My Florida Beach Town (The other side of the River).
Have you noticed how often we give up on an idea even before we try it? Love, wealth, traveling…We assume something is out of reach and “not for us” and it doesn’t even occur to us to dream about it. I call it the syndrome of “The other side of the river.” And the best example is Melbourne, the Florida beach town where I found myself single again.
Welcome to Melbourne, Florida! A charming town on the Space Coast, strategically located not-far-from-anything-yet-close-to-nothing. Melbourne is also known as “Melboring,” “Ten miles past where Jesus lost his sandals,” and, as they say in the DR, “Where The Devil howled three times and no one heard him.”
Moving to Melbourne implies becoming an expert in Florida geography – trying to explain to family and friends where home is. “It’s three hours north from Miami, two hours south from Daytona Beach. You know Cape Canaveral, right? Do you remember that old TV series I Dream of Jeannie, happening in the town of ‘Cocoa Beach?’ No, it’s not there, but not too far from there.” Eventually, I just gave up and simply said, “Close enough to Orlando.”
Wild nights or wild life
Here in Melbourne, Florida a “night out” means dinner at 5:00 PM. And your typical neighbor table is a group of loud and cheerful senior citizens in shorts, pushing their wheeled walkers and dragging oxygen tanks. (I love it! Here I never feel old!). Judging by their shouting conversations (their hearing aids never seem to work), they seem to have more fun than their doctors — and I happened to be one of those doctors.
Once a booming city, promising to become the next steaming-hot (literally) retirement spot, Melbourne faced tough financial times after the closing of the Shuttle space program and the Real Estate crisis from the 2000’s. An abundance of vacant commercial buildings still lines Highway US-1—even large lots with a river view. But Melbourne’s value is not in its development but in its natural wonders and its wild life.
Florida Beach Town Fauna
And wild life we do have! My first impressions of the city include: 1- The startling view of an armadillo and a porcupine near my trash can. 2- Spotting an alligator, feet away from me, under the bridge where I stopped my bike ride to answer a phone call. 3- A neighbor playing with a stick and a five-foot-long black snake on his front lawn. 4- Discovering the passionate veneration of the town residents toward turtles.
Yes, it fascinates me how often people stop their cars to let turtles cross the street— and how gladly they do it, not minding the traffic jam behind them. And that’s nothing compared to the cult for Sea Turtles! If you live beachside, don’t even dream of turning on your porch lights when it’s hatching season! It’s illegal—God forbid the lights disorient the baby turtles finding their way to the ocean.
I love that respect for nature! Yet I can almost hear my Dominican ancestors sigh and say, “It must be good to have so much food and money you have the time and energy to devote to things like that!” In the Third-World country in which I grew up there are no turtles left— they’ve all been eaten by hungry people.
And still on the fauna topic, don’t get me started on “The Lovebugs,” a Moses-summoned-like biblical plague taking over the city every May and every September— a literal cloud of black bugs with red eyes. When they’re not working as kamikazes determined to smudge my car, they fly two by two, in constant copulation. During my time as single, I felt them mocking me, “Yes, even us, the ugliest bugs in creation, are getting some action here—and you’re not!”
Have I mentioned that’s where I found myself as a newly single woman?
The Florida Beach town that’s not really a beach town.
If you look at Melbourne on the map, you’ll probably think, “Nice! It’s right on the Atlantic coast and it must be a cool beach community.” However, The Indian River, a one-hundred-and-twenty-mile-long brackish lagoon, crosses East Melbourne from North to South, separating town from the ocean.
Depending on the attitude you bring, you may describe the Indian River as a “Wonderful habitat for wildlife,” or as a “Glorified swamp, reeking of rotten algae and fish that blocks the way.” But like it or not, if you want to go to the beach, you have to cross it.
Only people living on the thin band of land east of the Indian River (“The Beachside”) have direct access to the ocean. Everyone else has to drive to one of the three causeways crossing the wide lagoon. It’s not a long drive, but it feels like such a production that many people who moved to Melbourne planning to go to the beach regularly, never made it. I was starting to become one of those people.
So close, yet so far. So much for the Florida Beach Town.
I’d moved to Florida six years back, precisely because I longed for the ocean. Yet the realtor who took me around promptly popped my bubble about my dreams of beach walks.
“Trust me, you don’t want to buy property beachside; it’s too expensive. You’ll get more for your dollar west of the Indian River. And besides, you can still go to the beach any time you want, it’s just a fifteen-minute drive.”
Yet days became years and I never seemed to make that drive. So for me, the beachside became a legendary land where only the rich and lucky lived. It’s the phenomenon I call “The other side of the river,” and “So close, yet so far.” Just like residents of Brooklyn must feel about staring at the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson River. Just like the school nerds watch the popular kids sit together during lunch, just one table away.
That was also the way I felt about finding love.
Forgive me if I repeat myself. Have I mentioned that Florida Beach town is where I found myself as a newly single woman?
Single in Melbourne Florida (AKA: Sexless in the Boondocks)
I’ll never forget my friend Rosa’s pitiful look when she heard I was becoming single again. She inhaled through closed teeth and, even if her lips didn’t say the words, her eyes yelled, “You’re never going to find a man in this town!”
