Cape Coral, FL
2021, Senior, Creative Writing
It was the first day of “spring.” Their flowers were bundled silk, their skies were highlighter blue, their clouds were cotton balls. Families barbequed on their porches, under blossoming trees (identical grills, identical patios). Longer, warmer days brought the people outside. On the plastic grass, they stretched out on checkerboard blankets. Vanilla ice cream dripped from the children’s chins. The daughter gathered perfume-lavenders and tied it to her father’s lapel; the son handed him his feather-light briefcase. She, the wife, kissed him. Her cherry red lipstick stuck to his skin just like real lipstick did.
In the city, everything seemed real. The beauty was manufactured, but it was still beauty. That wasn’t good enough for Jane.
She was “beautiful”: blondie curls and sap eyes and rosy cheeks. And she was so young, too: she had never seen the real world, she had never even seen the sea. She looked through picture books of the sea. Nico gave her those books during class—he had never seen the sea either, only the pictures. Jane peered at the flat pictures.
Jane’s mother tore pieces of bread and put them into a big metallic bowl.
“Are you making croutons?”
Jane had a meek voice; she did not even look up from her book to ask the question. She smelled the spicy garlic and the crisp salad dressing her mother prepared on the side. So heavy and intense. And the plump red tomatoes, which were just balls of code, which she cut on the moist wooden boards. And the smell of sauce cooking on the stove, steaming.
Her mother tore the bread with such force. It was so soft and delicate too—fresh bread delivered from the city store—and she shredded them with her pretty pink nails. “I’m making salad and pasta for dinner, so make sure you don’t stay out too late, or your brother will eat it all.”
Jane’s father came down the stairs in his suit and lapel and sunshine buttercups, with her grandmother on his arm, who wore her sweater of roses. She had her wrinkly hands in his—soft as tissues and stretchy as gum.
The grandmother went over to Jane and wrapped the child’s yellow cardigan around her. “Your father tells me it’s cold in the departure office. I don’t want you to catch a cold, Janie.”
“Jane,” Father turned to his daughter, as she stood from the table. “Let’s go now. I want to get back by dinner.”
He took her hand in his as they walked out the door. They drove into the center of the city with its tall, sleek skyscrapers. They were curved and bent—almost like artwork—and perfectly smooth. The iron gates dropped; they left the floral scents of the city and entered the cold mundane air of the office. And when the father parked his car, they left it hand-in-hand and entered the departure office.
Ms. Wallace, the plain woman at the front desk, gave Jane a lollipop (a forbidden fruit, what a treat). Father took her into a room with the rows of pods and the technical equipment—cold and clean panels—with the men, the fathers who had taken the lavenders off their lapels. Her father had delicately taken the buttercups, so warm and bright in their embrace, and put them into his pocket (for safekeeping). And then he set himself into a pod first, so he’d be there to help her in her departure.
And then she stepped into her pod, shaking, and heard the tapping along with their computers.
Suddenly she felt the jerk in the back of her mind, almost like she was being forced out of a dream. An electric current seized through her body; she could have sworn that she saw a bright light, heard her father’s voice. It was like her head was split in two, that there were two of her: one living in a blissful city where everything was beautiful, yet it wasn’t; one living in a world she was oblivious to—but it was right there, right out of her reach! She could’ve sworn she saw the ocean. When her torso fell limp, she saw it. The gusts of wind, splashing seawater, seagulls—the seagulls! She tasted the salt, but it was nothing like she’d tasted before. It was…
And then the two parts of her collapsed back into one, and she was looking at her father. It felt odd to open her eyes; they’d never been open before.
He looked so different. So real. In the city, everything was so oversaturated and vivid. But this was rich, it was deep. His hair wasn’t bright, but it was tangible now. She could reach out and touch it, and it would feel brittle and coarse instead of just smoothness. And his suit was gone now, too. Replaced with plain slack clothes and a watch, which he fidgeted with. He lifted her out of her pod.
“The beach is not too long of a walk, but I’m going to ask a favor of you.”
