About the Collaboration
Artist Christopher Maslow created a mural painting inspired by National Best-selling Author Michele Wallace Campanelli’s short story, “Against the Current.” Prints of Against the Current will be available for purchase at the end of July 2020 on Maslow’s website.
Against the Current
A short story by Michele Wallace Campanelli
Sitting on a distressed wooden bench on the 5th Avenue Boardwalk in Indialantic, Louie and Michele were quietly licking their melting ice cream cones while watching the Atlantic Ocean roll in waves upon the shore. The soft sand below the boardwalk was tan and pristine; near the water the beach was topped with sea shells, sawgrass, and sand dollars trailing seaweed. On a cooler evening than our typical warm Brevard temperatures, the beach seemed to swallow the darkened sea except for the few lights from the boardwalk and the cruise ships drifting over the horizon from Cape Canaveral toward the Bahamas.
Louie was wearing his midnight blue officer’s uniform because he had just gotten off from work at the Juvenile Detention Center. People reacted differently at seeing his uniform: some passersby completely avoided the bench while others made it a point to cross in front of them and say, “Good evening, Officer.”
Michele clutched a chocolate German cake concoction ice cream cone from Stone Cold Creamery. To her, it tasted divine, one of her favorite flavors. Against her hot lips, the coolness melted. Louie, who rarely ate sweets, decided he would tonight. He was eating faster than Michele, and his last bite of cone was filled with maple walnut ice cream which she could smell. After the final gulp, Louie wrapped his muscled Italian arm around Michele’s shoulder and looked out onto the surf.
“Do you think we’ll see any turtles tonight?” Michele asked, peering at the beach below.
“This isn’t Loggerhead season,” Louie reminded. “You’ll know when because all the shops on the Boardwalk shut off their outside lights.”
“Beautiful night, Officer,” greeted a man holding hands with a young girl as they drifted past us on the bench.
“It is,” Louie agreed.
“Thanks for being here,” the two traveled off, “and making us safe.”
“He thinks I’m a cop instead of a corrections officer,” Louie tagged.
Michele knew that this was a sore spot for Louie because police officers seem to always get more respect than corrections officers. She didn’t agree with this judgement because every night she worried that her husband, who worked with teen gang members, would come home. He also put his life on the line every day, not only to protect others incarcerated but the other officers who worked at the juvenile detention center. It wasn’t rare that officers would be attacked or had to break up fights between gang members or disgruntled youth although Louie never gave up on those kids. He often recounted how he offered advice and would be there for them when their parents didn’t come on visitation days.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here, too.” Michele said. “Ice cream, you, and the sea after a troubling day is perfect.”
“Sorry about how bad your day was, Honey. Will this help,” Louie kissed her cheek and she felt the warmth of his skin against her neck. The lapping sounds of the waves matched the sudden beating of her heart.
Michele put down her ice cream and kissed Louie square on the lips. She relished the sound of the waves, the light of the moon, and the warmth of Louie’s mouth against hers. She wished that this moment could last forever. This was the highlight of her day: being with Louie and listening to the sounds of the waves lapping against the shore. Along with the waves, sand pipers rushed along the water’s edge trying to catch sand-fleas as they ducked back down into the tiny holes of the beach. The gulls squawked as the kiss continued.
Miles away a tiny crab pattered fast as he could, but it was too late. A shadow of a sea turtle appeared, moved her block-like head quickly, and then crushed the tiny shelled creature between her powerful jaws. The most commonly found sea turtle in Florida, a female Loggerhead stretched out its creamy colored flippers to raise her neck out of the sea so she could fill her lungs. After gulping down the crab, she breathed in air. Inside her three foot wide ruddy brown shell scarred by shark teeth marks, she sank toward the bottom of the ocean for a moment to digest.
The dark azure sea was calm tonight but she wanted to rest. Her body was full of eggs and carrying this extra load over her hefty 265 pounds made her more tired than usual. She knew her eleven mile journey ahead would not be easy. Many threats lurked in the waters: sharks, marine debris, shrimp trawls, discarded plastics and nets, but her instinct wouldn’t allow her to stop. She was drawing closer to Brevard, the Florida beach where she had been born nearly twenty years before. With at least ten miles to go, she knew the current worked against her, not helping her arrive any faster.
No matter how difficult the journey, she would return to her Brevard beach. The waters were warm this time of year and the seaweed was plentiful. The moon would guide her to the sand where she had come before to slide out of the majestic ocean which supplies the earth of nearly 80% of its oxygen. The ocean gives life to the world and the turtle gives hope to her species. This would be the third time that she had come to deliver her eggs in hopes that her hatch-lings would escape the sea birds, crabs and raccoons and make it over the sand into the inviting sea.
Walking in the sand, Louie and Michele watched the colorful fireworks bursting over the ocean. They weren’t sure if they were coming from a cruise ship or a private island where one of the millionaires had built a retreat. The fireworks were flashing brightly in different colors, shapes and sizes. One giant burst widened into a red shaped heart and then sparkled until it returned into the darkness. Suddenly Louie led her away from watching the fiery show to the shore and closer to the dunes. He laid down a giant beach blanket which had the Patriots logo on it. “How about here?” he said. “We should be able to watch the fireworks.”
She sat down on the blanket while he rolled down onto his back. He wasn’t watching the fireworks anymore; instead he was looking straight up at the sparkling stars. Tonight the twinkle seemed extra bright, as if they were on a Space Shuttle looking out onto the galaxy. What a beautiful sight as the stars twinkled over the Florida shore! It was as if God placed his diamonds in perfect harmony with the patriotic display of American pride.
