After the final session on how to write institutional training grants (one of the more useful talks I saw), I went to the hotel lobby and retrieved my luggage. My phone was nearly dead from surfing the internet most of the day, so I found a free outlet and plugged it in and waited for it to have enough of a charge to be useful should I need it for navigation or calling for help or whatnot.
I was feeling anxious. I wasn't quite able to figure out why, but my heart had sped up and I got that twisting, gnawing feeling just behind my diaphragm that signaled the beginnings of real panic. When the phone's charge hit 50%, I went to the concierge and asked the best way to get to Ft. Lauderdale from there. A cab, maybe? Another Car? She told me that a metered cab would be far more expensive than a car, and she made a few phone calls before handing me a business card and telling me that Hercules would be picking me up in five minutes.
I barely had time to smoke a cigarette in the heavy afternoon heat, the clouds overhead swelling with built-up tension when a small silver SUV pulled up and a stocky older black man with a neatly trimmed mustache got out. I looked at the sky warily. It was going to rain, most certainly, and it would figure if my beach vacation took place during tropical downpours that finally broke Florida's drought.
"You're Hercules?" I asked the man coming toward the doors of the hotel. He could not have looked less like someone called 'Hercules.' Cold air washed out from the lobby as he triggered the sensors.
"Yes," he said. "You call for a ride?" He spoke with a thick Haitian accent.
"Yes," I said.
"I be right back," he told me and went inside. I waited by the SUV for his return. He took my luggage from me and lifted it into the back of the SUV while I settled myself in the back seat. The air conditioning was cold enough that I shivered with the contrast and goosebumps rose on my arms. I was glad that I was still wearing long pants.
"Where are you going?" he asked. I told him the name of the hotel and handed him the directions I'd printed out.
"You read them to me," he said.
We eventually found the right turn-off from Los Olas and pulled into the small gravel parking lot of a cheesy bright-yellow stucco building. Even the font on the sign was straight out of 1970s Florida, and really, is there anything less fashionable than 1970s Florida? I expected to see old white men in bermuda shorts, black socks, and white New Balance sneakers with velcro closures lounging by the pool. By this point, though, the rain was falling in sheets, and the pool was empty. Hercules retrieved my luggage and pulled it around to the office door, asking me what time he should pick me up on Sunday.
I counted in my head. "I need to be at the airport between 2 and 2:30," I told him. "What time would you need to pick me up to get me there then?"
"2:30?" he asked.
"Between 2 and 2:30," I clarified. "My flight leaves at 3:45."
"I pick you up at 2. It's okay?"
"Okay. 2 o'clock," I confirmed.
I wrote down my name and phone number for him. "I call you when I get here Sunday," he said.
"At 2,"I said.
"Yes, 2 o'clock."
I grabbed the envelope taped to the office door and saw that my room was unit 4, on the first floor. The room was nice - actually, it was less of a room than a small apartment. Large bedroom with a king-sized bed filling most of it, a walk-in closet with a folded up cot, full bathroom with pink tub, sink and toilet, small but serviceable kitchen, dining area, and comfortable living room. I read the instructions for getting on the internet and lay down on the soft leather couch to find a restaurant I could walk to.
It seemed that there was nothing in the immediate area but other hotels, boat docks, and houses. I hadn't seen much of anything that felt like the heart of a city on the way to the hotel, and I was a bit nervous about finding something that didn't require another cab ride. I found where the restaurants seemed to be, pulled on my raincoat and my Bruins cap, and walked out into the late Florida afternoon. The closest restaurants seemed to be at least a half a mile away, but that was easy walking. The first one I came to was a so-called taqueria, but was more of a Mexican-food tequila bar, full of college students, pink with new sunburns and brandishing what had to be fake IDs. The place was packed, though, so I thought that might be a good sign that the food was edible.
