Sunday, August 25, 2013

Death of a Tiger (Part I of V)

     Ollie the Owl did not like having her sleep interrupted. The rooster knew that, too. But every morning the rooster would sound his alarm just before Ollie dozed off. With a belly full of mice, all Ollie wanted to do was sleep. So when she heard the rooster clearing his throat that morning, she unleashed a torrent of hoots and clicks, cursing the flight-challenged bird into oblivion. The rooster refused to remain quiet in the face of such an affront and fired back a series of well-placed clucks before running for cover under his plastic igloo. This was my introduction to life at the Mission Animal Rescue.
     Our little family moved to this exotic wildlife sanctuary shortly after a seven-foot long, three hundred fifty-pound alligator bit my wife. Naturally, the shock of having half a hand pinned between two crushing jaws caused her to reconsider her line of work. And despite being a tall, attractive gator wrestler, tips just weren’t what they used to be. When the opportunity to run the Mission arose, Sandy jumped on it and held it by the jaws. Her dream had come true.
     I thought it would become our saving grace. I had spent the previous year battling her depression and a barrage of belittlement. Sandy doled out punishment like a power-hungry traffic cop. I suffered her berates, her spontaneous absences in the middle of the night, her arctic shoulder, and her condescension. None of my beatings brought us closer together, though I took them silently, clinging to the hope that one day I’d remit my penance. Our two children hung in the balance, and I desperately wanted us to stay together while she desperately wanted out. 
Frantically, I suggested moving into the Mission together. It was actually more of an annoying persistence than a suggestion, but I thought it would raise her spirits and restore what had fallen apart between us.  
     South Florida hid the Mission Animal Rescue by the hem of its long skirt, just east of Everglades National Park. It needed work, but it was beautiful. Subtropical trees welcomed you, lining an asphalt path that pulled you inside. The Florida sun beamed through green canopy, creating patches of dancing light on the narrow road and inhabitants.  To the right and left of this road, enclosures contained all sorts of animals: macaws, ostriches, monkeys, snakes, alligators, horses, a camel, bears, wolves, and many more. Over two hundred animals cooed, screeched, and roared at the Mission. But it wasn’t the lush greenery, tropical birds, reptiles, and weather that captured everyone's attention, including my own; it was the tiger.
     Bemel was a massive Siberian-Bengal mix. On all fours, his boulder-sized head floated near an average-sized man’s chest. On his hind legs, Bemel towered almost four feet above me. There was no doubt in my mind that a swipe of one of his baseball-glove-sized paws could disembowel me. Yet, he would approach the chain-link fence and, with a pseudo-purr called chuffing, beckon visitors to scratch his head. It was hard not to fall in love.
I met Bemel a few years prior to moving to the Mission, on a visit. I remember throwing caution to the wind when I slipped my fingers through the fence to pet his rough coat. He leaned into it like a domestic cat relishing a scratch, nearly crushing my twisted digits. I pulled back my throbbing fingers and admired his mesmerizing form. Bemel was a killing machine, but his eyes exuded penetrating, indescribable peace. It felt good to be close to him.
Our home was located in the midst of the ten-acre property, half-hidden from view by the primate enclosures. It was a tiny, two-room habitation. One room served as a bedroom/living room and the other as a kitchen/dining room. It had a bathroom and a couple of decent-sized closets, just big enough to fit our few belongings. Jeremiah and Salem slept on a twin bed set up in the bedroom/living room.
Someone had died in that house—or so we were told. It had been the first house built on the property. An older man and his manic wife lived there for five years before the woman committed suicide. She placed their then-one-year-old daughter on a high-backed recliner and turned the gas stove on high. The blast that ensued after she lit the match knocked the recliner forward, safely covering the child beneath it. The roof partially collapsed around her, but the chair protected her fragile being. The man found his wife’s body just a few feet from where their child lay crying.
Later that year, Will, the owner of the Mission, bought the house and property from the widow who ached to be rid of it. Will rebuilt what came to be known as the House, but eventually designed and moved into a new home for himself and his aging wife closer to the main road, at the western edge of the Mission property-line.
Sandy moved into the House ready to offer her sweat and blood to this wildlife sanctuary. Suddenly being given the opportunity to run every aspect of the park and rescue center after having volunteered there since the age of fifteen became an emotionally overwhelming opportunity. The Mission had fallen into disrepair in the previous years and her heart longed to give it the T.L.C. it begged for. She was also anxious to prove her worth to those who claimed she wasn’t prepared for the job.
Like a rabbit released in a field of tall grass, Sandy took off, and I yearned for the nights when she’d return. She didn’t treat me like I didn’t exist; I was more like the tree in the front yard that catches the tenants' attention when they first move in, but suddenly vanishes into the periphery, only recognized when it's in the way. Sandy was free in the lush, green grass, where she was born to be.
I rarely saw Sandy. The little free time she had belonged to Jeremiah and Salem, whom deserved it. But I believed that moving to the Mission would restore our relationship. In reality, I saw construction where there was ruin; I smelled health where there was sickness. Nevertheless, the park prospered under her care as she and it became one.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Story About A Story: Where the Ocean Smell Comes From