She surveyed the walls for a window. How she wanted to see the outside world!
“When we walk on the path to the beach,” her father said with a serious tone, “you’ll keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them. Those are my orders.”
She pouted with a vigor. He frowned. “But why?”
“For your safety. It’ll be better not to look until we get to our beautiful beach.”
Although she was disappointed, she sighed and nodded at her father’s request. “Alright. I’ll close my eyes, and keep them closed.”
She took his hand yet again and fluttered her eyes shut, and he opened the door. As they walked, she heard the crunch of a dirt floor and felt the little sway of the wind. She felt the warmth of the sun—the actual sun that existed so far away and gave bubbles of light. Surprisingly, it was incredibly warm. Especially compared to the pod room, which was cold. Her father’s hand was so cold, twitching in hers. Was he shaking?
He marched her forward on the path with a fervor. His grasp was firm and desperate; her small fingers tried to pry him off, but he wouldn’t give. Finally, as the crunching of the branches under her feet ended, she smelled salt, heard the thicket of seagulls and the whoosh of the crackling waves, and, with that, the swell of some sort of unknown feeling in her chest. She couldn’t put a word to it.
“Open your eyes.”
So, she did; that’s when she saw the beach. The beach with the clean white sand, pinkie shells, blue-green waves, and the groups of seagulls that adorned the shore. She abandoned her father, walked to the edge of the waves, and plopped down in the sand. She ran her fingers through it. It was so coarse and soft. It was so fake. The colors, the sights, the smells, the tastes—they were just like they were in the city. Empty. A thinly veiled lie.
At first, she was confused. Why was she feeling this way? She was in the real world, surrounded by real beauty. And then she realized. She wasn’t. This wasn’t real beauty. This was manufactured beauty.
“I came here wanting to see real beauty,” Jane said to her father, “but now I realize the truth. This is fake. Just like the city. It’s not beautiful anymore, is it?”
Jane’s father came to sit next to her and pressed a button on his watch. The beach faded into what it truly was, no longer a simulation. The beach with the dirty, fine sand; the broken, bleached shells; the dark green waves. There were no seagulls. The sky was still cloudy white.
“I’m sorry,” her father said, “I never wanted you to see what we’ve done.”
Jane rested her head on his arm. “No. It’s better this way.”
Her father turned his head to look at her as she picked up a shell and turned it in her fingers. It was white and cracked and thin, but real. It was still alive, to her. “It’s too late. We’ve killed the planet. All because we were blind to what was right in front of us.”
Jane raised her head and saw the waves pushing in and out, like lungs that breathed air. She saw a small raven fly shakily by. She saw a crab, she saw bubbles. She saw that the water, although dark and murky, still held life. “If we can build an entire world in our minds,” Jane said, “then why can’t we fix a world that’s already real?”
He put an arm around her. “You give me so much hope, Jane.
That was the feeling in her chest: hope.
My home is in a Florida-coast community, so it isn't difficult to feel and understand the water around me. For me, it isn’t the storms that are my water story. It’s the red tide. How many dead fish and dolphins wash up on shore, how thick the smell is, how my nose runs and itches, how sometimes we’re not even allowed to go to the beach at all. And I just keep wondering to myself: for everything water has done for us, what do we do for water? Those are the kinds of messages I feel drawn to when I’m writing. I worry about water a lot: how polluted it is, how warm it is, how much of it there is. When people read my writing, I want them to feel that worry, too. Even if they don’t see it where they are, even if they do see it where they are. Because being around a water problem doesn’t always open your eyes to it. Even some of the people I’m around don’t seem to care about how bad it’s gotten. I want to show others that even people like me—who may not live in a water-starved area or have their house be flooded by storms—worry about this issue. So I reflect. I reflect on my worry, I reflect on the community around me. I reflect on the consequences of what we’ve done and what we’re doing now, and what the future might hold if we keep ignoring all the worries in the world. Because worry doesn’t always equal paranoia. Worry, oftentimes, indicates a warning.