My afternoon shift is about to start, and the red-haired assistant manager 15 years older than me, with a beer gut the size of a six-month pregnancy under his short-sleeved aqua scuba shirt, is asking me, What size are your nipples? Nickles? Quarters? We don’t have workplace harassment yet, it’s just work. Being a girl among men.
His pale upper lip twists, as he thinks he’s funny. But he also wants to see what I’ll say – how far he can get. I have nothing to say to this balding man who smells like old pizza. He could be made of pizza – baguette arms and legs, pepperoni eyes, cheesy insides. I get up from the bar stool randomly placed among boxes of stir straws in the back room. Walk out to sit in the damp cement shade of the water slide: Zoom Floom.
Lots of worlds don’t make it – Bible World, Pirates World, Shark World, Circus World, Winter Wonderlando, the Aquatarium with trained seals – razed for strip malls. Our World is a combo hurricane research center staffed by scientists and university students and a theme park.
Shaped like a giant white porpoise, flukes in the turquoise river, Hurricane World has a band of tiny windows across the middle and top floors. Observation decks. On the roof, a 75-foot candelabra antenna tower with transparent wings. A walkable bridge connects guests from the parking lot across the river, directly into Hurricane World where they experience simulated storms. Once you’ve found your feet again, get your suit on and stash your belongings in our handy lockers. Take the waterslide right out the back door and then, ride the Florida Hurricane roller coaster.
As the land is relatively cheap, we’re on a big tract out in the middle of nowhere Kissimmee. Purple and white sky, palm trees tippy from the winds. Big lumpy balls of green in the distance like cabbage.
The main theme park compartment is essentially a wind tunnel with drinks. After waivers are signed and kids corralled on the top observation deck to watch a hurricane video in surround sound, we hand out yellow slickers, goggles, hard hats. Strap you into a plastic chair bolted to the floor. Windows to the right. Then take you through the eye of a hurricane.
We start slow, gearing up to Category 1 winds, 74 to 95 miles per hour. The sprinkler system overhead begins as a mist, drizzle. Then a pouring rain. In a hurricane, someone always wants to go outside to feel the wind. This is just like that. The sound of the wind whipping up is enough to make most people cry. Being in the eye is a relief, calmer. The hair of the guests who have hair is blown back so tightly it flies in the face of the person behind. Tickling. Never do this, the science students say, never go outside in a hurricane. The roof rattles for effect. Automated birds and trash cans fly by the windows. Normally, we’d say avoid windows in a hurricane, but we need more visuals.
When the wind dies down, I hand out orange hurricane cocktails with lemon and gold fassionola, rum or sobriety drinks for $12.95 while guests are still strapped in, regulating their breathing. To make it realistic, we cut the air conditioning, as Floridians always lose power. Everyone gets a little paper fan. The drinks are warm as the ice melted, fridge is out. Watch out for downed power lines, we say, unbuckling each sweating guest. Point toward the lockers and changing rooms, the water slide leading outside to the river. We should also say watch out for the
gators, but they don’t generally come to our end. And the water’s so clear, you’d see one if you were paying attention. Probably. We do throw a few snap pop firecrackers on the sidewalk between the water slide ride and the roller coaster. They have a nice loud bang when you step on
them, and make you think twice about where you’re stepping after a hurricane. You’ll be watching the sidewalk for sure.
Hurricane World is not as popular with vacationers as you’d think. We stress the research element, how we are helping to save future lives with the wheely-gig on the roof. After the slide and roller coaster, escalator back up to the changing rooms, on their way out we hand each guest a Hurricane World research pamphlet, with opportunities to donate.
My nephew is making $200 in tips doing the lunch shift at MVP on Siesta Key. It’s no good when the weather’s bad, as tourists have to take a bridge to get to the beach. But the weather’s been good. I make $5 an hour at Hurricane World, but feel I’m contributing to science. Wiping the seats down with a bleachy rag. Usually Pizza Guy saves his bullshit for the backroom, but as this group clears out down the walkway to parking, he yells, How big ARE your nipples? A dad with his wife and two little kids turn and stare at me. Floozy, the dad says, head down, to the kids.
I never confront him. He’s my boss. Consider strapping him into a chair. Turning up the Categories on him. Wonder how high I could go before he couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t ask me a question. Even in 30 mph winds, a man has trouble walking. Airborne glass is the most common cause of non-fatal traumatic injury. The pressure outside your body decreases; tendons, muscles, bones expand and contract. Positive ions take over, disorienting people – they can’t drive. In Category 1 winds, you are tied to a speeding car just trying to hang on. None of the other employees confront Pizza Guy either. Some of the male students do think he’s funny. Is this just Florida men? But Florida men come here from everywhere. Is this just men?
I can never get married. Can barely stay with a boyfriend. I’ve seen how love wears off. When love even exists. Mostly all I’ve felt is affection. Some guy in the house. And my role is basically entertainment. It’s not fun if you’re not there. Which means I always have to be there. For the porn, and the mud wrestling at the Cabbage Patch, and the guy pissing on the audience from the stage.
The right side of the hurricane is the most dangerous – winds higher. The deadliest part is the storm surge afterwards, 20-foot waves. But I’ve been in an interior hallway on the second floor of a pink apartment building, all the doors around me shut – bed, bath, living room. The roof sounded as if it might come off. Not piece by piece. But a hand just taking the roof off. And what would I have done? Floated up into the whirling of branches and patio furniture? The roof stayed on. But the massive tree outside my dining room window was uprooted. Fell sideways, parallel to my apartment, instead of directly in, smashing the glass. Bringing the wind inside. I used to sit at my wicker table, and watch the birds in the tree. I could sit right beside them, and the birds didn’t mind.
The United States only named storms for women from 1953 to 1978. At some point, things have to change. I moved on to Little England. An authentic country village, built entirely from British materials. Old English buildings were imported – tapestries and tile, wood not made for Florida’s humidity. It’s all rotting in the sweltering air, insect eaten. Created by a grocery store magnate.
I’m at the Friar Tuck now. A British eatery in Clermont, far from Orlando, out in the countryside. Hostessing. I met a British man who plays old British TV shows for me that I can’t follow. It’s like they take place in a vacuum — in the future and the past at the same time. I’m not in love again. He’s a decade older, with a longtime girlfriend back home. His accent makes me feel I’m back in Little England. Being with him is a vacation from who I am. I can almost pretend I’m in another country, living in another world.
Kelle Groom is the author of How to Live: A Memoir in Essays (Tupelo Press, 2023), I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), a Barnes & Noble Discover selection and New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and four poetry collections, most recently Spill (Anhinga Press). An NEA Fellow in Prose and Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow in Nonfiction, Groom’s work has previously appeared in New World Writing, AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, New England Review, The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Southeast Review as a finalist in the World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest. “Hurricane World” is from her fiction manuscript-in-progress, News from Florida.