The night the boy kills the man with his car the air is as oppressive as a fur coat in August, like it always seems to be in Miami. Standing on that causeway, slim newspaper reporter’s notebook cradled in my hand, I hover by the door of my eggplant-colored Ford Contour, staring at the cop on the other side of the road. He is talking to the stocky boy with the thatch of neat black hair on his round head. The boy is 20, maybe 21. My age. Even now, more than ten years later, I can conjure up that boy’s face in my mind faster than I can remember what I ate for breakfast this morning. Clear olive skin, tiny features squeezed together in the middle of a round, pancake face. Doughy cheeks that probably don’t have to be shaved but once a week. He is dressed in a light-colored button down Oxford shirt and khaki slacks, and he stands by the cop car, his black eyes exhausted.
I can tell he is a good person, just by looking at him.
Minutes before, I’d been idling in the newsroom at the Miami Herald, checking my E-mail obsessively and counting the minutes until 9:00 pm, when my shift would be over.
“There’s been some kind of accident on one of the causeways,” the night editor announced, and I knew what would come next. “You’d better go out there.”
The night editor is a slender blond man named Brad, and he always wears a tie and wire-framed glasses and so far as I can tell he is one of the few people in the Miami Herald newsroom who attends church. Even though I am just the intern he makes me go out to anything, anywhere, just like a real reporter. That is the point of this whole thing, I keep reminding myself.
The causeways are the four-lane highways that connect the city of Miami proper to Miami Beach. They run in straight lines just over the water, and when you drive on them it feels like you are flying over the ocean. They are named after supposedly important dead Miamians that no living Miamians seem to know much about, and traveling on them is one of the few things I like about the city.
At the accident site I learn from the congenial cop that the moon-faced boy was driving his car on the causeway when he hit a homeless man wandering in the middle of the lane. The man was killed instantly, and his body has already been taken away. The cop refers to the dead man as a transient with no ID. The boy hadn’t been drinking, and he hadn’t been speeding, the cop continues, and people aren’t supposed to walk on the causeways like they’re regular roads. There isn’t a thing in the world that the boy could have done, he says, to have avoided hitting the homeless man. He isn’t going to arrest the boy for anything – he just needs to wait for the young man’s parents to come and pick him up.
I scribble notes while the cop speaks – that’s the part I can do. But now comes the part I am not good at. I’m supposed to ask the cop in the polite, sweet, kinda-dumb schoolgirl voice I always use with cops if I can please speak with the boy. Just a minute of his time is all I’ll need. I have to ask his name and his age and where he’s from. And, oh yes, I’ll also have to ask him how it feels to be a killer.
It had been eight weeks since I had graduated from Northwestern University and I was in Miami for a three-month internship at the Miami Herald. This was Miami before hanging chads and Elian Gonzalez, but after Hurricane Andrew and rising crime rates. It was, professors told me, one of the most prestigious places anyone could go for a journalism internship fresh out of school, and I felt like a fraud and a phony for getting to go there. At Northwestern, other industrious journalism students edited The Daily Northwestern, believed passionately in objectivity, and made little shrines to Mike Royko and Edward R. Murrow in their dorm rooms – or so I imagined. It was the tail end of the 1990s, and although the phrase dot com had started to feel natural on most everyone’s tongues, even then the idea that newspapers might die someday seemed impossible. Surrounded by Woodwards and Bernsteins in training, I had chosen, instead, to edit the school’s scrawny little arts magazine and hang out with theater students and directionless humanities majors, enjoying such theme parties as “Beer and Bacon Night.” I was a journalism student because I loved to read and write, and because according to my immigrant parents, English majors didn’t get jobs.
