Itâ€™s autumn in central Florida. This year, summerâ€™s heavy humidity and torrential thunderstorms stretched throughout September without respite, but at last, the trees across from your condo have turned a dusty pink. The clouds blow over, bestowing one perfect day after anotherâ€”temperatures in the low eighties and seventies, blue sky and breezes capable of tricking you to think youâ€™re somewhere in the Hawaiian islands, or the Caribbean. This is why you live here, of course, in this quirky, crowded, southernmost state. Weather might not matter much to some. But after a childhood of dark, frigid mornings awaiting the school bus, you drink up the sunshine, all three hundred days a year of it. To you, living in the ice and dim winter light is like being hungry, when all you can think of is food. And warmth.
Sunshine is life.
To celebrate the change of seasons, you and two Floridian friends decide to take your boyfriend, Frank, a recent Yankee transplant, on a kayak adventure. One Saturday morning, you drive from your neighborhood in Maitland, the upper-middle class suburb on the northern fringe of Orange County, thirty minutes to Wekiva Springs. Youâ€™re not the outdoorsy type, but a canoe or kayak trip on the Wekiva River is almost a rite-of-passage for those who have only previously known Orlando through its theme parks and strip malls. The sounds of the roadway fade as you step out of your jeep at the kayak rental siteâ€”a bungalow in a clearing, a few dozen yards from the riverbank. A woman in a loose t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and biceps as big as your thighs charges across the yard behind a push-mower. She cuts the engine, approaches. This is the real Florida, you impress upon your boyfriend.
The woman exchanges hearty handshakes with the four of you, introduces herself as Martha.
Will we see alligators? Frank asks, repeatedly, as the four of you sign waivers and don life vests. Beneath his Mets baseball cap, Frankâ€™s expression turns to disbelief when the collective response, time and again, is: we canâ€™t guarantee weâ€™ll see gators, but since they live in every body of water bigger than a backyard pond (and sometimes even in those), we probably will.
Crocodiles? he asks. What about them?
No, crocs live in Australia and Africa. In Florida, we have gators. But theyâ€™re really not interested in people, and itâ€™s not the time of year when the mothers will be guarding the eggs, and if we see one, itâ€™s not a big deal. So donâ€™t freak out.
But if you do run into one, jusâ€™ smack â€˜em between the eyes, Martha interjects. Then theyâ€™ll leave ya alone.
Frank is grinning as if the Mets just won the World Series as you each get assigned a kayak and lower into the river.
You kayak out of the shaded tributary and minutes later, emerge on the vast river. The day is glorious. Youâ€™re moving with the current so youâ€™re exerting minimal effort, marveling at how the sprawling city couldnâ€™t seem more distant. On either side of the marshy riverbank, all types of water birds take flight between their huntsâ€”cranes, herons, ibis, cormorants. You pass an island full of them, and you are struck with quiet relief and wonder at encountering a landscape so void of human presence. Surrounded by the Spanish moss dripping onto cypress knees, kayaking through waters carpeted with lily-pads, it might be now, or a million years ago.
And of course, your eyes are steadily on the lookout for the ridged spine of a gator poking up between the marshes. But nothing yet.
Youâ€™re feeling rather lackadaisical about spotting one, having seen gators numerous times before, big and small. And there might be a chance you wonâ€™t see one on todayâ€™s four-hour jaunt. But you donâ€™t want Frank to leave disappointed, so you keep looking, and hoping.
Frank pulls up alongside in his kayak. I think I just saw a pterodactyl, he jokes. Seriously, this is pretty wild.
You smile. This is the Florida so few people ever get to see but should, the Florida you love, brimming with primitive, up-close beauty, and creatures as varied and bizarre as some of its people.
The river narrows, grows more winding. You skirt branches floating past; your arms are starting to ache. The passing boats and canoes grow less frequent; thereâ€™s a sense of foreboding, as if the previous two hours was a warm-up, and youâ€™re entering the real Wekiva, or in the middle of a scene from Apocalypse Now. Your little group has come a long way, and you sense itâ€™s about time to turn around, the sun is lowering in the sky, when two kayakers approach from the hairpin bend up ahead.
Seen any gators? Frank asks.
