The first time I was in a hurricane was 2004. I was living in Tampa and working as an 8th grade Language Arts teacher. This was a dirty job where I felt more like zoo keeper than any sort of sage teacher person. Hey Ms. Newman, Do you know what skeet-skeet means? Hee-hee. Eighth grade.
The AP secretary, Patty, and me were the only ones who still smoked behind the cafeteria we discussed hurricanes or my recent breakup between drags.
“Ap. Looks like we may get a hurricane day,” she’d say and smile, looking forward to a day off work.
“Jesus I hope not,” I’d choke. Hurricanes had me in a panic, watching the weather channel with bowel churning anxiety where I pictured myself being sucked out of the classroom window like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The last person to see me alive, Raul Carabello, peeking out behind a loaded rubber band, and calling, “She gone,” over his shoulder.
“Ok- Iowa,” Patty would say like I was so country for being afraid of 160 mile an hour winds and torn out trees. Then she’d take another drag and look at me sort of sadly, “You worry too much. Storm may come, may not. Nothin’ you can do gurl.” And she’d wave her Capri in my direction.
Now it may seem like I was overreacting, but hurricane season had me in a meltdown ever since the guidance counselor brought in pictures of her house after hurricane Andrew. The foundation looked like something from Poltergeist- a massive brown hole where the house used to be, punctuated with twists of wiring and snapped floor joists. Nothing recognizable but rubble. Shots of her husband in the background, holding his ears as they surveyed the destruction, kneeing by the old mailbox. I couldn’t help but think What would I do if this happened to my place? And then, Who would be there with me? Nobody anymore. So whenever Tampa got a hurricane warning I started worrying and doing what I could. Nailing plywood over the windows. Filling up the tub with drinking water. Stashing the batteries.
That August, I met Charley. Keith Kate our local weatherman announced, “As of today Hurricane Charley is a category 5 storm and approaching the Cayman Islands. Charley is will most likely hit the Gulf of Mexico on the 14th making landfall in Tampa. Downtown Tampa is a mandatory evacuation zone.” And within two minutes all my anxiety became real. It didn’t mean shit that I had extra flashlights and was prepared for a storm or even that I was a good person and never had a sick day in three years. Charley was coming. The expected storm surge was twenty feet; the water would completely overtake downtown, flash flooding past my door and up into Seminole Heights.
I had three dogs at the time- a Chow named Kona and two pit-bulls. I know what you’re thinking. What’s with all the fucking dogs? And my only defense is that the pit-bulls, Mocha and Chai, where not really mine, but my crazy ex-girlfriend Stacy’s.
I know everybody says they had a crazy ex-girlfriend, but Stacy was the real deal. When things started to go south, she broke into my bedroom with a circular saw at 3 in morning. After that, I locked all the knives in my truck when I was at work because I thought she might shank me. But I still didn’t have the guts to tell her to leave because I was so afraid of being alone, of being unlovable. In the end, she was the one to leave our house, two pit-bulls, a Ford Focus, and her baby pictures. I left the car in the driveway. I didn’t know what to do with the pictures.
So that’s why alone in storm country with too many damn dogs.
I called up everyone I knew; trying to find a place to go. Patty and her family were heading to her mom’s place in New Port Richey, “Honey, ya’ll can come, but not those dogs,” The same deal from everybody. I wasn’t a fan of the pit bulls that for sure, but the Chow, Kona, she was my girl. Whole face full of brown eyes that just said, I love you-I love you- you’re wonderful, constantly. It felt like other the Patty, Kona was the only creature who gave a shit that I was alive. I called every inland hotel within fifty miles and the only one that would take me and three dogs was in Orlando, a two hour drive.
