Spit strings as my blue raspberry Jolly Rancher drops from my mouth. I stare down at it, a turquoise jewel sticking to my thighs.
“Um,” I begin, knowing that if my mom were here she would’ve already handed me a tissue to ball it up in.
Uncle Wes glances over at me, his brow pulling together slightly, his hand resting on the steering wheel. “What?”
I look down at the candy, which at this point has slipped into the crease between my legs, then back at him with a disgusted question mark on my face.
“Oh for God’s sake, kid,” he rolls his eyes. “Just eat the damn thing!”
Seeing no other option but to chuck it onto the freeway for birds to choke on, I unstick the little candy from between my legs and plop it back in my mouth. My thighs have shiny blue streaks on them, but I decide against trying to rub them off.
We’ve been on the road for about an hour now and I’ve already counted twenty-one pink yard flamingos. Will Smith sings “Miami” on the radio and Uncle Wes sings along with him, all four windows rolled down. Whenever I visit Florida each July, I always know that this is how we’ll spend our time: driving around the beach, saltwater wind tangling my hair, avoiding even the most trivial of responsibilities. Free to curse and eat Jolly Ranchers for two gorgeous weeks.
You see, Uncle Wes is the kind of guy that calls into work sick and then slowly drives by his place of employment just to be seen doing it. Like he’s ditching school on a Tuesday or something. He’s the exact opposite of my father. I get the feeling my uncle missed the day in adulting school when they taught “How Not to Look Like a Thirty Year Old Douche Stuck in His High School Days.” Dad was sitting in the first row.
About a month ago, Sarah from Wisconsin told Uncle Wes she couldn’t do their relationship anymore. It wasn’t her, it was him. I imagine the word “immature” was used in the break-up speech. Sarah and Uncle Wes dated for a whopping six months, which is just long enough for one half of the couple to fall in love. I never met her, but my mom would always ask Dad, “How did your brother get her?”
I don’t blame Sarah, of course. Uncle Wes is almost thirty and still working as the manager of this phony-Mexican taco shop. He claims he’s too close with a hairy stoner guy named Rocco to quit. In spite of this, I still I think people are too harsh on him. He really means well most of the time.
That’s probably why he’s forcing me to drive the Floridian coast with him. Misguided good intentions, or something. Mom and Dad insisted I don’t pester him if he does this sort of thing. Not unless he takes it too far, whatever that means. Anyways, “it’s impolite to pry,” especially with kooks like Uncle Wes.
He never tells me why we’re going, but Uncle Wes says we have business to take care of in Key West.
I know this trip is about him being dumped. I can tell by the way he keeps turning up the radio louder and louder every few songs, not even turning it down for the ads.
Usually, when he feels like normal Uncle Wes, he’ll take the commercial breaks to bombard me with questions, ranging from “do Northeastern high schools smell like piss and pencil shavings the way Floridean ones do?” to “would you still come visit me if I weren’t so goddamn good-looking?”
The radio blocks him from thinking, I guess. Or maybe it just corks his disheveled insides from spilling out of his mouth. Either way, it keeps me from asking questions, even when I kind of want to.
Before I left for Florida, my parents warned me that Uncle Wes is taking this break up really hard. Dad said he’s “kinda lost his mind.” He says this kind of shit about my uncle all the time, but it’s never stopped him from sending me to visit. Mom told me to call her if anything happens, once in the car in front of Dad and again privately in my ear at the airport. I said “okay,” but I won’t call them even if something does happen.
Here’s why: Uncle Wes’ day-to-day fuck-ups make my parents feel better about themselves, and I’m not willing to give them that sort of satisfaction. My parents are the kind of people who request refrigerator magnets of African children’s smiling faces from the charities they donate to. You know, as daily proof of their morality.
And, I don’t imagine that a six-month relationship ending could really make my uncle lose his mind any more than normal. I mean, if my parents were actually that worried about him they would’ve come with me, right?
