by Kelechi Nwosu
We take a left off the boardwalk at Humiston Beach, and let the salt-weathered pavement brush the sand from our feet as we head down a sunlit drive. There is no need for shoes. No one would dare break a bottle on the ground in this part of town, and if the concrete sidewalk becomes too hot, the perfectly manicured lawns provide comfort for blissfully bare feet. Palms frame the street and handsome houses are set austerely back from the road. Great bay windows disclose bright, heavily decorated interiors that hint at the lives of the rich and famous of Vero Beach.
My sister and I leisurely pass the downtown beach shops, tiny tourist outlets nestled between small stores with windows boasting a sparkling display of Swarovski diamonds and crystals, Vera Wang gowns, the ever-present latest Ralph Lauren bikinis, and of course, Lilly Pulitzer everywhere. We pass two blonde children sloppily eating ice cream at Cravings. Their au pair, her messy brown hair tucked hastily behind her ears, attacks them with napkins, scolding in broken English. Beamers cruise down the road slowly, their drivers hidden behind huge sunglasses and heavily tinted windows.
Sometimes the ocean is as bright aqua as the water in the Bahamas, sometimes as pure dark blue as the northern Atlantic.
We take another left onto a quieter street. The houses here are smaller and quaint, sitting low on the damp Florida earth with the wild growth of live oak trees stretching and tangling above them, like ancient protectors. We pass our house, its light blue door and shutters matching the blue Lexus in the driveway. But we don’t go home yet. There is still so much more to see. My sister and I continue walking down the street until I can see the sparkling of the river ahead. I hop the fence into the park with Chiaka right behind me, and we cross the jogging path of crushed white limestone and shell. Walking along the river, I can see the mangroves with their needle-like roots sticking into the sloping sand of the riverbank. As we pass the docks, pelicans and osprey watch us with sharp hard eyes without moving from their perches on the pilings. The yachts rock gently on the minor tide, names proudly splashed across their afts. The homeports of the boats written below their names proclaim their right to be moored here in this peaceful snowbird town: Edgartown, Osterville, Kennebunkport, and Nassau.
We turn again off the riverside and begin the trek across the mile-long bridge. From here we stop to take in the view: blue, blue sky with strikingly few wispy clouds, lush green filling the small spoil islands - created from dredging up muck during the nineteen fifties to create the Intercoastal Waterway. Yachts and motorboats zip up and down, some trailing jetskiis and wakeboards, which flip and spin dizzyingly on the white churning water, spewing up frothy splotches of foam. If we are lucky, as we somehow almost always are, we will see a school of dolphins, jumping triumphantly as they race to keep up with a yacht. Tiny people onboard whistle and clap, thrilled to see the sleek bodies slicing through the water as the dolphins smile their sideways smile up to the sunlight and the noise. From the top of the bridge, we stand over the middle of the river, and can see the ocean sparkling on the other side of the island. Sometimes the ocean is as bright aqua as the water in the Bahamas, sometimes as pure dark blue as the northern Atlantic. Sometimes we can see individual whitecaps; other times it is simply a flat spreading of color behind the roads and trees of Orchid Island.
We turn back around and keep following the bridge, now heading downhill toward the mainland. At the bottom of the bridge lie a swampy lagoon and a dense mangrove forest. We walk quickly here since I cannot pass this spot without remembering the two alligators they shot here last week. People had been feeding them and the twelve-foot male and fourteen-foot female had become too dangerous around humans. As I shake my head a bit at the stupidity of some people, my sister and I follow the track the alligators must have taken on their last trip to the river, crossing the road to the golf course, which has a small creek dwindling off into the horizon, its one redeeming feature. There are simply too many golf courses here. Not even a whole town full of elderly golf pros can put all these golf courses to use effectively. In my mind, golf courses are good for two things: running bikini-clad through their sprinklers, and watching the sun go down from the crests of their sandpits. I love that about my new home. You can always see where the sun will rest its head at night. The sunsets are magnificent. We sit down and watch this one. When the sunset is nearly over, and just a few dark streaks of rust and indigo are left to frame our silhouettes, we turn back to the bridge and head for home. I notice the thick, barely restrained, exhilarating silence of the heady night, and I smile as I walk, because I love where I live. Vero Beach has imperfections, spanning from social to academic to political, but the natural beauty of the place is virtually unaffected.
