Most barrier islands are echoes of the coast, parallel bits of geography, broken and buffering the tides. Not Sanibel. It swings boldly, a sickle across the sea, snagging vertical currents, the ocean’s fleece of shells.
Low tide. Full moon. High wind. It doesn’t matter what the experts say. Every dusk is ribbed in flashlight beams— pale ponderings that swing tirelessly and leave imprints of whelk and cockle, crescent moons where heaving buckets paused.
Mila Novakovski is a maid in Treasure Cove, one of the low lying motels behind the dunes and tumbled sea grapes, the audacious magentas of bougainvillea. Coming from the Ukraine, she loves the sunlight, throws the curtains wide in each unit while she changes out the towels and sheets, wipes down the counters and shower tiles. At her small apartment across the bridge in Fort Myers, Mila’s refrigerator is full of butter and cream, half bottles of wine and champagne left behind by hotel guests. Her roommate, Mandy from Kansas, likes to rib Mila about her hoard of perishables and expendables. Small bottles of the motel’s signature orchid & key lime shampoo crowd the shower in their single bathroom.
“Why don’t you stick a knife in it,” cracks Mandy from Kansas, as she twists open another wet Budweiser at the table in their kitchenette. She is referring to the bottle of champagne, already flat and poured into Mila’s paper cup.
“What?” Mila says finally, frowns, and exhales a thin line of smoke from her cigarette. They both laugh. Mila, because what else do you do when old wives tales about carbonation don’t translate, and besides the champagne still tastes sweet. Mila shows Mandy her loot from the day’s work at Treasure Cove: a box kite and a few Bavarian chocolates in crinkled gold foil cups. Mandy from Kansas peels the paper from the chocolates with her thick fingers, and suggests they shoot some pool, find some men to buy them chicken wings, but Mila has to work in the morning. It is the winter season, great for shelling, and Treasure Cove is full.
The worst rooms are the ones where young children have stayed, Mila decides the next morning, vacuuming up banana bread ground into the carpet. She chooses not to keep the sandy flip-flops forgotten by the door. Ironic, the name Treasure Cove, where so much can be hidden under loose linens, in the elastic give of waistbands, and between as few words as possible. Beneath her innocuous uniform, she thinks of the mermaid tattoo on her left shoulder as she wipes small, greasy fingerprints from the sliding glass door, remembering a man pressed whole against her naked back, noting the wings on her mermaid tattoo. “Which one are you, angel or sea serpent?” he’d whispered in her ear.
“You decide,” Mila had answered, twisting to kiss him so hard he’d gasped for air.
There is a diaper balled up in the corner of the balcony, but Mila is distracted by the vast blue of sky to sea, the puttied edge glistening in the forefront. There are shells in thousands, as if dropped like manna from the clouds: ark and scallop, Venus and calico, quahog and conch. Mila’s favorite, the pen shells stay mostly overlooked, discarded like old wings grown stiff and barnacled, darkly iridescent. She closes her eyes, fluffs the towels, and lets the sun work its heat into her flesh.
In the next unit, Chilean raspberries plump as rosebuds, a jar of eye cream, and seashells. The broken ones, left behind. She pockets the shells while she strips the sheets from the bed. Mila has learned to work quickly, so she gains a little time in each unit. Sometimes she showers with the foamy orchid & key lime soap while she cleans the bathrooms, careful to let the steam dissipate before she services the next unit, her blond hair kept dry in a high, tight bun. When she makes the beds, she often slips out of her uniform, her bra and underwear, and stretches luxuriously across the clean sheets, cradles her head in a pile of pillows, and flips the channel to hip-hop music videos. She usually has a smart snack on the nightstand, pistachios or Guerrier or artichoke dip, whatever the guests have left behind in the kitchenette. Sometimes she just unties her utilitarian shoes and paints her toenails, drying them in a corner of balcony sun where she blows the smoke from her cigarettes.
The grit and grind of sand, battling the daily infestations of it, reminds her she is not a guest. Not a citizen, for that matter. Not even a Mandy with a Kansas waiting somewhere back over a rainbow. If sand were a language she wrestled with like English, it would hiss and sting and tell her to go home. It would cling with brittle reparation while she tosses and turns at night alone in her sheets. She picks it from the pores of her scalp, shakes it from seams of everything she owns and touches. Sand is her companion, famished and foul-mouthed.
On some nights Mila returns to Sanibel Island to walk among the shellers. She thinks of them as fellow treasure seekers. Anonymous and sharing moonlight, she catches scraps of their conversations in the wind. In the space between them, whelk egg casings are cast like sloughed snake skins, and ghost crabs freeze in flashlight beams. And my God, the shells! Acre after acre of shallow fossils waiting to be unearthed and polished with praise. Starfish like asterisks. Urchins and angel wings. Calicos in colors as varied as snowflakes. So many shells that even the pretty ones, the perfect ones, are cast aside. She tells herself she’ll buy a Junonia shell from a local beach shop and proceed to “find” it at the edge of the tide. A big one, whose leopard printed carapace she’ll weather with sandpaper to make it appear authentic. The Junonia is the ultimate find for these shell seekers, the elusive golden egg. After the last hurricane, a couple from New Jersey found one sucked out by the current from the bowels of a sand bar according to the local paper; the Mr. and Mrs. smiling famously in black and white with their perfect Junonia. Then there was the Cartier watch.
She finds it the day after she has the close call. It happens in one of the beachfront units upstairs, near the banyan tree, where the bougainvillea grows thick as a mattress across the corner of the balcony. Mila finds a bottle of fine port wine and down three glasses, taking the last couple of swigs straight from the bottle while she wipes the purpled corners of her mouth with the same towel she uses to dry the sinks and shower instead of cleaning them. This strategy, she decides, really saves time. Mila strips in front of the mirror. She rubs her crooked teeth with her fingertip and shakes her brassy hair from its tight bun. Wide shouldered, small busted, plain, pale Mila with her sea green eyes twirls unencumbered around the room before lying on the perfect bed beneath the perfect window of perfect flickering green shadows. She sighs, and kicks her legs wildly, flails her fists on the sheets, and then she rolls and laughs out loud, and clamps her hand over her mouth. She thinks about calling home with the hotel phone, knowing international calls aren’t possible, so she grabs the receiver anyway, pretending: “Mama, it’s me, Mila,” she cries. “Yes, I’m good, Mama, so good. You can’t imagine. Ok, ok, shh, Mama. Don’t cry. I love you, too, Mama. If only you could see me now.” Then she sleeps.
It is a sickening sound: the card swipe at the door, the chain lock extending and collapsing. “Hello?....Hello! Is there anyone in there?” an older woman’s bird-like voice reverberates into the unit while Mila rushes into her clothes flung about the room, turns down and off the television, smoothes the bed linens and her hair, wipes at her eyes, and checks her breath for alcohol.
“Housekeeping! Sorry. One moment please,” she sings, unbolting the chain and swinging open the door. The small woman’s eyes are sharp and glassy, and surveying the room behind Mila. Her swarthy husband stands with his lips slightly parted, scratches his balding head as he lowers a small suitcase.
“What’s going on in here? Aren’t you finished? I thought I heard voices. Why would you lock yourself in?” the woman inquires in her thick northeastern accent, still looking past Mila.
“So sorry. Mistake,” says Mila as she gathers the dirty linens on her cart and heads for the door. The husband nods affably, smiles at no one in particular before dropping the bag inside the door. If he’d extended his arms to her, Mila might have hugged him before rushing out.
“Gary, I’m beginning to think this isn’t a safe neighborhood,” the older woman squawks toward her husband, and then to Mila, “Wait a minute, Miss! Can we get more towels? These places never give you enough towels. It’s like there’s a ration going on or something.”
“M-mm, yes, yes” nods Mila, bringing a stack back to the bathroom, sweeping her empty shampoo bottles from the counter, and bowing her way out of the door.
The next day is Sunday, when most of the weekly guests are turned out. Mila is solemn, almost repentant. Someone has left a paperback novel by the toilet. It is dog-eared, and full of sand that spills scornfully into the grout lines. Mila often has the same dream at night. She arrives back in the Ukraine with her suitcase full of nothing but sand. Worse, there is a trail of it behind her across the ocean, as if she were a ragdoll leaking at the seams, siphoning her core like a broken hour glass. Mila tosses the book into her trash bag. As she unfolds the bedspread across the clean sheets, something thuds lightly against her foot. A watch. A watch full of diamonds. And sand. Cartier. It says simply across the graceful alabaster face. Out of habit, Mila looks around the room before she stuffs it into a pocket sewn behind her waistband. Grateful, she commences to clean the room with exquisite care.
“Ah, good morning, Mila!” Three days later, the head of housekeeping, Jean Alphonse, is smiling and extending his hand to her. Mila takes a seat near the door. She looks nervous. Mila always looks nervous. “Mila, I know that you clean Unit 215 last Sunday,” Jean Alphonse begins in his lilting island accent. “Well, one of our guests is heart-broken to have lost her watch, a very expensive watch.” He continues, “It seems it was a gift from her husband for their twenty-fifth weddin’ anniversary. She’s not at all sure if she left it in the rental car, or the restaurant, or the room.” He speaks animatedly. “Do you remember seein’ anythin’ like that?”
Mila purses her lips as if in deep thought, and shakes her head slowly. “No,” she begins, and then furrows her brow, feigning concern. “Would you like me to recheck the room?”
Jean Alphonse is leaning back with the fingertips of his long brown hands pressed together. Then he smiles broadly. “No, Mila. We already done that. But please keep your eyes open for it, eh?”
“Yes,” Mila nods, rising to leave.
“And Mila,” he stops her, “no smoking around the guests, you know.” Then, “Mila, you must teach me some Russian one day.” He throws his head back and laughs loudly, and then chuckles and mm-hmm’s to himself.
On the way back upstairs, Mila notices a crowd gathered to watch dolphins slipstitch through the flat Gulf surf. Fathers point into the sea beneath wide-eyed children they prop on their shoulders. She remembers the first time she saw dolphins. It was from the bow of a boat on the north side of the island. Mandy from Kansas met some men who’d invited them out for an afternoon of drinking and exploring the cays. “Pick a number from eight to eighty,” Mandy had smirked, referring to the variety of SPF’s in the salvaged sunscreens inside Mila’s bag, while dolphins arced in and out of the wake of the boat, following it like wild-eyed puppies.
One of the men had edged closer to Mila, asking her if all the girls in Russia were as pretty as she was. “Ukraine,” she’s said, wondering why she’d bothered correcting him, then added, “Of course, and much more.” She’d grinned, hiding her bad teeth behind her fingers.
Then he kissed her in the raw, whipping wind, and whispered with his beery breath, “Damn, darlin’, I could just eat you right up,” moving his lips across the back of her neck, between her windblown hair and her winged mermaid. Then, as the boat slowed, he’d propped himself on the rim, belly unabashedly hanging over the drawstring of his swimsuit, and dove backward into the pale blue water. Mila’s pale skin had flushed with sun and delight.
Mila thinks of the Cartier watch hidden beneath her mattress at the apartment as she slips around, cocoa-skinned Philomena, who is humming over a cart of linens. On the adjacent street, tourists on rental bikes pass them in fluids lines, cheerful families who move in concert, close as spoke and wheel. Mila has kept the watch hidden from Mandy from Kansas, but she wears it alone each night in her room, watches the moonlight dazzle in its many facets, the weight of it on her wrist buried beneath the lightness of her pillow and her sleep. She smokes and pictures herself returning to the Ukraine wearing the Cartier watch, better yet, the look on her mother’s face upon opening such a stunning gift. Never mind the inscription on the back: For my darling Caroline. Her mother can’t read English anyway. Mila moves efficiently between units, pink hibiscus bobbling, big as dessert plates. The Cartier watch has begun the era of her secret stash; valuables accumulating in more than her mind.
Sand, an element as basic as salt. Earth sifted into mineral, into scintilla, iota, atom. It clogs her throat at night. Words she wants to shout into the dull tide are scored instead in the shore with long strokes of driftwood. Such tedious articulation. She wakes up gagging, her tongue parched and tasting salt. Beneath her mattress, a collection of earrings and bracelets, a thick gold herringbone chain, Euros and dollars, a small dog’s rhinestone collar, postcards of Sanibel in strangers’ handwriting, a blue stone big as a glass eye, a pair of eel skin stilettoes, a marble brush with silver hair in it, and a store bought Junonia shell.
Jean Alphonse’s smile fades at the edge of lips each time he calls her in. When he speaks to her, Mila can feel the sand chafe in odd places throughout her body: her thick calves and ankle bones, her armpits, the stained crevices between her teeth. It is ire now that sparkles in Jean Alphonse’s dark gaze. Mila Novakovski, she signs in tight, sloping letters across documents citing probationary terms, conditional employment, dotting her i’s with small hearts. At that moment, an architectural rendering of someone’s vacation house in Naples is rolled inside her waistband, along with a bracelet of flat aquamarine stones that she found posed pointedly beneath a teacup on the counter of Unit 211. She’d left a cigarette stubbed out beneath the same cup when she took the bracelet. She thought about leaving her name behind, signed in ash, but at this point it wasn’t necessary.
While she works, Mila watches the ocean, considers its rearranging geography, sometimes tender, sometimes a tantrum of restless foothills; always, a boundary in flux. Even from the distance, she finds comfort in the beachgoers with their broken castles and candy colored umbrellas. At a certain time of the day, when the tide peels back, the light on the sand becomes a sepia sheet of mirror. It’s as if you can see everything at once, both sides of the horizon caught in a strip of gloss, before it all flames and melts and the shellers gather with their thin points of light to sift through what remains. Hunger is the fifth element, Mila’s mother used to tell her. After fire. After water. After air. Before rust. Mila fingers the aquamarine bracelet in her pocket and shakes out the last of the olives from a jar left in 114, her mouth filling with brine.
“Mila! Jean Alphonse is vexed; he’s askin’ for you!” Philomena waves her down while shelving cleaning supplies on to her cart. “Mila! Mila, are you not hearin’ me, girl?”
Enough. Enough. A word that starts out like a battle cry, but fumbles into muffle and chafe. As if each shell on the shore was a small bell, and the noise had grown from deafening into a white scream. “Yes, tell him I’ll be on the balcony in a half hour,” calls Mila in reply as she nods toward Unit 215. “Tell him to look up.”
A man with a paintbrush once told her it would take an hour for fire to burn through the walls of a hotel room. “What about smoke?” she’d asked him, tapping the ash from her cigarette into the sink of the unit’s kitchenette.
“Smoke gives it all away,” he’d nodded, “it permeates everything, leaves a trail,” but Mila had been thinking about stargazer lilies, dust and sangria, and how the veins of the man’s hands could be traced through his wizened skin. Now sand clings like goose bumps to the back of her arms, and she thinks of the airport back in Kiev, the ocean of her mother’s eyes. When will one of these guests leave a tiara? Mila wonders and smiles ruefully to herself, as she passes the cluster of whispering maids, the banyan tree, and someone’s Channel sunglasses in a beach bag on a lawn chair.
Unit 215, where it all began. In the shower, she scrubs her skin slowly, exfoliating, the Americans call it. She shaves her legs and taps the razor to leave a trail of clipped hair on the tile wall. She steps out onto a clean bath mat and flosses her crooked teeth, throwing the thread into a loose knot in the emptied trash can. She carefully moisturizes her skin with thick lavender scented shea butter confiscated from another unit, all the while checking for sand, that contagion, in the skin between her fingers, the folds of her ears, the cuticles of her toenails. She loosens her tightly wound hair, and brushes it with the marble brush until it falls straight and silky over her shoulders. She notices fine curls sprouting darkly at her hairline, the severe way she parts her hair at the crown of her head, where the wished-for tiara was meant to sparkle and jeer like the shells and the white caps of golden Sanibel Island.
She lights a cigarette. When she is ready, and wearing nothing but the diamond Cartier watch, the aquamarine bracelet, the winged mermaid tattoo, and someone’s Channel sunglasses, she walks past the rumpled motel bed, the thumping flat screen television, and the threshold of the sliding glass door, where she steps out into the light.
Laura Ross has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Her writing appears in the Florida Review, Calyx, Natural Bridge, The Arkansas Review, Deep South, Rock & Sling, Cold Mountain Review, and many other places. Her chapbook, A Tiny Hunger, won a statewide contest from YellowJacket Press.