Gina and I came here to work on our relationship. We’ve been together over 3 years, but it’s only been in the past few months that things felt different. We started arguing. The very first argument we had in this chain of discontentment, I went for a walk and tried to remember, “have we ever had an argument before?” I couldn’t think of one. The disagreements were so petty, and yet each one of us would let them string out, until it was a full blown battle. So, in one of our saner moments, we decided on this vacation.
The house we’ve rented in the Florida Keys is at the very end of a long road which terminates a few feet from the Bay. The road goes through pretty much wilderness, mostly a Mangrove Hammock in a Wildlife Refuge, and ends up on a 15 acre piece of private land at the very edge of Niles Key. The property is surrounded by water on 3 sides. Like many houses in this area, it’s built on reinforced concrete stilts and has only one floor, 12 feet high.
Amongst the mangrove that surrounds the house is an old dirt road going to the North that meets the water after about 25 feet, at that point it has narrowed to a trail. When we first walked this very, very muddy trail, we had to stop before we actually got to the shoreline, because that last bit of trail was flooded. Now we know to wear flip-flops, and that’s where we go to enter the water and swim, or just soak.
Removing my fingers from the keyboard I head out to the deck, and my eyes wander to this trail and the shoreline. There's a Great Egret perched on top of the tallest tree, I can hear it calling, crying, over and over. "Why is it there”, I wonder. It sure won’t catch any fish on the top of that tree. Is it staking out a territory, looking for a mate, thinking about screwing? Probably that's why it's being so loud.
Leaning on the railing I watch the Egret for a few minutes, until it finally takes off, flying across the water to a nearby Key. Following it’s path, I see the white stream of a jet streaking across the sky heading South. It's way too high to be from Miami. Tampa maybe? or Chicago? Who knows. Headed to Bolivia, Chile? I follow this line of thought. All kinds of tangents come into my head and I think them through: what's it like in Bolivia; do they speak Spanish; are the women pretty there; do they like American men; are there historical buildings Gina would like to photograph?
I keep pursuing this, in spite of the fact I'm on a deadline. And before I even started this useless mind game, it looked like I wasn't going to meet my target date, or really, my publishers target date. I feel truly stuck, and the least little distraction is just that, a reason to not stress about writing.
My publisher wants another story from me. Since I haven't written a novel in years, she wants to start releasing short stories occasionally; eventually she'll publish a book of them. I have lots of stories, and she's already released a couple to two different magazines. The one I'm working on now I started years ago, but never finished. In the big picture, I know where I want to go with the story; I knew back when I started it. But I could just never put the words together to translate my thoughts. It was much easier to start another story, or just grab a beer and watch a football game.
I walk back inside, pulling my shirt off from the heat and humidity outside. I say to Gina, “hey, I’m going to go outside and take a nap.”
“Let’s go downstairs and work out first. You know how much we always want to nap after that.”
I agree and we head downstairs The owner of the house has screened in an area in one of the carports where he has some workout equipment: a treadmill; a stairmaster; and a weight machine with additional dumbells. At one point, as I’m doing curls, Gina walks up to me and says,“its so nice working out together.” And with that she kicks me right in my gut.
“So I’m guessing it’s time to practice?”
She smiles, crouches, and we start. Both of us have taken some sort of self-defense classes since we were kids. It’s one of the first things we talked about when we met. And back home we now teach classes. We feel like it keeps us sharp. And yes, I have to admit, Gina usually kicks my butt!
As I look at her across from me, bouncing and nimbly moving and darting about with meaning, that perfect body, the long radiant red hair, now in a pony tail, swinging from side to side as she rocks on the balls of her feet. I love her, and if that means she will eventually be slamming me down on this mat, well, so be it. I can think of worse things than being prone with Gina on a mat.
We finish our sparing and I head upstairs, thinking about the past few weeks contrasted with our recent troubled times. I think in hindsight how brilliant it was of us deciding to come down to the Keys, it actually seems to be working. We’ve been here 2 1/2 weeks, and not a single argument between us. I’m amazed, it feels like we’re back in the days after we first met. We’re truly enjoying each other, and each one of us has given in on disagreements, easily. “Okay, let’s go to your restaurant tonight, and tomorrow night we’ll go to the one I want to go to.”
