There won’t be any poems for this story. I’m sure there is poetry somewhere here, but I never had the clarity to see it. In fact, this story is about foggily drifting through an experience, clear on one thing alone: that I have no control here. I was being driven almost entirely by circumstance, responding only to what was directly in front of me and not looking too far ahead. Get through this moment and then we will face the next.
When I got the offer to be evacuated ahead of Hurricane Maria, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t think it was necessary, but figured I could use some time off island anyway, so let’s do this. I was still exhausted from going through Hurricane Irma a week or so earlier and not having power was getting annoying. There was more to it obviously (but you’ll have to read my book for that story). So I went. And on that plane, each inch away from the island we moved, the situation seemed more dire.
There was wifi, and we watched the storm grow and head straight toward the home we were abandoning – straight toward the people still there who we loved, to our homes, our things. There was a comfort in the big soft, faux leather seats on this luxury private jet. The air was cool. There were no mosquitoes. The atmosphere was dry and clear. We wouldn’t be waking up to destruction. The dirt still coating our bodies seemed less dirty absent the choking humidity. Our kids were safe. We had a temporary reprieve from whatever suffering we had been experiencing, and would be avoiding even more suffering.
We didn’t have to make any decisions here. We just sat, headed toward an unknown destiny, away from even more unknowns. But we did have a few moments of peace, a few moments of children playing unaware of what was looming, animals being cute, also playfully unaware. That ended as soon as we landed.
We got news that the storm was now a Cat 5 and its inevitable clash with our island now was near set in stone, and we weren’t there. The relief we felt on the plane had suddenly disappeared. We were tired and hungry and we still had one more day until the storm would hit our homes. We ate, we slept.
The next day was a loss, our minds were back home, fixated on what was to come, longing to be there, but secretly relieved we weren’t. The only moment of pleasure any of us had was on a trip to Walmart, something we don’t have at home. We stood in the isles in awe, still delirious and unable to fully appreciate all at our fingertips, but star eyed at the options, the prices, the stuff.
That night none of us slept. My heart raced knowing the island was being hit. I spoke to my friends and family until I couldn’t. Then I cried, glued to the radar as if seeing the eye would somehow give me news of the reality on the ground, it didn’t. Seeing a monster of a hurricane, with a well formed eye, appear to swallow up a small island, on which rested most of the things and people I loved in this world. The fear of not knowing what would be left in the morning meant there would be no sleep for me that night. The next day and the following days feel like one. Frantically trying to reach everyone, not feeling content until every soul I loved had been accounted for, and the guilt – unable to enjoy all the abundance that is stateside.
By then, being in Atlanta, being near every fast food restaurant you could imagine, and all the grocery stores and Walmarts and Targets the heart could desire, offered no consolation, no comfort as it did that first day. Now I looked at it with a mix of contempt and disgust. How dare all of these people, with their smoothies and frappuccinos, enjoy all of this excess while so many had barely the clothes on their back. These gluttonous fools couldn’t survive a rainstorm, let alone a Cat 5 hurricane. I imagined my brand new machete, purchased after Irma in preparation for Maria – slaying through the bullshit all around me – surviving the unsurvivable. These people, this place, was a soft plush wasteland of unnecessary stuff, being consumed unnecessarily. They didn’t know reality, they didn’t know how to survive. That was my attitude for a while. Anger and hatred masking the guilt and sadness.
The dank, generic Extended Stay America where we slept was the backdrop for my musings. It’s where I laid my head at night and it’s where I stood outside smoking cigarettes and contemplating the contradictions of the United States mainland. The Extended Stay was a fitting place for me to be, as it seemed to house the misfits of the world, people in transition, either temporarily or permanently. People unaffixed to a location, free from those constraints but lost still the same.
The first few nights we met insurance adjusters who got sent to different locations impacted by storms to assess home damage. I remember saying, what happened here to require that? Why are you not in the Virgin Islands, where everything is damaged? They told me about some trees that had fallen on people’s homes in some heavy winds. Wow, the service you get stateside, I remember thinking.
