I've dreamed of going to the Keys for at least two decades, and now, after years of nurturing the dream, I've booked a pair of plane tickets. That's when reality hits; the Keys I've crafted in my head might be a place I can't find using GPS. I've looked at the map, the thin tail that falls off the tip of Florida: Key Largo, Tavenier, Plantation, Isla Morada, Summerland, a skinny strip stretching about a hundred miles before it bottoms out at Key West, the most famous key of them all. I know I won't find it there, the key I'm looking for. Oh, I'll go. Key West is a writers colony of sorts, tourists flock to see Hemmingway's house, and the beaches look beautiful, but the key I'm looking for is as ephemeral as a breeze, more elusive than a hundred hours on the internet can deliver.
The key I'm looking for might be on a beach in Tripoli where, when I was five, I paddled at the shoreline while my mother held my sister's hands as she toddled around in the cool of the Mediterranean and my older brother thrashed about in the waves, trying to get us even more wet. In between trips to the water, we sat eating sandwiches in the shade of an old blanket my father and his friend Jim stretched between some scrubby trees. The sun was so hot that Jim tied his white undershirt around his head, shielding his bald spot from the sun. The snapshots are mostly black and white but there's one of Nancy and me in color, both of us flat on our butts in the water, waves running over our legs; me, squinting into the camera, she with a sunbonnet on. Under the brim of her floppy hat her eyes are as clear and turquoise as the sea
The key I'm looking for might be on the shore of Lake Erie when summer meant Sunday drives out to the beach. The trip from Niagara Falls was endless —a half hour, an hour— with nothing to do but watch the houses blur by. We didn't need to consult a map or wait for a computerized voice to tell us we had arrived at our destination; we knew we were there when saw the street lined with shops selling beach supplies, a jumble of plastic sand pails and shovels and air mattresses out front, beach balls bouncing from strings in the breeze, suntan oil you could smell from the car. Once we'd pulled into the beach parking lot, we raced across the gravel mixed with grass and sand, through the tree-covered picnic area, and down some sun worn wooden steps to our own little Furry Sands beach. There, past an opening in the copse of trees, miles of deep green lake opened up before us, so vast we couldn't see the other side, sandy shoreline spreading left and right. While my parents took over a picnic table, my mother laying out a freshly ironed table cloth while my dad started the barbecue, my brother and I swam out to find the sandbar. I was terrified every time that the magic strip had disappeared since our last visit, until suddenly, just when my aching arms couldn't swim another stroke, there it was and there we were, far from shore, yet standing in water that barely reached our thighs, waving to our sister back at shore. She was too little to swim past the deep so we left her to play alone in the sand until our mother, looking up from setting out the paper plates and condiments, saw just how far out we were and yelled for us to come in closer. Close enough so we could keep an eye on Nancy, close enough that the smell of those burgers cooking on the grill brought us running in off the beach for lunch; wet, shivery, covered with sand and suddenly starving.
The key I'm looking for might be on a beach in San Juan, out at Aviones where the blue of the Caribbean was so breathtaking a color that I've been seeking it out on paint chips ever since. Deep Blue Sea. Tropical Splash. Teal Bayou. The elusive key might be one late August day when I sat by a a pine tree at the beach, bewitched by the sun and sand and all that blue and the intoxicating feeling of simply being fourteen and liking someone. Digging my toes past the hot surface sand, down into the cool earth, watching the boy I liked paddle out on his board, practicing for the World Surfing Competition. He walked me to the bus stop and bought me a coconut ice cream cone along the way, waiting until the bus pulled up to ask if I would come and watch him compete when the contest came to Puerto Rico the following month. I never got the chance; we moved back to the mainland just before the ABC Wide World of Sports cameras and world famous surfers like Corky Carroll came to town. Before we even got a chance to kiss.
The key I'm looking for is as illusory as a beach you see on a movie screen, made up, just a bit of movie magic. I was nine when my mother took us to see Follow that Dream with Elvis Presley. The screenshot seared into my head is of a rattly old truck broken down on the side of a road dusted with white sand. Beyond lies a curve of white beach, palm trees and blue, blue water. Elvis is singing to a girl, the way Elvis is always singing to a girl. You've got to follow that dream wherever that dream may lead you. You've got to follow that dream to find the love you need.
It dawned on me recently that since we were going to the Keys I could look up the Follow that Dream locations online, and find that sandy strip of beach. It isn't there. It never was. Follow That Dream wasn't shot in the Keys; it was shot up in Central Florida, in Ocala, Inverness, Yankeetown and Crystal River. The crew cleared 5 acres of weeds and scrub alongside a creek and covered the area with ten tons of sand to create that beach, a mirage that's followed me for what feels like a lifetime.
The key I'm looking for isn't there. It's an optical illusion, impossible to hold onto, like turquoise blue water that runs clear through your fingers when you try to cup it in your hands, just the sky reflected on the surface, never really blue at all.