Seems like constantly there’s been some sort of incident or situation that’s brought us together, reminding us how much we want each other.
In downtown Key West, on the edge of one of the marinas, they feed the tarpon’s at 4 o’clock every afternoon. We knew this was happening, and Gina wanted to photograph it for sure, but we still got there late. When we arrived people were lined up 2 deep to watch the feeding and all the pelicans that had gathered to steal the feed AND the fish. Gina immediately started looking for an opening to get herself to the railing. At one point a woman moved away from the front and Gina immediately slipped in. In doing so she bumped into a man that was trying to take the same spot, but Gina didn’t stop and soon was on the rail. The man she had elbowed out of the way was furious, and let her know it.
“Hey bitch, who the hell do you think you are?”
Although I knew Gina could do a fine job of taking care of herself, I also knew that’s not what she wanted to concentrate on right then. Taking photos was her life, and that’s the direction she wanted to turn. I stepped between them and, looking him in the face, “is there a problem here?”
He had to look up at me, at 6’4” I was at least half a foot taller than him, plus about 15 years younger. And in way better shape, as I looked down at the ample gut above his belt.
“Well, she was pretty rude.”
“Yeah, she gets that way. She makes her living out of photography, so she doesn’t look at it like you and I do, ‘oh, lets take a picture’. She looks at it with dollars in her eyes”.
That I had sorta agreed with him settled him down. He nodded and turned away. I looked at Gina and she had turned around to smile at me, just before the feeding frenzy started.
Then there was the day we kayaked from Key West to Sunset Key. It was late in the day and the wind had picked up a little bit. At some point I hit a rock or something in the shallow water and I lost my paddle. Gina was ahead of me and I yelled at her. As soon as she could see what had happened, she paddled like crazy to catch my paddle which the waves were carrying towards our destination. As I watched her track down my paddle, a warmth for her swelled inside me. I could have been paddling with anyone, and they probably would’ve done the same thing (or tried). But it wasn’t anyone, it was Gina.
My memory is interrupted by Gina. “Hey, I’m getting hungry. Wanna go out - stay here?”
“What’s here, other than snacks?”
After looking through the cabinets and refrigerator she replies, “not much. You’re right, lots of snacks. And soup. Seems a little hot for soup, right?”
“Yeah. Let’s go to the same restaurant we went to last night, I really liked that pasta.”
“Okay, that sounds good for me. It’s not far.”
Hmmm, again we agree. No discord. I look at my beautiful girlfriend, and I smile, hugely. But I’m wondering, what’s really happening here? What’s the psychology behind all this? What’s made us so different with each other then we were just a few weeks ago in California? I can’t really figure it out. I’d say it’s because we’re relaxed, we’re here without any responsibilities, just enjoying the swamp and water surrounding us. But that can’t completely be it. After all, I’m on a deadline, and one of the purposes of being here is for me to finish the story, and as many more as I can.
Almost daily since we got here we take a drive. What we like to do is drive along the main highway and, looking at the map on our iPad, turning on a road that goes deep off the highway. Usually these roads have some houses on them, but often we end up driving through the wilderness, part of one of the many National Wildlife Refuges in the area.
Yesterday we drove a road that wasn't that long but did end in a wildlife refuge. At the very end of the pavement was an old dirt road blocked to vehicles. When we got out and walked to the end of it, where it disappeared into the water, we realized why this wasn't used as a road any longer. About 30 feet out into the water was an old, wooden bridge, in really poor shape, and no longer connected to land on this side. We wondered what was beyond, what was on the little patch of an island that this bridge used to go to? We declared that we would come back there with our kayaks and figure it out.
At dinner we again discussed this bridge. What did it lead to? Gina had all kinds of idea: "A diamond mine, hidden treasure, a shipwreck, maybe all of those, ya think!?
