Today I didn’t get dressed except for an ankle length sheer negligee I bought for a dollar from the flea market five miles away down a two lane highway that takes you through most of the small one-stoplight towns in rural Florida. The negligee is cream-colored with long sleeves cuffed with lace, squared off at the shoulders with tiny pink flowers embroidered along the seam just above my breasts. It is the early afternoon but the world has gone dark out the window, and I look at how my body shows through my negligee standing in front of the mirror eating a spoonful of peanut butter I’m having instead of lunch. I have not left the house in two days and have only left my room for the kitchen to retrieve dollops of peanut butter or make poached eggs on toast to be brought back upstairs and devoured over my laptop.
It’s been like this since I returned from New York back to Florida. Stretches shut in when I work tirelessly on the book—9 AM to 1 AM—and sometimes laze tirelessly on the laptop—one season in one day—and sometimes feel proud of my efforts and sometimes feel like there is nothing to be proud of.
In the opening pages of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, the train taking Hazel Motes home is likened to a coffin. The lack he feels, that he was hoping home would cure him of, the absolute and exacting home of his youth, is only magnified because the memory of home has been corrupted by the reality of it. Time away tends to displace and reconstruct what home is made of in our minds.
After three years in New York, all I could remember of Florida was sunshine and open space. It was during those winter months up North—when I never knew the sun for myself, only a figment out the window, and no amount of stonework could make the filth streaked buildings look beautiful again—when the nostalgia for home took over and I finally acknowledged that desire I felt. The desire to be sprung from that concrete trap I had willingly stepped into. I remember when I first realized it.
I was sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn, because it was bitter and cold outside, thinking about the break-in that happened just days ago, thinking about the one that happened just a year before, thinking about the men who took a crowbar to my door and pulled the lock from it like a pit from an olive, and instead of feeling anything, I wrote:
“And a voice shot from me like a spring and suddenly I wanted her to know everything about my mind, like when I was a kid, and I told her about the day I decided to leave New York, to go away with him. I told her how, before he asked, I was sad. I told her how it was that type of sadness buried so deep inside you it’s like a secret you’re keeping from yourself until one day you’re not and you’re staring out the window onto a feels-like-negative-four-degrees sidewalk slick with ice and dog shit, one that you’ll have to traverse at some point that day, dreaming of a tree on a grassy hill without the threat of snakes or ants and you start to cry because the idea is exactly perfect and unattainable and how did you come to live so far from it in a place where you could see a man masturbating on the train, gleefully, and it is your fault for being upset because no one said you had to look at him.”
Like Hazel Motes what I’d seen of the world away from home became too much to bear and I wanted to return to something familiar even if it no longer existed, even if going back meant I died a bit.
I can see out my bedroom window, there is a storm building across the lake. Lightning strikes silently along the horizon and my guilt for having not left the house yet today is thwarted at long last by something out of my control like the weather. What relief to know I can stay tucked up in my room, swaddled in my negligee, and no one would blame me for it. Now I can dream on of a future where maybe I am tucked up in a different room in a different place and I am happy there, but I know, as I swish the delicate train of my negligee, that no matter where I am, the storm will always be coming and I will always want to stay inside and watch as it passes over me.
I found in New York, I was limited. My greatest bouts of writing, when I felt most motivated, would come to me after I had returned from a visit home to Florida. I would write for hours, for days transcribing the things I had seen, the way I had heard words said, the way the world moved. The differences in person and place I had forgotten about because I was laying myself so fully at New York’s altar in that self-sacrificing martyrdom where one is just so grateful for the chance to suffer through transfiguration that we kill our past selves only to find out it isn’t transfiguration but transmutation and you can’t write a novel about returning home, about returning to a former existence, when you’re trying so hard to murder yours.
There was so much of the South that I missed while in New York: oak trees filled with Spanish moss, swamps filled with a variety of reptiles, fish and birds, cypress, marsh, dogwoods, magnolias, azaleas, but also the sub-tropical splendor from palms to citrus groves to mango trees to loquat trees to banyan trees to philodendrons to cone ginger.
