by Simone Goldstone
I arrived one week ago in Key West with my traveling companions: a boy I thought I loved, Sam, his girlfriend, Marie, and his sister, Kate, my closest friend. In a last-minute decision to escape the frigid east coast, Kate and I flew to Florida for the Christmas holiday. Sam and Marie were vacationing in Key West, and we quickly agreed to meet up, much to Marie’s displeasure. Sam was unhappy in his relationship; Marie’s parents had given him a ring to propose with five years ago, which had since been collecting dust. He was hesitant to get engaged to her, even after eight years of dating. To protect Sam and Marie’s relationship, I rebuffed every inquiry our friends and especially Kate had about my feelings toward Sam. “We’re just good friends,” and “He’s not my type,” I’d say, successfully shooting down every chance I had with the intelligent, kind young man.
The day after Christmas, Kate and I left the bungalow houses and train tracks of Fort Myers and headed south toward the Keys. Our drive to the mystical island of Key West was marked by scarcely missing the wild roosters and baby chicks that ducked in and out of the road. I admired how unburdened they were by anything other than the day’s survival. How lucky and lovely these birds had it, ignorant to their caged brethren, who waited in crowded coops and slaughterhouses. We spent the next few days floating unburdened in the ocean’s gentle waves and watching Orion orient the jeweled sky as the island lit up with neon nightlife. On Key West, I can’t help but hear Hemingway’s prose everywhere—in the gleeful shouts of trolley passengers rattling by the café and the embolden whispers of drunken tourists. There, I existed in the blissful tropic haze of paradise, until one thundery afternoon.
The four of us were adventuring out to visit the house of my favorite writer, Ernest Hemingway. Caught in a passing storm, we ducked into a draped Cuban patio for lunch. Sam sitting across from his sister, and me sitting across from his girlfriend. Marie’s hair was piled elegantly on her head, her eyelashes fluttering in the rain. Dressed in cotton shorts, she oozed grace. Her beautiful blue-green eyes watched my every interaction with Sam carefully. I understood. I was friends with her boyfriend, though I’d spent the last month helping her behind the scenes, trying to convince Sam to pop the question so I’d no longer have to suffer from his indecision. A decision I would come to regret later, despite my instance on staying out of even the most turbulent of relationships. They may break-up, but I would not be the cause.
To pass the time, I regale the table with tales of Hemingway’s time in Key West over our guava daiquiris. Sam smiles at my excitement as I rave about the ornery author, telling stories of Hemmingway’s Parisian days where he ate oysters with white wine and bet on racehorses, until Marie plops herself down in his lap and locks eyes with me. Hemingway would say there’s no reason for morals. That we simply should do what makes us happy, like the wild roosters of the island who give no thought to taking food from people’s plates.
The food arrives. We eat. I feast in the scent of hibiscus and humid air, ignoring Marie’s pointed gaze and puckered lips. The storm seems to have passed, and after we pay, we stumble out into the sudden sun and split up at Marie’s suggestion—my friend Kate and I to the butterfly garden, and Sam and Marie will go to coffee. We will reunite after some time at Hemingway’s house.
The garden bursts to life with ferns, passion vines, and sweet bay magnolia. While I admire a trickling waterfall, a blue butterfly lands on my green skirt, mistaking it for a plant. I stop, frozen. I don’t want to move and hurt the fragile creature. I tiptoe, painstakingly slow over a small bridge, above the Caribbean flamingos standing in a lily pad spotted pond, while listening to dainty cries of finches. The butterfly stays latched on, determined. While enjoying the ecstasy of this creature’s confusion and delighting in the feathery beat of its wings against my waist, I note that it, our separate existences, would be easier, more carefree, if it just let go. I wouldn’t have to move so carefully, so hesitantly down the path, so protective of its fragility. But no, it refuses to move. I am left with little to do but study it. In its wide blue wings, I see Sam’s blue eyes, and the way he’d hold my gaze.
Go on, let me go.
I can’t take it.
In that moment, after that thought, the beautiful luminescent creature finally flies off, wide azure wings fluttering out of sight. I rush to catch up to Kate who has wandered away because it has been over ten minutes since the butterfly and I have been locked together. I worry that she might be annoyed. I find her crouched by the exit, where she’s enraptured by the blue-breasted king quail buzzing around her feet. She’s smiling in enthrallment, completely oblivious to my butterfly plight. A strange mixture of relief and disappointment floods my veins, but I pay it no mind.
After the garden, Kate and I wait in line by the brick-wall fence of Hemingway’s house. I only see Sam walking toward us. He towers above the crowd.
“She chose to stay by the pool,” he volunteers as we pass through the wrought-iron gate leading into the property.