The last time we were all in Florida together was a few years ago, when I was twelve. Aside from a couple missed beats in serious conversations, everything was going alright until Uncle Wes took Dad to a sleazy club. I was hanging around outside when I heard Mom shrieking at Dad on the phone; all of Uncle Wes’s neighbors heard too.
Mom and I stayed at a hotel that night. She got drunk on red wine while I floated in the pool. We left on a flight the next afternoon. Mom didn’t even get out of the car when we picked up Dad from Uncle Wes’s.
Don’t get me wrong. When they’re not discussing Uncle Wes, my parents are nice people. They’re lawyers and believe in the goodness of the law, or whatever. But that just makes understanding someone like my uncle more difficult for them. Uncle Wes has no filter, and my parents’ whole lives are filtered by acquittals, contracts, defenses.
But I think it’s something more than that even. Dad would deny this, but a lot of it has to do with Uncle Wes never quite escaping Florida. A real tragedy of what could’ve been, Dad tells himself. The thing is, Uncle Wes never wanted to escape this place. Meanwhile, Dad did everything he could to get as far away as possible.
I suppose there’s just something about the land of laissez-faire strippers and margarita tourists that Atticus Finch could never quite get with.
Uncle Wes gave me three hockey-puck sized waffles and two leftover chicken wings for breakfast. I told Mom that we were eating at Denny’s when she asked on the phone. My stomach has been somersaulting all day.
We stop at a gas station outside Fort Lauderdale to prepare for our jaunt. It’s two in the afternoon and we’re starving.
The southern exit of the city has a dishearteningly small population of lawn flamingos and a suspiciously abundant range of crudely named gas stations (Pump-n-Munch, Do-It Fluid, Gas-n-Git). We agree on the Kum-n-Go.
A bell chimes as we enter and the pale clerk doesn’t look up. I immediately walk towards the granola bars, my stomach churning harder than before. I scan the labels closely, looking for the kind my mom buys, and intentionally ignore Uncle Wes. I know I’m being bratty, but my head feels hollow and my body is sticky with sweat, and I just want a damn granola bar without any dried fruit. The Jolly Ranchers were fun for a while, but this sweet little trip to avail Uncle Wes is losing its charm the longer I go without a real meal.
“Heads up, kiddo!”
He throws a bag of Lays at the back of my head and I hear the chips crumble inside their foil dome.
“Okay, you’re horrible at this, Eva. I don’t think we’re related. I have reflexes like a jaguar!”
“If you’re going to disown me, just wait until we get to Miami,” I joke, trying to mask the bitterness in the back of my throat. I love my uncle, but he never knows when to cut it out. At least if my parents were here, we would stop somewhere with a restroom that doesn’t smell like expired yogurt.
But no, it’s just me, the smelly toilets, and Uncle Wes. I settle on a box of bars with dried cranberries.
He picks up the chips with a leg swoop like he’s bowling, then places them back on the shelf. He pats the bag gently, tucking it into its spot as if it’s his child. He picks up an identical but untouched bag next to it.
“What are you doing?” I scold him before I can stop myself, looking around the aisle quickly to ensure no one saw him. There’s a hefty man in a Hawaiian shirt paying at the register, unaware of us.
My uncle pauses, his eyes on me while his hands slowly move up the bag to meet at the seal. He pinches the sides of the aluminum in preparation to pop the bag open. He’s grinning.
“You can’t just crumble a bag of chips and put them back!”
His coffee eyes glisten and he looks like a boy. He raises his eyebrows, grins wider, and pulls apart his hands, opening his pristine chips. The smell of salt and plastic hits the air. Slowly, he pulls a chip out and slips it between his teeth.
I try to maintain a blank stare, every squeal of the foil sack in his hands making my muscles tense tighter. We just stand there, staring at each other. I’m sure he’s unaware how annoyed with him I really am, but I don’t really care. Shouldn’t he be the one telling me not to crumple chips I have no intention of buying?
