Post Road Magazine #27

The Dolphin Lady of Siesta Key

Kathrin Harris

It's peculiar how the mind works. While I was alone in the ER at 2 AM, my quiet shock drowning out the chaos of other people's tragedies, an episode from my childhood wandered in, long-forgotten but deeply familiar. There was a time when it, too, seemed incomprehensible. But on this night, it came to me like a trusted friend to shake me from my nightmare, a soft blanket against the cold, hard steel.

My grandfather had one of those classic little motor lodges along Route 41 on the Gulf Coast of Florida, the kind with the concrete verandas with pale green posts and rooms you could drive up to. We visited him there for a couple of weeks every summer. The Holiday Motel had a courtyard with palm trees and peach hibiscus, and plenty of those lawn chairs that left funny marks on the backs of our legs when we stood up. There was a big neon sign that Daddy Karl changed to say NO VACANCY once we arrived, and a drive-over signal that went "ding-ding, ding-ding" when our station wagon pulled in or when my two brothers and I jumped on it at exactly the same time. I loved the cool of the office's terra cotta tiles against my bare feet, and its rack of kitschy tourist brochures inviting visitors to marvel at the mermaids of Weeki Wachee. Matt would pick through the box of nickel post cards and send the family dog Greetings From The Sunshine State. To three kids from New Jersey, Sarasota in the 1960s was a fantasyland—with jungle-y gardens and pink flamingos and the promise we'd see real, live alligators. The only alligators in New Jersey lived in the sewers.

The same boisterous guests always seemed to be staying at the Cadillac Motel across the road. I didn't know where they were from, but I was sure they were visiting their grandfather, too—except his motel had a swimming pool. Afternoons would bring the dull thwack of a diving board followed by the ker-splash! of a fat kid doing a cannonball. But while most children want only what they can't have, we were perfectly content to watch the thunderheads build in the shimmering heat and search for salamanders under the shade of the bougainvilleas. That's because every morning we went to the beach.

The sand at Siesta Key Beach was blindingly white, and the only break for the eyes was in the tufts of sea grass and the beach umbrellas that decorated its powdered-sugar surface. The same blazing light that amplified the teals and blues of the water also twinkled off the schools of fish that rode the waves and then darted away in sudden, shining bursts. I came to recognize the regular beachgoers there, retirees desiccated by decades of sun exposure. Women of astonishing girth, like giant sea turtles, would wallow in the sand with their young grandchildren scuttling around them like hermit crabs. White-haired men joined the egrets gingerly balancing on spindly legs, combing the shoreline. But despite the human diversions, it was the water that fascinated me—the sharp, briny smell, the constancy of the tide, and the treasures it left wrapped in tangles of seaweed, broken shells and sharks' teeth. It was everything magical, elemental, and marvelous—as long as I stayed on the shore.

"Get in! It's as warm as bath water!," my older brother Curt would invariably turn and shout to me after charging headlong into the gentle surf, squinting from the sting of the saltwater that poured off his red hair. That was probably the only time you'd hear a twelve-year-old boy speak highly of bath water. The water at Siesta Key is so famously clear that a grown man can often see his feet while standing chest-deep. But the problem with water that pristine is that you could also see every creature lurking beneath its surface. What's more, they could see you. I might have been in pigtails, but I was smart enough to know what could happen to a pair of tender legs dangling like a fishing lure from my inflatable sea horse. If I wanted to be up to my neck in bathwater, I'd take a bath.

Perhaps the monsters that loom in a child's imagination are meant to temper the true demons of adulthood, but at the time I saw no upside to my debilitating fear. I hated the fact that every minnow that tickled my toes sent me careening back to mom and the beach blanket. I hated being the victim of the pranks that big brothers perform so well. I wanted nothing more than to be immersed in the amniotic warmth and see my shadow on the wrinkled seabed all bent and distorted. I wanted to come bounding out glistening wet and throw myself down in an eruption of sand that left me encased in a crust of salt and grit. Most of all, I wanted to be like the "Dolphin Lady."

She was a fixture of those perfect days. Before we even tumbled out of the car, I would see the petals of her pink bathing cap gleaming like a buoy far beyond the other swimmers. There was something hypnotic in the way it pulsed along the horizon, driven by each stroke of her strong, suntanned arms. It was a picture made all the more fantastic when the dorsal fin of one of the resident bottlenose dolphins would break through the surface behind her. She wasn't afraid of an unknown toothy predator. She could have been one of the mermaids in the Weeki Wachee brochure, blithe and undaunted and completely at home in her watery world. I stood spellbound on the shoreline nearly every morning, witnessing her communion with the sea.