I assumed my getting this Miami internship had been predicated on a scathing essay I had written in 25 minutes during the winter of my senior year, all about affirmative action, which won a big-deal award much to the surprise of me and others in my major. I had taken the internship because by winning the award I felt suddenly like I was indeed supposed to be a journalist – after all wasn’t that what the award was for? Wasn’t that what I’d gone to college for? And with four years of school rapidly coming to a close I figured I was supposed to start doing what everyone told me I should be doing. By turning down the Miami job I’d be committing career suicide, even though not very deep inside I had no clear idea of what kind of career I wanted. I did have vague notions of a best-selling novel, a wealthy benefactor, and a New York City apartment complete with a bathtub that had clawed feet – but I didn’t know of any internships that led to that kind of life.
I did not want to be in Miami. I did not even want to be out of college, because I was one of those people for whom college had saved her life. I had felt like an over-achieving freak in high school, wondering why boys ignored me and why nearly every girl I knew was prettier and dumber than I was and seemed to be having a much better time. I’d joined the cheerleading squad to be more like what I thought I should be, but I failed miserably. I’d had to ask out my own Prom dates. A girl I thought was a friend suggested I not answer so many questions in class, because it annoyed people.
College had revolutionized me, adopted me, and made me feel all right again. I met girls who were not afraid to be smart and boys who taught me how to smoke cigarettes and the professors loved me and I learned how to wear vintage clothing and feel fantastic about myself. Northwestern was a shell and I knew it; a bubble where being a semi-Marxist good-time girl with a purposefully bad dye job was fun and easy.
I thought it would be nice to be 21 forever.
The only thing I knew about the woman who had lived in my small, ground level garage apartment before me was that she had gotten pregnant and moved to London all of a sudden, leaving behind her two gray, shorthaired cats that the family I was renting from was forced to adopt. The father in the family was an athletic marathon runner who worked for the Herald’s suburban Broward bureau, and he was waiting for me when my father and I pulled into the driveway.
The heat – the never-ending, milkshake-thick heat – was upon me the moment I left my car, like some kind of sick joke.
“Welcome to Miami in August,” my landlord announced with a ho ho ho, and handed me the keys.
The apartment’s living room was actually an old garage, and despite having been renovated it smelled musty and unfinished. My closet was where the garage door had once been. The bedroom and kitchen and bathroom had been added on, and those parts were homey enough, with faded yellow tiles and white curtains that had been washed one too many times. Tiny little lizards made their way inside on a regular basis, and the first time I spotted one – while seated on the toilet with my pants around my ankles – I shrieked and stumbled out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind me with my foot.
My dear dad, as big a worrier as me, had tried in an extremely painful way during his two-day stay to be upbeat and positive about the whole experience. The shower worked very well, the family was nice, the rent reasonable.
“Life is change, and you have to embrace change,” he’d said over and over on the ride from our home in Virginia to Miami. I believed him in theory, but found the advice highly unreliable coming from a man who had lived in the same safe suburban neighborhood for almost 30 years. He’d driven me to the Herald the day before he got on an airplane to leave me, and then had me practice driving back and forth from my apartment to the newspaper, even drawing me a precise little map that I would keep like a talisman in my glove compartment long after I’d left Florida.
The job was a nightmare.
From the moment I made it up to the fifth floor of the Herald’s building to the big, bright white newsroom with the ten televisions that were tuned to every news station available and the bay windows that overlooked the water, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. Most of the reporters were the type of people I had hated in journalism school, the sort that were obsessed with what they did for a living and actually believed that what they did really mattered to people. Yet they carried themselves with a sort of bitter self-importance that gave the impression that the people they claimed to care so much about did not deserve them. They were loud and they were caustic and they were sure of themselves. The men all seemed to be divorced or screaming to their wives on the phone, and the women all seemed to be alone and easily annoyed, and everybody seemed somewhat unhealthy, like they hadn’t been in the sun enough even though they lived in one of the sunniest places on Earth.
