Four Tales of the Sea: 2. Funerary Rites

It is customary at the end of the year at New College to lay to rest your undergraduate thesis. We burn them on pyres, on grills, in canisters, watching the flames creep higher and lick over our work, thinking “Done! Gone! YES!” The weight of it is gobbled up in orgasmic brightness.

It is one thing to burn your work in Palm Court, the Center of the Universe (so says New College lore, and so it must be). But some theses are just too big for that, the endeavor too grandiose, the ideas too large for a simple laying-to-rest. Some require a truly epic funeral. Morgan’s was one of these. A literature thesis, delving deep into myth and history, only something so majestic– or downright absurd– as a Viking funeral on the waves would do.

This was a matter for some stealth and derring-do, so Morgan chose broad sunset to immolate her work. We assembled in straggling knots, carrying the best flowers the college had to offer to lay into the boat– gardenias, hibiscus, and of course, the bay front’s finest roses. Morgan showed up last, carrying a small cardboard construction held together with hot glue (this design, flawed as it was for a fiery funereal craft, stuck in my mind, lingering for years).

All gathered, we tromped north in a procession along the water, to the corner of the sea wall, near a clump of very damp trees that would shade us from view. There, Morgan set the craft in the water. One friend produced the lighter fluid. Another, a lighter. The rest of us ferreted out dried palmetto fronds, curling palm strands, and slash pine needles– every fine dry thing we could find. And we set them to the fire, and cast them in the boat.

It would not light. We added more lighter fluid, puzzling over how best to do this.

Still, it would not light. More palmetto. More pine. For the windproofédness of the lighter, it would not light.

And then one of us piped up, “Screw it.” The whole canister of lighter fluid poured like a waterfall onto the thesis’s watery pyre. And then it did light, crackling, roaring, and blasting heat into our faces.

Like a tiny pineapple boat so long ago, the funeral barge stayed close, butting up against the sea wall as if to climb out and set fire to the land. It burned until the fluid was consumed, and all that was left were a few fragments of charred carboard, spattered with remelted hot glue. Morgan fished the soggy mass from the waters, and we dispersed, still smelling of burned things.

Little Ghosts

I wandered downtown Tampa last week, listening to “100,000 Fireflies” by the Magnetic Fields. There is something strange about having of necessity moved back to the small town which spat me out, only to go visit the first city that felt like home in search of work. I want so badly to be back there in Tampa for good. Or maybe New York. Or maybe San Francisco. Anywhere there are the people that I love. Friends hold your heart in their hands; this is home. But Tampa herself was almost a lover.

Tampa’s breath has changed, rolling over in her sleep– she’s shifting, settling. Cities do this. The art museum is temporarily relocated, the old building demolished. Its repose will be interrupted when the new building is finished, but until then, it’s reclining like a nude on North Howard. The leaf imprints on the concrete before its absent old structure look as though they will flutter away with all the light loose construction debris. I like the look of the construction fences– the green of the woven tarp backing the chain link, the red and yellow of the hardhat signs.

I moved slowly down the streets, footsteps ghost quiet in contrast to the buses roaring down Marion, the business women trotting to lunch on high heels I still don’t understand (click, click), the business men laughing just a little too loudly with a client they want to impress (it’s almost maniacal– big guffaws). I stopped on the drawbridge over the Hillsborough river to listen to the cars buzz and rattle over the grating. The concrete pilings are covered in years of prep school graffiti from rowing competitions.

I wandered over to the University of Tampa campus and the park that joins it. Tampa’s minarets sparked silver in the sun, a relic of an opulence gone. What would Henry B. Plant think of the school that now takes up his old hotel? The moons and domes and brick mean the city. They are interchangeable, like the canals for Venice. The last time I wandered that campus was with my aunt and mother– I opened the picture album of my mind, and I remembered where my aunt stood when she took the photo of me crouching like a pixie at the edge of the “Sticks of Fire” fountain sculpture, water shadows playing over my figure, ribbons of waving light and dark. It was less than a month before I went off to New College. She was so proud of me… she never got to see me graduate. Today the fountain is cracked and empty.

Tampa’s rolled over in her sleep. She’s murmuring a familiar word among a string of other foreign things. I don’t think I understand. She stole the covers, twisted them around herself in the sweaty summer night. I can’t get close to spoon her. I am lying awake, exposed, trying to figure out how we became so distant, what has changed when Tampa’s arms were once my home.

Four Tales of the Sea: 1. Oriented on the Waves

My time as a student at New College was marked, year in, year out, by a close association with the bay front. Each year I was drawn to the water, like a selkie seeking out her skin. Each year gave me a new tale to tell.

When New College was new to me, it wasn’t truly new. You see, I had been forewarned of its wonders and perils, I had friends already in attendance, and like any first year, I took none of these warnings to heart. And so, I went to none of my orientation events. Instead I mooned crushfully about with a boy who dropped out the very next year (attrition is high at my little school amid the palm trees). But I did discover the wonders of the C Store.

It no longer exists, this staple of New College existence. My second year was its last, and it was replaced by a deli. But while it was there, it sold some of the strangest and best things I had found in sunny little Sarasota. There were vegan treats and organic fruit, waffles every morning, but best of all were the sorbets. In either half of a pineapple or half of a coconut there were these fabulous tropical fruit sorbets, with only one problem: what to do with the remaining half of a fruit when you were finished with the frozen dessert? Most would throw them away without even thinking. I had a different notion.

