Isabelle Connolly

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

The Edge of America

Six sleeping pills, three hours sleep and fourteen hours into an eighteen-hour journey. It was early in the evening, and Miami was exploding with colour. I gazed up at the tall buildings painted in bright turquoise and sunset pink. In the palm trees, small green parrots jumped from tree to tree. I observed one balcony of an apartment block as our rental car paused at a red light. A young woman was sitting on a chair, dark shiny hair tied back, denim shorts, and a sheer top. Her arms were thin, folded across her chest. She was too far away to make out the fine details of her face, but I could see that she was looking straight ahead at something. A small brown dog lay by her feet. Something about the brief tranquillity of this moment has lingered in my mind ever since. As the light turned green, we left the girl behind and went further into the city. We didn't plan to stay in Miami. We were going to a place called Key West.

Condo blocks and hotels lined the beach, rising up so tall they appeared to skim the border of heaven; they seemed to be never-ending, so thick and impenetrable they formed a distorted wall; the beach beyond was hidden. The only glimpses of its beauty came in sun-soaked intervals when one building ended and another began. My brain swelled with pain. When we'd set off from Manchester Airport that afternoon, my reality had felt hazy and senseless, my mind cut adrift. The hours that followed had felt unreal and impersonal, unfolding in fragments. Mum looked back at me from the front passenger seat and smiled. She'd already made herself at home in our car, kicking off her sandals and resting her bare feet on the dashboard. The car's AC unit was deceptive, wrapping us in cool serenity while outside the subtropical sun was in full power. I felt like a replica of myself, as if the fractured pieces of my personality had been roughly shoved back together for a few hours in order to appear normal, to appear stable for my family's sake. That's the magic word, isn't it: stability—the key to adulthood and independence. Stability had been an unreachable destination over the last two years; in fact, it seemed to be floating further from my grasp with every new day that unravelled before me. The promise of stability was elusive. I was beginning to understand that it was not meant for me.

The six sleeping pills the night before our flight had not been the plan. They were the last resort for my panic and exhaustion. Alone in my room, drenched with silence, the drip of time washed over me like Chinese water torture. Eventually, I had summoned the courage to look at my phone. 3.15 am. Fuck. Our flight was at 12 pm, we needed to be at the airport at least three hours before; our taxi was ordered for 8 am, so I needed to be up for 7 am-ish. If I fell asleep at that very moment, I could have about four hours of sleep.

But of course, I didn't.

Just stop thinking about it. You'll sleep then, I thought.

At this point, I'd already had at least four sleeping pills with no effect. I'd built up a tolerance, you see. Years of relying on sleeping pills had changed me.

At 3.55 am, I gave in and flicked on the bedside lamp, letting my room thump alive with pale yellow light—I laid a blue pill on my tongue and swallowed. The sharp, acidic flavour lingered on my tastebuds as finally, I was relinquished from the cold grip of reality and allowed to slip into that dark, cushiony unconsciousness I'd been waiting for.

But I was here now, still awake and still tired, breathing in the warm air of America. The place I longed to be for ten and a half months of every year. The place that stained my childhood memories with the honeyed glow of nostalgia and appeared in all my dreams. My brother and I have been vacationing in Florida since we were infants. I was eight months old the first time I came. It's always been a fantasy to us. A fantasy life we've been able to construct for six weeks of every year during summer, where we leave our real lives for something better, brighter and more beautiful. Even from a young age, I knew it was not real and could never be permanent, and the version of our family that existed here was a dream. A dream that could never be tangible, no matter how convincing at the time. My brother was next to me in the backseat of the car. His well-rested and vibrant spirit was palpable, inspiring me to get it together: act normal, act stable. The concealer beneath my eyes made me look a lot better than I felt, but a closer inspection revealed a myriad of red veins threading from the brim of my eyes to the iris, giving them a cloudy, stoned glow. My brain was tinged with numbness, only half present, but it didn't matter. I'd take that.

The chunky Art Deco buildings that marked South Beach were simply stunning. Skinny palm trees wound up towards the sky decorated with neon lights. But among the masses of people with dark tans and tiny outfits who danced in and out of the fancy bars, I saw some of the saddest sights of my life.

So many people, men mainly, covered in dirt, dirty clothes, dirty hair. Shuffling through the crowd like zombies, arms outstretched, eyes frantic. We stopped at another red light, and I looked out of the window to see a black man knocking on car windows, a basket of flowers in his hand. No one rolled down their windows. I didn't blame them. There was a feeling of desperation that permeated everything here, and the glamour and opulence of Miami couldn't hide it. As we drove further out of the city, it became clear that this was not a place you'd want to stop your car and take a look around. The poverty here was so profound it had become dangerous. I saw a dog wandering along the pavement. It looked thin but fierce, loveless, and afraid.

