The Moon Is Brighter On Dauphin Island
“If this was the cold war, we could keep each other warm, I said on the first occasion that I met Marie.”
-Josh Ritter, “The Temptation of Adam”
Cora left. I spoke at her departure dinner and said good words. I remember calling her out for being there the whole time I had been, about shepherding me when I didn’t realize I wanted it, about being a big sister I had silently appreciated. When I finished, everyone “awwwed” and I could see Suzanne looking on with smiling eyes, tall and beautiful and tired from behind her own standard circular table in the great hall. Cora and I had been in the process of long talks, about Caleb’s leadership, about what came next in those preceding months. We’d had sushi lunches and I’d talked about what my future looked like. It was one particular lunch at that Japanese restaurant in Gulfport when I looked into her nodding big brown beautiful eyes and realized before she said it that her departure was not a one day thing. It was a next month thing. And in the way that time worked for the statues that had been there since the beginning, it was a next day thing. The evening arrived and her community allies came to camp for the event. The next morning, Beau accompanied her on the drive back to Massachusetts— not to leave himself, but to be a partner in the long lonely journey away from the Gulf after a youth built out of the recovery. It was good for them, being close as they were. But suddenly Cora was very gone, and then I was the only one of us original four from Dartmouth left.
Many things were happening simultaneously that Spring. I got a new job working with an organization called Enterprise Corporation of the Delta. They’d been contracted out by of all offices, Hayley Barbour’s, and I was a financial counselor. My job was to meet with individuals receiving Phase II Community Development Block Grants and ensure that they all understood the next steps that came with up to $100,000 in their pockets. I.e., the Treasure Bay Casino is not the next step. Finding a reputable contractor is the next step. Or selling your home if you wanted to move away, that was an option. It was a federal program to assist people that got shut out of FEMA’s flood plain mapping with regard to insurance packages— a stand-up move by Bush, Chertoff, and the rest of the decision makers in my opinion. Neighborworks America ran a training for our cohort of counselors of the mall in Pascagoula, and then eventually we moved to a rented office in the strip mall at the intersection of Highway 49 and I-10 in Gulfport to man the Harrison County office. Each day a two to four new clients came in; they were required to in order to access their funding. That became my day job starting in late April.
Simultaneously, I moved off base when I had a paycheck. Dan, Karissa, and I found a home on Bilmarsan Drive, an off-shoot of the Irish Hill neighborhood next to Keesler between West and East Biloxi, near the strip club where it had always been rumored had a one-armed dancer. Our home was fixed up since Katrina by a kind older landlord and had, of all things, a porch and a hot tub out back. The three of us smiled and nodded and promised to be responsible with all of these things as we signed a lease to split a $1200 per month rental agreement. All of the long-termers at that point were being told to move off base and find homes should they desire to stay. Hands On had been working with Americorps to start providing one year contract to people like Doug, Sarah Mathews, Anne, so the money was there. Very suddenly the campfire life disappeared. The army tents stayed for supplies but by May or so no one lived out back. Short-termers still slept in the bunks upstairs of course, but there was no longer a long-termer lifestyle. We’d become a commuting organization of sorts.
Fortunately for our social lives, Biloxi was not that large. Dan, Karissa, and I were in one house, while one block over Deubs, Bicycle Ben, and Jodi had rented a place. Three blocks beyond them were Eddie, Sheli, and Amy De Huff. On the opposite side of the peninsula past the Winn-Dixie, Tim Boon and Sam Schneider had moved into a home. More of the same across the town; Robyn, Marj, and Kristen Kernan had a home closer into the middle of the city on the other side of Keesler.
It was a bit of a transition now being in a world of khakis and button-ups, in an office at a strip mall. However, it was a part of the recovery that I’d always felt I’d been missing out on with mold crew and Excel spreadsheets on penicillium and trichoderma counts. I’d met people on mold crews, Gary Cobb, Ms. Ethel, etc., but those meetings were not at the rate that came with social work. In this role with ECD, I met people every day with real stories, young, old (mostly old,) all homeowners with different stories. The financial counseling facet of the job was a mere sliver of what I secretly saw as my more important role— listening. Mid-2007 was around the time that all of the news reports were coming out on the formaldehyde in FEMA trailers, how trailers built in the north hadn’t been properly modified for the heat of the South and now thousands of Katrina victims in those trailers waiting for their homes to be rebuilt were getting sick from fumes. Things had been rough for them.
