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Love In Florida

“What’s wrong?’

“Nothing.”

“What?’

“I can’t verbalize everything I’m thinking.”

– from the Alice Neel Documentary

I used to live in Florida, before high school, years ago – a very long time ago, before I ever set foot in Houston. These are some of my memories from then, now that the statute of limitations is up on things that happened before Texas was a thought inside my head.

One year I went to an outdoor play in Tampa. It was part of a Shakespeare festival, one of those free outdoor kinds they have during the summer. I didn’t give a damn about Shakespeare so after my parents found their spot, I wandered.

There were lots of people at the festival; I made my way between them and the vendors on the rim, people-watching. Once the play started, everyone quieted down. I remember the heat, the breeze, and the boredom that comes with being young and tanned and free in Florida.

The stage was in a pavilion by the beach. I decided to explore the back of it. It narrowed to a fenced-in iron section that stopped at a cheap closed restaurant. There were some restrooms, which one or two people were using. After that, desolation – moonlight, and silence.

The walkway ended at a concrete pier bordering the water. At the end, there were skateboarders, five or six of them. There was also a girl with blonde curly hair sitting by the water, her back turned to me. I knew I wanted to talk to her. I leaned up against a wall and watched them; eventually, they noticed. They were near a water fountain, so I walked up, leaned over, took a long drink and tried to think of a question, anything to speak. Finally I spoke; she answered – and was friendly. The next thing I remember is sitting down next to her, a couple feet away. We looked out over the water; my heart was hot inside my throat and everything depended on a moment that felt like an audition. I thought: what should I do next?

Another memory, from around the same time. I went to a summer science program in Tampa for a few years; in the third year, I hit it off with two of the girls there. We formed a little love triangle; I had a crush on Lynn, Jennifer had a crush on me. Lynn brought us together, and we started hanging out, the three of us, eating lunch, lying around and killing the hours on our school’s green campus.

Eventually, the program ended. We promised each other that we would keep in touch; we exchanged addresses and started sending letters by mail. Lynn and I kept at it the most; after a while everyone else fell away.  We kept adding pieces to the letters, using stationary, colored sheets, and shapes we’d cut out and mix in with our carefully numbered pages.

I’d spend days composing mine, thinking of phrases I could use and making mental notes during the week for stories I could tell. A few days after I sent my letter I’d start checking the mailbox every day, waiting for hers to appear. Every letter would end with a declaration of how important it was to us that the other person write back, because even though ours were terrible, theirs were the life of our week. We went from ‘your friend’ to ‘with love’ to ‘love,’ apologetically at first and then finally in big calligraphic letters that scooped up half the page.

It didn’t last long. I had classes to take, the real world crowding in, papers to turn in. I couldn’t concentrate; my parents asked why I was dazed. I couldn’t bring it up Lynn, so I ended it. I took longer to write back, until it was clear I meant something by it; she wrote a pained, angry letter asking why our connection was slipping away. She sent a second one a long time later, more muted, almost regretful. I took her letters and threw them away, because if I kept them I would regret it.

It didn’t matter; I regretted it for years anyway, and was still working through those feelings after high school. It’s not that I miss Lynn today, or Jennifer (who I ran into on a sad day at Rice, while she was a student and I was at UT). I’m trying to put into words my mistake: the thought that I had to give up the thing I loved the most because I needed to be a certain way. It could have saved myself a lot of trouble over the years if I’d gone with what I loved from the beginning instead.

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