It also had an hour-and-a-half wait for the first available table. I waited at the bar for a bit to see if space would open up. When none did, I left and continued walking. The boulevard had a run-down, near-abandoned feel to it. I'm accustomed, I know, to Boston and Cambridge and the surrounding suburbs, where there are honest-to-god town squares, with shops and restaurants and other services in a cluster, with residential areas surrounding it. This road felt more like a four-lane highway bifurcating a shopping district. There were parking lots and boarded up shops, others with signs saying that the owners were on an extended vacation.
It felt… wrong somehow. Soulless. Like someone had briefly seen a real, vibrant city once, long ago, and had tried to recreate it from memory with cheap, shoddy materials. I felt a bit of revulsion and another twist of anxiety.
Within a few blocks, I found a near-empty tapas restaurant, and decided that would be good enough. I sat down at the bar and looked at the army of servers standing in formation, grinning and optimistically waiting for a rush of customers. They, too, seemed hardly real. There was none of the cynicism and frustration I remembered seeing on the faces of my server colleagues when we were over-staffed for a slow night.
I pulled my book - Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors out of my raincoat pocket and waited for the bartender to notice me.
"Great book!" he said, when he finally turned around from stacking glassware and wiping down full bottles of liquor.
"It is," I said, and made some noise about loving Neil Gaiman's work. The bartender, whose name was Carl, said that Anansi Boys was his favorite. Mine, after Sandman, is American Gods. He offered to get me a drink and a menu, and I said I wanted a beer. I scanned the menu, looking for a beer list, but he asked what kind of beer I liked, and got me a bitter yet slightly citrusy local IPA. It was delicious and suited my mood perfectly. I picked out some food, and settled in with my book.
Another server came over to compliment me on my taste in literature, and I smiled at him indulgently. He was young, pimply and very skinny.
A man with leathery skin and a shock of white hair sat down next to me. He spoke with the drawl of new Southern money and explained that the owner once had a really great restaurant that he'd loved. He was giving this one - open only a week - a try. That explained why the waitstaff wasn't yet beaten down.
The man continued to tell me about himself, his daughter who'd moved to Massachusetts, his real estate business (that explained the air of new money, then. I wondered idly how much of it he had left in the current depressed economy of Ft. Lauderdale). His food came, and he complained about the "European" portion size.
"It's a tapas restaurant," I reminded him. "It's supposed to be like that."
He looked at me confused.
"Small portions so you can try a lot of things," I said.
Eventually he wandered off to say something to a chef who had briefly poked his head out of the kitchen. They shook hands and clasped shoulders like they knew each other.
I smiled at the gay couple just around the corner of the bar from where I was sitting. They looked like they were on a first-ish date. We began to talk, and eventually shared pictures of our dogs with one another. It was a small bonding moment, I suppose.
I finished my beer and some banana cheesecake, and headed back into the tropics. I stopped by the 7-11 to pick up a six-pack of beer, and walked slowly back to the hotel. The street looked no better in the dark, and the sounds of cheer from the taqueria I'd passed on my way to dinner had a manic edge, as if the people within were trying too hard to prove to themselves that they were having a good time.
I opened a beer when I got back, and realized I was already a little drunk. It was late, by this point. The hotel's courtyard, with small pool filling most of it, was quiet and dark and empty. I stripped off my jeans and shirt and stepped into the pool wearing boxers and my undershirt. The water was warm, but not uncomfortably so, and I floated and swam a lap before the world began to spin with exhaustion and alcohol. I went back inside, adjusted the air conditioning to not-freezing, put on some dry clothes, and collapsed into bed.
I got up the next morning with a bit of a hangover, showered, and attempted to find one of the owners to officially check in to the hotel. There was no sign of anyone, but the sign said the office opened at 10. Breakfast at 9. I helped myself to some coffee and looked at the Otis Spunkmayer baked goods with faint distaste. Not even any fruit. I sighed, drank my coffee, and read for a while by the pool while I waited.
Once I'd gotten the business taken care of, I packed my backpack with towels and sunscreen and such and began the walk to the beach. The canals were lovely, perfectly smooth brown water broken by the occasional fish leaping in delight or fear or whatever makes fish leap from the water. I wondered if it was like swimming is for us - leaving the safe confines of our atmosphere for another, scarier, deadlier one.