At first I worked Sundays through Thursdays, 10 am until 6 pm. Every afternoon when I came in, my day editor – an overweight black man named Mike – would send me out with a plastic Herald media badge and what were usually wrong directions. Cell phones were still a luxury at that time, and I did not have one. I was sent out alone to car accidents and fires and train wrecks. I had to phone rape victims and grieving widows and the parents of children who had been run over by drunk drivers. I had to travel to bad neighborhoods that to my upper middle class eyes looked, in all seriousness, like something out of a Sally Struthers Save the Children television commercial, and I had to knock on doors and windows of run-down apartments that terrified me. Once, I was chased back to the sidewalk by a snarling, barking dog.
How was I doing this? I thought to myself every day. I was torn between the good girl part of me that never messed up at any job or class assignment and the part of me that hated every second of the intrusiveness, the nervousness, the dirty-seeming nature of it all. In journalism school they had taught us that we would be revolutionary agents of change, torchbearers of truth, wordsmiths who created sentences worth weeping over. Instead, I felt like a harried record keeper working a factory line, trying desperately to get events onto paper so I might see them in print for one day and then begin the process all over again.
But I learned some things. In a very short time I learned the tone of voice that you use when you want a cop to talk to you (sweet/dumb schoolgirl), when you want a city official to talk to you (semi-threatening/semi-angry) and when you want the family of a dead person to talk to you (hesitant/humbling). It was the last one that I really excelled at because it came easy to my people pleasing nature.
“I was wondering if you might want to share with our readers what made your [son, daughter, wife, husband, etc.] so special?” I would say in this very shy voice, as if I expected rejection, which I did. I would look ashamed of myself, which I was, and I would stare at my feet or shrug my shoulders as I waited for their reply.
I was rejected – often. More than once I had a door slammed on me, and one time, when trying to find out more about a woman who had allegedly killed herself along with her children in a deliberately set house fire, I was called a wolf to my face. Another time, I was sent to cover the funeral of a leader in the Cuban community and was asked by the funeral home employees to please leave, it was a private affair. The rejection freed me up and I secretly longed for it, even though I knew my editor Mike would send me back, again and again, to try and get the quote. On a pay phone outside the funeral of the civic leader, I gripped the receiver in a sweaty palm and told Mike the home had turned me away. He exhaled with frustration.
“Just tell them your there to pay your respects, that’s all. Don’t even mention you’re a reporter,” he said.
“But I already did,” I responded, wiping drops of sweat off my nose.
He exhaled again with even more frustration.
“Just go try it,” he said, and after we hung up, I imagined him complaining out loud to the newsroom about the scaredy-cat intern he’d been stuck with.
But still, there were the times that a family would invite me in, ask me to sit down and did I want anything to drink? The mother and father of a woman killed in a hit and run were so pleased I wanted to know anything about their daughter – a working-class woman who would probably never have made the papers otherwise – that it was hard to get out of their house. They kept thanking me and smiling at me and telling me how appreciative they were that I had showed up.
In my car after interviews like that one, I felt like a thief.
When I got back to the newsroom and sat down to write the story, I learned quickly that daily newspapers are not interested in the words but the facts. My colorful metaphors and long-winded introductions were cut out. When I quoted a woman saying “pissed” it got taken out because “pissed” did not belong in a family newspaper. What did belong were tragedies, and I felt like a tragedy-spewing automaton, filling in the details. On DATE at PLACE a RACE GENDER was (choose one) raped/murdered/assaulted, etc. On DATE at PLACE a RACE GENDER (choose one) flipped his boat/ran a red light/drowned in his backyard pool.
I was assigned an official mentor, a hands-down gorgeous Puerto Rican woman whose nickname was Frenchie. She had cocoa skin and thick black hair, and her make-up was always just right – a brush of pastel eye shadow here, a smear of copper lip gloss there. Frenchie had grown up in Queens, covered the cops beat, and spoke fast and hard and quick. She was such the stereotype of a tough dame I almost believed that she’d consciously created herself, but she was too brilliant and funny to be that affected. She’d moved from town to town and job to job in pursuit of the stellar journalism career that she owned, and when I talked about wanting to live where there was snow and cute little brownstone apartments, she laughed.