My friend Rosa—a doctor like me— was a super-model-looking blond with an amazing clothes and shoes collection. Born in busy Mexico City, and having lived in New York City for years, she ended in Melbourne because of work visa requirements; but she hated the town with a passion and counted the days until she could flee it. She spent a small fortune traveling to New York regularly, not to lose touch with her boyfriend there. I suspected she wanted to break up with him, but was terrified of becoming single in the boondocks where we lived.
Were Rosa’s concerns justified? Let’s see.
My Florida Beach Town (that’s not really a beach town)’s statistics.
The Google oracles say that Melbourne had a population of about 76,000 people. To that I chuckle and answer, “Maybe in the winter!” Once the ice melts “Up North,” the sauna-climate resumes in town, and the Snowbirds return to their civilized homes, I dare to say that number goes down by half.
I estimate that about half the town residents are over the age of eighty. From the remaining fifty percent, more than three quarters are between the ages of 65 to 79 (AKA, the young crowd). That leaves us with about ten percent people under the age of 65—mostly the healthcare workers keeping the other ninety percent of the people alive.
If I subtracted from that number the women, children and taken men, the remainder was a quite limited supply of eligible bachelors. Half of those were proudly self-proclaimed “Red Necks” and “Cow-tippers.” And it’s not that I discriminated against them, but my friend Rosa rushed to clarify, “Don’t forget you’re a doctor. Any man with a lower level of education than yours will likely feel self-conscious and won’t want to date you.”
So, there you go. After eliminating the men who’d have a chip on their shoulder about dating doctors, my list of potential prospects shrunk to terrifyingly small—and that didn’t even account for compatibility or looks!
But it gets better! (or worse?)
Oh! And there was also that other small detail my friend Rosa reminded me about!
I had four children.
You read right, four. One of those, a little girl with special needs and serious health issues. I should have given up right there and signed up for the nunnery.
Wait! They don’t let you bring kids to the convent, so scratch that option.
What do you do when every single shred of evidence in front of you points at you being hopeless? When the world tells you that, no matter what you do, your chances are grim?
Well, I gave myself the same advice I give my terminal cancer patients with no treatment options left: If your chances look equally bad regardless of what you do…then just do whatever the heck you want. Give yourself permission to be in denial; ignore the worriers; do that makes you happy, and enjoy this day. (I’ve had a handful of oncology patients live much longer than expected, by following that piece of advice)
And that’s the magic of healthy denial. Because, hey, it’s our ultimate right to decide that the whole world is wrong. Maybe the rules and statistics that apply to everybody else, don’t have to apply to me. Doesn’t if often feel like human beings live next to each other, yet move in different, parallel dimensions?
So close, yet so far. Living in Parallel Dimensions
Take me and my friend Rosa, for example. She declared the town of Melbourne a jail sentence, a dreadful task she had to complete in order to get a greencard. I considered it my salvation, the tropical refuge I fled to when the inclement Chicago winters were draining my joy of living. Melbourne became the first place in the United States where I felt like home— its burning Summers a nostalgic reminder of the place where I grew up.
When Rosa looked at the US1 highway, she saw nothing but abandoned commercial buildings. I noticed instead the gorgeous Indian River behind them, as large and blue as an ocean. She fixated in the humble skyline, pathetic in comparison to New York City’s. I relished the majestic palms, and the explosion of color from blossoming bougainvillea and mimosa trees.
And about having nothing to do? I disagreed. Melbourne might’ve lacked night clubs for partying, but compensated with much more. It offered NASA rocket launches, hiking and biking trails, and plenty of wild life to watch. It invited you to go fishing, canoeing or kayaking in the river, and—if you were willing to put the effort and cross the river—it rewarded you with ocean swimming, surfing, and breathtaking sunrises.
Perhaps it was okay to believe that Rosa witnessed a reality different from mine. And maybe, searching for love and happiness—making my way to the other side of the river— started with keeping the faith, while loving the place where I currently was.
So close. So close.
And at that same time, in the opposite end of that same town, a handsome, smart, single college professor lamented his luck. Unlike me, he’d ignored the pessimist realtors, and had moved to the beachside. He’d made it to hat legendary place “the other side of the river” where the days started with sunrises at the ocean, then finished with breathtaking sunset colors reflecting in the waters of the Indian River, just a few blocks west. Where lazy beach walks watching seagulls, crane birds and pelicans turned into magical moments with the surprise visit of dolphins and the sighting of baby sea turtles. A different world within the city, where the ocean breeze cooled down the inclement Summers (and blew away the Lovebugs!) He lamented having so much beauty around him yet being unable to share it, because he was alone. He was starting to lose faith that he’d ever find an educated single woman in town.
Every day he crossed the bridge west and drove thirty minutes north to work—while I drove thirty minutes south to the hospital. We passed each other midway hundreds of times without seeing each other— probably even stopped at the same red light, going in opposite directions.
What miracle had to happen so we could both walk in the same dimension, so we could finally meet?
The short answer is growth.
The long answer? Well, that’s another story.
So stay tuned for the next chapter.