For the children who live on the island part of Vero Beach, privilege practically washes in on the steady waves wetting the pristine beaches.
Vero Beach is one of those places where everything seems so idyllic that it is a wonder anyone fits in. We have our seasonal snowbird population, who come down with their yachts to their winter castles in the quiet gated communities that overlook the ocean or the river and boast world-class golf, tennis, and polo facilities. They bring their car people, horse people, dog people and boat people. And they check up on the work of their lawn people, pool people and cleaning people. But these extra bodies who do the only real labor in the area contribute no status to the town. They are like the blurred corners of a photograph, necessarily there, but impossible to see. They disappear behind the glamour, leaving their employers to enjoy the immaculate custom Jaguars, perfectly groomed miniature ponies and Great Danes, neatly tied dock lines, perpetually blooming impatiens, quietly gurgling infinity pools, and pristinely clean guest houses.
Those with the second greatest amount of influence are the children of the snowbirds. They have jobs like real estate agents and accountants, which they halfheartedly pursue through a haze of social obligations. They are the faces on the society pages of the Vero Beach Magazine; the shimmering makeup of the women almost upstages the winking gems crusted on every available appendage. They have moved here because they have always vacationed here and feel that the sleepy atmosphere of the town is ideal for raising their children.
This brings me to the younger population of Vero Beach. The boys are typically easygoing surfers. Their attitude of unquestioning satisfaction with their lives is clear in their quick smiles and the way they flip their curly blonde hair. The girls seem more aware of their class rank. They dress in true Vero Beach style, Tiffany necklaces encircling pale necks, big sunglasses making more of a fashion statement than a sun block, and a Louis Vuitton or Coach purse to make their status as obvious as possible. Their future plans usually consist of becoming pro surfers or fashion designers, but they will usually end up entering Dad’s company or marrying the boy who lived in the mansion two lots down. For the children who live on the island part of Vero Beach, privilege practically washes in on the steady waves wetting the pristine beaches.
For those young people who do not live in the wealthy part of Vero Beach, life is drastically different. They don’t have parents who work from home. They don’t wake up on the morning of their sixteenth birthday to a new car, red bow and all, in their driveway. They don’t go on shopping trips to Palm Beach or spend weekends in Miami with their friends. They don’t host parties in beachside condos. In fact, the only time they see the beach is when they make the drive over the bridge, only to be visually assaulted by the life they don’t lead. Instead, these teenagers go to the local movie theater to be entertained. They ride their older brothers’ bikes or drive their battered pick-up trucks when they need to go somewhere. The boys seem to like to fish above all else, and the girls think that clothes from American Eagle are the very height of fashion. They are happy to drift in and out of the trailer homes and ramshackle condos. They don’t seem to have plans for the future, generally speaking, except maybe dreams of pro football. The girls tend to marry their high school sweethearts the week after graduation and the boys look around for the tiny empty starter home next door to their parents’ place and go get jobs at Lowe’s. If they don’t get married, they amble on down to the community college and work toward degrees in nursing or mechanics.
Growing up in Vero Beach, I found that the strange environment was made stranger by the fact that I straddled the line. Regionally, I lived on the beach. Also, my maternal grandparents fall within the class of snowbirds. Even before we moved, my sister and I were associate members of the privileged class. We had vacationed in Vero, visited the Disney resort, biked up and down the main street on the island, and slept in the cozy aft cabin on Southern Iles, our grandparents’ yacht. We have matching Tiffany necklaces, a shared Mercedes given to us on my sixteenth birthday, and we jointly own a beachside condo with my mother, who works from home writing mystery novels after becoming bored with selling real estate. But, thank goodness, my sister and I are also different from the typical island teenager. We are half Nigerian.
If nothing else highlights the fact that I fall in the middle of the two types of Vero Beachians, it is my parents’ story. In short, my mother had lived her life as the eldest daughter of WASP parents. Trips on the sailboat and multiple summer houses speckled her childhood. In stark contrast, my father grew up in Nigeria amidst the terror of the Biafran War. His life was a trap of privation, malnutrition, and constant fear of looming death.
At seventeen, my father immigrated alone to the United States, seeking an education and a job to help his struggling Ibo family in Nigeria. He met my mother a few years later while both were in graduate school. When my maternal grandparents discovered that their eldest daughter wanted to marry an African, they refused to allow it. My mother willfully refused to heed them and, leaving her inheritance behind, eloped with my father over her lunch hour in a red dress.
When I further mentioned that Nigeria was a country in Africa, the grave nods would turn into "ahhs" of comprehension, excitement, and especially curiosity. Instead of being American, I became exotic, if only half of me.
All that descends to me of that drama is my bloodline. First my grandparents forgave the young couple, and then my parents divorced anyway. What I am left with is brown skin and frizzy hair and a zip code that does not match them.
I didn’t know there were two kinds of African-Americans until I moved to Florida. Before that, I marched around calling myself African-American, and I thought it meant just that: half African and half American, with my phenotype to back me up. I started drawing the connection in fifth grade. Suddenly, instead of two other people with skin darker than mine, there was a whole group, a whole identity. And it was immediately clear that I didn’t fit in. I spoke like a “white person,” lived in an area where only “rich white people” lived, and was generally a completely foreign, backwards, messed up person who nobody quite understood. That was when I started to see the difference between Nigerian-American and African-American. I remember in fourth grade standing over a huge brightly colored map of Africa with the single other black girl in my class. I showed her Nigeria, and she pointed to the green blob that was Kenya, saying that she thought that was where she was from. When I told my mother later, happy to have a friend who was African as well, she laughed at me. Her bright green eyes took in the enthusiasm in my smile but she said it anyway. “Keyona’s not from Kenya, Kelechi. She’s American.”
I didn’t understand it at the time. But realization dawned when I moved to Florida. Frustrated and flattered by continuous questioning about my ethnicity, I took the time to explain to my friends that my mother was Caucasian, Welsh, Irish, and English all mixed together and it was my father who was only one thing. When I told my classmates that he was Nigerian, they would nod seriously. When I further mentioned that Nigeria was a country in Africa, the grave nods would turn into “ahhs” of comprehension, excitement, and especially curiosity. Instead of being American, I became exotic, if only half of me. I remember imagining myself to be like a little cake. Plain, rather nondescript vanilla icing on the outside but (who knew?) an inside filled with delicious, unexpected Funfetti.
Perhaps because of my unusual ethnic background, the beachside mold that would have been clamped around me didn’t quite stick. When I moved, class differences were just starting to become apparent to me, partially because of my age and partially because of the relatively sheltered life I’d led. So, even if the prevalent class distinctions were clear from the first day of school at Beachland Elementary, I was blissfully unaware.
The fun started with middle school the next year. Without my sister, I was shipped off the beachside onto the mainland to go to public school with children from all corners of the county. Within the first week, I learned the terms gangsta, redneck, dweeb, and A-list. My first reaction was fear. I was terrified of the gangsters, who swore every other word they spoke and whistled at me in the halls. I hid from the rednecks because their boots made angry sounds that matched their disgruntled sunburned expressions. I was afraid the dweebs would make me look stupid, and I was petrified of the A-listers because I watched them torture and embarrass other girls every day. The only people I wasn’t afraid of were the beachside boys and girls who had gone to Beachland Elementary with me. Their accents were clear and free of drawl and twang. Their smiles were genuine, not appraising or suspicious. And they rode the bus with me. I could walk to their houses. I could follow their jokes, and sometimes they could even follow mine. I could dress the way they did without feeling self-conscious, and soon I was recognizing jealousy barely hidden under lush black eyelashes, a sure sign that I at least looked like I fit in.
When my sister joined me, things changed. Suddenly I had a confidante again, someone to giggle with when the black boys tailed us to class and opened doors for us, and someone to blush with when the rednecks grinned disarmingly and pointed out mistakes in our math. Together we teased the dweebs by pretending to be idiots and together we defied the A-listers by staying up all night pasting stickers to our white Keds in a bold fashion statement, careless of what they would say. And together we faced a day full of compliments from the very girls I had been sure were made with mouths that could only dole out hurt. My stereotypes of my classmates were wiped away as soon as the fear dissolved. Once this happened, I realized how fully I straddled the line between the beach population and everyone else. I felt that I was finally accepted unquestioningly into every group. Still, it was either my zip code or my skin, or the sheer novelty of seeing both combined in the same person that allowed me to float so effectively within the student body.
Regardless of how I was perceived in school, on the island, my sister and I were unquestionably seen as “beach girls”. This was especially apparent when spending time with our maternal grandparents. Even as a child, name recognition was easy, and soon I began to realize that the children I played tennis with on the yacht club courts were the children of the children of my grandparents’ friends. The woman who taught my sister and me how to show her miniature ponies and who had her groom give us riding lessons for a year and a half turned out to be a dear friend of my grandmother. And the ladies who always called us to babysit their youngest grandchildren were friends of my grandmother, too. The woman who offered us an extremely lucrative job walking her King Charles spaniels up and down her block also happened to be a good friend of both my mother and grandmother. My sister and I accepted these coincidences without much thought. Vero Beach is a small town after all, and such things work out like that. In truth, however, the kinds of connections we enjoyed did not come from having straight As, personable manners, and honest faces. They came from years of networking at churches, country clubs, college reunions, and parties in all fifty states and several different countries. It is pleasant to grow up like this, to let a word about needing a cell phone slip in front of Grandpa, only to find yourself standing at his elbow in the den later looking at the new Nokias online. To smile up at your uncle and breathe a line about the quaint French town you “researched” and would love to see, only to find yourself on a plane three months later, headed for La Rochelle.
I am doubly lucky to have grandparents who, at least once in their lives, found a single crumpled dollar bill in their pocket and knew they had enough to continue on with. I am lucky because, instead of disappearing behind the walls of concrete and bush that they hire people to create on every property they own, my grandparents show my sister and me that we are the most important people in their lives every chance they get. My grandfather calls me to see how calculus is going as often as he dares, and my grandmother personally itemizes every object in her fridge every time we come over in case there is something she’s missed that we would like better than all the options she’s already given us.
However, in most of the homes that line Vero’s shores, privilege breeds stagnant tradition, stubborn close-mindedness, and nearly uncensored conceit. The boat shows, antique car shows, theater galas and priceless museum displays all radiate wealth and relative disregard for anything more substantial. A production of Swan Lake draws more people than a live appearance of the Presidential Chief of Staff. Ladies swathed in pearls and powder mingle at a charity ball, but probably couldn’t tell you what African country their money was going to, even with the aid of a map. Their deliberate distancing from the grittier aspects of the world frustrates me, only because their contribution could make so much more of a difference if it was backed by some passion.
For the past eight years I have lived in this rural resort town of Vero Beach, Florida. Its traditionalism is especially obvious to me, because I moved from Boston, a city at the forefront of technology, politics, and progress. The Vero Beach I experienced on a daily basis is an extraordinarily homogenous area, a sharp contrast to the differences, both subtle and obvious, found in Boston. In Vero Beach, stereotyping and provincialism are everywhere-- from the kind elderly gentleman who holds the post office door open for me even though I am perfectly capable of opening it myself, to the women with perfect hair who stare at me blankly with permanently lifted eyebrows when my mother proudly announces that I will be attending MIT, to the jobs that only seem acceptable for men and the living arrangements that will attract whispers at the cocktail parties pretending to have something to do with world hunger.
A self-identified “city girl’” while I lived in Boston, I became by default a “beach girl” when I moved to Florida. Nothing but my regional identity claimed my new label for me. I had unwittingly moved to the area referred to by all native Vero Beachians as “the beach”. Simply named, but the connotations threatened to overwhelm me.
I remember trying to tell a new friend where I lived. “Orchid Island,” I explained, “between the beach and the river.” Her face expressed perfect understanding belied by the worried look in her eyes as she replied, “Oh, so you have to take a boat to get there.” A perfectly wrong assumption. Foolishly, I continued trying to explain with no success, regardless of how clearly I described my address. Later I realized that she knew where I lived, but was ignoring it, desperately trying to remain in the dark to maintain equality. The luck, the privilege, the lifestyle associated with ‘the beach’ part of town was undeniable. It was also unbridgeable in some cases. Sometimes, to avoid awkward situations, it was just better to remain on the side of town where you belonged, so even in school, at first all I could see were the ghosts of the bridges stretching their formidable concrete and steel legs between the students, haughty keepers of the peace. Coming from the city, where everyone on the street seems to come from somewhere else, and you are just as likely to see a beggar on Newbury Street as a wealthy suburban housewife in the rougher part of Chinatown, the regional label startled and disconcerted me. Who were these people who thought they knew me because they knew my address? Who thought they knew that my parents were rich, married, and happy because I had a pool behind my house? Who assumed that my sister and I could and would buy our way into the highest social circle in the school because we played tennis at the yacht club? Who thought that since I drove a Mercedes, albeit an old diesel, my life was perfect, even predictable?
Eight years has been enough time to show with disappointing accuracy that these stereotypes are often true. Zero Beach got its nickname for a reason. Coasting is acceptable here. Anything new, extraordinary, or controversial is usually kept quiet and tucked away in the hopes that nothing will change. Zero progress, zero development, zero deviation from the status quo. All I could do was prove myself to be the exception. I wore African outfits to school on Nigerian Independence Day, applied to colleges that were considered ridiculously far away, not to mention impossible to get into, and encouraged the people I met to consider life outside the fairytale plot, set, and drama of Vero Beach. In my high school International Baccalaureate class of fifty students, ten of them applied to schools outside of Florida, and three actually went. I applied to twenty schools, eighteen of them were out-of-state, and my mother kept my teachers informed as every new acceptance letter landed in my mailbox. The next year, my sister applied to twenty-two colleges. In her International Baccalaureate class, perhaps two thirds of the students have applied to first or second tier schools across the nation and are getting in, landing scholarships, and packing their bags. Of course I can’t take credit for the hard work her class is obviously doing, but I like to think that I opened their eyes a little, and in doing so, I hope I have encouraged a new generation to eventually bring their world-class education, intelligent new ideas, and clear, unprejudiced thinking back into Vero Beach.
I anticipate with joy the thought of having my little sister up north near me for college, but for now we enjoy the diminishing warmth of the pavement on our bare feet as we descend the second half of the bridge. The rich, sulfurous smell of the river grows stronger and the gentle sound of the small lapping waves becomes crisper as we walk. We trudge back through the park, carelessly straying from the white path to startle a pair of wild parrots who flee shrieking into the sky, shattering the calm with their cries until silence gradually returns. Simultaneously, we climb over the fence and walk in silence down our street. We can hear the pounding of the ocean waves from two blocks away, as only happens at night or early in the morning, when the noise of the island’s inhabitants is silenced by sleep. Each crash is wondrous to me, and I ask Chiaka if she can hear it, as I always do. Her whispered “yes” is just as special. As we continue down the street, I can tell without even glancing at my sister that we are both smiling a tiny, subconscious half-smile to see our home in front of us. The light inside is golden and I can see the back of my mother’s head as she reads on the couch in the living room. The smile we get from her in greeting when we come in the front door turns our half-smiles into big identical grins and I realize that this is home. Even if we do not fit in, even if we are doomed to be forever thinking outside the Vero Beach box, this is home because it is where my family lives. It is where I come from.