Drive south from Miami on the Turnpike for half an hour, past the palm tree nurseries and the fields of vegetables, and exit at SW 288th Street. Follow the signs to Coral Castle. There you'll learn about love.
Like any normal guy, Edward Leedskalnin knew that the way to show his love for his sweetheart was to dig giant slabs of coral from the ground and build a castle in her honor.
Ed was born in Latvia in 1887, and at age 26 fell in love with a girl of 16. Her name, Agnes Scuffs, conjures the image of a girl who is not just hot but scorching.
Tragically, the girl spurned him just one day before their planned wedding. Ed was too old, too uneducated. And perhaps, most of all, Ed was too Ed. Agnes may have had a premonition that he was the kind of man who would someday do something excessive involving coral. He, meanwhile, believed she loved another, and he left Latvia, and, after several years of heartbroken wandering, tumbled to a stop near the southern tip of Florida.
He decided to build his monument to love, and worked mostly at night, by lantern, using only hand tools. The castle is more precisely a walled rock garden, with furniture made of coral. There is a coral desk, a coral table shaped like the state of Florida, a coral sundial; and his-and-hers coral beds, where in a kinder universe Ed and Agnes would have lain together, Agnes perhaps wishing for a mattress and a pillow.
Coral weighs 125 pounds per cubic foot, tourists are informed, and Ed managed to move coral blocks weighing as much as nine tons. Yet he was only 5 feet tall, and weighed just 100 pounds. At Coral Castle there are cardboard cut-outs of Ed in several strategic places, and he looks as though he is going to whack the next tourist who dares sit on Agnes's throne.
Let us note that, to move those huge stones, he had to know the ancient principles of leverage, of force, of lifting and shoving and pulling and thrusting, of heaving and hauling, of resistance and counter-resistance, of pounding and driving, culminating in perfect alignment and stability. Surely there are women who would find such a man appealing.
But Agnes's rejection of Ed was nonnegotiable. She never came to America. She never saw her castle, never dined at the giant heart-shaped Feast of Love Table.
Love is a wonderful and scary thing. It is not rational, not always wise, and at its best is just this side of pathological. You want someone to love you "madly," but not literally so. You want someone to revere you, but when the person starts hauling the coral around you might get a bit worried. Almost everyone has had the experience of being loved too much. There's nothing worse than trying to break up with someone who insists on maintaining the fiction of the great romance. It's over, you say. It will never be over, comes the response. And you realize your ex has just gone Coral Castle on you.
True love is when you follow the other person around the house, compulsively. She is going to the kitchen: I'll follow! Is she hungry? What is she feeling? Now she is reaching into the refrigerator for the leftover potato salad. Look at her eat! The way she chews -- so adorable! Here, let me wipe that stuff off your chin . . . And if you're lucky, it is all requited, and you literally stalk each other, and even when you're alone together it's not enough, you want to merge, to crawl completely inside the other, or at least be surgically attached at the chest. You know it's gotten bad when you say things like, "Baby, promise me that if we're trapped in the Arctic you will kill me and eat my flesh and drink my blood, but not before first using my warm body cavity as shelter from the cold."
That kind of love, however sublime, must transition over time into something less radioactive, something more reliable. Most romances end either in heartbreak or in a kind of partnership. The expression of love inevitably changes: What begins as a sonnet will turn into a grocery list. To make love last you have to stop once in a while and do something special, something lovingly obsessive. Maybe one day at the beach, the two of you can make a castle in the sand, in honor of your mutual love.
Here, you will say, is our Feast of Love Table. Here are our beds, side by side in the sand. Here is your throne.
And you hope you have a little while before the tide comes in.
Joel Achenbach writes for the Magazine and Style, and builds ephemeral word castles at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.