I left at 4am after siphoning the gas out of Stacy’s car just to make the trip. I didn’t loosen up 6am, when I checked in to the Travel Lodge near Downtown Disney. Orlando was calmer than Tampa. No line at the gas station. Plenty of water. Things were looking up, I’d order a pizza, chill in the AC, maybe get a six pack. Not bad. A little detour, but all good. The lingering sting of gasoline on my lips seemed totally ridiculous. Safe and tucked next to Kona’s body, I decided to check in on the status of Old Charley one last time. I flipped back to Keith Kate and ABC Nine, “Hurricane Charley has changed course. He’s still a category 4, but hit land at Captiva Island and is heading northeast of Tampa, passing directly to Orlando as he makes his journey from the gulf back into the Atlantic.”
Poof. My sense of fortune completely evaporated. I was right back in my cycle of worry, except it was even worse, because Orlando had been the escape plan, there was no plan B. Trapped in the hotel and forced to wait it out, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched news until the power shut off, and eventually the generator. By two it was as dark as midnight. I fielded one last call from my Mom before loosing cell service. I lied to her. I said I was fine. But inside I was so afraid it felt like cramps. Bad ass cramps that wouldn’t go away no matter how I lay or what I ate. And my body sensed this danger; could feel it swirling around in the low pressure, making my mind sweat out dark thoughts. I suspected that I may just be fucked, really fucked this time. And I couldn’t think about anything else.
No electricity. Not sure if the water was safe to drink anymore. I sat on the comforter and watched the wind turn the rain sideways. I had never seen anything like it. I walked up to glass of the sliding door, had to touch it, cocking my head to the side, it didn’t make any sense. It looked like it was raining across the parking lot instead of coming down from above. And that’s when it dawned on me that I watching out the window. That the whole side of the room was filled with floor to ceiling windows. I paced, tripping over the pits bulls, Kona blinking at me from the bed, and felt my whole body cramping in fear. What should I do? Fuck! I flipped the mattress over against the glass, then the box spring. I locked us all up in bathroom. I spent the next fifteen hours there. It was hot and humid without AC; I dropped my shoulders to the tile. It was colder next to the toilet. That night was a complete haze. I kept thinking that if the dogs barked someone would throw me out of the hotel, so I held them down by their leashes, mumbling the whole time, Be quiet, Be quiet, Be quiet, waiting for Charley to gobble us up, my breath shallow, the air thin and stinking like dog sweat. All night spent this way, in total darkness, Be quiet. Be quiet. The dogs whimpering, the storm so loud and surreal- it sounded like a woman screeching.
I waited all night until the storm got soft, and the only sounds were the dogs panting. I touched the doorknob and instinctively pulling it away. I set my teeth and peeked through the door. The air was so much cooler outside, the dogs bounded out, into the room; there was some light around the mattress. I was drawn to the glass; I just had to SEE what had happened, what was happening. When I pulled down the mattress, there was a tree burrowed into the hood of a Kia and green shards of glass sprinkled around. I knew I had to get home, see if any of the storm hit my house. First thing I did was load up the dogs into the truck.
As pulled away, I glanced at the hotel in the side mirror and saw the roof was peeled up, like curled metal fingers. The roof seemed so easily bent, frozen in position. Charley had passed right over us. On the radio they said that the winds were 106 miles an hour, that it was expected to be the second most expensive hurricane in US History.
All along I-4 the interstate signs were wadded up like junk mail and deep streaks of tilled-up cement were carved from the ground of the entry ramp. A few hundred feet away, an untouched gas station. It was unbelievable to see what remained intact, what was totally dismantled. I couldn't put my mind around all that force, all that wind. I started to think about how alone I was, worry about the house, about having to go back into work, and that’s when I noticed this smell…
The interstate smelled like oranges. And I thought that was so strange, like a bright orange, like the freshest orange juice. There was a truck overturned and laying in an empty field, and this great citrus smell.
Right then I felt this great gush, like that first breath outside the bathroom door. Not scared, or worried anymore, but filled with awe that such force still exists, fermenting above the sea, ready to come ashore blend the groves and lick us up. I was bursting to tell somebody, “Kona,” I said, we’re alive!” But she just flattened her ears to her head and tried to crawl into the front seat. I touched her head, it was so soft, and let her ride shot-gun all the way back home.