I used to think I could be happy anywhere. I wanted to see the world, and imagined I could make a life for myself wherever you plunked me down. Now I chalk that up to a youthful lack of taste. The same one which makes small children prefer pieces of breaded, processed chicken in the shape of dinosaurs over filet mignon.
There’s a connection between my body and the land where I was born. Yes, that’s a real thing. I didn’t believe it either until I moved out here. As I grow older, I crave familiarity more than novelty. Familiar sights and sounds. Familiar flora and fauna. The very scent of the air.
I have nobody to blame but myself. I made a classic young man’s error, getting on a plane for somebody I wasn’t married to. “Yet”, I told myself. Had my future with her all planned out, down to the color of the curtains…only to be dumped over the phone while unpacking.
I just wanted to go home after that. I wanted the comfort of those familiar sights, sounds and smells. Instead, because I spent my last dime transplanting my life from Oregon to Florida, I found myself stranded in an utterly alien environment.
I don’t belong here. Certainly not my body, but my heart least of all. Come to think of it, my true “happy place” was never a place, but a person. Was. Now I’m a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by incomprehensible beasts I have no ability nor desire to understand.
The first thing that struck me when I left the airport was the faint smell of burning tires, mixed with what I would soon learn is a scent typical of swampland. An obese woman dressed up as Uncle Sam occupied a booth set up outside, handing out free baby turtles to “police, firefighters or military in uniform.” I still don’t know what that was about.
The smell inside the cab was the same as outside but intensified by heat. A dense musk I was reluctant to immerse myself in, except that I knew nothing of local public transit options and couldn’t afford to bring my car.
On the drive from the airport to the apartment complex, I spied gators sunbathing right on the front lawns of houses adjacent to a large pond. Just right out in the open. And here I always thought the point of creating civilization was to get away from large predators.
A news report on the cab’s radio described a recent altercation between a shirtless man and police. Evidently he lit his beard on fire, declared that he could turn his entire body to steel and fire lightning from his eyes at will, then challenged bystanders to face him on the field of honor.
There’s a running joke that every time a news report begins with “A Florida man…” followed by a list of depraved crimes against nature and decency, they’re really all about the same guy. Some sort of demented superhero named “Florida Man”.
It was followed by a report on a string of missing persons cases. I didn’t know it then, but pretty soon I’d regard that as an improvement. If the rate of disappearances picks up, pretty soon this could be a dramatically nicer place to live.
This state is, at the very least, never boring. Maybe it’s something in the air, or the water. Maybe it’s the frequent hurricanes. Frequent by my standards anyway. But more likely it’s just the abundance of meth.
I was mugged on my third night, though mugged might not be the right word. The poor slob was too out of his mind to actually take my wallet. He wore a vomit stained undershirt and something resembling a kilt fashioned from a garbage bag around his lower body.
I couldn’t understand a word that came out of his nearly toothless mouth. I don’t know for certain if he was tweaking, he may simply have been homeless. Every native I’ve run into since I got here speaks English, but degenerated by varying degrees.
It’s not just a Southern drawl. Not much of that here. Nor is it a self consistent local dialect. It’s a mushy, corrupted patchwork, ever-changing to suit the mood of the speaker. I’m not just trying to be difficult, there have been times when I sincerely had to nod and smile because I couldn’t understand the fellow speaking to me.
I have known plenty of brilliant Southerners. This isn’t about North and South. I recall struggling to describe the nature of that cultural divide to an exchange student once, realizing in the process how petty and artificial it is.
The only actual, literal rocket scientist I personally know speaks with a Southern accent so thick, he ought to wear a tablet around his neck to display subtitles. So whatever’s wrong with Florida has nothing to do with the larger Southern US, which has produced a respectable number of accomplished thinkers. It’s specifically a Florida thing.
When you’re little, everyone you trust tells you to follow your heart. What awful advice that turned out to be! I followed my heart all the way from a lush, temperate wonderland of natural beauty to a putrid swampy hellscape prowled by roving bands of mutants. Fuck you, heart.
That’s not to say I haven’t met some interesting people here, albeit nearly all of them from out of state. I don’t have a large enough sample size to say this with any confidence, but it does seem like Florida is a popular place to pass through when you’re young, figuring yourself out and deciding what to do with your life.
Passing through Florida, and through my life. Each of them like a momentary sip of water, just barely sustaining me as I languish in this human desert. The cab ran over another of the increasingly common potholes.
I would later learn that the city concentrates maintenance funding on the areas immediately surrounding the theme parks which bring in all those lucrative tourist dollars. They visit the parks, maybe they visit the beaches, then they’re gone. No sense in fixing up what they’ll never see.
Consequently everything outside of the oasis of city spending surrounding those theme parks looks like a borderline post apocalyptic banana republic. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. As with any state there are nice and not so nice parts of Florida, I’ll be generous and assume I happened to move to one of the latter.
The landscape consists of dodgy, cobbled together strip malls and various small businesses of questionable legality. All of them operating out of dirty single story hovels which change hands frequently. Payday loans, pawn shops, cash for gold, and churches.
Oh, the endless variety of churches! One on every street corner, as plentiful as coffee shops back home. Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, Scientologists, Eckankar, even a few snake handlers. The more gonzo, sensationalist and fringe, the better.
Like Vegas without the casinos. Everything’s instant, value priced, while-u-wait. Culture without nuance, depth or patience, with a population to match. If you’re familiar with the website “People of Wal Mart”, imagine that, but everywhere you look any time you step outside.
Partly due to the cultural disconnect and partly due to the lingering shock of being dumped, I began floating through life high above everything, nowhere touching the Earth. It no longer had anything I wanted. Nothing with which to entice me to re-engage.
The sting of the breakup, though it felt as if it would last forever at the time, eventually petered out. The habit of disconnection I picked up in the process did not die with it, but persisted as a permanent new feature of my personality…one which quickly proved its worth as a pain avoidance mechanism.
Nobody could hurt me if I never sincerely invested myself in them. What an ingenious trick! Nothing prevented me from going through the motions. From saying all the same kinds of things I would’ve, if I allowed myself to return the love so generously invested in me by a string of women more emotionally adventurous than I.
This way I could have companionship, gratification and the various other benefits of a relationship, but with none of the danger. It never lasted longer than a few months though. They always picked up on what I was doing when, sometimes just experimentally, they tried to hurt me a little bit.
A test of some sort. Going to dinner with an old boyfriend, sloppy makeouts with some rando at a party or something of that nature. I was supposed to get angry. To yell, to cry, even to slap them depending on their tastes. Anything but an indifferent shrug.
Stay Tuned for Part 2!