The people there were predominantly African American and Hispanic, perched on fences and porches outside of houses that appeared to be abandoned but were most likely their homes. Children there walked like adults, self-assured, with hard faces. This was a place where society as I knew it didn't exist, not because the people here wanted to live without it, but because they weren't welcome to it. They'd been forgotten by a system that didn't want them, a system that favours white people with green paper.

We stopped at a motel in Marathon Key, one of the Florida Keys leading up to Key West. By this point, we'd been travelling for around eighteen hours. That night I fell asleep to the lively cries of the cicadas outside my window and the familiar taste of sleeping pills; in shame and frustration, I fumbled through my travel bag—my movements obscured by darkness. I was sharing a room with my brother and didn't want to wake him, or more accurately, I didn't want him to suspect how precariously tethered I was to the person he knew. Relief washed over me, calming my senses as my fingers glided against that thin plastic packet of blue pills.

Lemony sunlight surged through the sheer curtains. An AC unit shivered against the wall. The wilting odour of stale chemicals, cheap air freshener to mask any trace of the strangers who had occupied the room before. An old, ugly carpet. The trickle of unfamiliar voices outside the window. My brother was asleep in the single bed across from mine. I felt much better than the day before, almost like a different person, although my existence still felt rinsed and muted by the sleeping pills.

The heat was overpowering as I opened the door, inciting a feeling not dissimilar to claustrophobia. I had a swim in the pool before we set off again; the silky water soothed my already burning skin and calmed me. Dad was sitting on a deck chair surrounded by maps while Mum lay next to him, still as a corpse, spread across the flimsy deckchair, sunbathing.

'Hope you've got sun cream on!' I shouted.

She responded that she had, but I didn't believe her. She was always on the quest for the perfect tan, no matter the risk. By the end of our holiday, she had a tan that rivalled even the most seasoned Florida residents.

A small white boat pulled into the wooden dock that the motel's pool overlooked. A group of four hopped out, wearing sunglasses and baseball hats. They were white, but their skin was almost the colour of red clay. Immediately, they began unloading what appeared to be hundreds of live lobsters onto the deck. The lobsters were the size of a grown man's forearm; light brown and speckled with white spots, thick whiskers protruded from the face. The people bound their claws and legs with tape and counted them. So many lined up, piled up. When they were done, the sun-bleached deck was dark with seawater.

'A lot of lobsters you've got there,' my mum remarked.

'It's Lobster Mini-Season!' a couple of them called over, flashing us two platinum grins.

Just what they did with their spoils from the ocean, I do not know, but they seemed pretty happy. Still, with a recent study finding that after just two days of the Lobster Mini-Season, the lobster population of the Florida Keys had decreased by 95%, it's hard to justify it as a light-hearted tradition.

The only way to drive to Key West is Ocean Highway, which consists of one very long road. The road connects each of the Keys, which are really small islands surrounded by the world's most beautiful water. It's clear blue, turquoise, and white in places, mottled with dark blue patches of seaweed. The sunlight that scatters across it is so bright you have to wear sunglasses to avoid straining your eyes. I looked out of the window and saw a father and daughter playing in waist-high water. It looked like heaven.

The traffic seemed suspended in time; if we moved at all, I didn't feel it. With no alternative route, we stopped at Sombrero Beach, a thin strip of pale gold that curved around the shore in the shape of a boomerang. The sand was as fine as powdered sugar, infiltrating my sandals and covering my toes. The sun rose in the sky and moved across it like a giant golden vagabond. I felt my body being nourished by its warmth and light, my hair, my skin, my bones. We didn't stay long.

The leather scalded my bare thighs as I sat in the backseat of the car. But I felt better already; I was, in that moment, two people and no one. I was the smiling little girl in the photo frames at my family's house. The cute rosy-cheeked child that my parents would give their lives for. And I was the little girl dealing with some bleak mental health issues as a university student in a new city, self-medicating with sleeping pills and various other substances. The girl who partied too much and drank too much. The girl who was reckless, self-destructive, and careless with her own life. The girl who could endure twenty-four hours without sleep, pacing up and down her single room as the lonely mutterings of sirens and taxis throughout the night were replaced by the chaotic barrage of construction work, tangled voices, and car horns when the clock hit 7 am. Hearing the world moving around her, shuddering through her walls while she stayed the same.

