Sometimes I dream I’m back in Florida. Nothing really happens. I’m usually just driving over the Gandy Bridge to St. Pete or walking around Ybor or pulling up on Siesta Key or riding my bike in South Tampa. Lately, I’ve started to think those dreams aren’t just about Florida. Maybe they’re my mom’s way of talking to me.
Mom always dreamed we’d live in Florida. She used to talk about it when I was a kid. She called it “paradise” and promised she’d get us there one day. Her other dream was a family trip to Disney, and though she never did find the money to pull it off, she definitely got most of the immediate family to Florida. It took me awhile to arrive though. I never did buy into the paradise fantasy. The state just seemed like a big block of sand to me. I opted for Atlanta instead, but within a few years, I was transferring my college credits and young adult angst right to the sunshine state. I drove into Brandon, Florida in a car with no tinted windows and experienced the hottest day of my life. What followed were eight of the very best years of my life. I should’ve known it would be great. Mom was always right.
While living in Tampa, I met people who disliked it. While some had moved there not understanding what to expect, most were born there or in surrounding cities, and couldn’t stop talking about going somewhere else. Actually, Atlanta was usually high on the list. While I couldn’t connect to their disassociation, I did understand it logically. When something is all you’ve ever seen, I suppose there’s a chance you’ll have a hard time appreciating it. No matter what anyone said though, I couldn’t stop seeing the beauty in Florida and the varied cultures living in my backyard. Falling in love with a Puerto Rican woman and eating a pig roasted in the yard at a Dominican BBQ would’ve sounded exotic in my home state of Michigan, but in Florida, that was just Tuesday. I mean, I understood why they hated it politically (Rick Scott, no words), but other than that, they just sounded lost. I loved Tampa, even after I hit a point where I wanted to move on.
I know that part of my love for the state is uniquely tied to the relationships it’s given me. Two of my very best friends are Florida natives, and I came to see and love the state through their eyes. I can’t tell you how many times I rode through Quincy and Tallahassee with my best friend and stared out at the trailers and greenery and marveled at the warm weather. Everything is so big and country. The people talk to you like you’re family and I don’t care how poor they are, the food at the BBQ’s are plentiful.
And there’s something really special about cruising through Liberty City in Miami with my other best friend. I would stare at the vividly colorful little houses with bars on their windows and protective doors and be in awe of how different the very same country can look. My hometown is all two stories houses with faded paint. And there’s something bare and empty about South Beach once you’ve seen those neighborhoods. It’s all dirty glamour, drunken people, happy tourists, expensive restaurants and nobody selling conch fritters. How a city can be ugly and beautiful and on fire all at the same time, I’d never understand if I hadn’t been to Miami.
I don’t really care for Orlando. Too much bad traffic and tourism, but I’ve still had fun in the city. My friends and I walked up in Ice Bar like it wasn’t a ridiculous gimmick and sipped those cold cocktails like regular tourists. And now that one of my best friends has moved there, I find peace riding through that traffic with her.
I don’t know that I’ll say anything about Jacksonville, except that I love the family I have there. Sorry, but that beach is a disgrace.
And Tampa. Well, that’s my home. I can taste those early morning Cuban coffees. Hot and sweet, with just the right amount of residue on top. Rice and beans … dodging puke and wild chickens in Ybor City … avoiding Clearwater Beach like the plague … skipping International mall and going to Westshore instead because the parking lot was more manageable … driving to St. Pete to pick up crab legs from a stand with a bunch of brothers with dreadlocks squeezed inside of it … walking through the Dali for hours and still not seeing everything … sitting on South Dale Mabry questioning life … lounging at Picnic Island and watching the sunset … home.
There was heartbreak too. I will never forget the hollow feeling in my stomach as I realized my friend Sabrina had actually been deported. One minute she was there and we were holding on to each other, stumbling out of the club, the next she was gone. Shipped to a far away land that wasn’t her home, even if she had been born there. Florida introduced me to the nastiest side of immigration: Separating a family. My heart still aches when I think about the sorrow on Sabrina’s mother and father’s face as they shared the news. I recall staring at her young son and wanting to say something to him, but I did not have the words. You don’t understand missing a friend until they’re a continent away and you can’t reach out and touch them. I count down the years until she comes home. I try to find the room in my budget to see her before we’re any older.
My love story with Florida isn’t perfect, but it’s well-rounded. I could go on and on about the milestones I reached and the memories I made, but I’m sure you’re already imagining them. Sometimes, I just sit back and remember those days with my mom in Michigan. I can still hear her talking about paradise. I feel the warmth and surety in her voice. She had a plan to make it our home and she did. I’m so proud of her for changing our lives. I’m so grateful she changed mine.
Mom is gone now. Due to circumstances we could not see coming, she left paradise and ended up buried in the cold northern ground. If I could do anything for her, I’d take those tired bones right back to Tampa and let her be with the sunshine. Maybe we could ride by Disney.
When I left Tampa, I was sure I wouldn’t be returning for anything but a visit, but time is beginning to make me feel differently. I think, in some way, Florida has become mom for me and now, when I miss it, I miss her. So maybe, after I’ve done everything I set out to do, I’ll look inside myself and ask if it’s time to move back. And if I do, I’ll be sure mom’s pictures sits on the highest windowsill, overlooking paradise.