The inspiration for the setting of “Where the Ocean Smell Comes From” came from a visit to the Barnacle Historic State Park in Coconut Grove, Fl. Ralph Munroe built a house in 1891 when the Biscayne Bay area
of South Florida still lacked many roads. He hoped the weather would help his wife overcome her tuberculosis; sadly, it did not. Nevertheless, Ralph fell in love with the climate and people of the Bay and settled here. The historic park consists of his home and part of his estate. The original mansion still stands in its original location—one of the oldest houses in Miami-Dade County.

The “atoll” of grass where Haley and Ryan sit took its inspiration from the location on the left. Similarly, the dock on which they lay takes its form from the dock found there and similar docks from a nearby marina.


Two major thematic elements run through the story: the ocean and cornfields. Yet, their representation varies according to the characters' perspective. Haley views the ocean as a place of freedom and eternal peace. She harbors happy memories of time with her father, pretending the undulating cornstalks were waves on her imaginary sea. This sentiment is further reflected in her love for the smell of the ocean and geographical nearness to the ocean (she lives with her aunt near the Bay; this is hinted at the end when she walks outside to breathe in the salty air). In quite an explicit way, she describes Ryan's features using ocean imagery. For Haley, the ocean represents new opportunities.

Ryan, on the other hand, sees the ocean as a place of troubles. The deep waters of the sea represent the struggles he has faced. These struggles overwhelmed him, giving him a sense of drowning and treading water. The "salty waves" remind him of his bitter past and lack of direction. The most obvious way Haley and Ryan differ with regard to their perspective of the ocean relates to its "smell." The smell of the ocean brings joyful memories to Haley. On the other hand, it reminds Ryan of rotting plankton and bacterial growth. Haley summarizes the ocean imagery best when she says, "Talk about perspective."

Yet, they both agree on one theme: cornfields. For Ryan, cornfields represent relief. In Indiana, a state known for its corn growing, he meets Haley, with whom he experiences happiness for the first time in a while. His poem tells of finally being rooted like a cornstalk, no longer being tossed by salty waves. He feels at home. The same place Haley calls home. 

In the end, Ryan decides to give the future a try. He doesn't quite have a direction, but he's convinced by Haley's optimism. 


I’ve been asked a few times whether or not this short story is based on my life. In the vein of Hemingway, one of my favorite authors, the inspiration pertains to some aspects of my experiences. I like to put it this way: about 70% of the story is true and 100% of it is fiction. The sections that I drew from experience do not occur in any chronological order. An amalgamation of at least five to six specific experiences compose portions of the characters, setting, and plot—a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I hope the inclusion of parts of those experiences lends authenticity to the piece as a whole.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Where the Ocean Smell Comes From