We arrived at Key West in the afternoon, dropped our bags off at the apartment we were renting and set off to explore. Deep cracks scarred the roads and sidewalks, evidence of the sun's unrelenting power. The streets were lined with some of the strangest trees I'd ever seen. The Banyan trees were intricate, almost grotesque in the way they resembled human arteries. The Kapok tree had roots taller than me (I'm 5 ft 5) that burst forth out of the ground like some mythical creature. And, of course, palm trees everywhere.

The town centre shimmered with light and life. There were several drag show bars on Duval Street. The stars of such shows hung outside the bars, smoking cigarettes like Audrey Hepburn and wearing dresses like Marilyn Monroe. The Latin music was intoxicating as we walked past one bar called The Green Parrot. A couple started dancing in the street beneath the cool neon green lights. It appeared to be spontaneous, but they had the skill of professionals. Two bikes leaned against a bike bench, unchained. This was the kind of place where people trusted each other. Men walked around wearing cowboy hats unironically. And almost everyone was carrying a large plastic jug with the name 'Sloppy Joe's.' We decided we must go to Sloppy Joe's and see what the deal was. It's such a small town centre that it takes no longer than ten minutes to arrive at any destination you desire.

Sloppy Joe's was a sight. The wall behind the bar was stacked with machines containing fluorescent alcoholic slush. I watched my dad's face harden as he regarded the menu—$10.25 for one drink.

'Come on, we're leaving,' he said. 'What's the American version of a Wetherspoons?'

'Hooters?' my brother ventured.

'Nice try,' my mum frowned.

That evening we dined at a seafood restaurant on Duval Street, where almost all of Key West's glorious nightlife is situated. A tropical neon wonderland filled with colourful people having a good time. The earthy fragrance of Cuban cigars stained the air, and impassioned covers of Johnny Cash and John Mellencamp floated on the humid breeze. We walked past one bar called Willie T's; every inch of it was covered with money. Dollar bills smelling of beer flapped beneath ceiling fans.

The tradition is that every guest must staple a dollar bill before they go. It isn't compulsory, but layers and layers of dollar bills have amassed over the years. The walls beneath are no longer visible. It's hard to guess the grand total if each strip of sage coloured paper was counted. I wouldn't be surprised if it reached over $1,000. Key West is a party town for the wealthy, famed for its relaxed, carefree lifestyle, an existence available only to those who can afford it; nowhere was this more evident than when looking at those green dollar bills. My mind strayed back to Miami. The homeless, the poor—as unnoticed as shadows on the pavement, and I wondered, is it really more appealing to staple your spare cash to a wall than to give it to another human being?

My family and I could afford only one week of the Key West lifestyle. I spent our remaining days in sun-drenched bliss. The sun had tinted my dark blonde hair gold, laced with strands of platinum. My skin became tender from mild sunburn, shaded in hues of caramel. When I imagined myself back in Manchester, England, I felt afraid.

One evening, I sat on the pier, the briny taste of saltwater on my lips and adrenaline coursing through my veins. I'd just been stalked by a 6-foot barracuda while snorkelling and promptly fled from the sea. I looked out at my dad, a mere dot in the distance, completely unaware and too far away to warn. My mum and brother were elsewhere, cycling on the island. There was no telling when Dad might swim back, so I decided to get up and explore. I walked along the beach for ten minutes, then came across another pier adjacent to the one I had just left. A small sign informed me I was at the site of the Key West AIDS Memorial.

During the 1980s, the AIDS crisis dramatically affected this small speck of an island, with cases equal to or greater than cities like New York and San Francisco. Key West has been a haven for the LGBTQ community since the 1970s. These people undertook an estimate of 70% of the town's restoration effort. The island's decaying Old Town was revitalised into one of the most astonishing historic districts in the United States; the efforts resulted in Key West being added to the list of places protected and preserved under the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2005. Currently, one-third of Key West's population identifies as LGBTQ. When you get here, you understand why. The streets are free of the prejudices that poison many places. It's almost like being in a utopic microcosm of what the world could be...

My hair was now dry from the sun's warmth. I felt the prickle of sunburn on my back and a jolt of sickness in my tummy. Over a thousand names are carved into that black granite floor. The limit is 1,500. I walked around the perimeter and tried to imagine each life, who there were, what they might have looked like. But there were too many.

Dad was waiting for me in the car. We stopped for a few minutes before driving away and watched the sunset fill the sky with blushing colour. It was frighteningly beautiful. Frightening in the way that it was so shockingly vast that it reminded me of my own mortality. And beautiful in the way that I couldn't take my eyes off it. We were forced into silence as we regarded each shift in colour and trail of darkened cloud. I'm not religious, but for a brief moment, I searched for something.

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