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Tampa, Florida 33634- For Some It Was Paradise

Karen is from Connecticut. She has a degree in education. She loves game shows, animals, the beach, and her family.

33634- Tampa, Florida

33634

I moved to Tampa in October of 2020. Early enough into the pandemic that we didn’t have a vaccine, but far enough into the pandemic that many of the businesses that had survived were reopening and people were venturing out. Shortly after driving into my new apartment complex, before unpacking a thing, I made the bold assertion that I was born to live somewhere with palm trees. A year-round tan and hurricane warnings were my birthright and destiny.

I moved for a job, one that I really wanted in a new field. I worked hard for an opportunity like this. I polished up my degrees. I volunteered, and researched and wrote. I took extra classes. I applied and interviewed over and over again. And a position in The Sunshine State was mine. That’s hard work and luck. Tampa. That sounded good. It would be youthful and warm. In Connecticut I had my parents and my brother. I had a small, tidy apartment with free rent. I had little else, and that had been good enough for a while, until it wasn’t.

I readily surrendered my Connecticut driver’s license, gave away my space heater, and packed up my winter coat. Those were the belongings of a New Englander. Those were crosses I would no longer bear. I assured myself of this as I took in my new kingdom. Two pools, tropical flora and fauna. I’d taunt any alligator that crossed my path. This was my territory.

I finished unpacking. I made some customary complaints about the insect population marching into my new home. Dad made sure I knew where the Catholic Church and library were. He took me to a last dinner, and left me to figure the rest out. We had nothing but faith in me.

My first day of work felt special, making it all more real. I had my own cubicle on the top floor of the medical arts building. This, for some reason, sounded fancy at first. I donned my mask, rode up the elevator, and logged in. I was the voice of the cancer genetics department. My voice was the one on the outgoing message. I signed for the mail.

Strangely, the fourth floor MAB was not a popular place though. Not post COVID. My supervisor came into the office one day when I started. Cancer Genetic Counseling, like so much during COVID, had gone remote. I was not remote. I had just moved seventeen hundred miles. I was an essential part of patient care in so much as I answered the phone quickly and answered emails. This seemed different, isolating. One or two people walked by my desk each day. Maybe they said hi. I faxed, scanned, uploaded, and charted. I was unimpressed. Strike one.

I loved my new apartment when I moved in. So much light, and those palm trees. But also, those stray cats and gutsy opossums. My neighbors’ overflowing trash cans soon outnumbered the tropical flora. Daisy, the terrier, and I were recipients of some unwanted attention from a fellow apartment complex resident, leading to unwanted notes and gifts at the door. That was slightly unnerving. The nearby hotel turned out to be a well-known drug den laden with prostitutes. My sole visible colleague from another department warned me of this, and told me to watch out for addicts who sometimes jump in front of people’s cars, in hopes of a better life, I guess? One day I had to call out of work one day because the police blocked off the exits to my complex due to a hostage situation at the hotel. This meant calling my boss, who was sitting in her home, and telling her I couldn’t get to the hospital to do our on-site work. Luckily there’s an easy fix. I’ll just do double the work tomorrow. I felt important, but also taken-advantage of. I was essential to daily operation, but only of those things no one felt like doing or realized needed to be done.

Weekends were fun though, slightly less punishing. We, Daisy the terrier and I, loved to visit new dog parks and take long walks. I generally ventured to the renowned beaches and museums on my own though. I tried the local New York Pizza. I forged casual relationships with the Wawa clerks, and commonly referred to Wawa as second kitchen, destination for late night munchies.

We developed a love-hate relationship, Florida and I. I didn’t own a gun, so that right there made me an outsider. I considered Tom Brady to be an opportunistic traitor, and recognized Tropicana Field for the eyesore that it was, mainly a crude circus tent.

In Florida I found a level of diversity I would not have seen in Connecticut. No surprise there. There were actually young people. I know Florida generally means retirees, but Tampa was youthful and vibrant. Connecticut is old money and upper middle-class sludge. I photo-bombed roosters in Ybor City and ate my way through Armature Works. I saw manatees and petted sting rays. I highly recommend the Dali Museum just over the bridge in St. Petersburg.

What’s a holiday in Tampa though? I couldn’t fly home. Not with COVID and work and expenses. We spent the holiday season driving around to see fantastic local Christmas light displays. We spent Thanksgiving at the dog park and ate at Wawa, home to a lovely Thanksgiving sandwich. I started getting green with envy when my Connecticut family would gather twelve deep for dinners and Secret Santas. Babies were born. My uncle died. I was notably absent.

