Joe texts from Illinois asking if people actually decorate palm trees for the holidays. He must’ve received my Christmas card, which has a drawing of lights- and ornament-decorated palms on its front. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to disappoint him either, so I respond saying that people probably really want to decorate palms, but the leaves are just too high off the ground.
After hitting send, I think about it some more. Is the feature that makes palm trees beautiful the same thing that makes them poor Christmas trees? Their leaves are long and hang down. Decorations would probably slide right off.
I leave my apartment on foot and walk down the sidewalk, noticing for the first time that there is a small lemon tree and a small orange tree next door in a patch of grass outside of the property owner’s fence. I don’t pick any right now because they look a little brown and I’m not hungry anyway, but I make a mental note to keep an eye on the trees and pick from them with abandon in the future.
After I turn onto a busy street and walk a few blocks, a car slows down and whips into the adjacent bank parking lot. The driver’s side window rolls down and a man inside motions for me to walk over. I say, Nope, and pick up my pace, which irritates me, because I was just about to take off my sweatshirt on account of the walking has made me hot. Now I have to walk farther, in discomfort, because I know if I take my sweatshirt off right now this idiotic man will view it as the beginning of his own personal strip show.
After walking two blocks, I look back–the man’s car is out of view. I take off my sweatshirt and tie it around my waist. It’s my favorite and most comfortable sweatshirt. It says THE GREAT GATSBY on it. I like wearing it because it boosts my spirits. First, it’s a light blue that I find pleasant. Second, the inside is so soft I periodically become aware of it touching my arms and that feels nice. Third, if my mood sours while I’m wearing this sweatshirt, I can look down at it and switch my focus to how I, regular aspiring Fitzgerald, am writing a novel with a narrator who is not also the protagonist.
Anyway. As soon as I take the sweatshirt off, a cool breeze highlights the places I have been sweating–my lower back, my armpits, and between my boobs. I see the shady bus stop two blocks away and know that once I sit on the bench for a minute or so I will become cold and want to put the sweatshirt back on even though just now it had become almost unbearable.
Being human is frustratingly high-maintenance.
I’m taking the bus not because I need it to get somewhere, but because I want to write a story that takes place in Tampa. I hope a bus ride on Christmas will inspire me. I’ve taken transit for legitimate reasons (cost, convenience, necessity) in other cities hundreds or maybe even thousands of times, but today I am solely a voyeur. In my four months as a Floridian, I’ve gathered almost no sense of place; most of my time here has been sheltered, split between my apartment and campus.
I feel a little sleazy knowing my primary purpose behind riding the bus is watching the other riders, people who most likely have no other transportation option. I push off the idea that I’m a creep embarking on some sort of at-home poverty tourism outing and continue with my plan of, well, planned spontaneity. Excitement fills me as I think about what I’m about to do: get on the bus, take it wherever, and see what happens. The world is open.
As I sit on the bus stop bench, a minivan stops at the traffic light in front of me. The driver of the minivan vigorously brushes his teeth. The passenger–who I presume to be his wife–looks out the window with no identifiable expression on her face. Behind her sits a child, repeatedly kicking the back of her seat. I wonder where her husband is going to spit out the toothpaste and feel as if I’m witnessing a brief glimpse into the terror-filled prison a domestic partnership with the wrong person can become.
The bus arrives. I pay my $2 and sit down in the first available seat. There’s only one other person on the bus. The bus doesn’t stop nearly as often as the buses in Chicago or even Denver stop, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same.
There isn’t anything unique or interesting on the bus to observe, so I focus on what’s outside: Gentlemen’s club, TERMINEX, graveyard–I laugh, as this small stretch seems like a perfect representation of Florida in one fell swoop. I’ve heard rumors that Tampa is the “strip club capital of America.” I’ve also heard there are cockroaches everywhere because of the climate, although I haven’t seen one in my apartment yet (cross fingers, knock on wood, etc.). The graveyard seems fitting because, well, let’s be real: much of the rest of the country views Florida as a good place to come die.
The bus collects more people as we go. At one stop, the driver gets off and switches with another driver. This new driver seems angry. At the same stop, a man in a wheelchair waits to get on the bus. He’s wearing a Santa hat and holding a poinsettia in his lap. The bus driver huffs and puffs as he puts up seats to make room for the wheelchair. At the last second, the chair guy says, Nevermind, I want to go home instead, and wheels away. I wonder if he decided to go home because he felt like he was burdening the driver. I wonder who he was going to give the poinsettia to, and if he’ll be able to give the gift on another day instead. I wonder if anyone is at his home, or if he’s going to sit there alone, in a Santa hat.
