The winter air is soft in west-central Florida, soft and just a little humid. Walking through the warm jetway heading toward the terminal, I felt the start of a warm caress. Already.
On the road a few minutes later I realized that every block in this town holds a memory. That qualifies it as a place I call home, even if it’s my second home. I have a love affair with California, but Tampa? It feels like a best friend whose nooks and crannies are familiar and comforting. A lap.
All the familiar landmarks tugged at my heart; despite my protestations, I was happy here. There was the college at which I taught writing, its minarets glinting in the sunset. The malls –two of them, conveniently located almost next door. And my grocery store and nail salon. The house I sold two years ago, still there, looking the same. The park where Riley and I walked when he was a tiny three-pound puppy. His vet and his day care. Oh–there’s the corner where I had a bad car accident–hit and run–my very first months when, shaking with adrenaline and relief, I knew no one and had no one to call. Things are different now. The memories, though, remain.
My first night was celebratory: my Tampa nephew’s annual birthday dinner in Ybor City, something I haven’t missed in a very long time–maybe 15 years. And even though I live in California, I still don’t miss the occasion because I time my annual visits around it. In fact, it’s the main reason I come every year. And, he returns the favor. For his big birthday and Christmas gifts, M. and I always give him a trip to visit California for MY birthday. Only fair, you know. My Tampa nephew isn’t related by blood, but he might as well be, he’s that dear to me. So many laughs as we removed our chopsticks and dug into the biggest plate of sushi, ever. And Chinese for dinner together later that week.
The next day, lunch with an old friend, my first Tampa friend, in fact, and someone whose friendship I treasure. I distinctly remember meeting her in 1996 at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, where I was networking for my very new job. Despite being considered a “southern” town, Tampa’s not as friendly toward newcomers as you’d expect, and I had to work hard to make connections. S. and I hit it off immediately. We only see each other once a year now, but we remain deeply connected in many ways and especially as we talk about our families. The new Dali museum is completed, she told me over our lunch. It made me smile.
Speaking of jobs, I worked on the 27th floor of this building for 13 years. My commute really was only four miles with no traffic to speak of and that gorgeous view. I loved that job for a very long time, until I didn’t. I thought it would be hard to leave, but it was as easy as walking out the door and into my wonderful future. Fortunately, I carried with me existing relationships with clients and coworkers that had become friends and I saw some of them while I was in Florida.
Change. As much as we all hate it, it’s the nature of things. I know there are not a lot of job options in many cities, but if you’re in a toxic work environment, it’s well worth the time and effort –and even the risk — of change. Life is short.
But here was a pleasure: the drive to work. If you have to commute, this is the way to do it. I drove along this four-mile stretch of waterfront to my job in Tampa (and lived just two blocks from it) and whenI sawit again, on a glorious winter day with the sun glinting off the water, I wondered if I took it for granted.
It was Gasparilla time in Tampa, and that’s a pirate ship, anchored and waiting for the next weekend’s festivities. Gasparilla is like aMardi Gras, complete with parades, drunken revelry and funnel cakes. When I think of Gasparilla, though, (and when I mention it to my friends who also live in South Tampa near the parade route) the response is usually rolled eyes and “Let’s make sure we get the hell out of here before it starts.” And such was the case this weekend, when J. and I hightailed it out of the area for our day of play.
As I looked out over the water off Bayshore Blvd. I realized that this was the last view my friend D. had before she died last month. The friend who was with her at the end said that one of her last comments as she looked out at the water and skyline was about the beauty of this community. And she was right. I couldn’t help but think of her as I looked around this lovely Florida city.
Make every moment count, I reminded myself.
And I did.
In one of the best places I’ve ever lived.
Oh, did I tell you I got sick the first day and was sick the whole time? Despite some necessary schedule changes, I still had a great time.