“Grow the hell up, Wes,” I say, shoving the stupid granola bars on the nearest shelf.
His triumphant posture goes slack. I hear him crunching on the chip as I walk away.
I wait in the parking lot until he’s done paying and don’t even look at him when he walks out with my granola bars and two chip bags—one opened, one crumbled.
“Did you know that we’ve passed thirty-six pink yard flamingos since we left your house?”
My voice hangs awkward in the car’s air, less vibrant than the radio ads at full blast. Uncle Wes and I have been driving in silence for over half an hour, jaws tight and gazes forward. It’s been quiet long enough that I actually feel bad for yelling at him. Maybe I overreacted. I mean, what else can I expect from my uncle? How big of a deal is a bag of chips, really?
By this point he’s cleared his throat a few times, indicating everything is okay again, and he wants me to break the silence.
He pauses for a minute, and I think I might have misread his throat-clearing, but then he says, “Why the hell are you counting flamingos?”
“I’ve never see pink flamingos in Rochester,” I shrug. He clicks on the radio to a low hum. “I always thought that was a bad joke that Floridians made to tease non-Floridians, but I’m finally realizing the flamingos aren’t even ironic or anything. People like them.”
He sits silent for a minute. Then, suddenly, he gets the look on his face. He’s plotting.
“You want one,” he finally declares. “You want your own flamingo. To take on the plane with you, to show your friends at home, to put in your New Yorker yard. You totally want one.”
“Oh, I will. Next flamingo, we’re stealing.”
It’s a relief to hear him say that. When Dad says that he’s worried about Uncle Wes, he doesn’t know about this part of him. The part of him that drives an extra fifteen minutes to buy us milkshakes from the shop with the thick whipped cream when we need a pick-me-up, or the part of him that steals flamingos to apologize for being immature. An ironic apology, albeit.
He may have lost some of his mind, but all the important parts still seem to be there.
We drive nearly half an hour until we spot our victim.
She’s the bright, nearly incandescent type of pink and she sits in a yard with the kind of grass that doesn’t actually need to be watered.
Uncle Wes parks in the driveway of the cinnamon-colored house like it’s his own. And by that I mean he runs over the garden, turning the tulips into little rainbow blobs. I laugh, although I try not to think about whoever planted them.
I expect Uncle Wes to pull out a black ski mask and army crawl to retrieve the contraband. Instead, he steps out of the car, leaving his door open behind him, and brushes imaginary crumbs off his jeans. Then, he walks over to the flamingo like he’s picking up his newspaper. He doesn’t even flinch. I almost even believe he lives here.
Once he’s back in the car, he hands me the thing, dirt falling off its stakes.
“Now stop counting weird shit.”
His voice sounds more serious than it should, though. Like he is giving me advice rather than joking. Out of the corner of my eye, I stare at his profile, his jaw clenching and unclenching.
“You really shouldn’t clench your jaw, you know. Bad for your teeth.” I say it more to gauge his response than because I care about his molars.
“You sound just like your mother,” he grins slightly. It doesn’t come out as an insult, but I hear it as one.
“God, don’t say that,” I roll my eyes. Adults always tell teenagers who they’re going to end up like, as if they know. As if we even know.
He looks at me, puzzled but knowing, and chuckles.
I listen to the music, and I don’t tell him. I don’t tell him that for the past three summers, when I’ve returned from Florida donning a new musician’s t-shirt from the trip, my parents just look at me in the airport.
They say it every time, in synch: “You’re just like your uncle.”
I don’t tell him because now I realize. I never heard it as an insult at the time, but it always came out as one.
I turn up the radio.
The summer I turned thirteen was shit.
It was the first time I came to Florida alone, and I was ready to go. My parents were fighting about things I wasn’t supposed to know about, like Mom’s vodka and Dad’s trainer, and my only actual friend told me she wasn’t allowed to sleepover at my house anymore because of it. We didn’t talk much after that.
