Sunday, May 16, 2004

When I was a kid, Sunken Gardens felt like three steps from Paradise. There were trained parrots around every corner, sheltered in nooks lined with Hibiscus flowers the size of my head. Cartoonists sat in those nooks, prepared to draw caricatures of me with a big head and a curvy body that I'm still waiting for. When my parents divorced in 1986 I refused to speak to my father for a year; rather unfairly, I blamed it all on him. After we reconciled he couldn't afford to take me to Busch Gardens or Disney, and so we would go to Sunken Gardens where he would put tropical flowers in my hair. I always thought that I would get married there.

I see by the website that they've revamped the place, made it a model garden. I suppose that this is a good thing, since the last I remember hearing, locals were fighting against closing it. Romantically, I would have preferred that they let it fall to ruin so that in a hundred years people could rediscover it and find behind those big doors a riotous Eden.

Really, though, they probably would have paved it and made it into condos.

My final visit was in 1988. I was growing restless with the place, with its lack of excitement. I would rather have had roller coasters over serene pink flamingoes, who just stood there stupidly on one leg. But I was still mostly enchanted; the beauty of the place seeps into your bones and makes it impossible to tear away completely. The entrance and exit for the gardens were two giant wooden doors reached by a bridge that ran over a fish pond. The fish in the pond were monstrous goldfish, and I was always on a harried quest to find the perfect spot on the bridge from which to feed them. I can't say what the perfect spot would have had; all I know is that I couldn't find it. But on that last trip, on our way out, I just had to try one more time. I didn't know at the time that it would be our last trip, though...It was just one more chance to feed the fish.
And so with a fistful of fish food from the fish food machine I hunted the bridge for the Spot. And I found it. I settled myself in, leaning against the rail, throwing pieces of food down one at a time. There was a creak behind me, and one of the huge doors swung open and hit me right on the back of my big fool head, tossing me into the water.
The largest problem with the whole situation was that I had not released my handful of tasty fish nuggets when I fell. And so I landed in the neck-deep water with my fist tightly clenched. The goldfish immediately swarmed around me, pecking lightly at my fingers, trying to open them. I was terrified; I've always been a small girl, and so the fish were almost as big as I was. I thrashed about, shrieking. The two old ladies that had opened the door on me were gabbling anxiously against the railing, looking down at me, yelling for help. My father, also on the bridge, laughed so hard that he had to sit down on the wooden planks. But after what seemed like an hour and was likely only a few minutes, he got up and fished me out. He reassured the crowd that had gathered and took me off to his nearby girlfriend's house to dry off.

I know it must seem like I am always falling into or over things, and maybe I am. But I regret now that I never went back to Sunken Gardens. I was sure that everyone that worked there remembered me as the girl that fell in the fishpond, and that was not something that I was prepared to deal with. At six years old, the whole world is watching is.

And I'm always watching the fish.

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