Human desires are fickle. Human needs are constant. I am not trying to sound philosophical or profound. It’s just the conclusion I came to after my two-week vacation in Florida.
“Another f***ing day of sunshine.” I can’t believe those words popped out of my mouth as I squinted at the bar of glary light at the edge of the window shade. I had dreamed of warm weather when I was freezing my ass off in St. Louis. In less than two weeks in Florida, there I was, waking up bitching about sunshine.
I was in a bad mood. I had suffered a series of first-world disappointments on this February trip. We were in Naples, having birdwatched our way more than 300 miles down the state from Tallahassee.
Florida water tasted horrible, like the water came from some cave connected to hell, so strong was the smell of sulfur. It didn’t help that Bill kept calling it “swamp water.”
When we first stepped into our hotel room, it smelled a little bit musty. Once inside, though, I couldn’t detect any problem. So, we unpacked. But each time I walked into the room, I got that faint whiff of mildew. I started worrying about how many millions of mold spores we were inhaling with every breath. Tangles of filaments and clumps of yeast buds with names like hyphae and spherules – I remember them from slides in medical school.
Birdwatching required tramping miles down trails or boardwalks, loaded down with binoculars, bird books, “swamp water,” snacks and, at times, a spotting scope on a tripod. Sunshine and humidity wore us out.
The morning of my complaint, I was excited to be going to Clam Pass Beach. It would be only the second beach we’d visited on the trip. I hoped to see shore birds: skimmers, gulls, plovers and sandpipers. The day quickly heated up into the 80s. We could have waited for a tram but decided to walk the three-quarter-mile boardwalk through mangroves to the beach. Bad move. The mangroves were not tall enough to provide shade.
The beach was postcard beautiful. But I was not happy. It was full of noisy people! How dare they? Sunning. Throwing frisbees. Frolicking in the water. Did they not know that they were clogging up a habitat? We saw four piping plovers on the ground and one osprey overhead. Maybe a pelican, I forget. How disappointing. We trudged the three-quarter mile back to our car.
I was hot, sandy and cranky. When Bill drove us by a two-story Barnes and Noble, I cried out. “There!” I said. “I want to go there.”
Besides the blessed air conditioning, the store had a Starbucks inside. The tables and shelves of books calmed me. The iced Americano revived me. I headed for the mystery section.
On impulse, I picked Ragnar Jonasson’s Blackout, an Icelandic murder mystery. It wasn’t even the first of the series (“An Ari Thor Thriller,” the cover said), but I didn’t care. Iceland seemed just the antidote for steamy heat and glary sun.
The greatest difference between me in Florida and the
characters in Iceland turned out to be neither geographic or meteorological. Ari Thor, the cop protagonist, was in his late twenties. He and his doctor ex-girlfriend danced toward each other and then backed off in every possible relationship scenario. Another major character, a TV reporter, wrote in her diary, “Now I was approaching thirty, the decade in which ‘anything seems possible’ [is] almost behind me.” Thirty? Really?
Overall, I enjoyed the book. The plot is propulsive. Other than their teenage angst, the characters are smart and likeable. And the descriptions of the towns and countryside are interesting despite formidable pronunciation challenges: Siglufjordur, Landeyjar, Saudarkrokur. I learned some interesting Icelandic customs. Dried catfish is a snack food. Hosts offer milk to their adult guests. Who knew?
I figured it was because Bill and I are much older and have been together for thirty years that the characters’ preoccupation with their love lives struck me as silly. Don’t get me wrong. Bill and I love each other and are committed to our relationship. But when we have the choice at hotels, we opt for two queen beds. Good sleep trumps cuddling these days.
That evening, we went to visit a friend. She was the widow of one of my dad’s colleagues. I had known her since I was eleven or twelve. She had been a doctor, like my dad and her husband. She would have to be ten, maybe fifteen, years older than I.
My friend lived in a high-end retirement community. She was a vibrant woman. She set up scholarships for the workers in her enclave. She monitored the trees and plantings on the grounds. She took courses offered by a local college. She greeted everyone we ran into.
She had invited Bill and me to eat at her clubhouse and to meet her new boyfriend. He lived in her building and was a widower. He was charming and gregarious. He still had his hand in various businesses. He played tennis. He was 93.
You could feel the electricity between the two of them. They chatted constantly and coordinated their activities. They read the Sunday New York Times together in the pool cabana. He was the president and she was the vice-president of the Ping Pong club. They travelled, some of the time, to visit one or the other’s children.
“We’re going to the Caribbean next week,” the boyfriend announced. I asked, “Oh, are you going on a cruise?” He gave a broad grin. “No, to SANDALS.”
“They’re like teenagers,” I said to Bill. “They can’t keep their hands off each other.” I had a fleeting memory of the heady days when we were courting. We felt old at 43. We were single parents. We had full schedules as doctors. But we PDA’ed (public displays of affection) our way through restaurants, hospital corridors and our offices.
I was dead wrong that the emotional highs of LOVE are reserved for the young, for people like our Nordic cop and Icelandic doctor. It’s a gift – at any age.
Tell me: Is there any better feeling than being in love?