Dispatch From the Zoo
“It would be so cool if you could just freeze life…Like if you could just click it and freeze it and say this is the way it’s gonna be forever…Like the way it is right now. Like have this moment together forever.” – Faith, Spring Breakers
Crossing the bridge from Fort Walton Airport to Destin, Florida by car is fucking terrifying. I don’t even know whether to call it a bridge; it’s more of a behemoth. At a six-mile stretch, it’s narrow with two lanes and no shoulder—so close to the water that if you got out of the car and leaned over the stubby, concrete wall you’d scoop out a fresh hand of the Gulf Coast. You experience a kind of tunnel vision, except you’re trapped in an endlessly open sky, stuck on an infinite stretch of baked concrete, the steep hill climbs for miles and you really don’t think you’ll ever get over that distant point on the horizon.
By the time my girlfriend and I got to my family’s condo in Sandestin, I needed a Xanax and a good cry in the parking lot. We went upstairs and sat out on the twelfth floor balcony and looked out at the beach, where the sand is so white it looks a lot like water is washing up onto powdered sugar or snow. The sun was setting into a bruised purple and impish blue, and I snapped a picture on my phone.
We ate pizza and shared a bottle of red wine while watching March Madness. We cheered for teams we pledged no real allegiance to. The heavy sliding door to the balcony sat open, with the breeze curling in first with the hint of fading light, then the smell of the sea.
My senior year of high school about forty or so of us from my all-girls private school in Dallas and our brother school went to Atlantis for Spring Break. It’s an annual tradition I can’t claim to know the origins of, but it’s planned with the gravitas of a graduation or a wedding. Flights are booked six months in advance, rooms are arranged, the conversation surrounding the trip begins when it’s still winter in Texas.
I didn’t drink in high school, adhering to some deeply implanted sense of lawfulness that could only be wavered with the permission of foreign territory. I clearly remember the classmate who ordered me my first drink ever: a Bacardi Razz with Sprite. We were sitting at the bar inside the Vegas-modeled club Aura within the resort after we saw the Jonas Brothers perform in the auditorium adjacent to the casino.
With that first drink, I was initiated. I heard the word finally used by my peers more frequently than that girl at the engagement party who insists on telling everyone the couple has been together for eight years. Oh my God, you guys. Finally. In retrospect, I was an easy spectacle, the one I’m sure others had a good laugh about when I submerged myself in the pool under the spell of liquor and they casually sipped on beers above.
Groups of us would meet up in the mornings in one of Atlantis’ many lobbies; in the afternoons we’d lazily shower and go to one of the towers where there was an hour or two of free drinks served in a private room. For a group of teenagers who, up until then, had never come close to approaching a bartender with an order, the action felt especially mature—imbued with its own brand of deviance. I believed Bacardi Razz was cool for two years.
I always tell the story of meeting Ryan Sheckler, the moderately well known skateboarder, in the VIP section of Aura and drunkenly professing to him: “I love your work.” But what I remember most vividly about that trip isn’t the running tally for who made out with the most strangers on the dance floor, the relationships that ended and began, or the hangover on the flight home, but waking up one morning and learning that Natasha Richardson—most famous to me as the mother in The Parent Trap—had died in a skiing accident. I remember switching on my data plan and Googling “subdural hematoma symptoms” on my phone. I remember thinking this is costing a dollar a minute.
The gaggle of cartoonishly tanned girls beside us hurried to and from the water, as if the first and second tests of temperature weren’t convincingly cold enough.
“Cassie, come back here,” one yelled. I attributed Cassie’s stumbling gait to the large plastic handle of Smirnoff the group had spent the afternoon polishing off. Cassie wore a custom neon tank that read “Southern Belle Raisin’ Hell.”
“Cassie, honey—what are you doing?” Her friend resting on the towel laughed. She looked over at the other girls in her party and shook her head before turning her attention back to their wide-eyed charge. “Come take a break.” My girlfriend stared between the scene next to us and me with wonder. She’s not from the States, and spring break is a uniquely American tragedy.