I thought when I got to Florida things would be like they were all the fun summers. I thought I couldn’t have two bad summers in a row. But when I saw my uncle I immediately missed my parents and wanted to cry because it didn’t feel like the fun summers at all. I suddenly realized we couldn’t sing campfire songs or go crab hunting with just the two of us. Not unless we wanted to look like those lonely bucket-hat dudes that hang around the beach and always smell of lobster.
Uncle Wes tried to cheer me up. He took me to a nice restaurant with a piano and told me to order everything. We went to the pool and tried sunbathing, then swimming. He exhausted the city for me: museums, plays, aquariums—which I loved until some high school employee told us jellyfish only live for six months. Uncle Wes glared at that kid until his rosy pimple face deepened three shades and he began to stutter.
None of it worked until we were driving home from a bootleg version of Pirates of the Caribbean Live!, windows down and radio on. I finally didn’t miss anyone anymore. The warm air pulsing inside the car in between the beats of the music made everything feel okay. I remember the way Uncle Wes looked at me. Incredulously. Then we went to get shakes at the only place in all of Florida with quality whipped cream, according to Uncle Wes. We did that once a day until I left a week later. That last bit of summer was better than all the fun summers before it combined.
“Eva,” I feel a hand shaking my shoulder. “Eva, look!”
I blink a few times, lifting my too heavy head. I forget where I am until I look down at the sapphire streaks on my legs and the pink flamingo’s head between my sneakers. Then I realize what’s happening: the sun has set, Uncle Wes has parked the car for the first time in hours, and we are sitting near an intersection lined with artificial palm trees. Nightcrawlers and gaggles of women blur past our car every second, like gnats. We’re here.
“There she is.”
“There who is?” I ask, trying to identify the faces of the passersby. Is Sarah from Wisconsin here? Oh god, are we stalking her? I may have to call my parents.
“Sloppy Joe’s Bar!” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. I follow his gaze until I stare at the three neon red words. The vintage script is sprawled across a crumbling brick building across the street. The words are the color of glowing Jell-O, and they hurt my eyes in the night.
“I’ll explain inside, Eves. Come on!”
He’s already out of the car before I can protest. I watch his closed car door, realizing that I didn’t understand what Dad meant when he said he was worried about Uncle Wes. He’s lost his entire, whole, complete mind.
He knocks on my window. I jump when I see the big glorious Jack Nicholson smile on his face. I unbuckle my seatbelt and hurry out of the car.
I can hear my heartbeat in my left eardrum. There are people littered everywhere—people in hot pink bikini tops, in oversized glitter sunglasses, in Mardis Gras beads. They all seem to have forgotten how to walk, stumbling over one another less like gnats and more like roaches. The air smells of cigarette smoke and chemicals.
Uncle Wes is a few steps ahead, but I catch up quickly, accidentally tearing apart a couple holding hands along the way. The sunburned girlfriend yells a drunken slur at my back.
“Wait,” I grab his arm, abruptly stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, “Wes!”
He stops too, glancing down at me. He raises his eyebrow.
“I’m not Wes, I’m Uncle Wes, Eves.”
I give him a puzzled look because what the hell does that even matter right now.
“Fine. Uncle Wes, what are we doing here?” My voice is lost in the garbled conversations surrounding us, but I continue, “Like, what’re we actually doing here?”
“Eves, you’re just like your father—can’t wait for surprises to come to you.”
This time it comes out more aggressively. I stare at the wrinkles carved into his forehead, wondering why everyone thinks I have to be like someone else. We blink at one another.
Sighing, Uncle Wes finally says, “Okay, I was going to tell you inside, but remember Sarah? My girlfriend?” His smile looks elastic beneath the yellow streetlight overhead.
He chokes into a small, uncomfortable chuckle that hangs between us. People bump into us from all directions. I wait.