I looked at her and laughed. “How about just an old broken down cabin, with a bunch of junk and an old worn-out car?”
“Yeah, that too.”
Nothing makes me stronger than your fragile heart. Turning Page, Sleeping At Last
Again I’m at the desk, struggling to write the ending to my story. Gina is sitting on the couch across the room, with her computer on her lap. She’s processing photographs she took this morning, around sunrise, when I’m told there were impressive clouds. She says this morning after the sunrise she went wandering in the mangrove and she found snails on the trees, with beautiful colors on the shells. I’m anxious to see the photographs. But I have to concentrate, my heroine is trying to decide if she wants to marry her boyfriend. And I need to get them to the altar. Anyway, Gina would never let me see her photographs until she has ‘photoshopped’ them.
I stand up and walk out to the deck. It’s a gorgeous, warm day. There are clouds in the sky, and pretty dark ones too, but they’re far-off. I’m thinking of a nap, something I often think of late in the afternoon. I take off my shirt and walk back into the room. “I’m going to take a nap.”
She looks up at me, then out the windows. “Me too.” She stands up and walks up to me “you know bud, you are gorgeous. Especially with your shirt off.”
She bends her head down and bites one of my nipples, then kisses me. Now I’m feeling like the Egret. She says things like this to me sometimes, and I think it’s amazing. The reality is, she’s the one that’s gorgeous. I’ve always fell so lucky to be with her.
We walk outside together and head to the lounge chairs. They’re the cushiest lounge chairs I’ve ever seen, we’ve both commented we need to try to find these when we get home. I lay my shirt on the upper part of the chair and lean back against it. Gina takes her tight little shirt off and does the same thing. I look at her topless, and again think how lucky I am. It’s not the only thing I think. As I drift off I feel her put her hand on my thigh.
I’m back in college, my first year at a very strict Baptist College in the South, in the town I was born in. We weren’t allowed to dance, but my girlfriend and I ignored that mandate, we would go to the roller rink downtown that had dances every Friday night. In my dream, instead of my college girlfriend, I’m with Gina. And instead of her dancing with me, she’s dancing with my brother. Of course, that would’ve been pretty much impossible during my college years as my brother was 9 years old. But Gina and him have become good friends, he’s her favorite person in my family.
I’m watching them dance and she flashes me a smile each time their dancing turns her face towards me. I’m smiling too. I hear a noise behind me, and when I turn to look, I’m now on the streets of Key West. I’m by myself. I have one of Gina’s cameras and I’m taking photographs of the neon signs in the bars at nighttime. My brother is inside one of the bars, and motions me in. I sit down at the table with him and he says “let’s go play pool”. There’s no pool table where we are and we walk outside.
I’m no longer inside a bar, or in Key West. I’m on our boat, and it is gliding across the lake Gina and I live on in California. I’m on the deck in front, and I can’t see who’s piloting the boat. It wouldn’t be Gina, she hates that. She just likes to be on the water, sunning on the deck, heading down to the galley to put together the champagne and chocolate covered strawberries. I look around the boat and it’s full of friends from my college years. Some I recognize, but as I think about the dream, I haven’t seen those people in many years. I’m worried that what we’re doing is dangerous, and here are all my friends, what will happen to them?
Now I’m awake. I sit up, rubbing my eyes. I feel cold, and I realize it’s really windy. Those dark clouds have moved over us and it seems like it’s going to be a big storm. I usually check the weather each day but I don’t remember anything about a storm coming. As I get up I see Gina is still asleep. I lay my shirt over her breasts, wondering if she’s dreaming about being cold. I walk inside the house and grab another shirt to put on. My dream somehow has inspired me with ideas on my story. I sit down and immediately start typing.
A little later Gina comes in, wearing my shirt. She walks over to me at the desk and kisses me on my forehead.
“Thanks for covering me up. It’s freezing out there now. Isn’t it your job to be our weatherperson?”
“Yea, I know, I let you down”. I stick my tongue out at her. She returns the gesture.