Imagine this for a second. You live in a home and pay into a certain flood insurance plan pre-Katrina. Katrina comes and your home is destroyed. And you don’t have the coverage from State Farm or whomever. Because there hadn’t been a Katrina before and you lived outside of the FEMA flood zone that recommended certain “absolute catastrophe” levels of coverage. Then the federal government gives you a trailer to live in on your property shipped in on a truck. Then months later you hear that your home may be leaking toxic fumes and making you and your family sick.
This was the situation of the people I was speaking with on a day-to-day basis. It was a test of self to be that pillar and listen and nod and advise. Most people just want to tell their story and have someone listen. Not to be cliché, but that was the reality of this time period. It was hard at times, but I had good colleagues. I had Rochelle Alley and Burt Jackson, young Mississippi locals who’d also heralded the call for financial counselors for the Phase 2 Grant Program. I felt proud to be accepted into the social work fold, working in it. I’d drive out to an 8:30 to 4:30 job, and then I’d drive back to base to pick up Helicopter (who I dropped off everyday so she could be around people and not cooped up.)
Even though I was separate from base life, I still cared about it— and it was not always great. When they rolled out the AmeriCorps program for the long-termers, Sara H forgot to file the financial aid documents to authorize the holds for student loans. This completely f’d a number of new friends— Will Chrysanthos had to leave to fix financial things even though he didn’t want to, and had given up a teaching gig in Japan to stay at Hands On, and had been promised things were being taken care of. Jenny the Architect flipped for the same reasons. It was all I could do to not scream at administration, Caleb and Sara H. Sara was apologetic but defiant all the same. I have so many things to do. I’d secured my own financial position away from Hands On at this point, but everything was always a crisis— things that didn’t need to be.
I offered my support but at the same time couldn’t do much besides that. Spring went on and I saw my friends on the side while I went to work and khaki’d up. I spent many of my evenings over at Eddie’s with Deubs and John Wildeman watching Lost, smoking weed, and playing washers in the backyard. Very soon after we moved into Bilmarsan Dan’s girlfriend Erin moved in as well so there were 4 of us there.
Woody and I took a road trip to Pensacola one weekend in Astro. He dressed up in his best Hunter S. Thompson garb. Sunglasses, a cigarette holder fashioned from a broken ball point pen, a scarf. The point of our trip was to pick up Beau, who’d taken a one way trip from Bay St. Louis for a vacation— I’d been trying to get out of the state for some sort of adventure so figured picking him up was as good of one as any. Woody and I made some fun of it with a camera— five years later when I flew to Stockholm to catch up with Laurence Wood, it was hilarious and strange to watch. A Scottish guy trying his best to do a Thompson, driving I-10 eastward, running around beach restaurants and towns trying to find Beau with only a tourist map he’d left at his hotel to guide us. We did find him eventually and it was a magical moment. I’m happy we videotaped it. The three of us drove back to Mississippi a few hours later, and I remember Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush” softly playing in the Florida sunset, wrapping around the on-ramp for the one way shot back.
I mention this trip to emphasize adventure. We needed adventures, we sought adventures, as minimal or maximal as they may manifest. That was the reality of 2007, as base life died and as we all as young adults had to suddenly face a more certain reality. It was stressful to be sure, but it was what it was.
I started dating a girl on a building crew, a long termer named Sarah. She’d dated Woody before. She was pretty and she was hard working. For me, it was a nice transition from platonic reality. For her, I’m not sure— all the long-termers ended up in things like this for a bit. However, I only mention this in the context of how difficult it was to be in a minor relationship like this one when Dally came back into town.
She and her twin sister arrived one morning. She’d told me she was coming but I’d tried to put it to the side of my mind. And then one morning I dropped Helicopter off on my way to work, walked into the church to grab coffee, and there she was with a double. I had to do a double take, although I’m not sure why I did. I knew she was coming, and I tried to distance myself from it. I was ashamed of having shut her out last December, I was excited that she’d called in February, and now that she was here I had just started seeing another woman.