A couple of stops later, another guy in a wheelchair is waiting to get on the bus. This one gets all the way on and doesn’t seem to notice the driver’s huffs as he straps the wheels down with multiple red, seatbelt-like straps. This guy is wearing a shirt that says “RIP” and has a photo of someone’s face on it. He’s black. I’ve only ever seen black people wear those types of shirts; I wonder why white people don’t generally get them made. I like them. I make a note to tell my friends that having everyone wear an “RIP Jessica Thompson” shirt with my face on it after I die will be my last wish.
A few stops later, the man in the wheelchair says he’d like to get off the bus. When the driver stands, he tells a passenger standing in the aisle to move. This begins an argument that continues for several minutes after the man in the wheelchair is off and we are moving again. It goes something like this:
Passenger: You didn’t need to tell me to move, because I already would have moved.
Driver: But you didn’t, so I had to tell you.
Passenger: Once you moved the wheelchair, I would’ve moved.
Driver: I was going to move the wheelchair in five seconds, therefore I had to tell you.
Passenger: You’re just one of those people who likes bossing people around.
Driver: No, I’m just trying to look out for the guy in the chair, okay?
Passenger: Oh, I know more about the needs of people with disabilities than you will EVER know!
Driver: Maybe you do. Not the point. The point is you needed to move. Merry Christmas, sir.
Passenger: Merry Christmas!
Then their Merry Christmas!es continue, at first sarcastically, then angrily, until they say it at least four times each. The driver blasts a Spanish language radio station for about thirty seconds, then the bus returns to silence. The passenger looks at me with a “Can you believe this?” expression, as if I’m going to provide some sort of support. I respond by looking around and giving him a “Who, me?” facial expression.
I realize the angry passenger and I are the only two white people on the bus. Is that why he’s assuming I’ll take his side? I look down at my notebook, trying to avoid his persistent gaze. I hear the guy two seats behind me mutter something about rude people taking the bus today and needing to sit down (the white passenger is still standing). I wonder if I should mutter something similar to make it explicit that I don’t feel any camaraderie with this man. I decide I’m overthinking it and stay silent.
Only one other remarkable thing occurs on the ride: A family with several children gets on the bus. I continue to look out of my window. About a block after we pull away from the curb, I catch a flash of a woman in a parking lot who has lifted her shirt up to expose her stomach and bra and is shaking her body in an exaggeratedly sexual way. There are two men nearby. One is walking briskly away from her. The other is walking away from her, but more slowly, and he keeps looking back.
I whip my head around to see if anyone behind me caught a glimpse of this weird scene. I see a child of about ten whip his head around in the same way. I blurt out, Did you see that? He nods rapidly and widens his eyes. His mom asks him, in Spanish, what I said to him. He doesn’t respond. She asks again. I can’t understand his response because it’s also in Spanish and said very quickly, but I see him mime lifting his shirt and dancing. She looks at me, as if to question whether or not he’s telling the truth. I nod my head.
Once the bus reaches downtown Tampa, I depart, figuring that area will be the most walkable and most likely to have something interesting going on. I walk aimlessly. A drugged out-looking guy approaches me and I instantly slip into city mode, saying, Nope, and shaking my head before he can verbalize his request. He looks surprised.
I feel kind of bad, considering it is Christmas and all. I think about how I’m planning to teach a community creative writing workshop in a few months, perhaps at a homeless shelter or with recovering addicts. I wonder what I’ll say if he shows up to one of my workshops and calls me out for being a hypocrite who is nice in class, but rude on the street. After mentally debating various explanations, I settle on the shortest: Different context.
I keep walking. I figure I’ll find a dingy open restaurant or bar, hole up there and write for a couple of hours, then hop on a bus back home. As I look for a spot, a scene plays out in my mind.
INT. BAR – DAY
JESSICA, a young and attractive writer, sits down on a wobbly barstool in an empty bar and studies the pathetic strand of half-burnt out Christmas lights stabbed into the wood paneled wall with thumbtacks.
Barkeep, I’ll take a whiskey, neat.
A forty-something BARTENDER turns from a radio playing SILENT NIGHT to display his ruggedly sharp jawline and head full of shiny, silver hair.
