Our first apartment was right off the side of the highway, separated from the wail of traffic by only a small patch of swamp. We lived on the perpetually damp ground floor with a leaky ceiling and thin walls that browned at the corners, collecting humidity like an extra layer of paint. When the air inside got too thick, we’d sit on our porch and talk about what might live in that little swamp: tiny alligators, a family of water moccasins, a reverse mermaid (human on the bottom, fish on top). Our hair swelled up with frizz and moisture, mosquitoes ravaged our skin, and it was the worst place I’d ever lived and also my favorite place, all at once.
When they demolished the building two years ago and I watched it crumple like a piece of newspaper on the local cable channel, I thought I’d be sad, but I wasn’t. Today, I am. Today, in the spot where our six-story building with asbestos and single-pane windows used to stand, is a brand-new Walmart, opening at eight a.m., and the sadness is gripping me like a pair of cold hands. The place that used to hold us isn’t just gone, it’s been replaced with a strip of blue building that probably smells like linoleum. The swamp is dried up and covered with asphalt. The whole thing is new and big and we are not; we are just one small, increasingly faraway past.
I want to text you and say, Isn’t it crazy how people will shop for boogie boards, plastic patio furniture, televisions, and bulk Pringles, right there where we used to look out at the swamp and trace each other’s palms and pass calamine lotion back and forth? Isn’t it funny how if we returned to the spot where we used to sleep, with our legs intertwined and a pillow between our torsos to reduce the body heat that got trapped in the tiny, tight bedroom, we would find a Crayola display, perhaps, or a shelf of boating equipment? Isn’t it wild how everything changes and changes and changes, and one day long ago but not too long ago, we were sealing our windows with duct tape, and fixing the rusty doorjamb, and buying extra pots and pans for catching leaks, and telling everyone we knew, Yeah, it’s a shitty place, but at least we’re together, and I wanted so badly to be able to say to you in some near or distant future, Do you remember our first apartment? The one with the tiny mysterious swamp and the leaks and the wet walls?
The last time I texted you, almost a year ago, it was to inform you I’d found an old favorite sweatshirt of yours, lodged under a seat in my car. After all this time, you’d replied. What are the odds!
I know, right? I’d said.
You didn’t answer again.
Really, the odds felt obvious. Wouldn’t you call it a fifty-fifty chance? That either I’d find the sweatshirt, or I wouldn’t? Once, in bed, you’d murmured that it was funny to think about how there were only two possible outcomes for us: we’d either stay together forever, or we’d settle into being strangers again. You’d said: just like flipping a coin. I pressed my cheek into the valley under your collarbone even though it was so hot, I could hardly stand it, and said, I don’t know, I’d like to think we have more control.
I wonder what it would be like to meet you for the first time now, to never have known each other. I’m Anna, I’d say. And then maybe: What kinds of things do you think live in a very small swamp?
Perhaps the outcome would be different, and we’d be strolling into the brand-new Walmart together, looking at doughnut-shaped pool floats and knitting needles and four-pound boxes of spaghetti and three-for-six-dollars beach towels. Maybe we’d be a now and not a then. And we would have no memory of the damp, decrepit apartment, because it never would have been ours in the first place, but maybe instead, we’d sit on a fifth-story balcony where we’d watch cars drive by and wonder what kinds of people were inside them, or we’d laugh over a noisy stove that always startled us when we turned it on, or we’d move outside Florida altogether, even, maybe to a place with winter or deserts or mountains.
But maybe not. And maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. Maybe, even if we tried our odds again and again, we would always fail. Some things are like that: swamp water dries up and hairs you can’t see turn grey and yous become the thems we tell our new partners stories about one day. Apartments become Walmarts. Four years later becomes five. The world moves and we move with it, without even noticing. It shouldn’t be that sad.