“I don’t remember seeing anything about a storm. But, whatever, it’s here”.
“It actually looks pretty neat out there, look at those Palms.”
I look where she is looking, and she’s right. The palms were blowing like crazy, all leaning the same way. Gina grabs one of her cameras and goes out to the deck.
In a few minutes, just before it starts pouring down rain, she comes back in.
“I’m hungry. That soup sounds pretty good tonight.”
“Really does, do we still have Broccoli?”
I get up to help, but she says “no, I’ll do it. You work on the story”.
“It’s finished.” I start chopping broccoli.
We stay up late, drinking beer and wine, listening to the wind howl, louder and louder and watching huge streaks of lightening reflected in the water. She keeps asking me about the building, “do you think it’s secure, on those big stilts?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
When the rain disappears for a few minutes, we go out on the deck to feel the full force of the storm. Gina sets up her tripod, doing long exposures catching multiple stabs of lightening. I keep an eye on her LCD monitor, and am amazed at the images she is creating. But soon the rain starts up again and we retreat to the inside and the fireplace.
She reads my story. It’s been years since I’ve submitted anything that she hasn’t read. She’s wildly creative and often has the best ideas for me to expand on. Recently for one story I put both of our names on as authors when I sent it to my publisher, Gina contributed that much. She doesn’t yet know about this, it hasn’t been published yet and I haven’t told her. I can’t wait to see it in a magazine and show it to her.
I see she’s near the end of the story, and I also see she has tears in her eyes. That’s not really like her, it’s me that tears up everytime Edward hurts Bella and then they make up. I think sometimes she’s embarrassed walking out of a movie theater with me. So it means something that my story has affected her this way. I purposely ended it with a twist that would tug, I hoped, at anyone’s heart. And if it made Gina tear up, then I feel like I succeeded.
She closes my MacBook Pro and sets it on the couch next to her. She pats the couch cushion on the other side for me to sit down next to her. When I do she puts an arm around my neck and leans her head on my shoulder. She’s breathing long deep breaths, and it makes me feel, more than content. I close my eyes and go to sleep feeling good in so many ways.
Its better than I ever even knew, they say the world was built for two Video Games, Lana Del Rey
“I’ve been working on it”, she says, pointing to sheets of paper on the breakfast bar. That would be Gina, the logical one, figuring it all out before even bringing it up. “He called earlier, I was just calling him back to ask him to give us 24 hours to make a decision. He’s thinking of listing it with his Realtor."
“He wants $800,000 for it. I’ve been to some websites and that seems like a really good price. This wouldn’t be our main house Bret, we’re not going to move from California. I don’t think we really want to live here in the summer. But, I’d love to spend a few weeks here, maybe more, in the winter.”
She puts down a plate of French toast in front of me on the table. When I look up she meets my gaze. I can see she is determined, she wants this house. And at that moment I realize I do too. If she thinks we can do it, then we probably can.
“The rest of the time we could rent it out on a weekly or monthly basis. Including the summer, which would be when you’d get the most for it. I’ve seen online ads for houses around here at like three or four thousand a week in July and August!”
She shows me her figures. Using the rent we were paying, and what she had researched online for summer, she figured we could actually make more on it then the monthly payments. “I think it would pay for itself.”
At about 5pm we head out to the spot where we saw the old bridge, with our kayaks loaded in the back of the pick-up we rented. We slide our kayaks into the water right from the end of the road. As we pass the old bridge, I paddle around watching Gina taking photos from different angles, including under the bridge, with the little waterproof camera she brought along. Then we continue down the east side of the island.
When we near the end of the island, we figure it isn’t more than 1/2 mile long. We’ve been able to see almost nothing as it is bordered by huge oak trees. Turning the corner we spot a dock on the end of the island, and we decide to pull our kayaks up there and wander around.
The first thing we see, after only walking 50 feet or so, is a beautiful white horse. It is grazing in a small area of tall grasses, and looks up as we pass closely. It starts moving our way, but then is distracted by something that looks appetizing in the grasses and soon forgets us. “Hard to believe a horse could survive here, on this tiny island. And how did it get here?”, Gina comments, while taking photos of the horse.