“Yeah... well, this bar,” he gestures behind him, a real estate agent, “This bar is where Sarah’s favorite author used to write. I’m sure she thought I’d forget that she loved Oscar Wilde, but I didn’t.”
I stare at him a moment longer as his smile flickers between hopeful and tired. I realize how different he looks when standing still.
“Okay. And why am I here?”
“I wanted to share it with you. And I want you to tell Sarah all about it when you meet her. She’ll love you.” The words come out quickly, trying to outrun reality. He’s begging me not to ask when I’ll meet her. We know I won’t.
I don’t say anything else, because I don’t even know what else there is to say, and Wes smiles at me. His eyes crinkle too hard at the corners.
I’ve never seen someone have a psychotic break, but I think this might be my first. Standing still and staring at him is torture.
I turn and make my way towards the bar. It’s less than half a block away, but I feel like a child in the mob. I dodge hairy chests beaded with sweat and wriggle away from hands guiding me out of the way. There is a stickiness to us all, every forearm graze drenched in syrup. I throw elbows subtly and maliciously until I am standing in front of the doors, gasping. I might vomit.
I turn around and see Wes, his head towering over the congregation, a deranged smile smeared across his face. He’s never looked happier than he looks right now. I want to kill him and I want to cry for him.
I wait outside as Wes asks for a table. I notice that there are clubs with multiple flashing Xs lining the street. I stop making eye contact with people.
Wes returns and still has that stupid cartoon expression on his face. He starts talking about Sarah, bobbing his head with every word. He tells me they met at a Christmas party when she told him to stop stealing the cheddar cheese cubes from the platter. I try not to gag when he tells me that he exchanged his cheddar for her phone number. She has a blind German Shepherd named Rambo that I’ll just love. She’s an archaeologist and anthropologist, but she’s not the type of person to brag about it. I don’t know what that means.
And at a certain point, I have to stop listening because I know this is not normal even for him. This is probably the kind of thing my mom was referring to when she told me to call her, for anything, the second time when Dad wasn’t listening. But I decide to hold out a bit longer. I know my parents will make me come home and Wes clearly needs me. I realize suddenly and solemnly that, aside from hairy Rocco, I may be my uncle’s only friend.
After a few minutes of his babbling, we are finally seated inside at a wobbly high table.
“So, what brings you two in today?” Our waitress asks, shouting slightly over the chattering couples and live reggae band. I don’t think she really cares for an answer.
“Well, a very special woman I know loves an author who used to write here. I wanted to experience this place with my favorite niece to tell her all about it,” he says, gesturing to me with a wink. I nod in agreement because I don’t have anything bringing me here except for him.
“Ahhh, yes,” the waitress sighs, pulling a pen and notepad out of her apron. “What can I get you both to drink?”
The way she says it makes me think she couldn’t hear a word Wes just said. I say I’ll have a soda and Uncle Wes says he’ll take whatever Oscar Wilde had.
“You mean Hemingway?” Her eyes peer over her notepad, pen hovering just above the paper.
“Ernest Hemingway is who we’re known for.”
Wes and the waitress just stare at one another. I look between them.
“But,” Wes starts, looking around the room, “No-no-no. I remember reading a magazine article and-”
“That article?” Carolanne points with her pen at the wall next to us, and there it is. Ernest Hemingway.
Wes goes silent, staring at the glossy framed piece. My cheeks are burning and I don’t know if it’s because I’m embarrassed for him or because I’m pissed. How the fuck did my uncle get his wires so crossed.
“Um, he’ll take Hemingway’s usual, then,” I finally muster, thinking that’s what my mom would say if she were here. She walks away and Wes continues staring at his reflection. I wish this place was even louder. I wish I could turn it up like our radio until the speakers began to throb and ache, until we couldn’t focus on anything but the vibrations hitting us.
I flip through the menu a few times over and pretend Wes isn’t just sitting there like that. My mind is racing for a plan, for something to get us out of this.
