I know the exact moment my brain caught fire. I know that leading up to my brain explosion there were the hot summer months of pandemic social drought, a social and economic disaster played down by politicians we couldn’t get away from. My brain endured these months of no dining out, no wine-inspired gossip, canceled vacations, watching my daughter’s income wither to nothing. Little to do except garden in Sarasota’s sweltering heat. I was simply playing the lead role in my life, acting upon my own nostalgia to keep it together despite living in a wasteland of fear, sadness, boredom, frustration and anger.
You die inside when you hear your husband’s voice scream on the phone. Not a mad scream, but a choked scream. And your name repeated four times. You respond with: “What?! What?! What?!” Each time, your heart ratchets higher in your throat. Then the proclamation: his son has OD’d. The breath escapes from your lungs in a blast. And right then, right there—in the car, driving home from the office, the sun blazing into the driver’s window three hours before sunset— is when the brain catches fire. Only you don’t know it yet, for the body can move without the brain sometimes. The brain on slow burn. The body, fueled by grim reality. The body racing towards the house where Stepson was moving in after two months clean from rehab.
The pandemic recedes like a first feature at the house on 10th Street. Cops and ambulance gone. Stepson saved by a cop, en route to hospital now. The episode recounted by girlfriend and girlfriend’s mom while stunned husband sits on the edge of concrete drive, head in hands, uttering, “I can’t keep living like this. I have to let him go.” Words you wanted to hear thirteen years ago, when you learned the boy, now a man, was a hopeless drug addict. But here you are now. Brain smoldering. Hugging your love, not able to fix anything. Anything.
This is not what you wanted to shake you from the pandemic rut. Nor the hungry mosquitoes chewing at your bare legs.
The soothing arms of your dream cottage welcome you both home. The evening quiet and routine. The night, dreamless. You’re not yet aware that an era has ended.
Whenever someone asks you when you’re going to retire, you bristle. Not because you’re staring down the barrel of your sixtieth birthday—you like being this mature, and so much smarter than when you could worship the sun and not worry about your skin. You were an insecure mess back then, and now you’re not. And you attribute this maturity to your job as a commercial kitchen designer because the thought of giving it up after twenty-six years… well, you can’t even imagine retiring! Your job defines you! You live in this great house with this great man! You’re set up, so why retire? Besides, the money is good. Unless of course, the pandemic changes that.
The morning after Stepson is saved, you’re making your lunch for work. As you pick through the arugula, separating the good pieces from the slimy ones, something hot flares in your brain. Why is the produce so fucking shitty in Florida? Do I, a former chef, really choose to live this way, picking over slimy, grocery store vegetables?! Your hot brain reels back to a moment in 2015 when you returned home to Florida from a trip to Sonoma, California, with your daughter. It was August, and you were standing in your driveway, sweating from the heat, trimming an overgrown bush. A wasp had stung you, and you broke down screaming: “I hate it here!” Needing the cool hug of lavender-infused Sonoma, instead of the hot swamp belch of Florida where you live. Florida your dream since you were eighteen, but tried escaping from throughout your thirties and forties. Now, roots have grown from the bottoms of your feet and you’re stuck in the sand.
You slam down the wilted arugula and grab the plastic-wrapped, over-priced cucumber, tear it open and start slicing violently. If only I could grow this in my yard. If only I could grow anything in my yard without it burning up! Shitty produce. Shitty weather. Rude drivers-rude people! A food desert! Too many Republicans! No emission tests here!
“Why do I even live here?” you ask the over-priced cucumber.
Your husband comes downstairs, all handsome smiles and lovey-ness. “Morning sweetie!”
Right, that’s why. You were going to escape to Costa Rica but then you fell in love with the guy who’d never leave Florida. Or would he? You squint at him, holding in your secret.
On your lunch break, when it’s your turn to be the one-at-a-time-person inside your bank, to reinvest a matured CD (toward your RETIREMENT you tell yourself), you tell the lady you’re from Hawaii. “Oh,” she says, “how do you like Florida?”
“Um, well, (you are literally cry-laughing inside) it’s not cold,” you say through your Hawaiian- print mask.
She laughs at this. She’s from “up north;” everyone here is. Except you. She’s escaping snow and loves. it here. You escaped, well, Hawaii.