Then there was the water. Water everywhere, water you can actually swim in. Born at sea level we are surrounded by rivers, creeks, springs, sinkholes, quarries, beaches. In the creek that runs all throughout my hometown we would hunt for sharks teeth because the earth the water was eroding was once an ancient ocean floor and it exposed the life that was there before us. Even the beaches are different. On the East Coast you have the Atlantic which is cold and choppy and gray-colored. The sand is a gray white and pocked with endless shells and the dunes have rabbits and snakes and gopher tortoises and wild flowers. But on the West Coast, protected by the Gulf of Mexico, the water is calmer and warmer and is that picturesque blue and sharks and dolphins abound at sometimes alarming rates.
Then there were the things that make noise. The crickets, the cicadas, the swarms of noseeums or gnats. The birds that sing in the morning or call from under the cloak of night. A heron stalking the shallows or a fish flipping a fin and breaking the water’s surface.
Then there were the things we made. The history. Inhabited by natives. “Discovered” by the Spanish. Held as a territory by almost every powerful European empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. The hideous Seminole Wars led by eventual President Jackson. Official statehood in 1845. Then secession less than two decades later with the onset of the Civil War. The industrious and prosperous railroads. The great Cuban migrations. The triumphs of NASA. Land conserved and then developed. Cities built up from swamp.
Depending which way the storm is coming from, the lake can be so calm. From my window I can see that the water is smooth—a molten state of glass poured into its frame, rippling and calming into a transcendental smoothness—but it is not just the water, it is the whole world that is calm. The storm in the distance draws all the chaos toward it and renders the moss that hangs from the limbs of the oaks still, the leaves quiet, the small white birds into statues.
After I would visit Florida, I would write like a fiend, obsessed and motivated but soon my reality would shift from the rural to the urban and I couldn’t see over the skyscrapers to the home I had just come from and the authenticity I strove for began to reduce to generics, to stereotypes, to the ideas that Northern minds had about Southern, and the roundness I was so determined to explore became flat and I was doing a disservice to myself and to my knowing audience:
“…a swampland formed in my mind. Alligators grinning on the roadside. Ignorant country boys, drinking Natural Light, joy riding in the bed of a pickup ready at any moment to fish or swim or hunt. The snowbirds in their white translucent stockings and palm-patterned skirt-suits. Everything slow moving. Everyone slow thinking. It wasn’t what was waiting for me, but it had been seven years. It was hard to remember Florida for myself, and had been so long since I wanted to, instead my mind created a patchwork of Fox News highlights and viral internet articles about twenty-foot pythons found in swimming pools. How easily characters turn into caricatures with nothing more than distance and disinterest.”
After too much time in Brooklyn, Florida would evaporate all together and I would lose my momentum, my voice, but still wouldn’t want to go home, to sacrifice what I was building in this city that promised itself as the place for me to build, a place where so many others had built before. At first it was so invigorating to be there, the promised land of escape where identity felt fluid because you were able to make your own context, at least it felt that way at first. The horizon had been obliterated by the buildings but the view became wider.
I am holding my breath as I watch the storm pass across the great round lake and eventually it is upon us, and I stand at my bedroom window, in my negligee, as the chaos comes, and the wind whips the water into waves, and the birds reanimate and fly to shelter, and the moss is cut from the limbs of oaks by the rain’s razor edge and falls in heaps onto the swollen grass below, and the lightning strikes in the yard and the world is erased for a moment in its blinding light, but then the thunder shakes the walls and reminds me how small this great house is to the storm, that the walls can be forced down around me and I might have to face what awaits outside after all and I am reminded of that feeling on that bitter and cold day in my apartment in Brooklyn, of wanting to keep it all just a view out the window, to disengage so as to understand because what there is left to feel is only terrible.
