The first club is a black and empty cave save for one spinning circle of light in the center of the dance floor, an anticipatory flash for the revel that will come later.
We’re just kind of underwhelmed.
We cross the street to another club that doubles as a swanky restaurant. Girls wear eyeshadow in shimmering arcs and hang on the arms of thick-necked men in suits with their shirt collars open. Plates of pasta appear, decorated by festive mountains of shrimp, tails on in a show of finery.
Enormous potted palms divide the sections of tables, their trunks wound with what I assume are holiday lights, but maybe they’re like that all year. The drinks cost $17 and come with little paper umbrellas and attitude. The DJ wears plastic sunglasses and jewel-encrusted headphones and plays stuff that I have on my iPod. The music and conversation roar.
We talk nonspecifics about going back to the hotel and ordering a pizza. One of the guys shrugs.
“I have a girlfriend, so it’s not like there’s anything to see here.”
We make insinuations about leaving, but no one will be the first to make the decision, to reach for a coat or head in the direction of the door. Instead we listen, gawk. Those who have ordered drinks sip slowly, watching the crowd.
Then, the song suddenly stops. There is an instant where the only sound is the din of voices, a loud and insistent wave. Another song takes its place—something in Spanish with blaring trumpets and whistles. All the waiters clap in time. They emerge from behind the bar with champagne and wine, each bottle with an enormous flaming sparkler tied to its neck. They deliver the bottles to tables while the bartender doles out drinks at the bar, the sparklers stuck in martini glasses. Someone hands me a sparkler and I hold it away from my face, half-delighted and half-concerned with the possibility lighting myself on fire. The crowd whoops even louder.
Then, just as quickly, it’s done. The fireworks burn themselves out. The lights come back up. The song changes back to faceless dance music. The winding of pasta around forks recommences.
I make the move, reach down for my coat. It’s done. No one protests. Back on the street, we realize that the liquor stores have all closed, that our party-at-the-hotel strategy is thwarted. We return, glum, the girls teetering in high heels, our destination uncertain.
In the bar-slash-restaurant at the W hotel on South Beach, the sales guy from the Vegas office buys us drinks. He talks strategy for the year ahead.
On the first night of Art Basel, the crowd on the streets shifts. The girls in plastic platform heels, in makeup from CVS, give way to glamazons in capes, in Prada, in boyish haircuts, in bow ties. The busboys bow, gallantly stepping out of the way while I squeeze between tables on the way to the rest room. Our heels make dents in the plush blue carpet.
A guy stands at the bar wearing a matching salmon pink outfit that includes salmon pink sneakers, a salmon pink sweater tied around his waist, and a gold chain around his neck. He shouts into the ear of an empty-eyed blonde in a green sequined cocktail dress.
“These stupid Americans…” he begins, in a heavy accent.
The Vegas sales guy wants to know what we really think of the other salespeople. No, really. A thumbnail view of each one. Away from the confines of the office, I can feel everything sliding off its mark, including my ease with the truth.
A woman in black pushes past us, all bony shoulders and lumpy purse. Her drink—foggy pink in an oversize martini glass; something hovers suspended near the bottom, globular and indistinct, a lychee—goes flying. Sticky droplets hit the bar, our skirts, the backs of everyone around us. The glass hits the carpet but doesn’t break; there is no clatter, no terrible splinter of sound.
The woman reels around, unsteady on her feet. Her eyes, which are done in rings upon rings of eyeliner, widen like a cartoon, threaten to pop out and roll away, like her glass.
“Did you fucking push me?”
It takes me a second to realize that she’s talking to the Vegas sales guy, who stands silent and very still.
“You fucking pushed me!” she shrieks.
The bartender looks up from the Cosmo he’s pouring.
The sales guy puts his hands up. “I apologize if we got in your way,” he says.
“You fucking pushed me. And now I’m soaked. It’s all over me.”
“I’m sorry that you lost your drink,” says the sales guy. “Here, I’ll buy you another one…” He motions to the bartender and reaches for his wallet, but it’s too late.
“Are you fucking serious? What about my dress? Do you know what this dress cost? This bag cost $3,000 and now it’s fucking ruined.”
The host appears, having heard the noise. He turns her away from us, and begins with his most diplomatic, “M’am…”
She recounts the whole story to him, goes on about the $3,000 purse. She tells the host in so many words that we should leave, and should be made to pay for her outfit. I can do nothing but gawk, rooted to the spot, heels making bigger craters in the carpet. Finally, the host says, “Well, he apologized and offered to buy you another drink and you refused, so…”
“Fine,” she says. “I’m leaving.”
We turn to each other and shift and half-laugh. The sales guy runs a hand through his hair. It’s only then that I realize that I have been clenching my hand hard enough to leave fingernail marks on my palm. Our expensive drinks suddenly seem far less interesting, the glass behind the bar, the gleaming statues, less opulent.
The guy in the salmon pink outfit keeps looking at us and laughing. He’s leaning on the blonde’s shoulder now, going on about how no one has class or style anymore. In New York, I would play cool, turn an angular shoulder and pretend not to notice or to hear him, to ignore the fact that he’s totally talking about us, our crassness and stupidity. Our callow Americanness. In Miami, I stare right back.
In a city that sends sparks into the night sky, it is sometimes difficult to see what’s underneath.
I wake up early and head out to the beach in a sweater and a scarf, like I have forgotten where I am. The whole morning is the color of peppermints, is pale blue sky and pink sand and watercolor palm trees. It’s me and the ambitious, early-morning joggers and the half-watt sunshine.
The only way to know a place is to see what is coughed up by its surrounding ocean. In Italy, it is hunks of pumice, forced to the surface by millennia of geothermal tumult. The beaches in the south of France give up smooth pebbles of green and blue and amber-colored glass, the fragmented remains of Perrier bottles. On Cape Cod, it’s the perfect, scalloped halves of clams. Coney Island yields enormous twisted snail shells, their sides punctured through from hitting the rocks too many times.
At first, I think South Beach will show nothing of herself. Because I’m not looking closely enough, and do not realize that I have to. All I see is sand and thin tangles of seaweed. Then I see one. It is so tiny that I wonder at first if it’s just a chip from a bigger one, but then I realize that it’s unbroken and perfect, no bigger than my thumbnail and smooth as a pearl. The others are not much bigger—cereal bowls for fairies and flutes for baby mice. A whole collection of them fits in my shoe. This is how I carry them and the whole beach, the whole city. Carefully, afraid that they’ll slide through my fingers.