Suddenly another group of girls who looked the same as our seaside neighbors strolled up and there was a collective scream of recognition. The one who had been calling out for Cassie was desperately straining to smile as she stood up to greet them.
“Are you seeing this?” I said.
My girlfriend nodded, shielding her eyes from the sun that kept skipping between clouds.
“It’s so great to see you guys!” The girl with the tight-lipped smile said. “This is crazy—how long have you been here?”
“We got in this afternoon,” a tall blonde replied. She was the self-appointed speaker, standing at the fore of the pack.
The silence was brief, but hung so awkwardly, that even though I was watching this all transpire from behind the cover of sunglasses and the pretense of reading a book, I turned the other way and watched an overweight man belly-flop in the waves, trying to catch a Nerf football. Before the new group left and walked away together hand in hand, shoulders back, stomachs tucked in, their leader yelled back, “Don’t get too pregnant!”
The same overweight man was still in the water, throwing a football to his wife. He was gripping his shoulder, complaining he’d pulled something. Oh, you can’t throw it like a man? I can throw farther than you? He kept stretching it up and down, across and behind, wincing. Look at this! I’ll be damned. I can throw it farther than you!
My girlfriend’s younger sister is five years old. When she was taken to a London music festival she said, “It’s like a great big zoo, but the people are the animals.”
I wonder if I had seen Spring Breakers with forty of my high school peers in Atlantis how we would have reacted. I wonder if I would have felt as paralyzed with the same kind of voyeuristic disgust and intrigue as I was when my girlfriend and I drove into Destin to see it at the theater. Or how we both looked on with the same voyeurism as a girl grinded sloppily up on a guy against the balcony rail of the building across from ours.
“She’s going to fall. She’s going to die while ‘Part of Me’ by Katy Perry is playing,” I said.
I can imagine the guys on the Atlantis trip whooping and hollering, their drinks spiked with cheap vodka and rum for the naked montage in the beginning of Spring Breakers. I can imagine looking down at whatever dress I was wearing and thinking I looked ugly. I can imagine being titillated by the robbery scene, the shot of the four girls standing at the threshold of the beach with the sun setting before them, kicking up water and squealing. I bet I would have thought, That’s me. There I am. I’m making those memories.
Instead, I left the theater in Destin with a sour feeling in my stomach, unsure of whether this was truly a suggestion of our culture’s genuine excess—its authentic hedonism—or simply an excuse for prolonged shots of scantily clad women and James Franco in cornrows. I thought of the Steubenville rape verdict that had come out a few days before, the anchors on CNN lamenting lost, promising futures of the perpetrators, and I wondered if those men would ever see this film.
My girlfriend caught me snapping another picture of the sunset from the balcony that evening. She leaned against the doorframe, and I stood dumbly—wearing an oversized polo emblazoned with the American flag.
“You’re a dork.”
“Every sunset is unique!”
“I can see us in thirty years and you still doing this. Still taking pictures of the sunset on your phone.”
The morning we left we checked to make sure all of the doors were locked. The balcony sealed shut, the cushions on the patio furniture moved inside, the temperature set on sixty-five.
“Is that everything?” I was gripping our last bag of trash and my backpack was filled with two books I read and four others I thought I would.
We hauled our shared suitcase out with the trash and the rental car keys and the chilled Diet Cokes to wake us up. We stuffed the trash-bag into the small deposit hole in the wall labeled “rubbish,” and stood there listening to it clang against the walls as it fell for twelve stories.
My girlfriend put the music on low in the car, and read out the turns and exits on the map. When we got to the bridge she lightly rested her hand on my stiff knee. A thick fog had crept up from the Gulf overnight, and whether it’s because the second time things are easier or because I couldn’t see a damn thing, I drove with even breaths. I moved my lips to match lyrics I half-knew. I turned the radio up.
The day before when we were making our way to the boardwalk, evaluating our skin for sunburns, my girlfriend stopped to look back at the empty beach.
“It’s so cool to think that Mexico is on the other end of that,” she said.
I slipped on my sandals, not trusting the new paneling against splinters. “When I was little I pretended the water hit land we still hadn’t discovered. Or that it went on forever.”
What I meant to say is I still do.