Blog, Travel, Writing

Scenes from a Beach Town

The smell of rain is thick and suffocating. It fills my lungs and I gasp a little. It’s that thick.

In the morning, the surfers were out in the water. We watched them from our balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. They formed a jagged line out there, small on their surfboards, and they glided, moving with the same rhythm as the waves. I don’t know whether they spoke or yelled to each other; the waves drowned out any noise outside their own rhythmic whoosh as they hugged the sand, then slowly crept back into the deep.

A soft rumbling of thunder tells me the pool is out of the question, something my son is not too happy about. Instead, we climb into our car and take a small drive, stopping first at Starbucks for some much-needed coffee. There, my son orders a cookie, then pays for it, by himself. He’s almost four and proud of his accomplishment.

My son is hungry, so we head to Pistilli’s Italian Restaurant and New Jersey Style Pizza in Melbourne. We’ve been to this place before and loved it; this time is no different. We scurry from the car into the restaurant; it’s started drizzling by now, a small mist that is enough to dampen but not soak. Inside, the lights are dim, the curtains half-drawn. Large posters featuring The Godfather and The Sopranos frame the entry way. A sign in the front tells us “Welcome – Please Seat Yourself” – and so we do in a booth by the back, near the kitchen.

The decor is simple and Italian – pictures of wine bottles and grapes, Italian chefs, a small decorative sign that says “Good Food, Good Wine, Good Friends.” Tammy, our waitress, rushes from table to table; she’s alone today, but she doesn’t miss a step or mix an order. Soon, we’ve ordered our meal: two slices of cheese pizza each for my son and me, and chicken parmigiana with pasta and a side salad for my husband. While we wait, Tammy brings us some bread, and we sit back, listening to “Shake, Shake, Shake Senora,” which reminds me of the movie Beetlejuice every single time. In the kitchen, the sizzling, clanging, and chopping seems to move to the song.

When the food gets to us, we dig in. Perfection. My pizza is just right: not too much sauce, and it’s more sweet than spicy. The thin crust is not crispy, and the cheese stretches when I take a bite. This is how I like pizza. And the slices are large. My son eats an entire slice; I eat two. My husband likes his meal, too, though he eats half of it, along with half of a pizza.

We are back in the apartment. Our stay is courtesy of family, and we’re grateful. This small break by the beach is what we needed to unwind, to let the ocean sweep our worries and stress and take it back out to sea, so we can revive and renew our energies.

My son, who claimed – “I’m not tired! – in his strong, defiant little voice, is passed out on his air mattress. His soft snores tell us he was, in fact, quite tired. The sliding glass door is shut, but the waves’ rhythmic lullaby reaches us and I think we, too, will take a nap.

Outside, it’s still dark, though the east is showing some breaks of sunshine peaking through puffs of clouds. A solitary surfer remains in the water, sitting on his board. I wonder what he’s waiting for, bobbing with the waves.


Blog, Travel, Writing

The Island, Part 3 (The Conference)

The actual conference – the reason why I was in Sanibel to begin with – started off slow, but ended nicely. The first few workshops I attended were, I think, designed more for the beginning writer. While I’m certainly not a pro (yet), I don’t consider myself a beginning. If I were, I wouldn’t be teaching writing in any sense of the word! Therefore, I had an issue when the bulk of one of the workshops revolved on the “show don’t tell” principle. No shit, Sherlock! I assumed anyone who was in a writing conference would have a grasp on that concept.

But as Thursday bled into Friday, I was happier with my choices and I even carved out some writing time in between the workshops and panels. My favorite workshops were John Dufresne’s workshop on the novel, Debra Monroe’s workshop on memoir writing, and Denise Duhamel’s workshop on poetry. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the rest, only that these were my favorites because I learned new “things” (yes, vague word, I know). The panel on memoir writing was interesting, though I didn’t get much out of it that I didn’t already know. The panel on online publishing was better; it tackled blogs, Facebook, twitter, publishing, copyrighting, and the pros/cons of publishing in online journals.

