My dad wanted to call me Paloma, but my mom couldn’t get the Texas twang out of her voice when she said it, so they settled on Pamela. Papi says it Pam-el-a and Mom pronounces it Pam-el-a, like someone just punched her in the stomach. In any event, it’s an orphaned name—no one in my family has it, I’m not named after some celebrity or historical figure. It’s just a band-aid name, same as we’re a band-aid family living in a band-aid place.
We live in the bridge between Everglades City and Naples. No one ever wanders here unless they’re lost. People here make their money off each other—plumbers, electricians, and the like—fixing up each other’s falling down houses. I happened to be born in Collier County because it happened to be the location of Papi’s latest failed business. He gave swamp tours but he kept getting lost or the boat would start to sink or the engine fail and he’d come home gritting his teeth and blaming “white people,” even though he’s got Spanish blood himself. When the logistics worked it was his dream. Sitting above the passengers, the whirl of the fan to his back, feeling like a king again, a hand on his stomach, shades over his eyes, noise-cancelling muffs over his ears so that all he had to do was watch, amused, as the clientele “oohed” and “aahed” through the wetlands. But that didn’t last long. Now he just does odd jobs. Construction mostly.
I haven’t had a bad life, just a boring one, which in my opinion may be worse. I was the kind of kid who looked sullen in dresses, so my mother stopped trying and let me wear whatever I wanted. Ill-advised, I think. I’ve always been of the school of thought that kids need structure. A good spanking if need be, though I know it’s an unpopular opinion. Unfashionable at best (though unfashionable is what I do best). Cruel at worst. But like I said, I’ve always been unfashionable, and cruelty has a certain art to it that I’ve only been able to study and not master. But maybe cruelty, and the study of it, are fashionable after all. They’ve been making people famous for centuries. Look at the Bush family and all those attaboys they get for Guantanamo. You can argue with me about cruelty being fashionable but certainly not about it being lucrative. There’s no shadow of a doubt about that.
Anyway, I was a kid that didn’t wear dresses. I wore sheets instead. That’s right, bed sheets. I wore a blue sheet from age four to age six until my first day of kindergarten when my father saw my mother trying to sweet talk me out of it and just pulled it clean off. He turned to my mother and shouted that she go get me some proper clothes. When my mother cited my unwillingness, my father waved a hand at her, saying, “That’s on your short list of problems. Make yourself useful for once.” See, I told you—lucrative, productive. I learned from the best.
Perhaps if I’d worn sundresses and those awful little halter-tops, maybe put on some Lip Smackers, then I would have fit in with the other Collier girls. But I wasn’t a natural blonde and didn’t pretend to be. I didn’t crimp or straighten my curls. I just let humidity have its way with my hair and its way was dark tufts around my head, same as my legs, same as my armpits. Hair is there to protect you, after all. Why fight nature? But despite all their religious rhetoric, the other girls had a problem with me leaving myself the way God made me. They pelted food into my hair when the teacher wasn’t looking. The worst thing about it was I wouldn’t know until I went to the bathroom. In the mirror I’d see my hair adorned with bread crusts and bits of orange peel. It almost looked nice, like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
One time they started pelting pebbles at me while I crossed a bridge and I bum-rushed them below. I grabbed their arms one-by-one and gave them friction burns, making sure I stared into their eyes as I did it. I thought I’d put the fear of God into them, but it did nothing. The next day, they didn’t seem that afraid, just called me “gorilla” from a safe distance. And I suppose that’s fine. Gorillas are the most feared and revered creatures of the jungle.
It’s true that there weren’t many other people that looked like me where I’m from, if you can call it that. As if there’s any one place that serves as an end or beginning point to a person. Anyways, I’d inherited more of my father than my mother, and it wasn’t alright with the Collier universe.
Nothing is right with the Collier universe. There’s water where there’s land and land where there’s water. The sky is heavy and hot and I swear sometimes the water talks. At least in Naples the buildings look like casinos. But there are only nail salons or donut shops inside. The streets are lined with aspirational palm trees, “bending towards the idea of success,” Papi said once, and laughed his confusing kind of laugh, when he’s said something both sad and funny and one is not exactly sure how to react. My instinct is always to laugh. Mom’s, to stay quiet.