“I don’t really care where I live,” she said. “Is there a Blockbuster Video? Fine. Is there a grocery store? Fine. Okay, I can live there.”
She had a little black cat she spoke of tenderly and whose image was on her computer’s mouse pad, but she rarely talked about boyfriends or even friends. She was nice to me even though my neurotic, scared self paled in comparison to her tough girl bravado, and I was in awe of her when I watched her in action, pressuring a cop on the phone to disclose something or shooting off to an editor who was riding her about a deadline.
Midway through my internship, when Hurricane Georges churned its way up through the islands on its way to Florida, she was dispatched to Puerto Rico at the last minute.
“Okay, so I’m going to PR,” she said to someone over the phone as I watched her get her things together. “Okay, you know, they need to feel like they’re doing something, so okay, fine, I’m going to PR.”
She was so sure of herself. So certain about everything.
One day I was sent out to cover the case of a 2-year-old girl who had been beaten into a coma by her mother’s boyfriend who had gotten upset because the little girl had eaten breakfast sausage meant for him. The little girl, who would later die, made big headlines because her mother had once been investigated by whatever department whose job it was to look after little girls like this, but the little girl had slipped through the system anyway. There was the press conference, the cop who called the mother and her boyfriend “monsters,” the television crews who would ask for a quote to be repeated again, this time in a better light. Days later, members of the media would refer to it privately and casually as “the sausage case.”
“Do you want to go up and see her?” the hospital’s media relations person asked us the day the story broke, as we got our things together after the press conference. I knew seeing her would make for a great lead to my story, and if my editor Mike found out I’d had the opportunity to look and hadn’t taken it, I’d get in huge trouble. And I suppose I did want to see her, for the same reason we all slow down at accidents. I wanted to know what monsters could do.
I expected it to be the worst thing I had ever seen. But it wasn’t. She didn’t look like a real girl, just a body. A tiny black body attached to clear tubing, nestled in mountains of white sheets. I stared and stared at her, wanting to pull in as much sadness from her as I could.
“Nurse, pink socks, doll-like feet,” I scribbled in my notepad.
The other reporters around me calmly took notes too, not reacting or saying anything. I stopped writing and stared at the girl some more, then buried my face in my hands and made little sobbing noises until the hospital public relations person came over and put his arm around me. I wanted badly to cry because I believed at that moment that I should cry. It was sick what had happened to this little girl, and here we were taking notes on her appearance, and I wanted to feel really, really sorry about it. And I wanted to prove to the other reporters and to the hospital public relations person and to the nurses who looked at us like we were vultures and I guess to myself too that I had not lost my humanity. That I did not want to be part of this.
But the tears wouldn’t come, no matter how badly I wanted them too.
Back at the newsroom, when I told Frenchie what had happened, she just stared at me and tilted her head a little with confusion. As I spoke, I felt a sense of being better than her, and at the same time I felt jealous because I could not be exactly like her. Despite the Medill School of Journalism and my go-get-`em parents and the awards and the college arts magazine and my stint as editor of my high school newspaper, I was not going to be a journalist. I was not going to be part of a group of people who were so sure they had made the right decision. Who embraced their cynicism and disgust and dark humor and wore it proudly. Who knew, or seemed to know, exactly what they were doing with their lives.
Then Frenchie told me, “You know, you really shouldn’t be in this business.”
I looked at her and wanted to cry for real then, because even though I knew I would not be a journalist, I had no idea what else I could possibly be. For the first time in my life I was really failing at something.