Rage escapes from your mask: “I’ve been here since ’91, and it’s too damn hot, and I want to grow vegetables without them burning up or being eaten by nematodes, so I want to move to Sonoma.” “Ah, yes, we are all rethinking our lives during this pandemic,” she says through her mask like a therapist.
So these aren’t real feelings? And the will to disrupt my life’s course is a reaction to the impending doom of the virus, to the useless government, to all the mask-less schmucks? Is that it? The urge to move to a place with a super-high cost of living, which sends refugees to Florida (EVERYONE comes to Florida!), and which my mother long ago warned me would “someday crack off and sink into the sea,” is simply COVID-induced insanity? What about California’s weather? What about the fresh produce? What about the WINE? What about its proximity to my birth home? What about my never-lost West Coast aesthetic? And the fucking Grateful Dead? (I know they’re dead, but their memory lives on.)
That night arriving home, I find myself tip-toeing around the creaky oak floors of what was— until yesterday—my dream-forever-retirement house. I don’t want our house to know that I’m cheating on it. Dreaming of another house somewhere else. A house surrounded by tall trees with a vista of rolling hills and my vegetable garden below. The infidelity of my thoughts feels like a stab in my gut.
My new retirement urges real or not, the cool Sonoma vineyards call to me throughout the days—a majestic backdrop to lonely, pandemic hours. Stepson returns to his apartment. The phones stop ringing at work, and I wonder if kitchen design work may dry up. My daughter’s place of employment shuts down again due to COVID cases —a bartender and a server. Secretly I scour Zillow for small houses in Sonoma. I study my 401k statement, calculate what I’ll have in five years.
And then there’s the continuous gardening, still. Despite the heat. Because I’m a die-hard control freak about my personal nature space. But I’m teetering on the edge of something here. Yeah, nematodes eat the basil. Lavender won’t grow in the summer (lavender grows everywhere in Sonoma, just sayin’.) But something else began this year of ninety-five degree summers, which is a temperature not met when I moved to Sarasota in ’91. I remember my thirty years of gardening at three different houses here, and what grows where, when and how, especially during the humid summers.
This year, my orchids are BURNING in the shade.
My native Florida plants, those built for cool winters and hot, swampy summers are WILTING.
The other day I found fuzzy BUG things all over my native, pest-resistant Muhly grass.
And just to make sure I’m not making this global warming stuff up, I went to the Old Farmers Almanac and here’s an example of what I found:
August 3, 2020: low 78.1, high 97
August 1, 1992: low 70.9, high 86
Imagine when the butterflies start to catch fire in mid-air. The cardinals too, who thank me for the birdbath I’ve put out for them so they can cool off. And I realize it’s a selfish thing to escape what’s happening here, because it’s happening everywhere—remember the Sonoma wildfires in 2017 and 2019? (In a matter of weeks a hellscape of fires will again tear through California, burning hundreds of thousands of acres.) One day, when Florida is a desert, uninhabitable, the Great Heat will roll across the continent like a tumbleweed fleeing the dustbowl. I’ll be gone by then, having spent my last years in Sonoma (or somewhere), growing cucumbers and basil, sipping wine, thinking of the good old days in Florida, before it turned into Mars and melted off the continent and floated off into the Gulf, the flotsam of condos and McMansions creating new coral beds with butterfly-fish and cardinal-fish.
Was the lady at the bank was right? Is “rethinking my life” due to the pandemic? Am I, tropical-life seeking, water-sun-island-margarita-parrot head girl, really wanting a life in a cool forest, away from the ocean?
Hubby and I are on the porch watching the birds on a Saturday. We sweat under the over-worked ceiling fan AND the oscillating floor fan.
“You know,” he says, “this would be so perfect if it weren’t so damn hot.”
“Yeah, so let’s move to California,” I blurt.
He smiles at a cardinal pecking on the feeder. He doesn’t answer. Maybe my comment just didn’t register.
Author’s note: Since this essay was written, California no longer feels like my promised land. (I may need to go farther away.) Stepson is still sober, as far as I know. Work is busy—so busy, my daughter is working there as a temp. She and I have planted vegetable seeds in giant, compost rich pots. We are waiting to see what happens.