THE NIGHT BEFORE I traveled across Alligator Alley to Miami with a carload of strangers in search of Rickie Lee Jones, I made out with my best friend’s boyfriend in the back of his van. The year was 1978. She was in northern Florida looking at colleges, and she had left me with a joking reminder to “keep an eye on Steve.” I was drunk, and nursing an aching heart, although neither was an excuse. I had been spending time with a beautiful boy who wrote poetry, drew pictures, and introduced me to obscure singers whose thin plaintive voices filled the guest cottage where he lived courtesy of his wealthy stepfather. He liked to stroke the inside of my arm, thread my fingers through his, play with my hair, place butterfly kisses along my chin and down to my neck, and so for a time I confused this desire for real desire. We were children playing at being adults. We were seventeen playing twenty, twenty-one; whatever would make us appear older. He liked to buy me clothes. From India, there were soft cotton slip dresses in swirls of dyed paisley that I wore over my bathing suit. He liked when I sat beside him as he emptied thin straws of sugar and filled them with pills. Parties in the guest cottage were legendary in our tiny beachside town, as were his favors of pixie sticks in cut glass bowls. Years later, I heard he had moved to the Keys, and that he had succumbed to AIDS, one of the very first cases. But on that night we caught each other gazing a little too long at the same boy, he said that maybe we shouldn’t spend so much time together, and I shattered.
I stumbled into Steve at a bonfire on the beach where we shared a bottle of something dark that turned my limbs to water, and the next thing I knew we were in the back of his van and his hands were tangled in my hair and he was pushing me down the length of his body. He claimed to know that I always wanted him, and I was too far-gone to correct him. Later in the bathroom at the diner where I had begged Steve to drop me off, I was at the sink scrubbing my face, swishing water in my mouth, trying to look like this was a perfectly normal thing to be doing at three in the morning. When a girl I recognized from my U.S. history class appeared from a stall and stood beside me in the mirror and asked if I was okay, I burst into tears. I just wanted to go home and sleep in my bed, but I couldn’t. I had told my parents I was spending the night with friends, and I’d already complicated our relationship enough lately to field questions at the breakfast table.
I went home with Ana to a neighborhood way north of the center of town, where the houses were smaller and closer together, ringed by tomato and sugar cane fields. These were one-story structures made out of cinderblock, yards individualized by the decorations surrounding a profusion of religious statues housed in sunken bathtubs that formed grotto-like shrines. Ana led me through the miniature house to her room off the kitchen, no larger than a utility closet. She gave me the narrow mattress, while she slept on the floor. I woke in the early afternoon to the sounds of pots banging, a kettle shrieking, utensils scraping, and the staccato of rapid-fire Spanish of which I understood, after seven years of study, absolutely nothing.
Two women, one older, one younger, were at the stove when we emerged; a baby with large dark eyes played on the floor at their feet. A man sat at the table hunched over his plate, his chin hovered inches from the food, but he didn’t look up. Ana walked swiftly past without acknowledgement, and so I followed her, but not before hearing one of the woman call out to my back, “Puta.”
Finally, a word I recognized.
We walked down to the end of her block where a car was waiting with the radio on, Rickie Lee Jones singing “Chuck E’s In Love”. Ana gave the driver a long hard kiss on the mouth, and his passenger smirked and sunk down further in his seat. I leaned against the car and closed my eyes to the music. Someone brought up that they had seen Rickie Lee Jones on Saturday Night Live. Ana said she heard she was playing a club in Miami, and that we should all go, and I heard myself agree.
What to do when I find myself in a car of strangers in varying degrees of inebriation, pockets full of cash and drugs, hurtling across an inky two-lane ribbon of asphalt with signs that warn of panthers and alligators–with a fake ID tucked securely in my wallet along with a lone twenty-dollar bill? I considered fate. I think about where the stretch of road that takes two and a half hours, and to an opposite coast of the state, will lead, while my parents think I’m sleeping over at my best friend’s house three blocks from home. Only I know I no longer have that best friend.
The car rattles on the narrow road as another car passes. I think about the horror stories I’ve heard: of cars breaking down on Alligator Alley in the middle of the night, and of the swamps, the Everglades all around us. I could be gone and no one would know. I think of the murders, only last month, toll booth operators on either end of the road shot once in the head. They were found in the booth, slumped on the desk and money in the drawer. What motive? There are drug runners, South Florida is full of them, and surely they use this road. I could be with drug runners right now for all I know. I glance around the car. Ana is in the middle of the front seat. She squeezes a bottle of vodka between her knees, and every once in a while she turns around to offer a smile and a sip. On either side in the back seat are guys who look at me out of the corner of their eyes. I only see half a smile. My hands are folded in my lap like I’m in church. Good girl/bad girl. When was the last time I was in church? I hope, briefly before banishing the idea from my head, that the next time won’t be my funeral.
And then we get to Miami. Pretty is hard here, slick and obvious. I trail Ana and the boys from club to club where we see flashes of sequins, a tuxedo jacket, a feather boa, but no Rickie Lee Jones. This happens over and over again. The strobe lights and throb of disco undercuts the night and soon, the patchwork of sounds creates something all together different. I’m not sure when I first realize that I have lost them entirely. That the dark-haired girl in the tiny black dress swaying from side to side in front of her boyfriend is not Ana, that the boys in their skinny black pants and silky shirts are not my travel companions.
I walk outside the club hopeful I’ll find them. There are shiny, sparkly, people everywhere, but not the people I came with. Ordinarily, I would object to being this kind of girl, but I don’t even recognize the person I have recently become. I don’t understand her at all to ask her what the fuck she is doing with her life.
If only I knew where they parked. I start to walk with purpose because that is what my father, a life long New Yorker, has taught me to do. There are more hotels and clubs and cars and people than I ever would have imagined. The sheer volume makes me feel confident if only for a moment. Across the wide street is the beach and the idea of it calms me down. I can hear the waves, but I cannot see them. I jam my hands in my pocket and hold tight to my wallet, the twenty still tucked inside.
At the end of the strip I find a coffee shop. Even with the price of a cup of coffee, I have enough left over to buy a bus ticket home. I take a seat by the window just in case I see Ana. Over the radio comes the opening chords of “Chuck E’s In Love” and I lean back against the booth and wait for the sun to rise.