Not so long ago I left St. Croix, and my dream house, Annaly (fictionalized as Annalise in the Katie and later novels), for Houston. Well, in 2007 anyway. I wrote this piece in 2009, before we moved again, to Nowheresville, TX and Snowheresville, WY. Enjoy.
What is it about Houston that makes it seem like the end of the line? It’s like when you say, “I’m moving from St. Croix to Houston,” you’re announcing a terminal illness. Houston, bless its heart, is not beautiful. If the heat and humidity don’t kill you, then the traffic might. People don’t dream of vacationing to Houston. Hell, I can’t even get my parents to visit me in Houston.
And I moved to Houston from the Virgin Islands…the ultimate vacation dream of so many people.
That’s me jumping off our boat with our youngest, a friend, and our middle daughter, with our youngest son climbing up the front.
Not just the Virgin Islands, but from my dream house Annaly in the rainforest of St. Croix. Can I take a moment to tell you what that is like, in case your imagination does not adequately conjure up the wonderfulness on its own? The best way, the only way, I can do that is by giving you an excerpt from Saving Grace. In this scene, Katie, the heroine, sees Annalise/Annaly for the first time while on a guided hike in the rainforest, arranged by the resort at which she was staying:
We had been hiking for nearly two hours when Rashidi gave us a hydration break and announced that we were nearing the turnaround point, and that it would be a special treat: a modern ruin. He explained that a bad man, a “thief and a thug,” had built a beautiful “mansion” in paradise, named her Annalise, and then been taken away for drug trafficking by the federal authorities, leaving her forsaken and half-complete. No one had ever finished her, and the rainforest had moved fast to claim her. Wild horses roamed her halls, colonies of bats filled her eaves, and who knows what lived below her in the depths of her cisterns. We would eat our lunch there, then turn back for the – much easier, he promised – hike down.
When the forest parted to reveal Annalise, we all drew in a breath. She was amazing: tall, austere, and a bit frightening. The tension of heightened anticipation grew in the group. What woman doesn’t love going to an open house any time, and here we were visiting an exotic, mysterious “mansion” with a romantic history in a tropical rainforest.
Graceful flamboyant trees and grand pillars with no gate marked the entrance to her drive. On each side of the overgrown road were tropical fruit trees of every description, and the fragrance was pungent, the air drunk with fermenting mangos and ripening guava, subtly undercut by the aroma of bay leaves. It was a surreal orchard, its orphaned fruit unpicked, the air heavy and still, bees and insects the only thing stirring besides our band of turistas. Overhead the trees’ branches met in the middle of the road and were covered in vines with trailing pink flowers. The sun shone through occasionally in narrow beams, and the dim light increased our collective suspense.
We entered Annalise by climbing up her 10 uneven front steps and stepping through what would have been an imposing double front door – if she had doors – into a great room with 35 foot ceilings. The ooh’s and aah’s began. We gazed in wonder up at her intricate tongue-in-groove cypress ceiling with mahogany beams, and her improbable stone fireplace.
We explored her three stories, room after room unfolding as we discussed what each was to have been. Balcony floors with no railings jutted from two sides of the house. A giant concrete pool hovered part-way out of the ground. How could someone put in so much work, build something magnificent, create such hope, and leave her to rot?
Gradually, a few ugh’s replaced the ooh’s as we discovered that we had to step over horse manure and bat guano in every room. Dead gongalos by the thousands crunched under our feet. One woman put her hand on a wall and ended up with dung between her fingers and gunked into her ostentatious diamond ring, which she was wearing on a rainforest hike for some inexplicable reason. Annalise was not for the faint of heart, and I suppressed my urge to run for a broom. What she could have been was so clear; what she might still be was staggering.
So how could my husband and I just pack up the kids and move to the upper 48, leaving the magic, the magnificence of Annaly behind?
Well, for starters, the prayer we prayed — never to leave Annaly, to live our lives in the islands — was answered with a “no,” and a “Houston.”
Houston, Houston, oh why Houston, God?
Jobs. Opportunities for the kids. Grown-up stuff, the kinds of things Houston undoubtedly offers, this city that stands sturdy in the face of the economic storm all around it.
Oh yeah, that stuff.
The islands were beautiful. But they were a lot like “Annalise”: plenty of ugh to go with the ooooh’s. Yucky grocery stores, substandard health care, government corruption, and no Target-around-the-corner.
So we moved to Houston, with the whole family in outright rebellion. The kids assured us we were ruining their lives and that someday they would return to their true island home (and Marie did for two years, at the age of 26). Annaly summoned up all the powers of heaven and earth and threw crisis after crisis in our path: burglaries, storms, sales-fallen-through, money pouring through our fingers. But we had no choice.
And here’s the part that came as a shock to us. Here’s the part that everyone believes I am making up.
We love it.
Houston, possibly because of our (extraordinarily) low expectations, has been wonderful. Our fears of traffic, bad public schools, horrible weather, a soul-less metroplex, a bastion of unbridled social conservatism/neo-fascism? All for naught. Who would have ever guessed Houston would elect a lesbian Democrat as mayor – if that doesn’t blow all the stereotypes, I don’t know what will! We carefully planned a life here to take advantage of the best the city has to offer and to avoid the rest. Houston rocks for the Hutchins.
Ah, a lesson. We learn. We adapt. We move on. And, if we are lucky and have the right attitude, we thrive.
I am so thankful for my nearly ten years on St. Croix, and I will never forget the people and the gorgeous, turquoise and green, 80-degree, trade wind-kissed memories. Annaly will be the standard by which all future homes are judged, and it will be a high, high standard.
But sitting in my much smaller house in central Houston, with nary a flamboyant tree in sight, I still had to smile.
T’ings are exactly how dere s’posed to be, mon. T’ings dem is all right. Irie.
In Houston, TX. (And then Nowheresville, and Snowheresville!) For real.