When I was a kid I’d often go down to Naples and walk the boardwalk and pretend like I wasn’t from there. I’d fake surprise at the mandarin and rose sunset, the pelicans prancing on the shore. I’d pull the only turtleneck I owned closer around my throat and pretend like I had a more interesting city to go back to like Chicago or New York or Florence even, though I winced with embarrassment at what any actual Italian would think of our version of Naples with its plastic columns and glass grapes at every restaurant table. I pretended I was foreign sometimes too, chuckling with amused pity at a postcard of bare-assed women laying flat across the Naples sand. “I buy for family,” I’d tell the shop girl, if she wasn’t one I’d seen before. “They get a kick.” How quaint, how silly, how ridiculous to use nudity in this unnatural way, my fake-self mused. It did seem almost funny when I thought of it as a place I wasn’t from. A place I didn’t have to claim. I always thought I might like to move some place cold. I think I’d maybe be a different person in the cold. It might accentuate my cheekbones. Maybe I could wear a fur and barely ever smile and pretend I was Nico.
I often dreamt of leaving in those days, but in a way that didn’t require much effort, like if one of my Colombian relatives tracked us down and, seeing the squalor in which we were living, lifted me out of it and back to the riches of the Walled City. The Walled City, as mythical as Oz, fencing in everything I was, a place I was meant to be. I dreamed often of going there and being steeped in some kind of ancestral recognition. The earth, the ocean, the plants. As a kid I begged my father to take me there, but he always refused. My mother conveniently left the room.
Turner River Road might be one of my favorite places in Collier. There’s only one way in and one way out. I liked that it teased the option to leave. That one of these times I could drive its length and maybe never come back. I’d wanted to study abroad at college but then I didn’t get into college so that was that. I have had some wild adventures in Copeland though. That’s the ghost town next to ours. I like to look at the abandoned shacks and imagine what kind of people live there. Empty shortbread tins filled with rusty pennies, broken kitchen tables, porcelain figures caked in dust. It sounds strange but it cleared my mind to go there, knowing that it was eat or be eaten in that world. I touched my fingers to the splintered wood, some times imagining I was healing it, other times inviting trouble.
But trouble never called on me—nothing really did. I’d stare up at the sky, stamp my foot, and will a thunderstorm or a flood, but it never came when I wanted it to. Only when I was fast asleep or safely in my bed. The world seemed determined to protect me, and for that I resented it. I walked through the half marsh half-dry land, sunlight bathing my t-zone every few seconds. My mother had been telling me I needed more sun. I think she secretly thought it would lighten my hair, though to her disappointment it had only darkened through the years. I’d get out there in my forever muddy jeans and listen to the whisper of ghosts or maybe not ghosts but sorrow itself. The meek sighs of the swamp. How utterly alone yet surrounded I felt with the imprint of other people pressing in on me. Some of the shacks say “Private Property” but you have to learn to sense which ones were put up by some greedy bum wanting a bit of privacy and the ones that are actually still inhabited by someone’s great-great-grandmother holding a shotgun between her decrepit fingers, just waiting for someone to cross the threshold.
One day, early on, the other kids saw me headed in the direction of Copeland. “You’re as dead as that town,” they yelled after me, “Dead, dead, dead.” In elementary school I think some of them might legitimately have thought I was a zombie. As I said before, I was quite pale. Anyway, I’m not into zombies or anything, it didn’t start because of that. It started because of “Blood Stalkers,” the greatest movie ever made in my opinion because it gets Florida, or at least, my Florida. Don’t tell me you think you’ve heard of it because I know you haven’t. Hardly anyone has. But I love it. I could watch it over and over again. It makes me laugh. It makes me cry. It makes me jump out of my pants.
