cumulus clouds as if angels are shining a hundred spotlights on this stage that is our Spring Break in the tropics. I take a puff and cough like I always do, and reach for my Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler. Cathy has flipped onto her stomach and grabs a handful of Doritos, the caustic orange dust coating her fingertips as she sways to the rhythm of the music mixed with the rhythm of the waves.
We talk about where Jon’s heading next. “Back to Jamaica,” he says and he describes the rich flavors of jerk sauce and infectious ska rhythms, the friendly people and the breezy Island life. “It’s like here only better,” he says with a nostalgic lilt to his voice, “You should come with me,” he suggests. Maybe it is the marijuana taking the lead for my brain, but I tell him, honestly, that I’m considering it. If my dream in life is to see the world, why do I need a piece of paper proving I’ve completed a bunch of classes when I can go to the school of life. See the world in a way that goes deeper than anything in those stupid, glossy brochures or textbooks. This could be my study abroad! I could go back to school later. Maybe get a job in Jamaica, mon. I mean college is just a stressful mix of due dates and wondering how I’m going to pay my next bill. But this, this is the life, I think, as pelicans nose dive into the water and Jon, stoned as usual, free climbs to the top of the mast and hangs off of it, laughing. And Cathy and I laugh too. But when he starts doing acrobatic tricks like an exotic dancer on a stripper pole, while the boat crashes against the waves and he’s flying through the air with just one hand on the masthead, Cathy and I sober up quickly, realizing that we can’t even see land at this point and if Jon falls, we have no idea what direction to go or how to sail a boat. It’s not as if either of us has paid even a tiny bit of attention to any of the ship’s mechanics save for occasionally ducking as the boom swings toward us and nearly knocks our wine coolers from our hands. Fortunately for us, Jon successfully shimmies back down the mast with the agility of a circus performer. He sees me shivering as we bounce across the waves, heavy mist splashing us in our perches on the stern. Ever the Jamaican gentleman, he pops into the galley, coming up with a red sweatshirt and offers it to me. As I pull it over my head, I realize I’d rather freeze. This thing reeks of body odor and as I tug it back off, I see that the fuzzy inside is covered in dark curly hairs. I decide right then and there, that I cannot accompany Jon to Jamaica. It isn’t that I’d have to drop out of school. It isn’t that I hardly know him, or that he is very likely smuggling drugs. It is the lack of deodorant and the likeliness that his back and chest are covered in a carpet of hair that determined my fate to complete my college degree. Now 40 years later, I have traveled throughout North America and to many countries in Europe, but I still haven’t been to Jamaica. The school of life has taught me that every experience informs some part of who we become or at least gives us funny stories to reflect back on, but you have to keep pursuing a robust bucket list to keep life interesting and hopeful. Sometimes that bucket list can include board games with the family. It is time with the people we love that really makes our lives rich. My best friend and I still use Key West as the barometer against which we rate all adventures. Nothing was ever as reckless and nothing may ever be as delicious as oysters at sunset on a boat in the Keys, but I’m going to keep my eyes and heart open for the next adventure and the next laugh because: Yesterday's over my shoulder, so I can't look back for too long There's just too much to see waiting in front of me and I know that I just can't go wrong With these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes Nothing remains quite the same With all of my running and all of my cunning If I couldn't laugh I just would go insane. If we weren’t all crazy we would go insane.
# # #
As shared at Story Salon's EQUAL TIME October 25,2023