The beach was crowded with 50- and 60-something boiled-lobster colored Southern rednecks and tanned redneck college students. I got the occasional speculative look from both demographics, and I realized that I was not at all comfortable in this environment. It wasn't just about being rather obviously gay, with my tattoos and my board shorts and my spiky hair. It was about being 30-something and female and unaccompanied by a man. It was one of the first times in my life that I've felt rather acutely uncomfortable being alone.
I found a stretch of beach that wasn't too crowded and walked onto the burning sand. It was near noon, and the sun was hot and perfect, the waves gentle as I looked onto the ocean. Large ocean-going vessels were parked near the horizon, and I squinted through the glare for an open patch of sand.
I spent the next few hours alternately floating among the waves and the seaweed and lying on my beach towel listening to an audiobook. I slathered my New-England trained skin with heavy-duty sunscreen regularly, wanting to make sure the sun didn't damage my tattoos for one thing, and also not really wanting to put up with the pain of a sunburn.
When clouds started rolling in, heavy with rain again, I packed up my stuff and walked back down the street. I went into a surf shop and found a t-shirt I wanted, then went in search of a late lunch/early dinner. I had good, if not fancy, food and a Stella that sweated madly and warmed in the sweltering air before I'd had a chance to drink more than a few sips. I'd forgotten about this part of the heat and humidity. It's impossible to keep drinks cold.
That evening, I simply stayed in, reading the internet and my book, smoking cigarettes, drinking another couple of beers from my fridge.
My anxiety was increasing. I didn't know why. I did not like Ft. Lauderdale, but that wasn't anxiety-inducing. I was homesick for my stuff and my dogs and my routine, but that was usual for the beginning of a vacation. When I stay in a place longer, the homesickness vanishes for a bit (until it returns shortly before I leave for home).
The next morning, the hotel office was closed (and thus, no breakfast), so I walked back down Los Olas Boulevard to the closest approximation to a coffee shop I could find. They were mostly a bakery, but they did have fresh-brewed coffee, so I got a croissant and a coffee and sat down to muse about why my stomach was turning itself in knots.
It was, I finally realized, as I fought the nausea, about the traveling. I was terrified that I was going to miss my plane, that Hercules would've forgotten that he was supposed to pick me up, that something awful and unnameable would happen and I wouldn't make it home. I would, I decided, call Hercules when I got back to my room, and ask him to come a few minutes early. I would want to get something to eat at the airport, I would tell him, so I'd need a bit of extra time. That way, I'd know that he was coming to pick me up.
That phone call settled the anxiety a bit, and I hung out in my room and by the pool for the rest of the morning, sipping diet coke and taking deep breaths and watching the rain come in again.
My phone rang at 1:42.
"It is Hercules. I am in front," he said.
"I'll be right there," I told him.
I grabbed my belongings, which I'd carefully set next to the door. I left the key on the kitchen table as requested, and I walked through the rain to the waiting car.
Hercules got me to the airport in 15 minutes, and aside from Ft. Lauderdale having the rudest and least friendly TSA agents I've encountered, I had no trouble checking my luggage or getting through security. My flight was slightly delayed, but except for my in-seat tv screen being broken, my flight was smooth and untroubled. I read, relaxing for the first time in days, and then slept hard, until we began to approach Logan airport.
I was home. Exhausted, worried about all the work I needed to do, and still missing my dogs, but I was home. I slept the sleep of the dead that night.
I don't regret staying in Ft. Lauderdale, though, all that said. I think if I'd just flown home after the conference, I would've regretted losing the opportunity to go to the beach, and trying to figure out what all the fuss was about when my college classmates referred to it with barely concealed awe in their voices.
My next mini-vacation will be two days in Provincetown for my birthday. I've been there before, and I'm comfortable there. It's a very walkable town, and I won't have to rely on others to get me to where I need to go on time. As long as the weather is nice (for New England), it will be lovely.
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