I only heard of it because I made friends with the guy at the video store. He told me it was shot in Copeland (oh wow!). My favorite character is Kim, a real straight-shooting city type. I couldn’t agree with her more when she says, “Just look at this God forsaken place. There’s nothing out here. Not a blessed thing.” Nothing like a woman’s spidey sense. You don’t see much of that in horror movies now-a-days. Guess you could call it feminist for its time. There’s even a character who’s a pole dancer. Anyways, there are two couples and they go to this cabin somewhere off of Turner River Road by the looks of it that one of the couples inherited and they’re cleaning the place up, trying to have a nice relaxing vacation. Mike is just reminiscing thinking about all the good times he had in that little cabin before his father died, then BAM—Blood Stalkers—these weird furry things that howl and make all sorts of strange noises and don’t take kindly to visitors in their part of the swamp. It’s got nostalgia and romance and fear—all the fixings for a classic.
I think what I like about it the most is the moment, just before Mike catches wind of his first Blood Stalker, when the land is quiet and flowing—serene, I guess is the word. It was crazy to see it from the plane window for the first time. All emerald and tan and shining. I guess one would call it beautiful.
Papi never talked about Colombia. All growing up the excuse had been that it was too dangerous. It was the 80s and the 90s and things had gotten to a fever pitch what with the FARC and the drug trade and all that. When I asked Papi what his home was like all he said was, “Dictators and poor people, just like any other third world country,” which I suppose means people walk around with flies on their faces and distended stomachs like those commercials. I asked Papi as much and he told me not to be stupid, that that was just American propaganda. “As if people didn’t live that way here,” he’d scoffed behind a lit cigarette.
I asked him if he missed home, he said, “It’s a horrible thing for people not to know where they’re from.” Mom lined the house with knick-knacks—a ridiculous felt fisherman dangling his legs off a pom-pom covered boat, tacky paintings of women laughing with baskets of fruit tottering on their heads. She tried to construct his old life around him, or coax him into hers with offerings from the world he left behind—I could never tell which. My mother had never been to Papi’s hometown herself. I read in her diary once that my father would lie with her on the mattress of his studio in Bogotá, swirling a finger around the creases of her palm, and tell her stories of the beaches, the people, his family—mostly, my grandmother, Mamita Leti. “I wish I could meet her,” my mother had prodded, a foolish American student without the faintest clue about what broken families meant to Colombian Catholics. “Keep wishing,” Papi had scoffed. He was good at building people up just to tear them down.
He never fit in on the swamp. He hated the straight edges of the suburbs, despised the religious fervor of the housewives, mocked the general blobbiness of Collier County residents. The only time he stopped grumbling was on the water, the whirl of his airboat drowning out his bad mood so that he was forced to look at the hanging moss, the fizz and bubble of a world half water, half land.
Mom bartered with Papi to attend PTA meetings—one meeting for an hour of uninterrupted TV time. To their credit, the Collier moms did try to chat with him, fingering the crosses etched into their wrinkled necks, but he’d bat them away with political tirades, his chest out, his pompadour trembling. Some kept their cool, said the country would right itself, and all he had to do was have faith in Him. Others took his bait, yelled back that they were the daughters and wives of veterans, that people like him were draining the country. To which he’d sit back in his folding chair, cross his hands over his belly, and smile. My mother treated these sparrings as background music, setting out pizza bagels and plates of sugar cookies that my father called Cancer Cakes. I’d sit under the table, eat my cancer cakes, sneer at my mother’s cowardice, and silently cheer Papi on.
Papi was only friends with the Cubans. He drove to the neighboring town to drink rum and play dominos over talk of the next revolution. If I promised not to talk, I was allowed to accompany him. And I liked to keep quiet around the Cubans. I felt like a paper person around them, fraudulent in my Spanish. Not quite there. I sat by Papi’s side, held his beer, anticipated when he needed ice, and strained to understand fragments of their conversation. Their arguments had an inner formula. Words like El Comandante and paramilitar created a fortress of meaning I wanted desperately to infiltrate.
Spanish was more spoken around me than to me. I picked up what I could. Papi would speak it to me when Mom wasn’t around. I suppose this is how I developed my early aversion to her. I associated her with isolation, with loneliness. I looked at her and it left a gap in my stomach, as if someone had hole-punched everything good out of me.