Where the Ocean Smell Comes From

By Remy Dou

            The Atlantic Ocean ebbed in the pupils of his light eyes. They promised me the world, though his words promised the opposite. Patiently, I listened to his painful past, from which he was still recovering. My gaze followed the crashing waves of his lips. His soft, smooth cheeks and the three freckles on his perfect nose mesmerized me. He blinked and in that moment I lived a thousand lifetimes.
            “I’m broken,” he said, pausing before continuing, “I shouldn’t have pulled you into this.”
            “I could tell what you came from the minute we first spoke, and it didn’t scare me,” I replied.
            “How could you know then?”
            “Your eyes say a lot more than you realize.”
            He shot me a quizzical look.
            “You see? Now, they’re saying, ‘Is she for real? Can she really read the pain in my heart through my eyes?’”
            A smile washed over his handsome face.
            “You’re good,” he said.
            “I know.”
            “So, what now?”
            “I don’t know, Ryan. You tell me.”
            “Why is it always on me to make these difficult decisions? I’m tired of the guilt.” The tension rose in his voice.
            “Well, this picnic was your idea.”
            Over the dock, past the mangroves, and across the well-worn, sandy path the cool breeze penetrated our atoll of grass, carrying with it the smell of the sea.
            “I know. I just felt like I could pour everything out to you. I’ve never been so open with anyone in my life. It’s scary,” he said.
            “I have to admit, when you first said you wanted to tell me something I thought you were going to say you killed someone,” I said teasingly.
            “Was that a joke?” He smirked.
            “I love it when you smile like that.”
            There was little left to say that hadn’t been expressed one way or another. The moment for action had arrived. I knew the decision had to come from him. We would be perfect for one another, his brokenness complementing my own, but I didn’t want him to ever resent me for pressuring him. I tried to sit patiently, keenly aware of the itchy grass beneath me. I regretted having worn a sundress.
            Finally, he spoke, “Do you know why the ocean smells that way?”
            His question took me aback, but for that very reason he had my attention. Everything about him was out of the ordinary. Maybe I just imagined that was the case, but thinking back to the moments we spent together, I knew I finally met someone like me. 
            “No, I don’t,” I said, taking a deep breath, “but I love it.”
            He looked at me inquisitively. I surfed the undulating furrows of his brow, sliding down his temple and into the blonde sand of his short, youthful beard.
            “Does it remind you of anything?” he asked.
             “It reminds me of cornfields.”
            “Yeah. Back home, that’s the closest I could get to an ocean. My dad sat me on his lap while he drove the harvester through the fields. This thing was loud and big, but halfway in he’d stop driving. We’d climb onto the roof and sit there talking. If we stayed out to watch the sunset, I’d pretend the rows swaying in the wind were waves beneath our make-believe boat.”
            “You must have been happy when you got to Miami.”
            “Yes,” I said, “and no.”
            He seemed to be struggling with something.
            “I want to be happy,” he said.
            “I want you to be happy.”
            “Back in Indiana, the night I met you, I thought you might be the one that could make me happy, that could understand me. I know that sounds stupid, but something about you struck me.”
            “It’s not stupid.”
            I didn’t say anything else, letting the silence draw more out of him.
            “It’s like we’re cut from the same cloth,” he said.
            “That’s such a girly thing to say,” I said facetiously.
            His smile revealed the white surf of his teeth.
            “You know what would happen if you and I begin this voyage?”
            “Nope. You tell me,” I said.
            “This is what would happen. We’d go out together nearly every other day and discover that we’d never met anyone like the other. We’d sit at the loudest Cuban restaurants and watch old couples dance to live music. You’d tug my arm and tell me to go up and dance with you and I’d say, ‘No, I don’t want to embarrass you.’ You’d laugh, get up, and ask an old man sitting alone to dance. I would stare, smiling, as you twirl around. We’d eat and people watch, making up stories about those around us. That would be our lives for a long time—movies, restaurants, TV shows, sofas, and love-making perhaps.”
            He stopped to watch my reaction. I couldn’t help but fall prey to his sly humor and perhaps more.
            “I’m not going to confirm anything,” I said coyly.
            “Well, with skills like mine, it wouldn’t be long.”
            I laughed out loud. “Really? You better be careful, buddy. I’d be the one you can’t resist!”
            After a few moments of staring, he continued, “Those would be our days, Haley. But then life would wake us up. The life I dreamed of disappeared years ago when my ex left me. Now, I’m broken. Marred by the title ‘divorcee,’ with a baby boy I might not see for a long time. You know what would happen then?”
            I didn’t want to know, because I didn’t think anything he was about to say would be accurate. I tried not to show the gentle ache of my heart.
            “What do you think would happen?” I said.
            “I’d find out that I could not bear to leave my son like my father left me, and that my only option is to move where he is, hundreds of miles away—far away from the peace I’ve found here. You and I will drive around in your car considering other options, but realize we have no choice. You’d have to stay in Miami with your aunt or move back to Indiana, and I’d have to go. We’d park near an old cemetery and walk between the crumbling tombstones contemplating life before finally saying our goodbyes.”
            “You are so dramatic.”
            “I know,” he said.
            I didn’t know whether to scream or kiss him. I could tell he had a long road ahead, and although I knew his heart would heal, I didn’t think I could convince him of that.