I said hi to her and went off to work. I mulled her presence at work and just tried to bury myself in it. I was scared to see Dally— I wanted to see her, but I was trying to be good and honest and I knew seeing her would shake my relationship with Sarah. She kept texting me about times to meet up and I kept up reasons why it wouldn’t work. Finally on Thursday I cancelled on our plans to go to Just Us for a grand karaoke reunion. She called me immediately, demanded to know why I’d been blowing her off all week.
I jumped into Astro from Bilmarsan and drove down to the Pub, walked in and pulled her outside. She was angry. Why was I blowing her off. She wanted to see me. Let’s just get out of here and go talk at my house. OK. We drove to my house and somehow ended up sitting in my garage with Helicopter chatting through her life, my life, her AmeriCorps graduation, what would happen next. I nodded and we sat close and then there was a pause before she asked, again, “are you going to make out with me or what?”
I looked at her. And then kissed her. And then we kissed and kissed and Helicopter started jumping all over us and we laughed and kissed some more, all over the concrete floor of that Bilmarsan garage. I was so happy to do that— I can’t put the right words to why, but it was the right thing to do. Already everyone that had seen us had said there was a magnetism to us. When we were in a room together, there was no one but us. I didn’t realize this at the time, but as soon as I stopped fighting it and started kissing Dally again it was like no other kiss in the world. The next day, I found a CD entitled “To G, From D” on the windshield wiper of my van. After work I found Dally drinking beers on the beach in front of the Coliseum with some other short termers and joined them for a bit. I felt like her sister wasn’t a fan, but I only had eyes for Dally. Dating someone with an identical twin is not weird— to me, Dally and Rebecca couldn’t have looked more different.
I think when you start falling in love with someone they just look like who they are. And I didn’t know it yet, and I’d cheated on Sarah and was terrible for that, but I was falling in love with Dally and I didn’t care. That’s probably wrong, but it mostly goes the other way…you cheat on the woman you are in love with for a one night stand, not the opposite. I was dating Sarah because she was nice and attractive, but I had a history with Dally and very suddenly had realized that maybe we did have a future. And kissing her in that garage felt like I was giving in to something that was stupid to fight. Dally.
Sarah and I dated a few more weeks, but once Dally was in my head it made everything different. Then once Dally told me she was coming back to take a 5 month Americorps contract it only solidified our break-up. I tried my best to be a good one to Sarah, but she and everyone could see that my thoughts were always with Dally. I bided my days until Dally finally showed back up at base for her contract in the early summer.
We got into my van for a Dally-Guillermo night. I had no idea what we were going to do, but I figured East wasn’t the worst direction to head. We drove and listened to music and talked and laughed, and the windows were down in the soft summer wind, her brown hair whipping a bit. I thought we might go to The Shed in Gautier, but we drove past. Then I thought we might go to Pascagoula, but we drove past. We drove past all the exits, talking, and then finally over the Alabama line I saw a sign for Dauphin Island and decided on a whim to take it.
We drove down past dark Alabama signs and across a long bridge. We parked in a lot and walked down together. We were separate and in that stage of things where you walk apart because you’re not sure if you can walk together yet. But we walked down to a beach in the soft moonlight of the summer evening and stood on the shoreline not saying a lot. There was a glow in the ocean and we realized it was phosphorescence. There we were under a full moon with a sea like that, standing and talking and having seen each other in so many cities and states, and I suddenly turned to Dally and put my arms around her. And in the glow of that ocean I could see that she had already begun smiling even before our lips met. And then we kissed.
Many years later I realized just how magical that moment truly was. I was already falling in love with Dally, and the universe decided to give us an appropriate stage to kiss again. I know that doesn’t happen for everyone. Many people date and fall in love and get married and have families and tell stories years later around fireplaces that don’t include volunteering and phosphorescence and sand and smiles. Separate from Katrina, separate from Hands On, I guess I’ll say this. If you find yourself in a passionate place surrounded by inspiring people, take care of them. And if you find someone you love there while you are doing the best possible things a man or woman can do, take care of that. I kissed Dally that night with an orchestra of ephemeral beauty above and around us. And it wasn’t strange— in fact, it seemed like the only thing that the stars and the moon and the sea should have been doing at the time. Her lips and her hair in my hands, and all of the sudden as our mouths moved together I had a shaking feeling that this was going to be one of the most important things ever. And then forgot it a moment later because we were kissing.