“This is the coastal town that they forgot to close down. Armageddon come Armageddon! Come, Armageddon! Come!” At age 15 I first heard Morrissey croon these words and I was positive he must be singing about my home town. I grew up in an area where discarded bales of marijuana wash up on the shore. If you didn’t stumble upon it yourself, you would know by the higher than average percentage of the population who are walking around stoned out of their minds. I am from a place where plagues of genetically engineered insects called Love Bugs descend yearly. Here historic landmarks are pulled down in lieu of another t-shirt joint or a Walgreens. One day you leave your house and see no one around for miles. In a panic, you think: “It’s the rapture!” Nope, there were really good waves; everyone has gone surfing. This might sound lovely to some, but I considered my hometown of Melbourne, Florida to be nothing less than Hell with a nice sea breeze.
You would have thought I was evacuating a category five hurricane with the velocity at which I fled Melbourne. At age 18 I packed up a U-Haul in the middle of the night and fled to Atlanta. I left under dark of night and with the greatest of secrecy. Ok, that may be dramatic, but I did keep a low profile about moving. When I discussed my desire to leave Melbourne I was usually met with blank stares or looks of disbelief. There is some sort of invisible force field, some kind of Unwritten Law that you don’t just leave Melbourne.
But I left, and I rarely looked back. I have been back home maybe three times in the fourteen years since I left. One of those times was for my childhood best friend’s funeral. Heartbroken and in need of a beer, I stepped into a beach side pool hall; essentially I was stepping back into time. Everything was just as it had been two years ago, including the people. A local surfer dude type saunters over to me, pushes his long hair out of his sunburned face and says, “Ha! I knew you’d be back.”
“Dude,” I said, because you have to speak the local language here, “I’m here for a funeral. In fact I’m pretty sure you used to try to date the deceased.”
“Whatever, bra.” He sauntered off to take care of an important keg stand he was late for.
Perhaps I sound bitter, but this was not always the case. When I was a little girl we made the move from the pig farm smells of the Indiana sticks to the salt water spray filled air of Melbourne. As we drove south on A1A, I hung my head out of the station wagon like a happy puppy dog and gawked at the missiles displayed on the side of the road, the sun tanned boys and girls crossing the street with their boards tucked under their arms and the ocean peeking out from behind flamingo colored hotels built in the 1960’s. A far more modest version of something like this:
Our first home was in a four story walk up, complete with dolphin motif, right on the beach. When I came home from Surfside Elementary School, I ran straight into the salty ocean waves. My brown hair became a sun drenched sandy gold and the only shoes fit to wear were flip-flops. On the weekends we would walk to a restaurant called Peg Legs to peel pounds of shrimp and shuck oysters. Afterwards we might stroll to the Village Inn for a heaping plate full of Key Lime pie that tastes like bright sunshine and a cool breeze. I sat and watched the moon rise over the ocean and people combing the beach for shells and sea turtle sightings. Back at home I crawl into bed, exhausted and full. I fall asleep to the sounds of waves crashing and palm branches brushing against my window.
It sounds like a little girls paradise. But somehow, something along the way changed. As an adult I wouldn’t even claim Melbourne as my own. If someone were to ask me, “Where are you from?” I say something shady like, “Well, I’ve been in Atlanta for a long time.” Or, “I was born in .” Although I may have spent a total of six months in Alamogordo, most of which was spent in a tiny bassinet next to my mother’s bed, technically I was born there, so I figured it was not a lie to say I was “from” there. But what about the place I spent over twelve years of my life? How did my starfish studded hometown go from wonder filled to a complete wreck in my eyes?
On a recent trip to Chicago I opened up Sky Magazine and found a feature article on the Space Coast, the region that spreads from the Kennedy Space Center and down the Atlantic coast to include Melbourne. “Oh my God, baby look at this.” I thrust the article in front of my fiancé. After flipping through the pages, he looks at me, sort of puzzled. “This is where you grew up? The place you told me about? I hate to say it, but it looks sort of amazing.” He’s right, it does look amazing. Spread out before me are pictures of jets soaring over the ocean waves, endless piers stretching out over lagoons and sunsets that make a person pause and take notice. I slid back into my seat and start to think about ‘ol Melbourne.
What exactly did I despise about my hometown so much? Sure, I suffered from a bit of a small town syndrome. I wanted to get out and see the world, the parts where one might be expected to get out of their board shorts for a nice dinner, where people did not use the word “Shaka” in every other sentence and where it was socially acceptable to enjoy music other than Reggae or Punk. Sure I had wanderlust, but staying away for fourteen years and shuddering anytime I heard the name Melbourne mentioned seems a bit dramatic. Something else had to be going on here.
I recall my Grandmother telling my Grandfather that he had “selective memory,” he could remember important dates from civil war battles and stats relating to the University of Alabama football spanning the last thirty years or so, but he would forget one of their kids birthdays or their dinner plans. Perhaps I had my own version of selective memory. So many huge parts of my childhood were so hurtful, that I didn’t know what to do with the really beautiful ones. How do you reconcile heartbreak with memories of being tucked in every night? What do you do when you were betrayed by the person who lovingly packed your lunches for years? And how do you get any answers when no one wants to talk about it?
Questions like these tied my heart and my mind into knots that were impossible to untangle. Eventually I exhausted myself trying to untangle everything and just put the knotted mess in a box with a label. My label read: Painful and Dysfunctional Childhood. “That is what it is,” I told myself, and I tried for the sake of my own peace of mind to ignore the little whispers that say, “It’s not that simple. . .”
I think the same can be said about my hometown. Melbourne was part of a painful past and I shoved it in a box labeled: Crappy Beach Town I Grew up In. Sometimes, things refuse to be categorized and come crawling out of their boxes, such as the case of my hometown. The truth was it was not just a lonely beach bum town. It was also a town of magical proportions. On the playground I could watch while shuttles were launched into space. On certain roads it was possible that a panther might leap in front of your headlights. Sharks could attack, and huge and powerful storms often rolled in off the ocean. Manatees, which are practically prehistoric creatures, occupy the streams and rivers and alligators swim through the canals behind people’s homes. I could sit on a boat in the Banana River, watch dolphins and gaze up at Dragon Point, the life size dragon statue that guarded a small island.
Melbourne, I would like to offer you my apologies for trying to stick you in a box. I’d like to see if you might be willing to take me back as one of your own. Much like most of my past, our relationship has been complicated and at thirty something I am still trying to sort out some of these knots. Very soon I would like to slip my flip-flops back on and smell your sea air, sip a 7-11 Slurpee, spray fresh water into your streams and watch as the “mermaids” pop up. I’m in a sunshine state of mind.
An ode to my teenage angst and still a damn good song: