by Carmella de los Angeles Guiol
If Miami were a person, she’d be una mujeron—not just any woman, but the kind who never apologizes for being late and will never tell you the secret ingredient in her frijoles negros. This mujeron might be una bruja, a santera who leaves sacrificial chickens on the train tracks—but no one knows for sure. She’s definitely a seasoned salsera, dancing circles around the young dancers with their tight t-shirts and gelled hair every night of the week. She doesn’t bother with vanity, either; she knows she looks good—salty curls and a dash of fire engine lipstick. Tremenda, the men mutter behind their imitation Romeo y Julieta cigars, eyeing the way her ass sways to the beat of the timbales. Que tremenda, esa mujeron.
During the day, the city belongs to business men, children, bus drivers, real estate agents, car horns. But when the stoplights switch from green-yellow-red to blinking yellow, Miami belongs to the rest of us.
6270 SW 25th Street
I wake up tangled in my Care Bears sheet, my clothes clinging to my body, wet with sweat. I hear the floor fan whirring in the darkness as it sweeps the room, oscillating from one side to the other. In the bunk bed below me, my sister sleeps the soundless slumber of childhood. Throwing the sheet off my gangly, knob-kneed body, I wait for the fan to bless me with a breeze, if only for a fleeting moment. The house is quiet, but the night is loud.
The first night we spent in this house, a few years ago, I was only a handful of years old. The neighborhood was asleep when we pulled our U-Haul into the driveway after two long days on the road. Mami laid down sleeping bags on the wooden floor—a sleepover! I lay awake for a long time, listening to the chaos of Florida’s night song: quick chirps of crickets, throaty toad calls, the wailing of cats in heat. Beside me, my parents and baby sister slept through the racket.
The night sounds are familiar now, but I still can’t get used to the weight of humidity on my chest. I squirm in bed and flip the pillow for the chance of freshness against my cheek. When I tire of this game, I wriggle out of my bunk and tiptoe down the hall, past my parents’ closed door. Tired wooden planks creak. I hold my breath.
There is a gaping hole in the living room where the back wall should be. My father plans to replace sheetrock and concrete with glass doors. Every afternoon after school, I sift through the rubble, an archaeologist searching for signs of life. Chipping away at one layer of concrete reveals a painting of a sailboat on rough brick, and I save pieces of it in my desk drawer.
Tonight, though, I step over the debris. The patio floor is cool beneath my feet. Our pool is an oasis of Spanish blue tile, and I lie down beside it, trailing my toes and fingers in the still water. The sweet humidity makes me drowsy, and sleep comes swiftly. Around me, the dark yard hums with life.
When my fourth grade teacher asks me to write an essay about what animal I could be, I say I want to be a bird so that I can finally be free. I have a wide backyard, with a pool and lots of trees to climb, but I want to explore the world beyond the tall wooden fence. I spend my afternoons in the crook of a mango tree, where I read books and pretend I am an orphan living in a faraway jungle.
In high school, before I can drive, I bike around my neighborhood, spellbound by the banyan trees bathed in lamplight. They tower over me like tongue-tied giants, their feet disassembling sidewalks and their arms letting down hairy vines to take root below. These streets, frenetic with people in cars going places all day, are blissfully empty. They are my streets now, my trees.
In the quiet breath of night, I stand on the pedals of my bicycle and ride down the middle of wide avenues, soaking up silence, spaciousness, freedom.
I ride shotgun in Eric’s rickety Impala. I’m 16 with a driver’s license but no car. We’re in a caravan of half a dozen cars, our trunks stuffed with pallets taken from the loading area behind Winn Dixie. I watch the taillights of Mark’s car in front of us and I wish I was sitting beside him instead of too-tall, too-weird Eric.
We drive west on Tamiami Trail, leaving the world of glowing letters behind: Steak & Shake, PAWNSHOP, Viajes a Cuba. The Miccosukee Casino stands guard at the intersection of Tamiami and Krome, and the reservation lies before us, a dark expanse of cattails and alligator holes. We pass endless shacks advertising airboat rides through gator-infested waters and hand-painted signs for a giant depot selling traditional crafts strung with feathers and beads.
When we get to the first levy, we turn off where the road becomes gravel, and we ride along the canal until the cars in front of us roll to a stop. Everyone spills out into the dark night, drunk on delinquency. Some nights it’s climbing school rooftops or breaking into construction sites. Tonight calls for pallets stacked a dozen high, lighter fluid, warm beer. It matters not that the bonfire can be seen from the road. Risk is part of the fun.
Boys dare each other to jump over the fire or throw a Molotov cocktail. Car keys are lost and found. I flirt with older boys, always watching Mark from the corner of my eye, wondering why his girlfriend isn’t here. Wondering why I’m not his girlfriend. On the way back towards the city lights, our car wheels come dangerously close to the drop that becomes the canal. When my mother calls, I assure her that the movie just let out, and I’ll be home soon.