I hated Miami. I hated it because it was not college, but mostly I hated it because it was flashy and full of beautiful people and I did not feel beautiful there – in fact I felt chubby and pale. My car was broken into the first weekend after I had arrived (all I’d had worth stealing were cassette tapes and an umbrella, but even those things were taken). The interstates were huge and commanding and full of lousy drivers. The skies were oppressively sunny except for when they were dumping water on me by the bucketfuls. Spanish floated all around, which at first excited me but then only frustrated me. My mother had emigrated from Cuba to Washington D.C. as a child, and all my life my half-Cuban status had been an exotic icebreaker at parties. But in Miami to be half Cuban was not rare and in fact not even interesting to anyone. If anything it was embarrassing because I only spoke broken Spanish and often found myself with a Spanish-speaking source, picking through my brain for words I didn’t have, mute and totally useless.
I spent my Fridays off trying not to think about Northwestern or the adult life I was supposed to be undertaking, choosing instead to try and continue doing the calculatedly hipster/artsy things I had done in college – but unfortunately my options were limited. There was a P.W.A.C thrift store with extremely cheap items where I always seemed to be the only customer. The bookstore closest to my house was 40 minutes away. There was one art house cinema full of people over 50 (“The college kids in this town,” the owner told me, “they just want to go to the beach.”) There was no live music that I was into, except for a bar called The Hungry Sailor where bad high school punk bands played.
I filled some of my time by dating a fellow intern named Andrew, who was not even half as handsome and cool as my college boyfriend Kurt had been. Kurt, a graduate student with a wicked grin that could make me weep, had devastated me by breaking up with me suddenly during my senior year spring semester (“This just isn’t…working out.”) From Miami I sent him breezy, witty E-mails that made it sound like I was having the time of my life even though in reality I sobbed over him constantly and played too much of his favorite band, The Smiths. Unlike Kurt, I could call Andrew at any hour and not worry if he wanted to see me, because he always wanted to see me. He was staying in an apartment that belonged to a distant, older relative that he had never met. The relative – an elderly widow – was now residing in a nursing home. Her two-story, two-bedroom condo was in one of the nameless, descriptionless apartment “communities” that dotted the greater Miami area, with a new one sprouting up off of I-95 almost every day. It was bizarrely decorated with paintings of sad clowns and images of the Virgin Mary. I slept there many nights, letting Andrew cook me turkey chili and serve me scoops of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in the widow’s soup bowls.
Andrew was an extremely tall, painfully thin, brilliant Georgetown graduate with a know-it-all tone in his voice and shoulder-length, dirty blonde hair that he kept in a ponytail. He was simply too eager to be with me and constantly wanted to fool around. He was obsessed with World War II trivia and, I feared, a nascent Republican. He told me I got hysterical too easily and that emotions showed weakness. But he was nice enough, and he was always there.
“Let me be a real guy tonight, and take you out to a real restaurant,” he told me before offering to pay for dinner at an expensive bistro. I thought of Kurt and the night he made me potato pancakes in his kitchen, all the while singing to me and plying me with beer.
When I was not with Andrew, my life in the garage apartment was Spartan at best. My meals at home were pathetic. I knew how to make nothing but instant oatmeal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and pasta with marinara sauce. My television carried only three channels, one of which seemed to show nothing but reruns of Hawaii Five-O and The Rockford Files. I tried practicing my guitar and recorded myself singing folk songs into my tiny handheld reporter’s recorder. I called everyone from Northwestern who was still in Chicago and asked them for all the gossip. I called everyone from school who was in New York and asked them what it was like there. I called all my friends in other places and asked them over and over to tell me about their lives. Every one of them sounded as disoriented and as frightened as me, I’m sure, but I convinced myself that I was the weakest, most frightened one.
The boy killed the man on the causeway at the end of my internship. By then, Frenchie and the other reporters had given up on me becoming hard scrabble journalists like they were, and I was relegated to the night shift, doing mostly phone interviews with the highway patrol about road accidents and writing up briefs that didn’t even have my byline on them.
That night, standing by my car, I asked the cop if I could talk to the boy on the other side of the street.
“I can ask him,” the cop said, and he turned to cross the road, the blue and red lights of the cop car flickering over and over across his broad back.