Kate, Sam, and I scratch the six-toed cats that lounge on Hemingway’s lawn, basking in the shade of philodendron and banana leaves. I take photographs, and Sam goofs off in each one. We sit on wood benches in the garden and marvel at the large pool until Kate disappears into the small museum shop below. Suddenly restless, I head for the wrap-around balcony, high above palms and exotic vines, plumeria and bougainvillea showing off their stunning beauty. Sam trails behind me, watching carefully as I take in the hand-carved wooden Spanish furniture, the colonial shutters letting in the bleeding sunlight. I point out Hemingway’s framed checks, the same amount I receive from the newspaper I write for, and Sam jokes how it was worth more back then. He teases me lightly and watches for my reaction. A smile splits his face when I tease him back.
I could stay suspended here forever, by Hemingway’s worktable, watching the dust particles catch the warm, dying sun. Sam and Kate are brilliant engineers, but care little for the relics of authors from the past. I glance at Sam, who is standing in my shadow, smiling at the child-like fascination painting my face. Knowing that they set aside the day just for my enjoyment makes it even more special. Content with my fill, I motion for Sam to follow me down to the museum shop, where we re-join Kate.
Sam suggests the three of us go out for mojitos, Hemingway’s drink of choice. Without Marie Sam sits right next to me, his whole-body facing mine, feet pointed right at me, his arms, and legs wide open. My feelings of guilt creep back. To break the budding romance, I ask Sam for his advice dealing with another boy I’m interested in.
A Farewell to Arms quote floats through my head like lyrics on a melody “You are so brave and quiet I forget you are suffering.” I think myself a martyr as I watch the glimmer disappearing from his sky-blue eyes at my subtle rejection.
I knowingly speak words that destroy the vulnerability between us, like a hurricane that rips up this perfect island. I wonder: what would have happened if I had indulged them when they’d asked if I liked Sam? I think of Sam as my boyfriend—Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? echoes Hemingway. But those are just thoughts, and I am steadfast that they do not grow to fruition.
Sam pays for my drink and offers to accompany Kate and I on our walk to the beach for an evening swim. We stroll out into the warm night, past the bay cedar and birds of paradise, through the pitch apple trees that line the path to the beach. Sam points out a quaint park. I note it with a soft smile and a nod, though I don’t pay it too much attention, eager to get to the water instead.
As night sets in, and hours have passed, Marie texts Sam incessantly, wondering where he is, what he is doing, and when he will be back. He replies to her in one-word answers.
“I wish there was a way to say, ‘uninterested grunt,’ in text.” He jokes.
He gets no reaction from me. “Brave and quiet,” I repeat to myself.
Sam walks us to the end of the trail, and an iguana falls off a roof of a nearby building, hitting the bleeding heart vines on the way down. Satisfied that Kate and I will get to the beach safely, he leaves us and heads back to his waiting girlfriend. Giddy from our time together, without Marie, I head into the warm ocean, pure bliss enveloping me as the turquoise waters swallow me up. Salt heals all wounds, and I’m struck by how perfect the earth looks right now. How lucky I am to be viewing it. I am present in the moment. If we’re suspended in the here and now, the future isn’t a bother, and thus we don’t age. This is what the Spanish conquistadors sought all those years ago. Their legacy rings in the fiddlewood and Devil’s Ivy that decorate the island like medallions.
The next day Sam calls, while Kate and I are driving on the Florida Keys Scenic Highway, to tell me the news. He proposed to Marie, in the very park he pointed out to me the night before.
Finally, he has let go of me.
Finally, he has flown away too.
He has settled down. Now I can go.
Now I can continue to look forward, keep reaching and grasping and refusing to stop.
I don’t feel sad. I had expected this to have ripped me apart.
A year or two ago, I am sure it would have.
I have grown. It is at this moment that I realize I have also been the one refusing to move for fear of breaking the fragile things. People are the only limiters of happiness. As strong as the storms that ravage these islands, I can handle these conflicting emotions, ecstasy, relief, and heartbreak. As fleeting and ephemeral as the tropic rolling thunder, the clouds will soon depart, sunshine once again filling the canopy. Man is not made for defeat. I return home stronger in every broken place. I found true happiness in the cerulean waves that rock you like a baby, in the monstera plants and waterfalls of Spanish moss, and not in other people. It took a trip to the southernmost tip of the continental U.S., and a visit to an old writer’s house to remind me that true happiness depends upon ourselves and mine on me.
Simone Goldstone is the soundcheck columnist for the Newport Beach Independent Newspaper. She also freelances for the Washington City Paper. Simone is honored to have received two Excellence in Journalism Awards from the Orange County Press Club. She’s a fan of Bob Dylan, John Keats, and the Golden State Warriors.