I began to drop hints that this adventure in swamp-laden paradise would be short-lived. Two years. Five tops. My body almost seemed to be revolting on me for its displacement at times too, or my mind was at least. I broke four ribs in the shower. This is in my thirties, not nineties. I spent a night in the COVID ridden hospital to figure this out. That and also that there was nothing they could do, but they’d like to keep me for observation. Na, no thanks. But I’d be back. It felt like I was beating up on my body daily, and I guess I was. My weight went up and then down. I ran on the treadmill in the dark of the early morning until my knees hurt. My cubicle felt like a jail cell, cold and sparse.

I had to move out of apartment one after the first year was up. They took my complaints to heart, and respectfully advised of the fact that my lease was not being renewed. Fine, but also finding a new place was hell. Hardly anything less than two thousand a month, and nothing near the hospital. It’d have to be dog friendly, but preferably not one of those complexes that kept a sample of your dog’s stool on file for identification purposes. I was crying over it to the only other warm body in the office near me, my possibly imaginary friend, Janis, searching for advice. But then it finally did work out. It was out of my price range and it was further away from the hospital, but them's the breaks, I guess. It was uphill all the way, but we prevailed.

Was anything going right? What was keeping me here? Yes, I love the warm weather, but that hospital cell was cold, and my hair really disagreed with the infamous humidity. But then, into the picture came a boy, as so happens sometimes, rarely when it’s me.

Granted there were no fireworks. Are there ever? Gosh, it was nice though. More than I thought I deserved. All of a sudden when I said “we” it didn’t refer to me and the dog. I saw more of Tampa than I thought I could. The theater, the other theater, sports bars, every restaurant that served chicken in and around the immediate vicinity of Tampa. And it was okay, maybe even good, for a while, until it wasn’t.

Things get blurry around here. I was trying to be too many people at one time. At work I was capable and dependent, a keeps her head down kind of go-getter. I was animated and up for anything with the boy. On the phone with my parents frequently I fell apart, a heap of tears at their voices. An echo of sobs permeated the sparse apartment.

Also by this point I was at the doctor’s office or the emergency room constantly. My lady parts had decided to turn on me. In an act of complete rebellion, sex was so painful. Peeing hurt. Not peeing hurt. I’d be on the toilet for what seemed like forever. My body was broken. I mistakenly expected to pick up with a sex life where I’d left off, like a decade ago. I was also wrong in expecting that when I went to the ER I would come out all fixed.

It was on Mother’s Day that I knew this wasn’t sustainable. I wished Mom a Happy Mother’s Day, and let the family catch me up on all the news, then I cried and cried. I hoped they’d have the answers, but they didn’t. The only answer I saw at that point was a total reboot. I had tickets to a comedy show the following week, and I legitimately didn’t even think I’d make it till then. I had been really looking forward to this show, but my mind wasn’t working right. It was set to pain and depression mode, and I couldn’t change it.

In an attempt to salvage that weekend I went out to dinner. We went out to dinner. I managed to not cry throughout the meal, but I finished the evening by driving to the emergency room for the third time. I thought I could scare them into curing me by crying hysterically and telling them I thought I would hurt myself if the pain didn’t stop. All that gets you is a psych consult though, and not a very long or thorough one either. I limped out as the sun came up and went to work. The next Saturday I got in the car and we drove to Connecticut, Daisy and I.

I thought maybe I’d return. I tried, but I broke down in the car when I reached the New York border. I was practically hyperventilating. A world where I drove back down and stuck it out for another couple seemed distant and altogether infeasible. There was no plan except for “not this.” I got the reboot I wanted, but it wasn’t easy. It got even worse for a while. In no particular order it meant off-loading the apartment and furniture, leaving my job, getting new health insurance, finding a new job.

To be emptying out an apartment for the fourth time in less than two years was soul-crushing. I took a complete inventory again. I gave away furniture, threw out plates, appliances, and any food in the fridge. I turned off the utilities, had mail forwarded. I shoved everything I could in the car. One thing I didn’t have to do was end a relationship though. That was done for me. It was clean. Lonely, but unambiguous. Painful, but not as painful as staying.

I still haven’t successfully registered the car in Connecticut. Rebooting meant restarting from the beginning, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to climb back to where I was. It has been humbling, more so than I needed. It's been a lesson in the Butterfly Effect. When one loyal Wawa customer moves out of Florida does everything change? No, it doesn't.

I know I’m sick of others insinuating that my physical pain is in my head, and I’m sick of being told that my feelings aren’t valid. You know what I mean? And that’s the life I gave away.

© 2022 Karen Michelle C