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A Matter of Survival photo


You are six and your brother is four. The sun is so bright compared to the lush New Jersey canopy you are accustomed to. It makes the world appear technicolor and elongated. You go through “It’s a Small World” and something about the unease of Florida burrows deep inside you then. The mechanical theater makes you feel hollow and alone. Not a human soul around aside from your brother screaming “wǒ yào huí jiā!” over and over, as the water surrounds you, easing the mechanical boat off its mechanical track.


You’re on a Habitat for Humanity build trip for spring break in Fort Lauderdale. You had been the president of your chapter in high school, so joining the college initiative seems like a natural progression. The students who sign up are a mix of pseudo-Christian nerds majoring in engineering and fraternity bros listening to The Killers’ Mr. Brightside on repeat. One of them tells a story about a girl who tried giving him a blow job by literally blowing on his cock and you laugh with all your teeth, like you know any better.

You’re all made to sleep on the floor of a church multipurpose room with about twenty other university youth groups. There are only three bathroom stalls. Predictably, the toilet paper runs out. One of the frat bros threatens to book a hotel nearby for him and his stoic girlfriend. You had only ever used your credit card to buy textbooks, so the concept of buying your way out of a shitty situation is novel to you. That you don’t have to bear sleeping under the tent of your damp bath towel, catching the waft of other people’s turds.

In the morning, prayer circles have sprung up outside the church like fungi. Secular being the general vibe of your group, you all snigger at those bowing their heads and clasping their hands together in expiation. An intimacy you don’t even share with your own family.

You build houses, but don’t have any of the proper tools. The homes go up crooked, hung together by mismatched nails. One of the group leaders with a box beard and a receding hairline thinks it’s fun to drive the back way to the building site, which is torn up with potholes. He takes them at full speed and the car bounces in the air like a jet ski skimming the tepid Florida ocean. Some of the people are scared but, to you, it’s exhilarating. Your seatmate looks like he’s about to vomit. You grab his hand. Your eyes meet and your teeth rattle and clank together.


You’re meeting your now boyfriend’s family for the first time. They literally live on a golf course. There is netting surrounding the back of the house to prevent balls from penetrating the glass windows. The spongy perma turf of West Palm Beach smells loamy and rich with pesticides. The house’s shutters are seafoam green.

The reason they’ve moved from Schenectady is his father, who crushed the top two vertebrae in his neck a decade ago in a freak boogie boarding accident and can no longer stand the cold. He moves around by blowing through a straw and speaks like he has something pressed against his chest. You bought him a coffee table book about Paris as a host gift, which is a terrible idea, as he can’t use his hands. He is still gracious about it, which makes it all worse.

You sleep in the guest room where your boyfriend’s mother keeps her doll collection in a glass case with a mirrored backsplash. About half the room is taken up by this display case, and the other half by Container Store storage units holding more dolls in more boxes. She acknowledges that this is creepy, but doing so doesn’t make it any less so. You dream about her coming in while you’re sleeping to brush out their hair.

Your boyfriend grills swordfish steaks and peaches, but adds no seasoning. You all eat together in the muggy back porch, impervious to golf balls. You drink out of enormous plastic tumblers embossed in patterns of ocean waves. Every time you take a sip, you feel like the drink will come spilling out from the sides. You learn they are meant to be this way, to contain ice but eradicate condensation. When you open the screen door to excuse yourself to the bathroom, the air conditioning hits you from above and you feel very small. You’re wearing a terry cloth skirt that your boyfriend had picked out for you. It’s the color of toilet bowl cleaner.

One night, they decide to order Chinese take out from their usual place, Golden Dragon. When the delivery woman arrives, she looks at you and smiles. Lingers. Bows slightly in your direction. You nod, but don’t say anything, like you’re being held hostage. Your boyfriend’s mother makes the comment that they’ve never done that before in all the times they’ve ordered from there. You think about the geisha doll she has in the guest room, porcelain face, painted on lips, eyes penetrating you from behind the cellophane.


The last time you’re in Florida is for a wedding. You decide to go for a hike in the nature preserve behind the venue—a golf resort, naturally. You need to escape the decor that your brother says looks like the ending from Scarface. The trees are full of animals and their exhalations ring in your ears. The mud puckers around the satin of your shoes. In all the times you’ve been to Florida, you’ve never understood the barbarity of it. How the vastness of its churches and the sterility of its homes is a rebellion against the wildlife that lies in its wake, crawls out from the swamp, drags you through the mud, stings you at the ankles and watches you writhe, your feet getting tangled in a veil that—as it turns out—is far too long.


image: Aaron Burch