            “There’s something I’ve learned in life,” I said. “Nothing is permanent. If you make a mistake, you correct it and move on. You don’t have to carry the weight of the future on your shoulders. You can’t plan what’s going to happen, and when we get to those bridges we’ll cross them.”
             We let the words resonate. They clung to the space between us like a breaking wave clings to the shore before retreating. Even after some time their shadow remained.
            “Did I ever tell you I wrote you a poem a couple of weeks ago?” he said.
            My heart palpitated. Either this guy was really genuine or incredibly slick.
            “You certainly did not. I would have remembered that,” I said.
            “I know it sounds like a cheesy line, but it’s true. And I don’t normally write poetry about people I’ve only known for a month.”
            “Not normally, just occasionally,” I said sarcastically.
            He smiled. “No, I never have. Well, unless you count the poem I wrote to Jennifer Love Hewitt when I was sixteen.”
            “I’ll forgive you for that.”
            “Thanks,” he said. “Do you want to read the poem I wrote?”
            “This isn’t going to be super sappy, is it?” I said.
            “Yeah, it probably will be.”
            “Well, at least you’ve warned me. Go for it. I’m ready.”
            I gathered my legs beneath me and rested my arms on my thighs, giving him my undivided attention—not that he didn’t already have it.
            “Here it is,” he said, handing me a folded sheet of paper.
            “You’re not going to read it?”
            “No, I don’t think I can. Open it later.”
            “Okay,” I said.
            “It’s funny you mentioned the smell of the ocean reminds you of cornfields,” he began after some time. “Indiana reminded me of something similar, but in a different way. I never thought I’d meet you there. I never thought I’d meet someone I could care about this way so soon. It’s like you washed away every memory of the torture I went through trying to salvage what I used to have.”
            I sank into his aquamarine eyes.
            “Let’s take a walk,” I said.
            I wanted a change of scenery. Everything that had been said echoed around us. The reverberations unsettled my bones.
            Holding onto the poem, I carefully slid our leftover lunches into my hemp bag. The wind threatened to snatch his words away from me. I tucked the sheet of paper into the palm of my hand. He picked up my bag and offered his arm. We walked toward the dock, the wind slathering us with the smell of the ocean.
            “Guys like you don’t exist.”
            “I’m pretty sure I do,” he said.
            “You know what I mean.”
            “I’m not so great. I don’t want you to think so. I don’t want to end up hurting you. I seem to keep hurting the people I love most.”
            “Whatever monster led you to believe this about yourself is not true. You are an amazing person. You love your friends, your family, and the people around you. Don’t believe the lies she told you. She left you for her own selfish reasons.”
            He sighed. “I know. I’m sorry.”
            “Stop feeling sorry,” I said.
            We sat at the end of the dock. Our feet hung above the water, swinging back and forth. The sun floated on the surface of the choppy waves, bending, disappearing, and reappearing. Flecks of debris oscillated on the liquid merry-go-round beneath us.
            “You are so pretty,” he said, looking into my eyes.
            I smiled like a ditzy schoolgirl. “Thank you,” I finally responded. “You are very handsome yourself.”
            “You know, I’ve been meaning to lean in and kiss you all afternoon, but I’ve been holding back.”
            I didn’t respond. We both stared into the dark water, stealing glances at one another. The sun warmed our skin and filled us with drowsiness. He leaned against the dock post and I scooted closer, laying my back against his chest. While we lounged, the wind, seagulls, and water entertained us. I closed my eyelids and listened to the rhythmic lapping of the tide against the gravelly shore.
            I wasn’t expecting Ryan to come along when he did. Even though it had been a year since my fiancĂ©e left me, I had no plans of finding someone new. I discovered myself again and I was happy with my life. But having girlfriends who think being single is a curse means getting dragged to every social event, party, and club they go to. What a boy from Miami was doing in Indiana at the time, I had no idea, but the depth of his eyes caught my attention.
            My arms hung languidly against his. The touch of his warm, bronzed skin stirred my navel. I felt safe, secured by his firm frame, his gentle caresses, and his caring eyes roving over me. I floated on him for a long time, undulating with the waves of his breathing until I almost fell asleep.
            “You never told me where the ocean smell comes from,” I said.
            “Do you really want to know?”
            “Well, I don’t want to ruin it for you.”
            “What is it?” I said, sitting up and turning around.
            “Well, it’s bacteria,” he said, letting the words sink in. “Actually, it’s dimethyl sulfide. Some bacteria produce it when they digest parts of dead plankton. The more it smells like the sea, the more bacterial growth.”
            “That does kind of ruin it,” I said, smiling.
            “I told you,” he said.
            “Talk about perspective.”
            We sat there a little longer, until our bodies ached.
            “Are you ready to go?” he said.
            He walked me past the mangroves, over the sandy path, and through the Sea Grape-filled park. We arrived at the narrow street where I left my tiny car. We hugged and said our goodbyes—no see-you-tomorrows, no talk-to-you-laters. The moment for a decision had come and gone. Nothing happened. My heart swelled with longing, but I braved it with a smile.
            I sat in the car, watching him walk away through my side view mirror. Once he disappeared, I pulled the poem out of my bag, where I placed it for safekeeping. I unfolded the note and read his handwritten words:        