There is this intolerance in the South that I’ve always felt. An intolerance of non-compliance, and it’s omnipresent. It made the world feel rigid, boxed-in, and there was no disrupting the structure and you knew this because they’ve made the punishments severe so as to make sure you were going to stay right where you were supposed to. It’s in the way we run our institutions: the way our former governor, Jeb Bush, cut-off state assistance to Planned Parenthood and then bragged about it at the most recent GOP debate. The way our current governor, Rick Scott, vetoed funds for rape crisis centers during Sexual Assault Awareness month. The way the Pinellas County School Board allowed de facto segregation to crawl back into its education system and then went on to abandon their lower-income predominantly black schools.
Race is the predominant focus in this intolerance of non-compliance, as we’ve seen across the nation and throughout time from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin and the list goes shamefully on and on, and this atmosphere of extinguishing the other is pervasive and it filters out and out into each facet of culture and becomes diluted in its measures of extinguishing from killing to policing to regulating, but it is all to force out deviation and mark it a deviance, where young women are sent home from school because their collarbones are showing, where transgender people are likened to pedophiles in attack ads sponsored by conservative value groups in response to bathroom equality initiatives. There is a hate felt for just existing and it makes the world feel small and claustrophobic.
Many decide to stay in the South and fight the good fight. Then there are those who feel as if escape is the only way to make it out alive and the hope is to go somewhere better when really it is only somewhere different. Different can feel better for a while and when no one knows you, you can find a little relief that feels like freedom and so everything nasty and low can feel worth it for a while longer, but eventually your view collapses again and you can’t see past the dick pulled out in front of you on the subway or the knife the burglar left on your dresser for you to come home to and you forget the fear you felt in Florida for wearing lipstick to class and you wonder if escape is the same thing as return.
I go downstairs to the kitchen and place my clean-licked spoon in the sink. The blinds are spread wide and the storm continues on the ground level—the rain obscuring the horizon and filling the world with white noise. Today I find it hard to work, so I make myself a drink. I pull vodka from the cabinet and I am surprised to find it is an artisanal brand from Brooklyn that has gained so much ground my unwitting mother could stumble into buying it at the local liquor store and I wondered about the other things I thought I was giving up on my journey back home and the only thing I could think of that I missed in earnest was the glory of a 24 hour bodega. Everything here is done by 10 PM.
It took eighteen hours to drive from Brooklyn to the lake. We did it all in one shot—only taking two naps, each less than an hour, at welcome centers along the way. Then, I was simply back home, New York a dream of a different room in a different place, and it was okay because I had a purpose: I had a book to finish and a place I could do it, away from the grind, away from that desperation of survival, where I could live in isolation, spend days at a time in my negligee, and I could finish what I had started. I did more work on the book in one week of being at home than I had done for the last six months I lived in New York, and in six weeks I had a first full draft.
At first it didn’t feel like much. It felt like graduating from the MFA program. It felt like another zero to the right of the decimal point, something that only becomes significant if the next number has real value. Graduating from a writing program doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have anything written. Writing a book doesn’t mean anything if it’s not published. Why be excited by your empty accomplishment? That mindset of doubt and hate that home brings down around you because if it was corrupted then aren’t you too? That passion you used to know, that pushed you to the next level—New York—and then that passion being stripped away and away until it drove you back home, does that mean you can’t do it, you can’t see it all the way through like you wanted because maybe there’s just nothing left of you?
I go back upstairs and the way my negligee trails behind me on each step, I feel like Blanche DuBois or like the ghost of some Brontë sister and I pretend as I return to the window that I am some spirit looking out onto the storm raging around me, and though the world is clouded over and filled up with rain there is still that peculiar brightness of daytime, and the sun is promised to be somewhere by the way the grass is glowing but there is no proof beyond knowing it must be so, and I think of Hazel Motes as he drives on and on down the road and how he knows it must be changing but somehow it always stays looking the same.
Marianne Mckey is a graduate from The New School’s MFA program in creative writing. Concentrating in fiction, her other works can be found at The Los Angeles Review, Storm Cellar, and She//Folk. In 2010, Fiction Fix nominated Marianne for a Pushcart Prize. She currently lives on Lake Santa Fe in Florida.