The places where we don't have no tans
My first childhood encounters with the backwards and beautiful peninsula state were from an airplane. All the indigenous curiosities, the beaches, surfers, sharks, the gators, the orange trees and Indians – they were too far away to be real. They were no more alive than the $2 toy crocodile an aunt brought me from a Stuckey's on the way down to the Gulf Coast.
Around 7 years old there was a trip to Disney by car. We left before daylight. Everyone went to the bathroom twice, we packed PBJs and piled in the back seat of a grandparent-sedan to visit another of approximation of "real" Florida. I held a View Master and my bladder the whole trip. The Disney experience was surreal and unforgettable. Even now, I cry when I watch my little ones watch the brilliantly fabricated magic through huge, new eyes.
Then I was 11. Toes searching the sand, eyes scanning the waves. Experiencing the vastness and greatness of what is actually magic. Walking the shoreline, I felt the first tinges of manhood as I passed by "girls in next to nothing, laid out perfectly, for that year when I was old enough to know." Madonna's "Borderline" blasted on a boom box as I noticed these mermaids, these very real Floridian curiosities, for the first time.
I remember that moment with more detail than my first spanking or my first kiss. It's bittersweet. My whole body still remembers its first brush with self-consciousness and the epically quick death of childish innocence. All traded, happily, for the promise of salty lips and long brown legs.
I returned to the Gulf Coast every summer 'til I was 20, to get burned by the sun, to learn what young, burning love felt like – and how it felt when Summer romances were over. The heartbreak was huge and all-important until we were pulled back to Alabama, reluctantly, as if by the undertow of real life.