Oh, yeah, the man and woman answer. Thereâ€™s one on the bank back there. Big one, too.
The news rekindles everyoneâ€™s enthusiasm, but you keep on at a steady pace. The river twists and turns; still no giant gator. Youâ€™re leading the pack but resign yourself to turn around after the next big bend; the gator has probably by now slipped into the water, if the one the couple had mentioned had been in this vicinity to start with. You pass a clump of weeds and dry bank on your left, and a few dozen feet away lays the alligator, jaw propped open and immobile as a tree trunk in the sun.
He must be twelve or fourteen feet long. At least.
Oh my God, hurry up, you say over your shoulder. Heâ€™s up here, and heâ€™s huge. Your voice struggles to maintain a measured calm, heart firing underneath your life vest. It becomes suddenly, glaringly obvious how futile the silly vest would be should the massive creature decide to slip into the water and swim underneath, and with a swish of his tail, overturn the flimsy kayak into the river, mistake one of your flailing legs for his lunch, chomp down, and drown you. For this is how alligators kill their preyâ€”by dragging their victim to the waterâ€™s bottom and spinning around.
This remains unlikely, though, since thousands of visitors kayak and canoe on the Wekiva every year, and youâ€™ve never heard of an attack-by-an-alligator resulting in death to humans. Or even harm. But something visceral and innate steals over your impulses, and you back away, point the kayak toward home. You wait for the others to catch up to you, gaze planted on the bank.
Oh, wow, Frank exclaims. Take a look at that!
He and your friends edge in closer, snapping pictures. The gator clamps shut his jaw, twitches. He evidently has been disturbed by this sudden appearance of paparazzi and will have none of it. In the next instant, he has slid into the water, heading downstream.
With that creature, and plenty more like him, in the waters beneath you, the kayakâ€™s thin metal the only thing separating you from those septic jaws, you are aware of only one thought: time to head back! You are fully in retreat, the others reluctantly trailing, your dwindling strength now undermined with jittery nerves as you dip your paddle in the water. Sheer fear powers you on, against the current. The idyllic scenery and bird-watching of the tripâ€™s first leg has been usurped by primal response; your gaze combs the reeds and lily pads ahead for the bulbous reptilian eyes, the trademark bumps. Your arms are burning but you keep on charging like you were in a crew race.
Nice day for a kayak, huh? Martha croons when youâ€™re the first to pull up to her dock. Yâ€™all see any gators?
Oh, we saw one all right. About the size of Texas.
Well, he wonâ€™t hurt you none, she says, â€˜slong as yâ€™all leave him alone, donâ€™t splash him or nothinâ€™.
You think of Frank and your friends, circling the riverbank, shrieking and taking photos.
That evening you go to a Chinese buffet in Longwood, drink beers and laugh, recounting the dayâ€™s adventures. Weâ€™ll have to do it again sometime, your friends say. You say, next time I want to show off some Florida wildlife, itâ€™ll be to see the manatees in Blue Spring. Something safe and tranquil.
We saw an alligator, honey! Frank beams, squeezing his arm around you in a hug. We had an adventure.
We did, didnâ€™t we? you reply. His Jersey accent-jubilance just might make the muscle aches, lingering palpitations, and flashbacks worth it.
Night has fallen by the time the two of you return to the darkened condo. Spent but still buzzing from the day, together you stroll down to the fishing pier on the shores of Lake Maitland. Itâ€™s mid-October but warm enough to go without a jacket yet. The lights of the lakeside mansions twinkle in the distance; overhead, a jet descends on its flight path for the airport. Otherwise you might forget you were in the middle of a city. This is the Florida you love, alligators and all.Â Â Â Â Â
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Vanessa Blakesleeâ€™s fiction, essays, and reviews have been published or are forthcoming inÂ TheÂ ParisÂ Review Daily, TheÂ NewÂ Republic, The Southern Review, among many others, and her short story â€œShadow Boxesâ€ won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from Yaddo, theÂ VirginiaÂ Centerfor the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and was a finalist for the 2011 Philip Roth Residency atÂ BucknellÂ University. She recently completed her first novel. Find her online atÂ www.vanessablakeslee.com.