I was seven years old in July of 1995. The air always felt heavy in South Florida that time of year — the humidity stuck to you and in turn, you stuck to everything else. While in more temperate months, our neighborhood was filled with the sounds of my friends and I yelling Red Rover commands or zipping by on our bikes, by late summer the heat had stifled every sound but the ever-buzzing power lines.
Despite the unrelenting sun that July, Hurricane Erin was churning just off shore, hungrily feeding on the warm waters of the Atlantic at a rate that I would later learn was remarkable.
My mom and I would usually go to the pool in the morning — she’d drape her long legs gracefully over the edge while I did endless handstands in the shallow end and asked her to score them. She never gave less than an 8, even when my ankles didn’t stay together.
When it inevitably got too hot to bear, we’d head home and she would make us a turkey sandwich to split — always on fresh, soft, white bread with the bitter center of the tomato slices cut out. She’d put a few Lay’s potato chips on the side, and pour us each a half can of ginger ale as I rested my chin on the counter to see the bubbles pop and fizz.
We’d have our lunch in the living room while my mom watched One Life to Live and I read something from the canvas tote of library books that was always filled with new treasures. The house was dark and cool and quiet, and the sun had made us just a little bit sleepy. If there existed a better place in the world, it still remains unknown to me.
This day, however, my mom had let the VHS player click on to record her soap opera and instead we watched the midday news as the weatherman drew different colored lines from the spinning red circle in the Atlantic. Some of them curved north, but some cut all around the map dot we lived underneath. One went right through it. My mom chewed at her cuticles.
My dad came home from work every day at the same time. Usually, right before the daily thunderstorm that Floridians know to expect around 4:00. The heat would build all day, rising up into towering clouds that swelled and darkened until they finally broke. It would storm for a few minutes, then be gone as quickly as it came, leaving only steam rising from the asphalt as though the heat trapped inside was a spirit ascending.
As soon as my dad would walk in the door, I’d be a moon in his orbit — circling his legs, telling him about the weird bug we’d seen at the pool that morning, or asking him to hold his hand up to see how high I could kick. Usually my mom would distract me so he could have some time to settle from the day at work, but I knew she was always happy to see him too.
He came home early on Tuesday of that week. Despite the excitement of his early arrival, there was no time for fanfare. We all made trips back and forth to his truck to bring in groceries, batteries, gallons of water as I chattered on about nothing in particular.
We lived in a townhouse that had a small, fenced-in patio and sliding glass doors off the kitchen and living room. My mom and dad got to work hauling out giant slabs of plywood that would cover the glass doors and screw into anchor holes deep in the stucco. I sat on the cool tile floor in the kitchen with a push pop, watching until they got to the door I sat in front of. My mom joked and waved through the glass before they put the board up and disappeared behind a wall of darkness, and I counted the starts and stops of the power drill until they came back inside.
My dad had drilled a peephole in the board that covered the kitchen slider and a perfect shaft of light cut through the air, spinning little bits of dust to glitter. After many requests to be lifted up so I could look outside, he eventually drilled another one at my height just as the sky began to darken.
As we sat down to dinner, the rain fell in fat, heavy drops that I imagined as tiny missiles, exploding on impact. I ran back and forth between the dinner table and my peephole, keeping my parents abreast of the developing situation outside.
Later that night the outer tips of the feeder bands started to bring spurts of thunderstorms as we watched the news of the storm surge. The reporter leaned forward against the wind as the Atlantic snarled and nipped angrily over the seawall behind him. The ocean at night scared me — the relentless repetition of black waves felt like misfortune being carried in from the infinite darkness.
As I watched, the excitement of the day receded and in its place I was filled with a new semblance of fear. I snuggled closer to my mom on the couch, and looked over at my dad to see if his brows were pulled as closely together as my own. He flipped over to Seinfeld.
Sometime during the night, I woke up to the frenetic, unanswered cry of the wind. I tried to go back to sleep, but with the windows boarded over, the darkness was palpable. I carried my Little Mermaid pillow and comforter into my parents’ room and lay down on the floor next to my mom’s side of the bed. My dad snored loudly and the ceiling fan creaked in a soothing rhythm.
I woke the next morning to the smell of biscuits baking and sausage gravy thickening on the stove and ran downstairs to see my dad glued to the peephole.
“This is something,” he said, walking toward the front door — next to which all our outdoor furniture and potted plants sat on a tarp, covered by an old bed sheet. My mom protested, but wearily followed along, curiosity getting the best of all of us.
We stepped out onto the patio in our pajamas and bare feet, stood close together and looked up. The sun was shining, but in the distance, in every direction, were towering, churning walls of grey that were so haunting and beautiful and destructive that I felt my heart break. We were in the eye of the hurricane.
There was no sound other than our feet on the wet concrete — no wind, no rain, no birds or cicadas — just stillness. We all moved slowly, together — willing captives of the moment.
I’m not sure how long we stood out there, or if anyone said anything, or how we ended up back inside. I only know for sure that as the storm began its second round and thunder rattled the plywood, our little townhouse now seemed unassailable.
After the storm had passed through, we wandered around the neighborhood to see the damage. It wasn’t bad — some downed tree limbs, a broken playground slide, the canal swollen over the banks, but we later came to learn others had fared much worse.
The relentless tide of history eventually carried us from this place. Seven years later, we would move a thousand miles away, and other people with other stories would occupy the rooms that were once ours. The landscape would change infinitesimally — but enough that when I came back two decades later, I had to squint to see it as it once was.
We didn’t know it then, but those July days would come to be a touchstone in my memory — something to run my fingers over when the pull of nostalgia beckons and I want to wake the spirit of simpler times.
Other storms would come — adolescence, angst, heartbreak, missed curfews — but we carried with us the things we’d built years ago in that old house, and we knew we could weather anything to come our way.