Sure thing, miss. Single or double?
Sir, it’s Christmas. I’m alone and I didn’t drive here. Better make it a double. No, two doubles.
You gonna pay the difference?
Hell, miss. I’m working for a reason.
That’s what I thought. So again, well.
JESSICA opens a green, leatherbound notebook and writes furiously. BARTENDER walks off and comes back with four double whiskies, neat.
Lady, I have a heart. I can’t serve you well on Christmas. A woman of your caliber shouldn’t be drinking that stuff anyway. Here’s our top shelf, no extra charge. Hell, no charge at all. Happy Holiday.
Wow, thanks. And four of them? I guess you could tell I needed these. So generous.
Not so fast, kid–two of them are for me. As you say, it’s Christmas, I’m alone, and, well, unlike you I am driving, but that’ll have to stay between the two of us.
BARTENDER and JESSICA laugh and clink their shot glasses together before throwing back both double whiskeys. JINGLE BELL ROCK plays from the radio.
You know, I’ve always liked this song. You feel like dancing?
Sure, but don’t get too attached. You won’t see me after tonight.
No problem, miss. One night is all I need.
BARTENDER walks around the bar and grabs JESSICA’s hand. She stands and they dance and laugh.
But, all the bars and restaurants I pass are closed. I decide to head toward the water, but have to consult a map every few blocks. The grid is on a diagonal and I can’t just take one street the whole way from my current location. I feel like a tool not knowing my way around downtown and am thankful no one is around to see me.
I notice “Marion Street Transit Parkway” is designated as a bus-only street on the map. I immediately think of 16th Street Mall–a touristy but fun, shop-lined bus and pedestrian walkway in Denver. When I first reach Transit Parkway, the bricked street fuels my excitement. I turn down it and walk a few blocks before realizing it is the go-to sleeping place for homeless people. After a man begins following me, I pick up the pace and take a different route.
A few blocks later, I see a hot-looking guy walking the opposite direction and cross the street earlier than planned in order to walk past him. He looks about twenty-five and has shoulder-length brown hair. That and his faded skinny jeans make me feel surprised that he isn’t carrying a guitar. He walks with a limp that’s more cowboy swagger than gansta lean. As I walk toward him, a scene pops into my mind.
INT. SUBURBAN HOME – NIGHT.
JESSICA and ROCKER GUY smile and laugh with glasses of wine in hand at a Christmas party while surrounded by smiling NEIGHBORS.
How did we meet? It’s the craziest thing–we were both alone on Christmas, walking around Tampa on account of us both having silly romantic notions about such a thing, and we literally bumped into each other on the street.
Very literally. I had bruises! He never looks where he’s going.
I was composing a song in my head. And I’m glad! We fell in love on the spot.
Speak for yourself!
Well, one of us fell in love on the spot, but within a year I convinced her. And here we are, married, three years later. It’s a dream come true.
It’s all been a dream. I never even thought I wanted kids, and now look at me!
JESSICA stands and points to her protruding belly. Several NEIGHBORS reach out and touch it.
I guess once my book sales skyrocketed and I realized I would never, ever have to hold a full-time job again, ever, for the rest of my whole entire life, the thought of raising a child became more appealing.
And if her book sales ever fall, God forbid, my music sales will be more than enough to sustain our family. I know it’s gauche to talk about money at a party, but you won’t believe this–we brought in the same exact amount last year. Like, to the dollar. Our accountant was shocked. He thought we were playing a prank on him!
Right before the rocker guy and I pass each other, he turns his head to look at me directly, exposing the side of his face I hadn’t yet seen. His right eye is swollen, black, and only partially open. Before I have time to fully register the black eye, a waft of booze smell hits my nose. Before I have time to fully register that, he asks if I will give him some money.
A sexually attractive homeless person is so far outside any sort of mental schema I hold that I stand there for a few seconds staring before saying, Oh, no, sorry, I, uh…no. Nope. Sorry. He puts his head down and walks on.
I keep standing, trying to think of any possible way he’s not homeless. Maybe he just got in a fight with his idiot brother at the family Christmas gathering and needs cash to take a cab home. But no, the booze smell was too strong and jumbled to have come from a single day of drinking. I look back at him. What I initially viewed as rocker hair suddenly appears to be neglected hair that is extremely stringy and greasy. I remember Lindsay on Arrested Development pursuing a homeless man and laugh. I came dangerously close to doing the same.
