Raised on the beach as I was meant that learning to swim was a priority. I barely remember learning, I just remember always knowing how to do it, as natural as breathing. The saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico buoyed me, and I felt safe there, at ease, at home.
But just after my eleventh birthday, the freighter Summit Venture rammed the Sunshine Skyway bridge’s southbound span, collapsing the center and taking 35 lives, and my comfort with our warm, friendly water vanished completely. The northbound bridge was spared and turned into a two-way bridge while the new Skyway, the longest bridge with a cable-stayed main span, was built.
Driving over that remaining bridge meant a clear view of the disaster; we saw it for years while they were busy building the new one, watching it slowly deteriorate, and then watching as it was demolished in stages. The ends of the shattered bridge hung over the water, huge chunks of concrete that we used to drive over on at least a weekly basis, dangling precariously by nothing more than rusty rebar.
The photos were impossible to escape, the stories of those killed and the images of the car that managed to stop just at the edge were burned into every Southwest Floridian’s consciousness. And for a kid with a hell of an imagination it was life-changing.
I still can’t drive over the new bridge without looking over at the old one and seeing the frayed ends superimposed over the fishing piers they turned the wreckage into. And when I have nightmares, it is always of my car heading into water.
Readers of Catching Genius will recognize the story, though plenty of the facts were changed for the book, and will now also know how Connie and Estella’s pivotal scene evolved. And it is no small coincidence that Connie is named as she is (Lady Constance Chatterley, who drowns in her own way) or that The Awakening by Kate Chopin is one of the featured books in the library.
Do we all write our nightmares, and if so, does it purge them for us? The answer for me is no, so far. Perhaps I just haven’t written it well enough to do so yet.