Southern seduction

A USF grad student's dilemma: St. Johnsbury or St. Pete?

I'm fast approaching a critical stage in my life, and therefore have a big decision to make. Upon graduating from USF, shall I stay in Florida or move back to my beloved New England? Shall I trade the Coppertone for the Chapstick? The strip mall for the Main Street boutique? The swamplands for the mountains? The alligator for the caribou?

By the tone of that first paragraph, it may seem as though I've already made up my mind. Not so. While I pride myself on being decisive, there is a constant battle being fought within my head — a war between the states, if you will.

I must admit that Florida is slowly winning me over. I played hard-to-get initially, and she did not rush to impress me. I saw the Confederate flags, the unabashed strip joints and the seemingly two-dimensional architecture. I tired of pastels and dubbed my new home "Land O' Cheez." I came to decide that the animals, forced by their cosmic destiny to dwell in a humid climate, were simply angry. Why else would ants bite, for God's sake? Why else would there be so many nasty, angry critters? I guess I'd be angry, too, if I didn't have access to air conditioning. But I really don't want to learn rhymes to remember which snakes are deadly, and I really don't think I should have to.

Indeed, Florida had nearly succeeded in convincing me that she would be my temporary home — a nice place to write a dissertation but I wouldn't want to live there. I had packed my imaginary bags and was nearly to the New Jersey Turnpike when it happened.

She began her coquettish and deliberate seduction — so subtle that I was not cognizant of it until we were in a pseudo-committed relationship. Florida began to show her cleavage, as it were. And her personality. I discovered places like Cedar Key, Caladesi Island and Pass-A-Grille. I saw exotic birds, which, despite my best attempts to incite, did not appear to be the least bit angry. I began to use the word "y'all," acknowledging its superiority to "youse guys." I took up cycling, which makes the flatness of the landscape almost seem like a blessing. Heck, I even started to listen to country music (but only the non-twangy kind).

Recently, Florida has really been pouring on the charm. She has shown me her people — likely her greatest asset (although the incessant sunshine, Spanish food and easily navigable streets are close seconds). I met a man who offered me his bicycle because he knew that I desperately wanted to try road cycling but could not afford it. I met several people who, upon first meeting, gave me their phone numbers without the slightest hint of apprehension. In the North, we must run into you at least three times and take a full employment history before we'll even consider exchanging phone numbers. I met a zoologist who told me that the snakes really aren't angry; they just like to be left alone. Being rather fond of solitude myself, I couldn't very well fault them for that. I met Mickey Mouse and all the Disney characters. I began to smile back in the grocery store, having finally released friendly people from immediate suspicion.

I think I'm coming to the conclusion that all of this sunshine somehow takes the edge off. It's difficult to be perpetually in a bad mood when the sun is always shining. It's difficult to be in a rush when there are a lot of retired people around. It's difficult to feel like you're running uphill when, in fact, you're not.

I'm beginning to wonder what her trump card will be. What will be her final act of flirtation? How will she bring our relationship to consummation? Will she? I have a year left in graduate school. I can sense that she is scheming up ways to help me make the decision. To return to my Yankee roots or stay in this metropolitan hybrid of North and South?

I'd like to tell you that she's already won and that her valiant courtship has succeeded. Truthfully, however, my heart hasn't completely thawed. I still tighten my muscles in anticipation of frigid air when I step out into a dark night. I still get excited when I see a Maine license plate or meet someone from Vermont. I still prefer maple syrup and pancakes to grits. I still don't think pastels should prevail. And sadly, I still have an enormous phone bill due to an attachment to my Northern kin.

Maybe if she showed a little leg. Maybe if she threw in some oceanfront property and an annual pass to the Tampa Theater ... Surely then it would be no decision at all.

Heather Belanger, a Tampa neurologist, has lived in Tampa for about eight years, so she suspects the seduction has been successful. If you would like to have a first-person essay considered for publication in the Planet, please send your manuscript (650-850 words) to: First Person Singular, Attn: David Warner, The Weekly Planet, 810 N. Howard Ave., Tampa, FL 33606, or via email to [email protected].

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