“This is the life,” he said, happily. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Seeing Louie this happy thrilled Michele to her very core. She reached down and took his hand into hers. His giant paws seemed to encase her smaller hand. Instead of just holding on, he pulled on my fingers so that her body would come down on top of his broad, masculine chest.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
“You’re pretty cute yourself,” Michele smiled and kissed him, loving that she was his wife. “Thank you for marrying me.”
“Thank you for saying yes when I asked,” Louie laughed. “I can’t believe I proposed over a parmesan sandwich and a heart-shaped pizza.”
“Do you ever miss being a cook for Pappagallos?” Michele asked.
“Sometimes,” he admitted. “But I like the kids and trying to change their lives for the better.”
“You make my life better, too,” Michele said. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
His arms reached around her as she listened to the fireworks pop in the distance. She wished this moment could last forever. The colorful lights shined in his loving eyes while she could see his five o’clock shadow, the curve of his long nose, and the shine from his shaved bald head. She felt completely safe in his arms and much loved.
That night they kissed under the fireworks with no thoughts of time. Wrapping a blanket on top of themselves, they did something illegal in the state of Florida but never regretted it.
It had taken nearly a month but the turtle climbed out of the sea onto the Brevard shore with the sand squishing underneath her flippers. Her instincts told her she had arrived at the site of her birthplace right on time. Using flippers to drag her heavy carcass onto the beach, she realized humans were near. She could smell them but had no fear, that is, until one, a tall thin man shined a flashlight in her direction.
Two men knelled about twenty feet from her, but she would not stop moving across the sand in the moonlight. She chose to ignore them even though they continued to follow her. In the past, humans had watched but didn’t bother her, so she began to dig the hole as deeply as she could reach with her front flippers. Tears rolled from her eyes caused by the sand that flew about from her digging. The flashlight suddenly turned off, but the silent men sat on the beach continuing to watch her lay her eggs.
When the last of her 112 eggs had dropped from her body into the depression, she began to fill the hole up with her flippers, scooping the soft sand around her. It took quite a while to make sure that the hole was completely covered. Now she would rest until the sun started to rise to again return to the sea.
As she rested, the two men wearing Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission uniforms were putting orange cones around her nest and between the cones strung wide tape. The tape warned,
“Caution, Caution” which would protect her nest from the trampling humans on the beach. Little did she know that the ones who had stayed with her throughout the night were trying to save her species and provide data for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The two men were there to protect her.
When the brilliant sun rose orange over the still sea, the giant turtle was still completely exhausted. Could she even make it back to the water? The sun seemed so hot and could easily dry her out. She tried not to think that this was the most dangerous part of her journey where she could possibly die from the heat. Slowly, she used all the strength she could muster to drag herself from the land which Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon once named La Florida “Land of the Flowers.” Using the sun as a guide, she smelled the salt guiding find her way back to the open water. A long-haired blonde male carrying a longboard sauntered beside her, “Holy sh*t. Look, Bro, a turtle!” he announced to another surfer, as she swam back to sea.
From that same wooden bench on the boardwalk where they had watched the large Loggerhead turtle return to the sea, that magical occurrence blessing the Florida shores, Michele now sat alone. How often she and Louie had traveled to the beach in hopes of catching a glimpse of another turtle but they never had spied one, at least not when they were together. How she wished he were with her sitting right there. She missed him so much, so excruciatingly painful a memory. Michele looked down onto the empty space beside her, wanting to feel his warm arm around her shoulders, wishing he could see this, too.
She had watched him suffer a massive heart attack at the age of 44. His body dropped to the floor and she had dialed 9-1-1. Only a few minutes away, the paramedics rushed onto the scene, did everything they could, but he was pronounced dead at Palm Bay hospital. While the doctor told her that he was “no longer with us,” she remembered the very first moment they had met at a friend’s house. One, “Who is that? He’s cute,” to Nicole about who was with her brother started it all. Later that week, Louie called her up and asked her to go to the movies. At the door, she didn’t get a kiss, but walked away with “Good-bye” and she wondered if he didn’t like her after all. Turns out the man who would later become an officer was too shy to kiss her. He didn’t call for two weeks and that seemed like an eternity. Now he was gone forever.
For several months Michele faced deep depression. It was more than just mental; this loss felt almost physical, like a part of herself was gone as well. She faced challenges. With only one income, she looked for work and couldn’t find any after sending out hundreds of applications. Within a year, she would lose her house and move into a small condo which would require less maintenance and yard work. Louie used to love to be in the yard on his big lawn tractor as he listened to tunes from the 80s. She missed hearing him play Prince or Nine Inch Nails while in the garden. But what she missed the most wasn’t his music, his help or even that feeling of constant safety in his presence; she missed having his big, burly arms around her and hearing, “I love you” whispered in her ear.
Pollution wasn’t just in the ocean. Her heart was filled of the rejection of friends and family simply because she just reminded them of him. Still, she knew that he would proud that she returned to college and got her AA degree from Eastern Florida State with a full music scholarship. Currently, she studies at University of Central Florida and will be getting her Bachelor’s degree sometime next year. She has accomplished so much since he’s been gone except being happy.
The lights from the ice cream shop were turned off. Michele remembered how Louie had told her that the lights from the restaurants on the strip go black during turtle season. Still there open, the ice cream shop lights blinked on, but she didn’t have any desire for sweets.
Michele realized she would never hear, “Hello, Officer,” again from those walking past.
Louie’s been in heaven over five years now. As a widow, Michele continues to visit the ocean as when they were a couple. However, now it is a completely different experience for her. Just like the turtle who crawled back into the sea-facing insurmountable odds, Michele would leave the beach alone, knowing life’s struggles would continue. Both Michele and the turtle both have the quest to survive despite many challenges. They survive by their inner strength and accept that life moves on even against the current.
Written by Michele W. Campanelli
Edited by Fontaine Wallace
First written at the University of Central Florida
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