The truth was, I wanted to talk to the boy my age in a way that I had not wanted to talk with anyone else I had ever interviewed over the past several weeks. But I wanted to talk with him not with my stupid reporter’s notebook and Bic pen. I wanted to talk with him like a normal person and ask him what it was like to be going about your business and then have something like this unavoidable, God-awful life event happen to you. The boy was a killer. I could tell by the beat-up look on his face that he knew it, and his mother and father who were on their way to meet him would soon know it, and they were all going to have to live with that for the rest of their lives. A man had been alive and then he was dead, and it was that boy’s fault, whether he had meant for it to happen or not.
Do you go to school someplace? I wanted to ask. Where were you going when this happened? Was it a party where all your good friends were waiting for you? Are you worried about how you’re going to sleep tonight? Are you worried about telling people? Are you going to tell people? Did you see it coming, even just a little? Is there a second you’ll replay over and over when you’re 30, 40, 50 even?
Are you worried this will hurt you in the future? Speaking of future, do you know what you want to do with your life? Do you know what you want to be? Do you still live at home? Do you want your parents to stay away, let you handle this? Can you not wait for them to hurry up and get here?
Is there anything, anything at all, that I can do for you?
I stood there, shifting my weight from foot to foot, nervously running my fingers over the wire coil of my reporter’s notebook as I watched the cop ask the boy if he wanted to talk to me.
I saw the boy run his beefy hand up into his black hair and comb it back, revealing his forehead, and then shake his head no ever so slightly.
The cop walked over to me.
“As you can imagine,” he said, “he’s a little bit shaken up.”
When I got back to the newsroom, I explained to Brad the night editor the facts he would want to know – the lack of drinking or speeding, that the victim was homeless. Brad hummed a little and ran down the news of the day in his head – what would be a brief, what would be a full-blown story. In the end he decided that the boy on the causeway was not important enough to be in the newspaper.
I spent my last day of work standing around a smelly dumpster behind a convenience store in a bad part of town. A store employee said that earlier that morning he had peered inside the dumpster and spotted a dead baby.
The usual suspects appeared – the police, the television crews with their vans, the curious bystanders. We all milled about, waiting while the police investigated. A few minutes before noon, the cops revealed to us that the supposed baby was only a bag of shellfish.
As soon as we were told the news, a blond television reporter in a short, plum suit screamed into her microphone, alerting the station that she would not need to go live for the lunch hour.
“It’s a bag of shrimp, just a bag of shrimp!”
As I stood there staring at the ridiculous scene unfolding, I thought to myself, “None of this matters.” And by that I mean that I believed at the time that nothing that had happened to me in Miami mattered. I had spent the past twelve weeks miserable, sitting around making enormous plates of pasta and watching reruns of The Rockford Files. I had been so unhappy, but I had thought then that none of it counted.
I had decided – no, I had convinced myself – that all of my hand-wringing and angst was Miami’s fault and the result of my temporary existence there. The three-month lease, the lack of health insurance, the title of intern, the boyfriend I didn’t particularly like. I shake my head now because I know better, but I think I really thought that once those things were out of the way and I was settled some place permanently like all my other friends from college, things would be just fine. My life would be for real then, and the loneliness, the nervousness, the uncertainty of my adult situation would magically disappear. I would embark, somehow, on a Career that would be fulfilling and challenging and perfect for me. I would meet the Man who was incredible in every single little way. I would become the girl with the Mary Tyler Mooreishness I knew I truly was. And it would all happen the minute I left that wretched Miami.
I took off on the morning of November 14, 1998. Everything I owned in the whole world could fit into my little Ford Contour. I could not pack fast enough.
My last day was clear, bright and, of course, sunny as hell. As I pulled onto I-95 to head back to Virginia, I put in a mix tape and flashed a giddy smile at myself in the rearview mirror. I was done with that town, and I expected nothing short of a miracle when I crossed the Florida/Georgia state line. When I did, everything about those three months would be forgotten and everything would be figured out, I was sure of it. It would be then that my life would really get started.