Papi couldn’t abide frivolity. He hated my mother for her silliness—her constant need to clean, to chatter, to verify that she was enough. Me, I knew I wasn’t enough, but didn’t care. He respected that. I think he liked that I didn’t wear make-up and kept my hair short—that, like him, I was not scared to break Collier’s code of conduct. We were allies in the decay of the swamp.
I still don’t know why he decided to tell me. We were out fishing—our strategy to avoid church. The sun heated the back of my neck as I floundered around on the dock, grabbing bait, threading the rod. Papi sat up tall and looked out over the tangles of pondweed. The water heaved with life. Bromeliads sprouted from a tree trunk. Cypresses loomed over us—they looked like giant ladies in hoop skirts. Angry bushels of red mangroves elbowed each other for space. Knobby stubs of water tupelo poked up from the water’s surface, ugly as witch nipples. Violet butterfly peas pierced the scene. The sun fluttered in and out of the trees, as if trying to sneak a peak.
“Your sister would love this.” My rod clanged to the dock. It made a pretty noise, like the ringing of a bell. I lived in its echo for a moment. I could feel my forehead furrowing in slow motion, the microorganisms of my body stopped munching to hear what he would say next. I waited too, but he continued to squint into space. Something shuffled through the cattails.
“What?” I asked, careful not to make any sudden movements, to keep my inflection flat. Tu her-man-a, he sighed, as if Spanish clarified this fact. Que?! I sputtered, this time purposefully bringing my rod to a crash. Papi slapped me up side the head. No me grites! he shouted. He rocked side to side to settle back into his position. “You’ll scare the fish.”
The afternoon fled away from us in a battle of questions and answers: “What’s her name?” “What does she look like?” “Does she know about me?” “Does MOM know about HER?” He answered every third question. “Minerva,” he said, “A little like you,” and, “Mom knows.”
The next day when Papi was away at work I tore through his closet and found a thick stack of letters that almost fell apart at my touch. The writing was wide and wobbly, clearly the work of a child. She wrote to him about silly things—what she did at school, what she ate for dinner. The collection spanned at least ten years. Underneath the stack were photographs wrapped in delicate tissue paper: one of him holding a child in a long, embroidered white dress—it must have been her christening—another in which she looked eight or nine, hands around his neck, smiling gap-toothed into the camera lens.
It took me a second to recognize his handwriting in the next stack of letters. There was an urgent tone in his replies. I promise to visit you soon, mija. I have not forgotten you. But he did. I slammed down the yellowed paper, angry for her. He did forget her. I reckoned it had been over ten years since he’s so much as uttered her name.
Minerva’s letters gave me an address. It was beyond uncharacteristic what I did considering I’d never made it further than Texas in my entire life, but I had nothing left to lose. I was already a fuck up. I had had to take 11th grade twice and had been inching my way through junior college for four years. It wasn’t always that way. When I was little I had wanted to be some kind of writer or an actress or something (In his better moods Papi would tell me that I had a flare for the dramatic). I had this idea that I’d like to tell my life story and what not. But all that’s too much effort now.
That day anger powered me. I fumed as I listened to Papi’s snoring, peaceful as a distant tide. All the memories we could have shared. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone here. Maybe she could have protected me, or we could have protected each other.
I felt a rock in my gut, heavy with all the things I didn’t know about, and all the things I did. Family secrets bursting at the seams of my DNA. And a body gets tired, carrying all that around. Something inside me cracked wide open and all these feelings spilled out. Sadness sort of came oozing and I didn’t have the energy to put it back in again. It was a thick bleed. I felt like a kid, crying for what she wants but not exactly sure what that is. So maybe I went to Colombia to fix the crack or to fill it.
That night I booked my flight with his credit card before I had time to stop myself. I snickered to myself at the thought of his face when he saw the charge, knowing he’d be more angry at the cost of my departure than the risk of my disappearance.
In the end, it was his pleading tone that moved me. The curls of intimacy in his penmanship as he wrote the word mija. I suppose I’ve always been a bit tender hearted.