I try to think of what Mom would do to fix this, but I don’t think she would know. I know Dad wouldn’t know, that’s for sure. But, I decide, Uncle Wes would know just what to do.
The waitress returns to our table with our drinks and tentatively asks if we’re ready to order. I tell her that we won’t be needing any food and we’ll just take the check.
When Wes gives me a quizzical look, I reply, “We need a pick-me-up.”
We push our way out of the bar and into the street, which has miraculously cleared out by this point. The neon club signs continue flashing, and muted vibrations of music echo through the street.
When we get in the car, the radio immediately sings some lyrics about missing someone. We walk instead.
A bouncer recommends a shake shop near the boardwalk. He assures us they have quality whipped cream and it turns out he’s right. Wes and I find a nearly empty pier and sit.
“Key West is the southernmost part of the United States, you know. It’s like… the opposite Alaska.”
“Da wopposite Awaska?” Uncle Wes mutters around his mouthful of whipped cream. The waves rhythmically clap below us.
“Yeah, like… if Alaska is the top of the US, we’re the bottom. We’re holding the whole thing together, basically.”
He chuckles, “Yeah, basically.”
I roll my eyes when I hear that his voice is still saturated in sadness. He can’t just sit here and feel sorry for himself forever.
“Oh my goooooosh, just talk about it, for god's sake.”
He looks at me. “Talk about what?”
“The fact that she’s not talking to you and you can’t stand it. That you feel guilty for being immature, that you feel incompetent for screwing this trip up. Something!”
He stares at me for a moment, and it feels like he doesn’t see me. Like he doesn’t know me. He’s never given me this look before. It scares me.
I’m about to apologize, to vow to never meddle again, when he falls back onto the deck from his seated position.
At first I think that he passed out, like his grief killed him or something, but when I look down at him he’s just there. Blinking and breathing. His arms are outspread like the crucifix, and he gazes up at the stars.
“Eva, don’t turn out like me. Whatever you fucking do, don’t turn out like me.”
His voice is strained and stern. I don’t know what to say to that. I don’t know how to make him feel normal and I feel like a jackass for being so insensitive. For the first time, I feel like neither Mom or Wes would have an idea of what comes next. I’m on my own.
“I mean,” I begin. “I don’t think it’s too late. To… fix things. With Sarah, I mean.”
Is this even about Sarah anymore?
“Or, even not with Sarah. Just, to fix things,” I add.
I wince at my anti-speech. Fix things? What the hell am I even talking about. Jesus, Eva.
“Well, Christ. What do you think I should do, Eves?”
It doesn’t come out hostile, but more hopeless. I’ve heard Wes upset, but never hopeless.
“I… I don’t really know.”
“Yeah,” Wes sighs.
The black water looks like waves of liquid mercury in the moonlight. Silver and suffocating and inviting.
In the middle of realizing what I don’t know, I decide to think about what I do. I know Mom and Dad are eating chicken breast and drinking red wine, probably worrying about me. Sarah is thinking about someone that isn’t Wes. There is an empty yard, missing a flamingo somewhere.
All the while, Wes and I are right here, between all the somethings and someones, floating in all this shit together. I wonder if there is a world somewhere where incandescent flamingos stand proudly in lawyers’ yards, where Uncle Weses and Atticus Finches vacation together.
A white gull flies overhead. I imagine in this other world I would eat dropped Jolly Ranchers so that birds wouldn’t choke on them, too, and that makes it feel a bit closer.
“Actually, there is something you need to do.”
“Quit that fucking taco job already. You’re almost thirty!”
Wes’s laugh echoes into the nothingness. It surprises me, and him too, I think. I can’t help but to laugh with him because what else is there to do during this kind of thing. We keep going until our laughs are screams. They seem to hold together the whole coast.
Ciara Alfaro (she/her/hers) is a student at Colgate University, where she studies Creative Writing and Women's Studies. She is interested in families, sisterhood, and the ways in which different bodies navigate the world.