We climb a little rise, and when we get over the top we are shocked to see a huge Colonial house not far in front of us. As we approach it and roam around its perimeter, Gina says, “This is right out of the Civil War. And it looks like it could be that old”.
I'm think she's right. This is a very old house, but despite that, the building has lots of integrity left in it. I can see some broken windows, one window that looks as if it was boarded up quite some time ago, and a hole in the roof on the south facing side. But despite these issues, much of the house appears in dilapidated, but structurally good condition. Paint is peeling everywhere, and some areas simply have no paint at all, probably 50% of the house surface area. The columns are without paint, but otherwise in decent condition. The double front doors are huge, at least 10 feet tall. Gina has me stand by the doors, with my hand on the corroded metal doorknob, to show how tall they are.
I try the knob but it doesn't budge, not even a tiny bit. I'm thinking it's more than just locked, probably the guts are just rusted together. We've made a complete circle around the house without touching anything other than the front doors. Now we start around it again, Gina continuing to click photos. There are several doors and I try each one of them. At the rear of the house there is a door that is only about 5 feet tall, It gives way without actually turning the doorknob. I look to Gina and we are in agreement to go in.
There is a long hallway leading to the kitchen. This is where the hole in the roof is, and the room and contents are in disarray. Cabinets, counters, everything is warped and often just laying in pieces on the floor. There’s a huge stove so strange looking, I again wonder how old this place is.
We walk out of the kitchen through a small utility room and into a huge living room. This room is dark as there are heavy curtains over each window, except one that was completely broken out. I go to the closest window and move to open the curtains. They disintegrate in my hands as sunlight pours in. Now we have light to see the room. There are sofas, chairs, all looking like they could've been built a hundred years ago or more. We don't dare try to sit on any, but one loveseat I press down on with a finger and my finger goes right through the cushioning.
At one point I see Gina reaching into her fanny pack, getting a new SD card for her camera. That meant she had taken an awful lot of photos already. She saw me looking and said,” that card already had a ton of photos on it, I should've downloaded them this morning.”
Other than a formal dining room, these are the only rooms downstairs. There is a sweeping staircase leading from the entryway, behind the front doors I couldn't get open. I look at those stairs and wonder if I dare them. I start on the first stair and it seems solid, so very slowly I move from stair to stair, holding onto the banister, which I wasn't so sure would help me. Every stair seems very solid, except one. About three quarters the way up the stairs my foot goes through a stair. Luckily I was still being careful and hadn't put my full weight on it. I warn Gina to skip this stair as she is close behind me, taking photos of the areas below. I kept seeing her flash go off and worry that the battery is going to be the next thing to go bad.
We reach the hallway and discuss how carefully we need to be walking around upstairs. If we go through the floorboards into the downstairs, we could land on anything. We move very slowly from room to room, 4 bedrooms.
Gina lingers in what we assume is a young girls room. She is taking photograph of the dolls and all the frill in the room. I see her occasionally lean over and blow on items to get the thick dust off. It appears she’s afraid to touch anything, worried her finger might go right into a face of a doll, the way mine went into the loveseat. Its at this point I realize there are no closets in any room. Each room has tall wardrobes, many of them falling apart. And each room has a fireplace. All of this reinforces our opinion this is a REALLY old house.
I head back down, I was nervous the whole time I was upstairs. When I get to the bottom I do more exploring, and discover another door leading out of the side of the dining room into an office. This is a combination office/library. The bookcase shelves on three of the surrounding walls are full of books, although there are several places shelves have given out and the books tumble below into piles. I handle some of the books and many of them seem to be in somewhat good condition. It just doesn't make sense to me.
The office is quite big, with a huge desk. I start investigating the desk. The top is empty, nothing at all on it. As I open drawers, each one has papers in them. Some of the paper simply disintegrates as I touch it. But there is a solid leather folder with papers inside still in good shape. The writing is in a highly fancy cursive, and written on paper I’ve never seen. Thick and with texture. As I’m opening this folder, Gina comes in.