I didn't know then how tightly I would cling to that image one day, or that life would ever be anything other than one flawless, Sarasota morning sliding reliably into the next. When the afternoon thunderstorms arrived like clockwork, the massive raindrops unfailingly sent us yelping and running for cover. Sometimes we'd return to the beach to watch the same blistering sun that had fueled the storms soften and melt into the Gulf like a giant Dreamsicle. Or we'd stand on the veranda in the heavy night air, oohing and aahing as silent bursts of heat lightning illuminated the mountainous, retreating clouds. And then we would always, always wake to a clear, "beach-worthy" day, boundless and carefree, gauging time by how hard the sun pressed into our flesh.

The last morning at the beach inevitably arrived, and as I raised the final sand castle of the season, a figure walking toward me caught my eye. There was something vaguely familiar about her—perhaps it was the muscular, suntanned arms—but little else stood out about the ordinary-looking woman in the modest, navy bathing suit. Then I recognized the pink-petaled bathing cap in her hand. She seemed so incongruous on dry land, quite a disappointment really. As her image grew closer, her mortality came increasingly into focus. I never expected the Dolphin Lady to have graying hair. I never expected her to walk with a shuffle or have a thick waist or dimpled knees. And I never, ever expected her to have a crescent-shaped chunk of flesh missing from her outer thigh.

I couldn't bear to look at her hideous leg, but I couldn't look away. The gaping scar sneered at me with open jaws, threatening to seize my arm and drag me out to sea. The cause of the scarred-over, toothy gap was unmistakable: on one of those perfect mornings, something with a hardwired instinct came from out of the darkness and, with a sudden, violent jolt, turned her peaceful world blood-red and wild. My phobia was palpably, unspeakably, real.

If the woman had noticed me gawking at her, she didn't let on, for there was nothing in her serene expression that acknowledged the horror in mine. I frantically scanned the water for my brothers, although whether it was to warn them of potential danger or just say, "I told you so!" I didn't quite know. But before I could get their attention, the woman carefully tucked her hair under her bathing cap and strode calmly toward the waves. She waded in past the stooped shell collectors and the egrets and the white haired old men, past Curt and Matt and the kids with their inflatable seahorses. Then, with all of the grace of her namesake, the Dolphin Lady dove into the surf and resumed her place beyond the other swimmers, her scar entirely hidden in the wake of her powerful strokes. When mom finally yelled, "Get in the car!" I was still gazing, openmouthed, at that pink bathing cap making its lazy track across the horizon.

Are our earliest memories reliable? Or are the scenes from our childhood perpetually rewritten and recast, altered by each circumstance under which we remember them? The onset of this "recollection" could have been explained away by my condition, I suppose, or by the same kind of neurological blip in one's consciousness that accounts for déjà vu. Or maybe, just maybe, the most magical episodes of our youth are predestined precisely for those dark hours when we most need to evoke them, so that the "one good memory left in our hearts," as Dostoyevsky wrote, "may also be the instrument of our salvation one day."

Daddy Karl got sick that fall and our Sarasota idylls soon ended. We buried Curt there in 1985, and I've come back a few times. When they put in the interstate east of Highway 41, the old motor lodges grew haggard, lonesome for the children who had long since abandoned them. The Holiday Motel got a new name and started showing XXX movies. Yet while the dreamlike innocence of my childhood has gone the way of the gas-station dinosaur, small vestiges of those summer vacations still remain. Siesta Key Beach is more popular than ever, even if its powdered-sugar sand now backs up to high rises rather than beach grass. But if you're lucky enough, you can still sometimes see dolphins frolicking near the shore. I thought of the Dolphin Lady the last time I saw their crescent-shaped dorsal fins breaking through that teal green surface.

And I have thought of her since.

I thought of her when the cops from the 2nd District drove me home after I had looked through four books of mug shots.

I thought of her when I went back in my apartment for the first time.

I thought of her when the detective said, "we need your pubic hair" and then handed me tweezers and a baggie.

And I thought of her when every man I passed on the street looked like the monster that came out of the darkness that night.

And I wondered...

How long did it take for her wound to heal?

How long before she got back in the water?

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