The green stalks beckoned my passage
through rows that pulled me onward.
Past my ears the wind flitted,
teasing me with glimpses of corn peeking through leaves.
The dirt on my feet was bronze like my skin
and felt like home to a man born on the sea.
In that place, the strands of silk,
blowing like your hair,
blonde like the sand in the sun,
I walked,
a newly born stalk.
Rooted, I blew in the wind,
vaguely remembering the salty waves.


            I read it a thousand times before driving away.
            That night I went to sleep trying not to think of him, but that was impossible. I lay on my bed wondering whether I should shower, but I didn’t want to wash the smell off my sticky skin. After a long time, I gave in, stepping into a hot bath. Once in bed, I prayed and read Ryan’s poem a few more times before falling asleep.

 A couple days later, he called. I tried to contain my excitement.
            “Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”
            “I don’t know, why?”
            “Will you be busy?” he said.
            “No,” I said eagerly.
            “Well, I hear there’s this loud Cuban restaurant over on Sunset where a bunch of old people dance and listen to live music.”
            “Oh yeah? And if we go, will you dance with me?”
            “No, but I’ll watch you dance with the old men.”
            I laughed.
            “Okay, Ryan. That sounds like a plan to me.”
            “No, I’m done with planning—just a date,” he paused. “And maybe another one after that.”
            I let a few seconds by. I could sense his smile through the receiver.
            “I’d like that,” I replied.
            After hanging up with Ryan, I walked outside, letting the sun drench my skin. I paused whenever the wind blew just to breathe in the warm, salty air.

The End