There's something about the city. I think most people can agree. There's something about how alive it feels. Cities never sleep, and not just the big ones, the well-known ones, the ones everyone talks about, like New York and Los Angeles. Even the small ones never sleep. Seattle at night when you walk down the street and gaze up at the towers, the lights in the windows on, and maybe it's not buzzing inside as it does in the day, but there's something going on, and as you walk past you feel a part of it.
Christen loved the city; it's where she wanted to be. Maybe every small town kid longed for the big city. Maybe every teen staring at the same faces, going to the same places, maybe they thought about being lost in the lights. A place where no one knows your name. A place where you're a stranger every single day.
She wanted to spend her two week vacation in the city. She wanted to wake up in an overpriced Air BnB and hear the traffic on the streets. She wanted to go to a busy coffee shop and order a caramel, something fancy, and a scone and sit near a window with her book open, but her eyes focused on the crowd around her knowing they didn't know her. She wanted to spend her day wandering around a museum with those rented headphones spending hours listening to every detail of every painting until the sunset, and she could go to the top of some tall building and look at the stars. That's what she was looking forward to. That's what she was promised.
"Whatcha readin'?" Lindsay dive-bombed on the blanket, kicking sand up.
Christen tried to ignore her. She's been trying to ignore her friends since they arrived in Florida, the stupid panhandle, on the stupid beach. She held her book up further, hiding her face. Maybe if she ignored them for long enough, they'd pack their things and leave, go up north, go somewhere worth their time.
Lindsay lowered her eyebrows, reaching up to hook a finger in the spin of the hardcover novel and pull it down, "Are you still pouting?"
"I'm not pouting," Christen broke her three-hour silence, one she maintained since they arrived at the crowded beach with the white-hot sand. "I'm reading; the thing is planned to do this vacation."
"Oh, come on," Lindsay flopped to her back, looking up at the giant rainbow umbrella planted into the ground to keep them from getting burned by the sun. "How can you be upset? We're on the beach."
"We're in Florida," Christen snapped. She tilted the brim of her hat up and looked over at her friend, who seemed to be lounging without any real care. "I wanted to go to Seattle or Portland, or somewhere that wasn't filled with sand and alligator roadside attractions. I wanted museums and white wine."
"There are museums here."
"The fan boat museum with a tour of the swamplands doesn't count." Christen looked around the crowded beach. "This isn't even good Florida. We're in the panhandle."
"It's what we could afford," Lindsay waved her off as she started to drift into a nap, "Read your book, party pooper, wake me up if hot chicks walk by." She pointed her finger at her friend, "Eights or above."
Christen rolled her eyes, then quickly buried them back in the pages of her book, hoping to drown out the idea that she was in Destin and not some big sidewalk jungle. She tuned out the sound of kids running around and their parents running after them. She tuned out everything she hated, choosing to get lost in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald until the idea of being in an overcrowded overrated Florida panhandle beach was out of her mind.
All her life, the world had been about words. She could envision better images from the words someone wrote on paper than a painting someone created. She loved art, there was no doubt, beauty was beauty in a million brush strokes and vibrant colors, but words were so different. The way someone could describe a street corner, a house, and a small one-bedroom apartment overlooking a crowded street, that was beauty on another level.
Christen spent the better part of her life imagining what it was like to stroll down a street, the sound of cars whishing by, the sound of people talking loudly so you could just barely make out tiny parts of their private conversations, a piece that they would leave with you unknowingly and without a care. She wanted that since she was ten and curled up under a blanket flipping through another novel, while outside her house was her tiny little town with all its tiny little people.
And maybe that was harsh, the people in her town being tiny. It wasn't them; it was their dreams. No, that's harsher, still. But they were tiny, what they wanted, to stay in a small-town nowhere in the dead middle of a state no one remembered. And if only she could run away to a new place filled with people with big hopes and dreams, and she could listen to them. She could catch the tail end of a breakup story some girl sobbed to her best friend on the subway, and Christen would jot down a few ideas in the notebook she carried, and it would spark a novel of her own.