That the possibility of a homeless person being attractive or dateable is a joke sticks with me uncomfortably as I walk. I again think about my community creative writing workshop plans. Although I don’t yet know what “community” I’ll be working with, I don’t want to go into it with any trace of hypocrisy or condescension. I wonder if my assumption that all homeless people are undateable indicates good sense or dehumanizing prejudice. I revise my daydream.
INT. SUBURBAN HOME – NIGHT.
JESSICA and ROCKER GUY smile and laugh with glasses of wine in hand at a Christmas party while surrounded by smiling NEIGHBORS.
It’s a crazy story. You sure you want to tell it, honey?
Of course, it’s amazing. We met on Christmas. I was alone and walking around downtown Tampa, just being a silly writer looking for inspiration, I guess, and he was–believe it or not–homeless and looking for a handout.
NEIGHBORS murmur among themselves loudly.
I’m really lucky she took a chance on me. Ninety-nine percent of women wouldn’t do that. No way.
It was stupid, I know, but he was so handsome.
JESSICA and ROCKER GUY squeeze hands and look into each others’ eyes.
He was so dedicated to playing guitar that he had just sort of forgot about rent. That is, until he was evicted the week before Christmas.
I played on the street for money and slept in the park, hoping to save up enough to record a demo.
Then, on Christmas Day, someone jumped him and stole his money and guitar.
I was walking around downtown because I felt like if I sat still I would kill myself. I wanted to jump into the Bay. My guitar was all I had left.
Honey, don’t say that!
It’s true. But don’t worry, I’d never do that now. Now that I have you, and a baby on the way, I feel so rich.
ROCKER GUY rubs JESSICA’s large belly.
You are rich. That’s the ironic part. I hit on a homeless man, and now I’m married to a multi-millionaire!
Do you ever get competitive with each other? With you both being so successful in your respective creative careers?
Actually, believe it or not, last year we brought in the same exact amount of money. To the penny.
Except I think she probably spent a little more of it.
ROCKER GUY winks at NEIGHBORS.
Only because he’s counting our mortgage as one of my personal luxury expenses. Excuse me for thinking room and board is a necessity!
JESSICA playfully pushes ROCKER GUY. They and NEIGHBORS laugh.
Accidentally, I arrive at Tampa theatre. The nature of the block changes quickly. No more homeless people, many middle-class. The people in line look like my parents and my aunts and uncles. I ask what movie they’re waiting for (The Imitation Game). I contemplate joining them, but feel it would be a cop-out. I’m rambling about downtown Tampa alone for real world adventure, not to sit in a controlled environment and stare at a screen. I continue on.
After I cross a street, a passing car slows and the window rolls down. I avoid looking, assuming it’s a catcaller. A female voice yells, I love your shirt! I’m startled and look up. She yells it again and this time gives me two thumbs up. I smile and nod and yell back, Thanks! The man sitting in her car’s passenger seat looks embarrassed. I want to yell, Hey, she’s cool! She should be embarrassed of you!, but I of course don’t.
After the complimenting woman drives away, I try to think of some other response I could’ve given that would’ve led to us becoming friends. Maybe, Let’s be friends! Or, Hey, you seem cool! Perhaps, Pull over! And once she pulled over, Wanna hang out sometime? I like to read and write. I feel sad that all of those things would probably be regarded as weird. I try to envision a society in which cool women regularly talk to me on the street in an attempt to gain my friendship, rather than annoying dudes wanting either sex or money. It looks like a utopia.
Suddenly I’m in Waterfront Park and it is bumping. People are eating picnics on the lawn, playing soccer and football, skateboarding, chasing their kids around. I walk around exploring and come upon a small dome-shaped area with seats painted all white. There are two men in there, both writing. They both perk up when I walk in. They’re both relatively attractive. They are sitting on opposite sides of the mini-arena, and I do not get the sense that they are together. If it were only one guy, I would sit down and begin writing myself, and perhaps we’d start a conversation. With both, it’s just too much. I continue on.
There’s a tent with a crowd around its entrance, so I walk toward it. Ice skating rink. After checking my pride, I get in line behind a bunch of preteens. Ten minutes later, I pay $10 to enter and rent skates, put the skates on while warily leaving my shoes on the floor (pushed up against some kid’s shoes so as to trick any potential thieves into thinking they are mom shoes that shouldn’t be stolen), and hit the ice.
Once I’m about halfway around the rink, I feel like my ankles are going to break. After a full lap, I am tempted to get off the ice, but force myself to skate around once more. By the end of that lap, I feel like shit emotionally. Am I so old that I can’t even ice skate? Is it true that I can barely do two laps in the smallest rink I’ve ever seen? Have I entirely let myself go? Am I decrepid and useless? Have I lost touch with all youth and vigor?
Of course, I am momentarily forgetting that I did yoga just this morning, walked a few miles yesterday, and played tennis for nearly three hours the day before that. The mind isn’t logical during flashes of despair. I trot off the ice and sit on a bench, ready to leave about fifteen minutes into the ninety I’d paid for. I begin untying one skate, prepared to go home defeated, but long-forgotten knowledge buried deep in a recess of my mind bubbles up: Wobbly ankles mean the skates aren’t tight enough.
I unlace and relace my skates; this time as tight as I possibly can. The laces make my hands smell really bad. I get back out there and it is much easier. For some reason, skating alone to pop star renditions of traditional Christmas songs amidst families, couples, and preteens makes me feel emotional. Not sad, but as if the moment is meaningful. When a small girl falls, I help her up and have to stop myself from saying something ridiculous like, This is what life is all about!
The powers that be kick us off and a mini zamboni comes onto the ice. It’s essentially a golf cart dragging a combination sprinkler/scraper. When it finishes, they let a teenage girl onto the ice alone for a few minutes. She is an aspiring figure skater, and she’s good. She does jumps and spins and people clap. I try to take a photo, but my camera isn’t fast enough. Although I am 33 years old, do not aspire to figure skate, and have never aspired to figure skate in my entire life, I feel a brief but powerful flash of envy.
I guess I just wish I could do something cool.
The more laps I skate, the more I try to spot someone else who might be in my position: totally alone. All of the alone-looking women I try to feel a sense of kindredness with turn out to be with a man or child (or both) whom she cannot keep up with on the ice (and who has not bothered waiting for her).
I see a couple in their 60s skating and holding hands. Tears spring to my eyes. They are whispering to each other, smiling, and holding each other up on the ice. Their love is beautiful. I want that kind of love.
A few laps later, I see the woman skating alone. I instantly think of the last time I went ice skating, about five years ago. My boyfriend at the time acted like he wanted to go, but once there it became clear he was doing it begrudgingly. My feelings were hurt when I realized he was humoring me rather than having fun. He wanted to go home not long after we arrived.
When I skate past the woman wobbling all alone on the ice I want to whisper, Don’t let him bring you down.
After a few more laps, I see the 60s-something husband back out on the ice, holding his wife’s hand, whispering into her ear, helping her on the curves because he is the steadier skater. I realize he was probably sitting out because he’s kind of old and his back hurt or something, not because he’s ungrateful or disengaged. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Either way, he’s not a jerk; I was simply projecting my memories onto their totally unrelated relationship. I feel happy for them again, but have had enough skating.
I exit the skating rink to find lit up, decorated palm trees. I take a photo and text it to Joe. That looks fake, he replies. I took the photo myself, I text back. Oh, he responds.
Because the sun is dangerously low in the sky, I head toward the bus stop. I avoid Transit Parkway. Once on the bus, I notice I am filled with good cheer and pleased with how I spent my Christmas Day. I scroll through my texts and message some variation of Merry Christmas to some people I care about who haven’t yet texted it to me.
Once home, I turn on Workaholics. My brother introduced me to the show two years ago and I’ve been rewatching it after recently getting Amazon Prime. Workaholics is a comedy about three, mid-twenty-something dudes who are roommates and coworkers and it’s my favorite show right now.
The other night, my favorite Workaholics character, Anders, made an appearance in my dream. It wasn’t a sex dream, or anything crazy. He wasn’t even a celebrity or tv character in it. He was just a friend like all of the other dream people, and the dream itself was so boring and routine that I don’t remember the details.
Today, I didn’t come up with any strong ideas for fiction placed in Tampa. But I think as long as I keep going downtown, as long as I check out the other neighborhoods, as long as I walk the streets and ride the buses and take the Amtrak and finally get my ass to St. Petersburg and eventually Miami and wherever else, Florida will quietly seep into my writing the way Anders seeped into my dream. It won’t be forced. There won’t be any fanfare. Florida will be just be there unquestioned, as expected and regular and unremarkable as everything else.