On being duped into a permanent vacation to a land of half-constructed houses and sub-par pizzerias.
My parents came back home to New York from their trip to Florida with a plastic bag featuring an outline of the sunshine state and some news. We’re moving. I looked at the map and the word Disney and I was like, cool, whatever.
You’d think this whole moving business would have affected me more. And it should’ve. I mean, not to brag but my neighborhood in New York was pretty dope. Library? Two blocks away. Arcade? Two blocks in the other direction. Park? Near the library. Pizzeria, bagel shop, candy store? All within walking distance of my little-kid legs. It was pretty fantastic. Particularly because my mom was cool with me wandering the streets.
I don’t think I realized what was really happening until we pulled away from the house in our 1984 Chrysler Fifth Avenue, the U-Haul behind us, and our neighbor Caroline (god bless her, the Italian grandmother to this Guatemalan/Salvadoran kid who kept me filled up on Italian baked goods and lasagna) waved goodbye to us.
In that moment I was kind of like, wait… what?
But then, my parents intoxicated me with a false sense of adventure. We barreled down the highway and ate McDonalds with abandon. We stopped at truck stops with strange smells and layouts and people along the way. My parents bought me key chains that said NC and GA. And my sister was at her all-time best: weeping over the mixtape of love songs her boyfriend had given her, going on a hunger strike, and absolutely refusing to get out of the car. So I was mostly entertained (my sister and I didn’t exactly get along growing up. It was funny.). And since my parents were basically doing the things they’d done all my life–lying, and ignoring our pain–it still didn’t quite hit me that we were moving. When exactly would we hit this place they called Florida anyway?
Finally, something like fear started setting in. My parents had fucked up.
It’s going to be great, my dad said. Our house is enormous. A mansion. And a big yard. Life is going to be great there. So great!
You don’t say things like this to a kid. And my dad definitely shouldn’t have said this to me because I grew up watching Silver Spoons and immediately started wondering if the train in my new house would be operational upon my arrival.
We arrived at night. Somehow, I remember the house being flooded with lights as we pulled up. It looked… bright. But other than that, I wondered if this was just a stop on the way to our real house. Not to sound ungrateful, but this was just a house. A regular house. Bigger than the one in New York? Not by my calculations since it contained neither a basement nor attic (my go-to, leave-me-alone places). Dad said it was a “ranch” style, but I thought my Dad got duped because this was not a ranch. I looked at my sister’s miserable face and red-rimmed eyes. Maybe she knew something I didn’t.
That night, I caught a glimpse of the mutant insects I later learned are called palmetto bugs and tried to fall asleep to the deafening croaking of frogs. Finally, something like fear started setting in.
My parents had fucked up.
In the morning, things looked worse. It was hot. No, let me explain. My New-York lungs were unaccustomed to my new habitat. When I went outside to explore, to find the deli and library and such, it felt like I was going to die. Every breath felt like I was breathing in and choking on steam. I soon realized I was walking around in circles. Literally. Apparently there were no blocks in Florida. Or deli…or library … Where’s the playground? Pizzeria? Where will I buy a proper Italian ice? What is this place! I felt I’d been dropped in the middle of nowhere, with only half-constructed houses hither and thither to keep me company.
That’s when I started hating Florida, though there would be plenty of other reasons: like when two old men in a pickup truck yelled at my mom and me and called us some damn Yankees; or when I registered for school, marking the shortest summer vacation of my life (most kids up north get out late June and most kids in the south start mid August); or when I was one of only two brown faces in a sea of white in my class (the other Latino kid was a boy with the same haircut as mine, a stylish black mullet not improved by the humidity, who looked as bamboozled as I did); or when everyone kept asking me if I’d gone to Disney yet, not understanding, as I eventually did, that spending lots of money on top of moving expenses just to walk around in the sun is something my parents saw no value in.
It was with all this in mind that I officially determined Florida sucked. I would be out of here as soon as I turned eighteen. Hell, as soon as I figured out a way to the nearest Greyhound station.
But the first day at the red, barn-like elementary school came quickly and somehow I made friends (I suppose the way most kids do, by giving new classmates a rundown of how many playground fights I’d won back in New York and telling them about the autographed electric guitar given to me by the guitarist in Def Leppard). I took every opportunity to tell them how unfortunate it was that we were all stuck here, in this crappy place, when there were bigger, better, brighter places like New York out there. I whispered this in their ears as we packed together like a bunch of penguins behind our fifth grade classroom and my teacher pointed to the sky where, against a blue so blue, the burning orange orb of a space shuttle launching into space left behind white puffy trails. I tried not to be awed.
Instead, I stubbornly clung to my hate, even as I became accustomed to the steam in my lungs. Even as I was introduced to Polar Cups, which were like Italian ices, but different because they were after soccer practices, on a middle-school field, in the blazing hot sun.
As a teen, I continued singing my non-praises of Florida as my friends and I loitered at Church Street Station behind the Exchange. Or at the Cumberland Farms, where we stopped on our way to school, sitting on the curb in the unbearable stickiness of those mornings before we reluctantly got in the car and headed to class. Or that time my friends and I took a trip to Disney just to be funny and snicker at tourists before riding home in the back of a red pickup truck, the hot wind in our faces, oblivious to danger. By then we were all talking about how much Florida sucked, how we couldn’t wait to get out of this hellhole, as we waxed poetic and drank coffee at The Grind, or as we packed into a show venue that was actually a sub shop where bands set up next to the fountain drink station. We would soon be far from here.
But despite my best efforts, something like fondness grew in me for this swampy land, and I stayed. Somehow, the thick smack of humidity upon my return to Florida whenever I leave the state now provides comfort. As does the green glow of Publix signs.
My sister–the one who cried her eyes dry all the way down I-95–hated me most of my childhood. To be fair, I was as annoying as little sisters come. But if anyone messed with me, she’d have taken them down hard.
That’s Florida: my annoying little sister. I hated it most of my childhood and young adulthood. There are times I’m disgusted by it still (the Republican primary, guys, really?). But I guess, yes, okay, I sort of love it. I love taking my kids to the same beaches where I sat on the shores at night and looked out at black oceans and wondered about the future. I love when they mock me and yell, Kids, this is the way to my old high school, before I do whenever we pass the entrance to Colonial High. I love hearing the echoes of my discontented youth and trying to capture it in my writing. And I love remembering how much this place, Florida, sucked so bad. But it’s where my life happened. Is happening.