(driving with the) Top Off

May 9, 2019 – Jacksonville, Florida

At the same time as I was moving from Boston back to Connecticut for the summer, my dad was leaving for a conference in Jacksonville. I’d never been to Jacksonville, and I didn’t know one single thing about the city. I wanted to see my Connecticut friends, but if my dad already had a hotel room, then I’d be stupid not to go. 

I flew down separately from my dad and his friend who was also attending the conference. On the plane, I did some reading for the course I would be taking later that summer in Ireland. One of the flight attendants admired my hard work and delivered to me one of those premium boxes of snacks that the airlines offer. It was filled with chips, crackers, cookies, candies, and some healthy little snacks. Being a frequent flier, I’d seen them advertised in the in-flight magazines all my life. Those boxes seemed like a luxury too big for me, but flying down on my own, I got one. 

At the airport, I greeted my dad and his friend with the remainder of the snacks from the plane. “You want any of this?” I offered it to them. It was mostly nuts and seeds and dried fruits. I figured my dad’s health-conscious friend would be into what I consider bird food. He took it from me and we headed off to the hotel.

Here’s the thing about cities: they all kind of look the same. I had a friend who traveled Barcelona and Dublin and Paris in one summer, and by the end, she commented that they all started to feel like similar experiences. European city tourism involves nice food, big churches, and old architecture. American city tourism involves fast food franchises, gentrified neighborhoods, and public parks that are too dangerous for a solo traveller. When we crossed the bridge over the Saint Johns River, we could see the skyline of Jacksonville, and it looked no different to me than the skyline of Hartford or St. Louis. The only difference were the palm trees and dolphins. 

My dad met up with another friend at this conference, and this friend lived close by, so he’d driven to the hotel. “What are you going to do in Jacksonville?” he asked me.

I shrugged. “Read. Go to museums. I’d like to go to the beach, but the bus ride seems kind of long.”

He offered me use of his convertible, and I told him I’d think about it, but I figured he was just being nice. I busied myself with exploring the small cafes of the city and the Venezuelan cuisine. I sat by the rooftop pool reading literary magazines because I had yet to get any fiction published, so I needed to study what the editors liked. A few days into the trip, though, he brought it up again, and after some convincing, I agreed.

I was not used to driving on drawbridges this big. PS: This photo was taken from our hotel room!

I woke up early, struggled to cover myself in sunscreen, put some clothes over my bathing suit, queued up some good soft rock, and climbed into his car.

In Boston, I don’t have a car, so my only experience driving at this point had been in Connecticut. I inched the car out of the parking garage and put the top down as soon as I could. Driving down the city streets with the wind in my hair and the sun high in the sky, I felt like a different person. Last week I was overwhelmed with schoolwork and riding a dirty train to school, and now I was cruising through Florida in a convertible. I gripped the wheel so hard that my knuckles turned white, and that anxiety over driving didn’t go away, but it was worth it.

I most definitely didn’t set it up right, but I got a kick out of using it.

I parked the car at a public parking lot near Jacksonville Beach, and carried my towel and a Harry Potter book down near the water. Laying on my stomach, I indulged myself in Harry Potter’s developing feelings for Ginny Weasley and his search for horcruxes. In front of me, the Atlantic Ocean’s violent waves provided some background noise. The red flag on the beach indicated that the currents were too strong for me to feel safe venturing into the water on my own, so the closest I got to going in the water was taking a walk along the ocean’s edge to give my eyes a rest from reading. 

After a few hours of the sun beating down on my back, I got back into the convertible and drove to a nearby restaurant serving smoothie bowls. I’d recently discovered them in Boston, and some fresh fruit seemed like the perfect meal after all that time near the salt water. I took my time eating the bowl, which was an acai bowl topped with fresh strawberries and bananas. I felt a bit more relaxed on the drive home, though the sun was starting to feel painful on my skin. 

The next day, I woke up to see the worst sunburn I’ve ever gotten covering my back. It made sense that in attempting to put sunscreen on my own back, I’d left large spaces vulnerable to the sun’s rays. But other than that, my solo ventures in Jacksonville were rather successful. I’d managed to get one of those fancy airplane snack boxes and drive a convertible down palm tree lined streets. That sunburn was painful, but it sure beat spending the week at home.

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