by Janice Gary

My Dearest Cayo Hueso,

I sang to you in the streets last month. Did you hear me? I wasn’t drunk, just hopped up on a double Café Cubano and intoxicated on the frangipani magic of your crazy beauty.

How long had I been back? Three days? A week? Long enough to shed my inhibitions, along with my sweaters and socks, and sing if I wanted, dance if I wanted, not give a fuck what anyone thought. You have that effect on me, and always have, ever since I was nineteen and came down at spring break in a hearse full of hippies.

I’ll never forget that first morning with you. After a fitful night in a sleeping bag on the beach, I woke before dawn to the sound of seabirds. I got up and walked alone under a gray sky to the rocky point where the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf converged. As I waited for the sunrise, smoking the last dregs of last night’s joint, I became aware that the clouds of mist coming off the ocean were moving toward me and through me, dissolving the hard edges separating me and the world.

It was then that I understood how different places on earth have different frequencies and that this was my frequency, right here where two bodies of water met and merged. You could say it was the marijuana talking, but I know it was you, taking hold and initiating me as one of your own.

I should have stayed, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. But even after returning to the mainland, I always came back.

Once, I “borrowed” my mother’s car during a family vacation in Miami and drove my little sister all the way up to Smathers Beach, where we drank a bottle of Tequila and passed out under the noonday sun. We got so badly sunburnt I could hardly stand the weight of the bed sheet, sleeping in the room we rented at the Best Western on Roosevelt Boulevard. Years later, I brought my husband to meet you and he fell in love too. We snorkeled, we fished, we made love in cheap motel rooms the size of a closet while bird-sized palmetto bugs scampered under the bed. But who cared? We came back summer after summer. Until we didn’t for a while.

Why? I’m not sure. All I know is that when I returned to you, I realized how much I had missed your lime-colored doors and lavender houses, your white picket fences weighted with scarlet/yellow/magenta flowered vines, those front porches where people smiled and talked to passersby on the street, the territorial roosters, even the chicken shit on the sidewalks.

You continue to surprise me every time I’m on your streets. I turn a corner and find a discarded pair of high heels arranged neatly on the sidewalk. Or a fully lit Christmas tree perched on the seat of a tinseled bicycle lashed to a No Parking sign. Or a Dachshund parade followed by a Chihuahua flash mob.

Could I ever get tired of you? I am tired of living without you.

One evening, while walking my dog on Southard Street, I ran into a future bride wearing an engagement ring t-shirt who asked if she could pet my puppy. I told her not only could she could pet him, but that petting a poodle in Key West means good luck. I did this because brides are good luck. They bring money. Lots of it. I like to think it’s my civic duty to entertain and amuse them. It pains me that I am not a local, yet I’m not a tourist either.

Not here. Not with you.

Tourists take pictures of the million dollar renovated conch cottages. I take pictures of a baby doll sitting on the sagging AC unit of rundown hoarder’s place, of laughing skulls hanging like a string of lobster pot buoys, of a mixed media painting lit with a single flood lamp on the porch of the Troll Doll house.

I am a troll doll. A buoy made of bones. One of your people, the misfits, the outsiders, the community of characters breezing through your streets like sunbaked palm fronds clattering down the sidewalk. I spend most of my time in exile, a refugee who returns for one week or one month or two months at a time, so that I can live in the home that has never been legally mine. But you don’t care, do you? You have no real use for legal. Never have, not since the pirates and the wreckers and racketeers plied their trade and made you, at one point, the richest town in America. You have boomed and busted and boomed again, each time profiting from new scams and old charms and always finding a way to somehow piss on the patina of gentrification.

The status of native on this island of misfits is not easily acquired, like those overpriced monstrosities they call art on Duval Street. Who the hell buys a picture of “Rhupert the Ostrich” photo-bombing Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” for thousands of dollars? “Lots of people,” the owner of the gallery tells me. In Key West, art is too important to be taken seriously.

My artist blooms on your soil of rock and shell. She dances, she writes, she dreams of making memory boxes from the tinsel and old tiles and those discarded high heel shoes scavenged on your streets. Sometimes you know where your home is simply by how alive you feel and how fully yourself you are in its presence.

Here’s the problem: you demand your people either have money or moxie, and I don’t seem to have enough of either to be with you all the time, which is what I want. I spend the time I’m away from you dreaming of you, and the time I am with you trying to figure out a way to be with you always.

I know you’re not perfect. It is your imperfection I love. The improbable existence of you, held together by grit and luck and most certainly some kind of sorcery that has survived the worst of the storms and held off a sea surge for two hundred years. I like your determination when the storms hit and the way you take on misfortune with wacky style and irrepressible humor. I love the vibrator races at Mary Ellen’s on Thursdays. Ukulele night at the Green Parrot on Wednesdays. The impeccable gay men smelling of sandalwood and leather, the cute butch girls with their slicked down Eddie Haskell haircuts and the sixty-something women with their rainbow-colored hair. I like the homeless guys, when they’re coherent and even when they’re not, as long as they are polite, complimenting my dog, remarking on what a beautiful night it is. I don’t even care that your ubiquitous humidity wreaks frizzy havoc on my hair. The rain plays calypso music on your tin-roofed houses. The furious wind takes my breath away.

In my more lucid moments, I wonder if my obsession is fueled by my inability to possess a piece of you— not even a shitty little apartment, which costs at least as much per square foot as in Manhattan. We always want what we can’t have.

If I was with you all the time, would the humidity and heat drive me insane? Would I open my front door in the morning to find drunks passed out in the yard reeking of piss and vomit? Could I bear the sound of the Conch Train driving past my house every thirty minutes announcing the same historical factoid over and over again through tinny speakers?

And let’s not forget those pods of bachelorette parties and wedding groups. The tiaras and matching t-shirts and always, always, the shrieking laughter and saccharine happiness of possibility.

I’m a jaded old broad. How much of this could I stand?

A lot, I think, with you my darling.

Like many people in love with the hopelessly flawed, I make excuses for you. It’s just as hot in Maryland in the summer. My house will have a gated fence to keep out the drunks and vagabonds. I’d live on a street that’s not part of the Conch train route. Charge tourists two dollars to pet my Key West poodle. I’d stay stoned and happy.

In one of your many tourist shops on Duval Street, I saw a saying on a t-shirt that keeps coming back to me: Sell the house. Keep the dog. Live on an island.

As the world turns to ugly, this is what I long to do: live in your eternal summer, surrounded by turquoise seas and golden light and the half-mad joy of old hippies in their leather skins.

I feel like myself when I’m with you. I’ve said this before to you, to myself, to everyone I meet here. When I repeated this to a local literary icon volunteering in a bookstore, she smiled knowingly and said, “So do I.”

Perhaps I will go to my grave longing for you. If that’s the case, I will finally be with you forever, my ashes scattered in the waters off your shore. There’s a map in my will indicating the exact spot off Bahia Honda where the deed will be done.

You are a siren, Key West, a mermaid, a trickster, a lover of the crazy. And I will always be crazy for you.

I just can’t help it.

Janice Gary

Janice Gary is a nonfiction writer and writing teacher who is currently working on saying more with less. She is the author of  Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance (MSU Press 2013). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Brevity, River Teeth, Longreads and others. For more: www.janicegary.com.


SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 4  · September 2018
Image header by Ulla Moilanen