I woke up gasping and choking at 5am to the beautiful sounds of construction work. I had the sense that I had woken up unable to breathe several times during the night, but wasn’t sure if it was a dream or not. The humidity and pollution were killing me. I went back to sleep for a little while, then got up, tired. We headed back up to Starbucks to get our email, and the people there remembered us:
Barista (looking at my superspecial Starbucks card from Seattle): Are you from there?
Me: Nope, I got it on vacation.
Barista (looking at my tshirt): Oh, you’re from Vancouver!
Me: Um, no. Vacation.
Right as Heather started to reply to her first email, her computer shut off. Just died. We stared at it blankly for a few minutes, then got on the road. We were going to the Gulf of Mexico.
I don’t remember much of the drive to Tampa, apart from the fact that I didn’t see any alligators. I was tired, and it was raining. We stopped in Tampa long enough to determine that it was kind of crappy, except for Ybor City. Since everything was closed there, we decided to stop back later in the day. We kept going to St. Petersburg, and got there around lunchtime.
I dug St. Pete completely. There were a million little shops, galleries, and restaurants. Fortunately for my bank account, most of them were closed, because it was Martin Luther King day. In the north, the holiday is generally unnoticed except by banks (which sucks), but in the south it’s at least celebrated. As we walked over to a Cuban restaurant for sandwiches, they were blocking off the main street for a parade.
We drove through town, out towards the coast. There were a million more awesome shops. It was a little rundown, but really cool. Then we crossed onto Treasure Island, and the tacky began. It was great.
It was still cold and raining on and off, but I was determined to see the ocean anyway. We parked at a public beach, took off our shoes, and headed towards the water. I immediately realized my mistake, as the beach was all crushed shells, which was slightly more comfortable than walking on glass. It started raining again, so I headed for a little beach cabana. Heather and I huddled at the back of our beach chairs to keep out of the wind and rain, but, dammit, I was at the ocean again.
After the rain let up, I left Heather talking on the phone in the cabana and went to look for shells. I found one huge one that I bravely dodged the surf for; otherwise the beach was littered with fish carcasses and hermit crab shells. We left.
We headed down the coast to St. Pete’s Beach, which was your typical beach town. We found a little ice cream stand that advertised sugar-and-fat-free ice cream. I went up and asked the guy which of their 66 flavors came sugar-free, and he said, “All of them!” It only took me about an hour to pick one. I’m not used to having options. After that, we got coffee at a coffeeshop that had one effective and one completely ineffective employee, and headed south along the coast again. I didn’t want to get on the giant toll bridge while eating ice cream, so we drove around and ended up in Pass-A-Grille, a city so small it took me forever to find its name online. It was pretty and untouristy, and the waterfront along Boca Ciega Bay reminded me of Charleston. At the very southern tip of the peninsula, there was a public beach, so I demanded to see it. And I’m glad I did.
The sun had finally come out, and it was warmer. There was a huge storm rolling in from the Gulf, but we were ahead of it. The beach was incredible: fine, white sand, and tons of shells. I was searching for a sand dollar to replace the one I found on the Atlantic coast and broke. I didn’t find a whole one, but I found plenty of other stuff, including dead fish with no eyes, and later, a thorn that embedded itself in my heel. I found a questionably-live starfish, and lots of squirming conchs, and tossed those back in the ocean. And I found many cool shells, too.
After the beach, it was time for Heather’s favorite part of the trip: driving over the Sunshine Skyway. It’s one of those large bridges over open water, in this case Tampa Bay, that makes her freak. In a phobic kind of way. To keep her from panicking and diving out of the car into the ocean, I hand her the camera and tell her to take pictures, which is why we ended up with about 20 blurred photos of the cable span in the middle of the bridge. Did I mention that this bridge collapsed once? Awesome.
We drove back up to Tampa so we could check out Ybor City. It’s the old part of town, and used to be cigar central. It’s getting overrun with Urban Outfitters and about a hundred tattoo studios, but it’s cool. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to have any good restaurants, so we decided to go back to Orlando for dinner.
On the drive back, Heather called around and then announced that she had found the perfect place, and that they were going to make me a special vegetarian dinner. And that’s how we ended up back in Celebration, at Columbia Restaurant.
We were extremely underdressed, and didn’t care much. There wasn’t anything vegetarian on the menu, but they made me up a plate with plantains, yuca, and vegetables. I had a cafe con leche. We spent all of dinner quietly ridiculing the super-annoying couple at the next table, because we’re assholes. On the way out of Celebration, I got lost again, in the same exact under-construction neighborhood. At night, it was infinitely scarier, and Heather couldn’t get me to turn around fast enough in the dead-end street. I realized that I had gotten lost driving around town twice, and also taken the wrong exit and ended up there twice. Coincidence? I think not. Celebration was trying to trap me.
Back at the condo, we found the rest of the Ripleys eating tacos my mom had made. Scott and Ali had gone home, and my mom had apparently tried to erase all traces of our existence there by moving all our stuff into the other half of the suite. I didn’t know how to feel about that, but at least we got to sleep in a real bed for once.