I had not attended any of my orientation events, so I decided to make one of my own, to orient myself with the ins and outs of the bay. A grand greeting, perhaps. A pineapple halved long-ways looks rather like a boat. And so I gathered up dear friends and new acquaintances and we gathered up forgotten things– things that wouldn’t be missed, things that people don’t think about. Our orientation event was the construction of a faery boat, to sail unmanned like all faery boats out into Sarasota Bay.

The masts were small twigs, and we found leaves decayed down to lace for the sails. I took a small quartz crystal from my collection of stones, and created a cushion for it out of Spanish moss. Strands of palm fronds lashed the pieces all together. Finally, we brought the small craft to the pier, a squarish blocky protrusion of concrete that jutted not far out into the water, red roses in our hands. Roses from the bay front are the most lovely in the world– not because they are particularly nice specimens, nor because they are exceedingly well-cared-for, but because they are on the bay, and their scent mixes with the smells of pine needles and brine salt and the decay of sea-things at low tide. It was low tide.

I walked down the steps to the water’s edge, boat in one hand, rose in the other, and set the pineapple ship on the waves. I tugged the petals from the flower, bid my friends do likewise, and we scattered them over the vessel and the rippling swells.

I sat a long time at the water’s edge, perhaps expecting the boat to float off into the bay. I should have known better. In its frailty and elegance it had a sense of the absurd, bobbing against the pier, coming closer in and butting against the sea wall. The sun set. The tide came in. All of us had long left it there, going off to pursue other things in the last day before classes started.

Perhaps it was dragged under the pier as the tide went out again. Perhaps it was lifted from the water by another student later that night. Maybe, perhaps, our orientation event was watched by the bay spirits, the seafolk and mermaids or other creatures unfamiliar to me, and perhaps after our leaving they stole the toy boat for their own use, perplexed as always by the humans, their odd pomp and foolish disappointment when the solemnity of an event is broken by the laws of physics. I think they must have laughed. It was a strange hello to a place that strangely came to haunt my heart.

And So Thanks Where Thanks Are Due

Namely, thank you Nina Gordon and Louise Post. For Veruca Salt. Even if it ceased to work out ages ago, and fell apart so awfully. For years, the fact I’d liked this pop band disguised with fuzzed out guitars as grunge had been a guilty secret. I don’t feel guilty about it anymore, though. If it hadn’t been for them, I realized music would never have reached inside and struck me the way it did. During my early childhood all the popular songs I came in contact with issued from Paula Abdul and Madonna and their ilk, hyper sexualized, with lyrics that granted no agency. The women I saw when I snuck peeks at MTV never played any instruments; they were only voices and gyrating bodies in videos. And then the 90’s came and you know what was different about Veruca Salt? These were women, who looked like people who played guitars instead of just singing, and it wasn’t all about being sexy for men. There were songs about relationships, breakups, men and whatnot, but with those guitars came power. And it wasn’t a matter that no women had done this before, rather one of my own limited scope. I never realized until today that this was the foundation for my musical tastes, and I never realized what a refuge it was, listening to music from other women’s perspectives instead of being hailed and addressed as some kind of “bitch goddess whore” to be alternately placed on a pedestal and then spat upon.

I remember my mother and father buying me my first CD for my fifteenth birthday. It was years and years after the album came out, and I had already gotten it on cassette. But my cassette was worn through, and I knew it wouldn’t survive many more listenings– and let’s face it, though I love technlogy, finances always prevent me from being an early adopter. Especially when as a teenager, one lacks a job to procure those finances. I searched through the bins at the music store looking, and at last, there it was, one last copy, American Thighs. It was not a feminist manifesto. But it rocked as hard as any of the music put out there by the boys, and it was finally, finally a pair of voices I could relate to.

My parents said, “You already have that on tape–are you sure you want to get this?”

Without skipping a beat, I answered, “Yes!” So I took it home, and listened through it again and again and again. “You’re going to laze the bumps off the damned disc,” my dad joked, as I got to the thirty-second time. It was among the best birthday gifts I’ve ever received.

So thank you, again, Nina Gordon and Louise Post. Thank you for paving the roads of my mind with chords and verses so that I could later find the back alleys that led, eventually, to Ani DiFranco. There were cobbled walks that led me, later still, to Le Tigre. Thank you for leading me down that road to that intersection– so when my head turned, I encountered Rasputina. Thank you for helping me get my feet under me, and all those times in putting my head on straight. Thank you for a beginning. I had to start somewhere.

Fever Dreams

Coming back from New York, I brought with me many things. Jars of pickled lemons, harisa, and pilpel tsuma. A necklace gifted me by a friend containing the body of a spider. A badge from the convention that kicked off the trip. A very bad cold.

I do not get sick very easily. I puff up, perhaps a little too boastfully, when I say “My immune system is like a Clydesdale!” Not this time. The night before I left New York, my body was a blast furnace, and everyone else’s skin felt cold to my touch. I’m told I babbled incessantly in what little sleep I got. One thing I do remember of my strange verbal spoutings was admonishing my host not to tell my mother– because she wouldn’t believe me that I was sick.

I carried that thought– dizzily– home on the plane with me, and have been able to turn it over in my head as recovery manages to elude me. My mother never believed me when I was sick as a child. When it turned out that I wasn’t faking it, she treated my bed-bound state as a punishment. No books, no videogames, no music– just sleep. But when coughs were wracking my body, and my face felt like it was on fire, it wasn’t possible to sleep. Her reaction was inexplicable. It perplexes me still. I found ways around it though, sneaking books into my room that I had taken out of the school library or I had borrowed from friends. I suppose that’s why it feels like like a small subversive pleasure, even now, to be blogging while sick. It’s my secret medicine.