Meeting the authors, though, had to be one of the best parts of this conference. It reinforces the ideal that writing and publishing is possible, even with a family. I gained encouragement from the manuscript consultation with Debra Monroe, who was so down to earth, helpful, funny, and real. I was validated as a writer which, sometimes, is needed. Well, at least I do, anyway. In trying to juggle a full-time job (or, like they called it, a “day job”), motherhood, family life, and writing, sometimes I feel like I’m failing at all, because it’s too much. I’m splitting myself into too many scarps. Forget binary opposites – there is nothing binary about it!

So it was nice, seeing Margo Rabb, author of young adult fiction, there with her two kids – a baby and a preschooler – and her husband. It was nice hearing Debra Monroe tell me how she got two books published in the first ten years of her daughter’s life. It was comforting to know Robert Wilder can teach, write (and publish) and still have time for his family. It was reassuring seeing Steve Almond and his wife, both writers, there with their two kids, navigating the responsibilities of writer and parent.

Damnit – if they (and countless other writers) can do it, so can I! 😉

Of course, ironically, after the wonderful review of my manuscript, I received in the mail, when I got home, two more rejection letters. So close. Oh, so close. But I’m revisiting the pieces and sending out more work. If only the wait wasn’t so excruciating.

Blog, Travel, Writing

The Island, Part 2

There are very few “chains” here on this island. No Starbucks. No Burger King. No Marriott. Most of the stores, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels are individually owned places. For this city girl who has become alarmingly comfortable with known names (and known food), this was disconcerting. Thank goodness for the Trevor, the front desk supervisor at the Sundial, who knew the area.

That’s how we ended up, on Thursday, at the Island Cow for “linner” and Sanibel Bean for coffee.

The Island Cow is a cute establishment. When we got there, the large smiling cut-out of a cow greeted us. Outside, wooden beach chairs in pastels – blue, lavender, pink, yellow – decorated the entrance to the restaurant. An empty parrot cage stood near the door, and I briefly wondered where the parrot was. The food was tasty. I had the Beer Battered Fish and Chips with New England cod and home-made chips. My husband had the Dream Burger, and it was, in the words of my son, “kind of good.”

The Sanibel Bean embodies the appeal of local coffee shops, at least, the appeal they hold with me. According to our “guide,” the Sanibel Bean is family owned. When I walked in, pictures of customers holding an “I Love Sanibel Bean” sign decorated the walls, and the more I looked, the more pictures I found. Behind the register, there were a variety of coffee beans in plastic canisters, labeled by flavor: French Vanilla, Sumatra, Cinnamon, Colombian. I ordered a Latte Caramel, which was not quite my Caramel Macchiato, but was sweet and satiated that need for coffee dessert. It was, though, a little to sweet, so every subsequent visit I ordered a Vanilla Latte, which was perfect: sweet, milky, and enough caffeine to keep me awake and alert. On one of my breaks during the conference, I sat in the adjacent, screened-in section. This was the sit-down area, in a perfect blend of indoors and outdoors, and it was decorated with small, constant lights.

From there we explored the Blue Giraffe, where we ate two days in a row. Their Blue Giraffe Bistro Salad – which had lettuce, mandarine oranges, strawberries, walnuts, blue cheese (I opted not to have the blue cheese) and raspberry vinaigrette – with walnut crusted tilapia was fabulous. The combination of sweet, sour and salty comforted me. I’ve normally had this version of a salad with chicken but was won over with the tilapia. The other day I tried their lobster bisque and turkey/bacon wrap, but I was somewhat disappointed. Two spoonfuls into the bisque and I pushed it back, not able to take one more sip. To compensate, the waiter didn’t charge us for the key lime pie – a home made delicacy that had just the right amount of tartness. We appreciated the gesture.

We also visited Jerry’s Supermarket. It was clean, smaller than a usual Publix, but replete with that familiarity that only comes from a small, island establishment. The actual supermarket sat on the second floor of a building on stilts; the first floor was the designated parking and a conveyer belt, which we later learned was to bring down the groceries which an employee would then place in our car. I didn’t feel in Florida. Jerry’s Supermarket shares the building with several other boutiques and stores, as well as with five or six parrots, each of a different species. I can’t remember them all now, but one of them (it was either Mia or Babe) like to say “What?” as we passed by while another (again, either Mia or Babe) croaked out “Hello” – my son scurried up and down the benches, leaning in to the plastic railings that separated the birds to the rest of us, and saying, “Mami, look!” He had fun.

One thing that I couldn’t get over, even at the end, was how nice everyone was. Drivers actually respected the pedestrian crosswalks, and gave the right-of-ways. No one honked, yelled, or saluted with middle fingers. Everyone, all strangers, said “Hello” or “Good morning” or any other form of salutation, the good kinds. My husband rented a bike with a trailer, and both he and my son toured the island, from the wetlands and reserve to the playground to the barber shop. And all he could say was, “Wow, everyone’s so nice! No one tried to run me off the road while I was on the bike!” That says a lot; try doing the same in the streets of South Florida, and you’ll be lucky to get to your destination in one piece.

Blog, Travel, Writing

The Island, Part 1

Sanibel Island is a small, heavily wooded island on the southern, Gulf Coast of Florida. It’s tranquil, quiet, the only sounds coming from the crashing of the waves and the hum of the passing cars. I have yet to see an aggressive driver lean on his (or her) horn impatiently because the car in front is turning. But then again, I’ve only been here for one full day.

At night, Sanibel Island is dark. Not the kind of dark where you can still see in front of you because of some dim street light in the back corner. No, I’m talking about the kind of dark that comes with no artificial lights (no street lights, no house lights) mingled with abundant vegetation. There are no outlines of houses or trees, or bridges. Only blackness. It’s the kind of darkness where you’re swallowed whole, or where you walk with your hands in front of you, trying to find the way because you can’t see. We arrived at Sanibel Island in this darkness, since the sun had already set when we drove through from the mainland and over the bridges – narrow, one-way bridges – and were engulfed in the darkness. I don’t like crossing on bridges over any body of water – possibly as a result of the flimsy, wooden bridge suspended over a river by ropes, that we’d always have to drive over to get to my uncle’s farm in Colombia, a bridge that sunk and rose and creaked, as if our weight were too much for its ropes and wooden planks – but I like less going over them in the dark, where I can’t see the waters below me.

Thank God for GPS on phones. With it, we maneuvered through the darkness and made our way to the hotel. Imagine our dismay when we arrived, tired, cranky, late, only to see that where we were staying was more akin to a motel on the beach, refuge for passerby’s, hitchhikers, and prostitutes. Our room was small and had the pungent scent of cigarette smoke and mildew covered up with air freshener. The one in-wall air conditioner hummed roughly. The carpet seemed dirty, with dry carcasses of centipedes, or worms. The white curtains had red stains on them, and they reminded me of a murder scene in a hotel room that’s been cleaned up, only they missed a spot. I could not stay there. No way, no how. I was not sleeping in this dirty and decaying room with my husband and son. I didn’t care if we had to sleep in the car. We were shown three other rooms, all in similar conditions, before I finally said: We’re looking for another hotel. Now.

At 10 PM at night, in the darkness that envelops Sanibel Island, we locked ourselves in our car, with my son in the back asking continuously “What are we doing?” and the rain falling furiously on our car, drowning out the country music radio station we were playing. We took out our phones and began searching for hotels in the area. The downfall was that unless we got to the place, and unless there was light, there would be no way to really see what kind of accommodations we were getting ourselves into. In our search, we came up with the Sundial and in that moment of desperation it clicked – we’d stayed there before and we’d liked it. We called, there were rooms available, and we drove the five minutes to our new hotel.

The new room was better. It was actually a one-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen, for only $30 more a night. We settled in restlessly, and shortly after midnight, fell asleep. It was a night of wakings, night terrors, and little sleep.