The papers are clearly old and almost unrecognizable. Both the paper and writing are like something we’ve only seen in movies, on TV. Some appear to be letters, there’s some lists, and even some drawings. In a large desk drawer, I find it is filled with these leather folders, and each one has numerous sheets of paper in it, all with writing or drawings on it. One folder seems to have sheets in it that are an inventory of the house. A sheet for the Living Room, one for the Dining Room, and one for each room in the house. Towards the back of the folder, there’s one that says Basement, one that says Stable and the real shocker, one that says Slave Quarters.
I show her the Slave Quarters page, and she is astonished. “What have we found here?”, she asks. I put that folder and a couple others in my daypack and we head out of the house and down to our kayaks.
When we return to our place, the first thing Gina does is call Darren. She asks about the island, mentioning nothing about the house. He tells her he’s never been to the end of that road, he has no clue about it, but does know a guy who owns land on that Key. Gina next calls him, Francois. She makes up a story about us looking for land to buy, and says Darren told us about this land. He says his family has owned that property for years, including the little island. They keep thinking they will build there, but the property has shrunk from Global Warming, and is very muddy and too swamp like to build on.
My story finished, I’ve started a new one. It’s about a King and Queen who are being threatened from outside forces, and go traveling to find and defend the spirit of their country. Encountering peace and danger they accomplish their mission. They return home to their kingdom victorious.
Tonight, our last night in Florida, I’m sitting on the deck by myself, Gina having gone to bed right after we came back from dinner. It’s one of the coldest nights since we’ve gotten here, and I'm dressed in my sweats. I’ve been sitting here for an hour, writing a little, drinking a beer, and enjoying watching the sun go down in front of me. It’s getting darker and darker, and just about all I can see is a very dark fold of the clouds in the sky reflected in the water.
When the night is black, I go inside. I'm thinking this will be a nice last night to remember the keys. Tomorrow we fly to California. And we know we have some serious decisions to make. A different chapter in our life is about to begin, and we're both excited about it.
We've been home in California for two weeks. Today in the mail came our grant deed for the land we paid cash for, the land with the island that we are completely perplexed about. We have loan approval on Darren's house and expect that to close escrow next week. We've decided we want to go back there in the next two weeks, before it starts getting hot. We want to do work on the house, or at least order work to be done while we're gone. And we need to make some decisions, hopefully get some expert opinions about the old house on the island.
The last few days we were in Florida we asked around about the house, vaguely. "We've heard that there was an old 100 year old house in the area? Do you know about that, we're curious?” We'd be out walking and running into other people walking and ask this question. Or the bartender & the server in the restaurants we were eating at. Whenever we ran into anyone who lived in the keys, we tried to get information. It wasn't until the last day of our stay we got a slight verification of what now seemed like a dream.
We were out walking and overtook an older man who was also out for a walk. We talked with him a little bit, explaining we had bought Darren's house, someone he was familiar with. Then we ask about the house.
"I've heard that as nothing more than a rumor for the 72 years I've lived here. Maybe there is a house like that somewhere, but I can't think there's much land around here I haven't been on and I've never seen anything like that. Who knows?”
Gina found a History Professor at Miami University who seems to specialize in the Civil War period, or at least has written a book about it. We’ve emailed him and hope to get him in a Kayak and onto the Island.
We’ve decided the next step is to go back to the Island ourselves, early in the day so we have plenty time to explore, both inside and outside. We actually saw very little of the Island, are there outbuildings somewhere?
The house is all we can think about. Its really turning us upside down, we feel so ill at ease, and probably will until we get some sort of authoritative answers. We’ve been unable to find a name for ‘our’ Island, so we’ve come up with Plantation Key. I feel like our life is on hold until we have more information about Plantation Key. It must be how an Astronaut feels as he heads for the Space Station, or the Moon. Their whole life is wrapped up on that one journey. Our’s is just starting.