There were people in between homes. People who seemed to have no solid place in the world. One lady made animal outfits and sold them on ebay. She would photograph them on the lawn outside the Extended Stay, smoking cigarettes in between shots. There were a group of Russian guys who would grill in the back of their truck every night, looking suspiciously at each passerby – which in turn made you look at them suspiciously. There were the rich men who pulled up in porches and looked at you as if ashamed and hoping you did not actually see their face. There were the prostitutes who would take boob shots in front of the sign, as if they were creating an advertisement with the product and the location. There were the men who would walk around in their robes and barefoot as if this was their permanent residence.
This particular Extended Stay allowed animals and the garbage was kept in the hallway – so there was always an odor drifting through the air, occasionally smacking you in the face – a combination of trash, wet dog, urine and feces. Each room had its own unique smell too – as if the previous residents had been there so long that their essence was permanently affixed. In our room, it smelled like someone else’s odor, animal and feet – as if unclean feet and dirty animals roamed here for an extended stay indeed. We sprayed the floors and carpets with every deodorizer and cleaner possible. We lit candles and got air fresheners – but for three months, the smell persisted. We either weren’t there long enough or didn’t have enough of a lasting essence to combat it. All we knew for sure is we wanted out and we would never walk barefoot there – maybe that was the problem.
I had experienced the grit of the world before, so the Extended Stay, while a new variety of grit, didn’t shock me much, just strengthened my resolve to get out of it. But not all in our group had laid in the gutter like I had, some were still innocent. Our intern, for instance, a young, sweet and innocent church girl who still saw the world through the narrow lenses she had been permitted, this was an entirely new reality for her, one she may never have even considered before. We knew there would be issues after her first night, when the sight of a roach scared her so badly that she wrapped herself in a sheet and slept on the couch, or barely slept, traumatized. But none of us could foretell that she would be the one to open her ironing board only to have a syringe and bags of heroin fall out. This was it for her. In fact, at that point, most had had enough of the Extended Stay.
Some clamored to go home, others found nearby apartments, and others stuck it out. At some point in the three months staying at the Extended Stay, I realized that this was actually an opportunity for me – I saw past the dog shit on the carpet, I looked through the prostitutes and their Johns – and for the first time in a long time I saw things very clearly. The things I was struggling with on island – specialized health care to deal with my autoimmune disease, specialized education for my struggling child, affordable amenities, the distance that had been created between me and my stateside family, and dating opportunities – could simultaneously be resolved by staying in this place that I found myself – not the Extended Stay, but stateside.
You see, I practice the law of attraction, or I try to. But the last few years, it’s been difficult to visualize anything because I couldn’t see a path forward. My challenges were so significant that finding a way through was difficult to imagine. Especially because all of my imagined solutions involved staying on island – I never even considered it an option as that is where my life had been for more than a decade, it is where my daughter was born and had roots going back more than 400 years. I had no place in the states to go back to, certainly not roots like hers, or any place I wanted to go to. But I knew I wanted more for us both. I knew I wanted to be healthy, and in fact I needed to be near a working hospital with specialists for me. I knew I wanted my child to have all the opportunities in life. I knew I wanted to see more of the people I had neglected in that decade. I knew I wanted to love again. And now, amid a disaster, it all suddenly seemed possible.
The path opened up before me and I could see it, clear as that eye headed toward the island. Now I’m on it and I know it’s only the beginning of this next adventure. I was in such a rut before that I was unable to see that a drastic change needed to be made – I truly believe I had to be forcibly removed from the island to see that there was more out there for me, for us, that our journey was only just beginning and going down a completely unforecast direction. It made me realize that life is a combination of visualizing what you want and having goals, as well as recognizing the opportunities in front of you. In other words, not just telling the universe what you want, but listening when the universe pulls you toward an opportunity.
As for my writing, well this project was temporarily derailed by the storms – and to be honest I’m not sure it will continue as it was. All I know is I will continue to write, I’ll work on long-term writing projects, including a memoir that goes into more detail about this part of my life, and blog posts and stories like this. But my inspiration here in Atlanta is different than it was in St. Croix, so my writing, mostly likely, will be different as well.
To be continued …