81st and Collins Ave
Each month, when the moon is a perfect orb of bright light in the milky city sky, the beach fills with drummers, belly dancers, stoners, fire spinners. The drummers create a permeable cell wall, with the dancers and fire spinners ricocheting like electric ions in the middle of the circle. Along the outside, spectators sway their bodies, blowing clouds of smoke into the air. Some people break away into smaller groups, where they swig from dark bottles or peel off their clothes and throw their bodies into the sea.
These nights are bright with passion, electrifying possibilities. Until the cops come off-roading down the beach on ATVs with thick wheels, sirens singing, their red and blue flashes coloring the chaos. Until Jake is in handcuffs for possession, and Whitney’s purse is nowhere to be found—car keys, wallet, cell phone. Gone.
We’ve been coming to this club ever since we turned 21; no cover and the best dancehall DJ in town. Even after a late shift, any night of the week, we know Purdy will just be getting started, the dance floor beginning to fill with writhing bodies holding sweaty drinks. We start in the main room—Top 40—but once we make our way to the back room, we become dancehall queens, our thighs and calves pulsing beneath skin-tight miniskirts. Spliffs are passed from stranger to stranger. The DJ reaches deep into his collection, pulling out the hits that take us back to a time when all we had was the radio and our bedroom mirror.
We stumble out of the club around dawn, fresh air like a slap in the face. There’s a guy giving away free books from the trunk of his station wagon, and we paw through his paperbacks like the homeless men pawing through trash cans, raccoons on the prowl. The bouncer’s eyes are vacant as he watches the party spill out into the street. He’s checked our I.D.s every time we’ve been to this club; his facial hair changes, but it’s always the same guy. When all the drunks have emptied the space, he will return home, pull down the blinds, and wait for night to come again.
Miami International Airport
Somehow, I get added to a Facebook group called Taco Tuesdays. From what I can tell, they’re a group of bicyclists. Curious, my friend Celia and I ride down to Margaret Pace Park one Tuesday night to check it out. When we get there, a guy in tight shorts and a fitted cap announces, “To the airport!” and we take off down the dark streets. This pack of cyclists moves much faster than Critical Mass, the monthly group ride where thousands show up in downtown Miami to take over the streets, shutting down traffic everywhere they go. This group is much smaller, mostly guys, and their bikes are built for speed. Still, Celia and I keep up without a problem. One of the guys blasts hip-hop from his backpack, and we follow him down darkened streets like mice behind the Pied Piper.
We never eat tacos. Instead, we stop at a supermarket and empty the shelves of beer. A few of the guys stay back to watch the bikes, a tangle of wheels and gears against the wall. Celia and I buy a pack of cookies and a carton of fancy raspberry chocolate chip ice cream. We steal a few spoons from the deli and meet the group behind the supermarket where they’re comparing near-death bike stories. Under the blinking Magic City Casino sign, we slap together ice cream sandwiches and hand them out like soccer moms, nursing our summer lagers. One of the guys who has just moved to Miami from Las Vegas says he’s excited he can wear whatever colors he wants without being mistaken for a gang member. When everyone’s belly-full and light-headed, we straddle our bikes and head west on Douglas Road.
The only way into the airport is on the highway extension. Traffic is light in the middle of the night; we gather our momentum and move as one solid mass ascending the on-ramp. Over my shoulder, I see only city lights. In front of me, a huddle of blinking red bike lights. We follow the sign for arrivals and swoop down into the covered terminal, whooping and hollering as we cruise through this fluorescent world where we don’t belong.
The people’s beach, Virginia Key, is on the side of a highway. There’s too much seaweed and the water doesn’t move much. But unlike the fancy white sand beaches of Miami Beach, parking’s free and you can always find a spot. It’s close enough to the city that people come on their lunch breaks or in the afternoon to walk the dog. On weekends, parents fight over shade and kids fight over floaties shaped like doughnuts.
But the beaches are empty late at night, save for a few lone cars parked under the sea grape trees where people engage in sex, drugs, or both. Our tires slow when we hit the sand; we jump off our bikes and walk them to the water’s edge. A baptism of sorts. The skyline at our feet, the rise and fall of lights against a city sky that’s always a light grey, even when the moon is dark.
In some corners of the city, you may hear chanting coming from innocuous backyards in the middle of the night. My friends and I hold our medicine ceremonies as far from the city as possible, on a piece of land we’ve christened La Tierra. We invite roadmen passing through town—spiritual leaders and shamans—to share their ways with us. People stream in from all corners of the county to sit with the medicine, to pray with their brothers and sisters, to honor their ancestors. Beneath a clear cornflower sky, we build a fire and heat stones for the purification lodge. We raise the teepee and bundle pinches of tobacco into prayer ties. Far from the blinking streetlights and 24-hour gas stations, we release reality and sing ourselves to a rebirth.
Carmella de los Angeles Guiol is a Florida-based adventurer, gardener, dancer, photographer, and writer. Her short story “Mango Season” was awarded Crab Orchard Review‘s Charles Johnson Award for fiction. You can often find her working in the garden or kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her writing at www.therestlesswriter.com.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • January 2017
Image header Julie Lavoie.