But no, she was in Florida.
Every other road sign in this state said something about fireworks.
It had that distinct saltwater filled with dirty, low rent people smell just hanging in the air; there was no way to get rid of it. The smell wafted up your nose and made a home in the tiny little hairs, letting you know you'd smell that dirty, low budget, cheap tequila, American light lager, and crab legs smell for the next four months.
The open oven of America.
America's droopy dick.
The scourge of the free world.
A man in a pair of daisy-dukes and an American flag crop top had a monkey on his shoulder. The monkey wore a vest and hist at people that tried to touch it. The man was so sunburned Christen wondered if he should go to a doctor.
Florida is where dreams go to die.
Florida is where her hopes would melt away in the unrelenting sun.
Her eyes were scrolling through words, her mind somewhere in New York in the early twenties, when cars were referred to as streetcars, her happy place, when a ball landed on the blanket, more sand flying in the air.
"I'm so sorry," a girl, blonde, with her hair tied in a low ponytail, came rushing over to pick up the ball. "Did it hit you?"
Christen looked up at her, noticing how the red bikini top looked nice against her lightly tanned skin, "No, just the blanket."
"My bad," the blonde grinned. "My friend kicked it a little too hard, and I was a little too slow."
Christen looked just past her to see another girl, a brunette in pink shorts and a white top, she had her hands tucked into her pockets, and she was actively trying to look away.
"It's not a big deal," she looked back to the blonde, then at the soccer ball.
By this point in the conversation, Lindsay woke up from her nap and was now sitting up balanced on her elbows, one eyebrow cocked as she studied the blonde. "Hey, yeah, no worries, really," she smiled big and bright. "We're all good over here."
"Well, still, I'm sorry for disturbing you ladies," she looked back at her friend, who was clearly trying to ignore the entire thing. "How about we make it up to you and maybe buy you drinks later tonight?"
"That sounds great!" Lindsay sat fully up.
Christen elbowed her, "What about Alex?" She whispered.
"Shit," Lindsay looked at the blonde. "Alex is our other friend, she's not here right now, but she will be tonight."
"That's great!" Her smile got wider, "We have a third friend too, we were going to ditch her for beautiful ladies, but now we can bring her along."
"That's so perfect," Lindsay responded for them both. "How about All-Stars, at 8?"
The blonde's eyes got wide, she smiled, showing her perfect white teeth, "Sounds good to me. I'm Emily."
Lindsay stuck out her hand, "Lindsay, and this is my friend Christen."
Emily was quick to shake the outstretched hand, never breaking eye contact with the woman was clearly caught her attention the most. She paused for a second to shake Christen's hand politely, then turned her attention back to Lindsay.
"That's Tobin behind me," she said, pointing to the girl who was still actively looking away, "And Kelley will be with us tonight."
"Awesome," Lindsay did all the talking. "We'll see you guys tonight."
Emily stood up; her legs were long, with sculpted muscles, "See you tonight." she responded before turning and walking across the sand.
Christen waited until the girl was out of earshot, "I'm not going."
Lindsay laid back down on the blanket, "Shut up, yes you are." She closed her eyes, not waiting for a response.
Knowing there was no point in arguing now, Christen turned her mind back to her book. She started on the paragraph she left off, her eyes tracing over the words as her mind tried to take a picture, but she was distracted. She looked up ahead of her, where the two women had walked off but stopped to have a conversation.
Emily was saying something to her friend, the one in the loose-fitting pink shorts; she was taller, the other girl, her head was down. At first, Christen thought it was because she was looking down at her seemingly fiery blonde friend, but then she noticed the way the woman pressed her lips together, the way her eyes looked worried. Emily was saying something to her, something serious, and she was nodding along. Then she turned.
Caught off guard, Christen knew they were looking back at them, excepting Lindsay to be back asleep and Christen to be buried back in her book. She quickly put her head down, averted her eyes, not getting locked in eye contact. When she finally looked back up, they were already walking away.