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The Boondocks

welcome to the boondocks!

      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. Have you ever heard of Cape Canaveral? 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.”

      If you look at Melbourne on the map, you’ll probably argue, “Wait! It’s not in the middle of nowhere. It’s right on the Atlantic coast!” However, the city geography is designed so even the ocean is “not-too-far-yet-not-close.” East Melbourne is crossed by “The Indian River,” a 121 mile-long, brackish lagoon running North to South. 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 and blocking the way to the beach.”

      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 creates the phenomenon I call “The other side of the river,” and “So close, yet so far.” (And that is another story!) I’ve met many people who moved to Melbourne with the promise of going to the beach regularly, yet days became years and they never made it there, because it felt like such a production.

      Here in Melbourne a “night out” means dinner at 5:00 PM. And your typical neighbor table is a group of cheerful and loud senior citizens (those hearing aids never seem to work) wearing shorts and orthopedic shoes, pushing wheeled walkers and dragging oxygen tanks. (I love it! Here I never feel old!)

      Once a booming city, promising to become the next steaming-hot (literally) retirement spot, Melbourne has seen tough financial times ever since the closing of the Shuttle space program and since the Real Estate crisis from the 2000’s. Proof of that is the abundance of vacant commercial buildings lining 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 rich fauna.

      Speaking of fauna, 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 barely feet away from me, under the bridge in which I stopped my bike ride to answer a hospital call. 3- A neighbor playing with a five-foot-long black snake and a stick on his front lawn. 4- Discovering the passionate veneration of the town residents toward turtles.

      Yes, I soon became fascinated by how often people had to stop their cars to let turtles cross the street – and how gladly they did 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! – 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, saying “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. For a while in 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!”

      Did I forget to mention it? That’s the city in which I found myself as a newly single woman.

      I’ll never forget the look of pity my friend Rosa gave me 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 before her working visa requirements sent her to Melbourne, she hated the town with a passion and counted the days until she could flee it. She was spending a small fortune traveling to NYC every other weekend, not to lose touch with her on-and-off boyfriend there. I always suspected she wanted to break up with him, but was terrified of seeing herself single in the boondocks in which we lived.

      Were Rosa’s concerns justified? Let’s see.

      The Google oracles say that Melbourne has 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 50% of the town residents are over the age of 80. From the remaining 50%, more than three quarters are between the ages of 65 to 79 (AKA, the young crowd). That leaves us with about 10% people under the age of 65. That’s why there are so many of us, doctors and healthcare workers in this town! – someone has to keep 90% of the people from falling apart!

      If I subtracted from that remainder number the women, taken men, children, and men much older or younger than me, I was left with 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 discriminate 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 is going to feel self-conscious near you, will get a chip-on-his-shoulder syndrome and won’t want to date you.”

      So, there you go. If you eliminate the men who’d have a chip on their shoulder about dating doctors, my list of potential prospects shrunk to terrifyingly small – and we haven’t even started talking about compatibility or looks!

      Oh! And there was also that other small detail my friend Rosa reminded me of!

      I had four children.

      (You read right, four)

      One of those, a little girl with special needs (and that is another story).

      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 give yourself permission to be in denial. Ignore the worriers, do whatever the heck you want that makes you happy, and enjoy this day. (I’ve had a handful of patients beat the odds and 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. Didn’t we establish that human beings live next to each other, yet move in different, parallel dimensions?

      Take me and my friend Rosa, for example. She saw the town of Melbourne as a jail sentence she had to complete in order to get a greencard. I saw it as my salvation – the tropical refuge I fled to when the inclement Chicago winters were draining my joy of living. It was the first place in the United States where I felt like home – its burning Summers a nostalgic reminder of the place in which I grew up.

      Rosa saw the US1 highway and all she could see was the abandoned commercial buildings. I saw the gorgeous view of the Indian River, looking as large and blue as an ocean, behind them. She saw the humble, low skyline, pathetic in comparison to the one in NYC. I saw the majestic palm trees, and beautiful blossoming bougainvillea and mimosa trees.
      And about that there was nothing to do, I disagreed. There may not be an abundance of night clubs for partying, but there are NASA rocket launches, hiking and biking trails, canoeing and kayaking in the river, swimming and surfing in the ocean, fishing, nature watching and – if you were willing to put the effort – ocean sunrises.

      Yes, maybe it was okay to believe that what she was seeing as reality was different from what could be for me.

      And at that same time, eighteen miles south from me, in the opposite end of that same town, a hot, single college professor lamented his luck. He lived at the beachside. That legendary place “the other side of the river” where the days started with the 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’d drive 30 minutes north to work, while I drove 30 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.




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