Now I'm all alone in Orlando. I get lost in the gigantic, empty airport for an hour. When I finally make it outside, the heat rolls over me, a thick, shimmering wave. I'm immediately drenched from humidity and sweat.
On the flight from Seattle, a little boy lost consciousness in his seat. The flight attendants called for people with medical experience to come help. For those of us who've dreamt of this moment since first cracking open a medical text book, the race was on. And I won. I leaned over him, pressed my hand against his hot, pale forehead. I took his pulse and murmured comforting things as he stared up, dizzy and disoriented. Then a resident took over, everything trumps EMT it turns out, everything, but still I returned to my seat feeling triumphant and important.
"My goodness," said the woman next to me, clutching the rope of pearls around her neck. "What happened back there?"
"A little kid fainted, but I think he'll be okay." I say, professional, reassuring.
The woman leaned forward, confiding. "That's what happens these days, people take their kids on airplanes when they're sick and then guess what? We all get sick."
Then her husband joined in, strained smile and brutally tanned. "That's Obamacare," he growled. "The ruin of the country."
"The ruin of the whole country," agreed the wife. I corkscrewed around in my seat, looked sharply down at my book. I checked my watch.
***I arrive at my hotel at midnight, flop onto the bed, the artificial air conditioner chugging along. I'm in the magical world of Disney and Sea World and princesses in the water parks. I've never in my life desired to be here.
The next morning I wake up renwed, hopping down the hotel steps, a chlorinated cannonball before breakfast, now I'm pulling onto the highway, headed to Ocala, cheered beyond reason to be driving in my air conditioned box down the sunny road, lined with palm trees and the big billboards for Citrus Center Free Juice. I chatter to myself, prattling along like a parrot as I always do when I'm traveling alone, soaked in sun and caffeine and freedom. I bounce up and down in the cheap rental car seat, full of energy and ideas. "You are such great company!" I say aloud, and I answer, "I know! Can you believe the luck?"
Ocala is quiet and still, everything from the squat buildings to the blades of grass crushed into submission by the blanket of humidity. There are a dozen old fashioned motels scattered across the town, their lights blinking slowly on and off, neon humming. At one point this place was a vacation destination. It does not appear to be so anymore.
A man in the pool won't stop talking to me. Even when my head dips under again and again as I try to swim laps, he's talking to me. The pool water is slippery with chemicals and nearly as warm as the air. He tells me he's from Clearwater, Florida, voted the second best beach in the USA, only forty five minutes away. I tell him I'll be sure and check it out.
And I do. Why not? The next day after my work is over, I drive to Clearwater, Florida. It's not forty five minutes away, it's nearly three hours. I sit bumper to bumper through Tampa traffic, listening to Hot Jamz radio, drumming my thumbs on the steering wheel, still brimming with energy.
The water is clear all right. And the sand is like sugar and it's crowded with people, swarming and sitting and bobbing up and down in the surf.
I get an ice cream cone and watch it melt entirely in the sun. I've never seen an ice cream behave in such a way. Full of wild abandon, I get another. I run joyfully into the water, and then I learn in a brief blue moment that it's really awkward to swim alone- how does one relax in the waves while also making sure no one steals their phone or keys or wallet?
"I could use a friend right now," I say to myself. "I could really use a companion."
When I'm tired of standing in the water with my eyes glued to my wallet, I get back in the car and wind up the coast a little bit. I find an old fashioned town, a nice sleepy place with a country club on the beach where I tell the hostess I'm looking for my aunt and then I hit the trays of horderves. I suck down a margarita at a crowded Mexican place, then stretch out in the booth and write, full and content.
On the drive back, weird billowing clouds pile up, hot yellow and shocking pink. Lightning shoots through the dark purple sky as I drive across the long, narrow spit of land connecting Clearwater to Tampa. I pass a food truck all lit up on the side of the road, glowing green like a bug zapper. I decide to turn around and take some photos of it. "After all," I explain to myself, "If you don't go out of your way you'll never get the good shots." Then the song on the radio switches off and the robotic, emergency broadcast comes on: a tornado warning. Get to a safe place. It instructs me. Your car is not safe. Your car is not a safe place.
I'm totally scared now, pressing down on the accelerator, checking the rear view mirror. For a moment I let the fear disguise itself as loneliness and lay heavy across my shoulders. Then I
brush it off. I take a more sensible approach. "Do you really think you're going to die a tornado tonight?" I ask.
And I think about it.
I remember a time when I was driving with Ammen through Oklahoma city, just before sunrise. I was sixteen. We saw a tornado in the distance, saw the trucks pulling off the side of the road. I panicked. We pulled off with the trucks and we waited and waited to picked up and twisted into smithereens, but nothing happened. And eventually we got tired of waiting, so we just kept driving towards it, only to discover a few miles down the road that it wasn't a tornado at all, just the huge, dark shadow of a tremendous cross falling across the highway.
Home on the range, indeed.
"No." I say it with finality. "I don't think I'm going to die in a tornado tonight." And believe it or not I outrun the thing, it loses steam once it hits land and I make it to Orlando, a few hours of sleep in yet another air conditioned room, wake up stiff and jumpy at 5 am, and I'm safely on a flight to Duluth, Minnesota. The cultural antidote to Florida.