Today is Labor Day, and I have the day off. I went hiking at Griffith Park, and I’m working on some stories and other miscellaneous writing, but I’ve also been reading. What I found is that everyone and their mother, right now, is writing about two things: Labor Day and the leak of nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. There has been such incredible writing on this subject (See this essay by Roxane Gay at The Guardian and another by Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed), but I’m not going to write about these events. I was thinking about writing about privacy; I was thinking about writing about work; but I want to write about something completely off the radar: Key West.
I’m working on my application for the Key West Literary Seminar Young Emerging Writer Award. I’ve applied to enough writing programs to know not to get my hopes up, but I would love to have the opportunity to surround myself with writers in one of my favorite places in the country for a week or so. That’s when I started to think about writing about the Florida Keys.
I received my MFA from Florida International University in Miami, Florida, and I would often head down to the Keys on the weekends. One time my buddies and I camped down at Long Key, and I brought my snorkeling equipment. The tides were strange, so you could walk out into the ocean for almost 100 yards without the water rising over your waist. I wandered around in the water, trying to explore the ocean and the exotic fish that live in the Keys as the sun went down. When I emerged from the water and walked back to the beach, my buddies were laughing. It turned out that there was a warning in the bathroom that it was Man-of-War season, and I was lucky that I hadn’t been stung by those giant floating brains.
But when I think about Key West, I really think about one memory that has stayed with me for many years.
When I was in my second year of graduate school, I was driving home from class to meet my fiance and her friend for dinner. I was stopped at a red light, waiting to merge onto the I-95 ramp — the most dangerous highway in the country — and I was thinking about a story I was writing called “A Crash in Boston.” The light turned green, and I hit the gas in my 2002 Buick LeSabre. There were about two cars ahead of me, and when it was my turn to drive through the light I saw the car approaching from the opposite direction. I knew instantly that the car was not stopping, and I prepared myself for the crash. The driver, an old man who was lost and searching for the highway, had blown the red light. He slammed into me at about 30 or 40 m.p.h.
I wasn’t hurt, but my car was pretty banged up. They towed my car, which my grandparents bequeathed to me when they passed away, and the insurance company had said it was totaled. That was a bunch of bullshit. The axle was just bent and the body needed some work. Whenever you have a car that the insurance company tries to total, and you know that you can get more mileage out of that car, don’t take their shit. Demand that they fix the car. That’s, in fact, what you pay them for.
So I pitched a fit, and they eventually agreed to fix my car. In fact, I was so angry that they offered to pay for my rental in the meantime.
Enter the Dodge Challenger. At the Enterprise in Coconut Grove, the guy at the desk put me in a brand new Dodge Challenger. The car just basically debuted on the road, and this specific ride had only 300 miles. Now I was never a big fan of muscle cars — or even really cared about cars — but when I was put behind that Dodge Challenger after driving around in my Buick LeSabre, I couldn’t help but feel like a bad ass. I decided, right then, that I was taking this bad body down to Key West, and I was bringing my fiance and my dog, Hendrix.
You might not know this unless you’ve driven to the Keys, but driving from Miami to Key West is one of the most beautiful road trips in the country. Perhaps the drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from around San Francisco to L.A. rivals this drive (I actually wrote about this voyage at the LA Weekly), but there isn’t anything quite like driving over the countless keys and seeing the strangest sites like giant metal lobsters on store fronts or the stunning views of the oh-so blue ocean that suddenly engulfs you and provides the illusion that you’re passing through some large and cosmic painting. I couldn’t wait to hit the open road with the Dodge Challenger, and I couldn’t wait to take that car over the seven mile bridge.
The seven mile bridge is the king of the causeway, the grand daddy of all ponts, because you’re literally driving on a bridge for seven miles over the bluest ocean you’ll find in the United States.
So my wife, Hendrix, and I are in the Dodge Challenger, and we’ve got the windows down, and Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” blaring through the speakers. We hit the beginning of the seven mile bridge at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday. The road is empty. Not another car in sight. The bridge opens up into the water, and on all sides of us, we find the Atlantic Ocean. We’re in the middle of the sea, and I just push that peddle down to the ground, crossing over 100 m.p.h.
For me, this is Key West; this is the Florida Keys: taking a car that I can’t afford and probably shouldn’t be driving to the limits. We’re half way over the bridge when my fiance starts to tell me to slow down.
“Relax,” I say, “I want to see how fast this thing can go.”
She says something else, but I can’t hear her over the music and the open window.
“What?” I say. I watch her mouth move. “I can’t hear anything you’re saying.”
She powers off the radio and says: “Slow down.”
“Come on, Heron. How often to I get to drive a Dodge Challenger?”
It’s funny, now, thinking about how big of a deal I thought it was to drive a hunk of steel at high speeds. I remember pushing down harder on the pedal as if to spite her.
“Slow down,” she says again. “You’re going to get arrested.”
About 100 feet ahead of us, I can see a rise in the bridge. It’s the closest thing to mountains in Florida, and I feel myself giving in, secretly pissed that she is killing my time. I take my foot off the pedal as I’m approaching the rise in the bridge.
“Are you happy?” I ask.
Heron doesn’t say anything. She just looks out the window at the ocean. She’s pissed that I have to make her the responsible one, the rational one.
When we come down the other side of the hill, I see something I will never forget: two police cars hiding just beyond the tree line at the end of the bridge, waiting to write me a ticket. I didn’t even have to look over at Heron to know she was smiling. I had slowed down in time, and the cops didn’t follow me, but I’m sure they would have loved to pick up some young asshole in a brand new muscle car with a Massachusetts license. Even if she wasn’t actually smiling, I knew she wanted to, because she just saved me. She saved our trip. If the police had seen me driving over 100 m.p.h., then I would have surely been handcuffed and thrown into the back of the police car for reckless driving.
That trip to Key West taught me a lot about relationships, about marriage (Heron is now my wife), about trust. When you’re married, you have to know when to listen to your partner. This goes true for any relationship. You might think you’re in the fast lane, but your partner might actually see you’re heading for a speed trap, an accident, an arrest, a failure, and even when you think you’re right, even when you think you know everything, you should probably think twice and just listen to what the other person has to say and trust, because there might be two cops waiting with a radar gun. We ended up having a blast in Key West, and I’ll never forget that bridge, that car, that journey, those cops.