Diving headlong into a sunny paradise

They woke to the sun streaming through the bus windows. He glanced out the glass and grinned. She buried her face in his sweatshirt. "Too bright." He remembers every detail. They were curled together on the front seat of the Greyhound, between his battered duffel bag and her Hannah Montana purse. For three days, they had been traveling south. It had been dark since they left Atlanta. Now, squinting in the blinding dawn, he saw that they were cruising over a long bridge. On both sides, small white waves capped the bluest water he had ever seen. Ahead, there was land — a wide causeway lined with tall palm trees. Palm trees! Just like on Sponge Bob. He draped his arm around his girlfriend's thin shoulders. He kissed her pale forehead, then both of her eyelids. "Look," he said softly. "We're here." Welcome to Florida.

• • •

A week earlier, they had been in Wisconsin, working at Wendy's. Outside, hail was pelting the parking lot, blanketing everything in ice.

Dan Marinko, 20, was angry. He remembered saying, "Why does it have to be like this again?"

"I know, right?" Jenna Solterman, 18, had answered.

They had grown up in Portage, halfway between Madison and Green Bay. Nine square miles of prairie, with 9,728 people and a prison. The town slogan: "Where the North Begins."

Winter, there, lasts almost all year.

Dan had said, "It doesn't have to be like this."

Neither had ever been out of Wisconsin. They had never seen a beach, never felt sand shift beneath their bare feet.

But Dan's Aunt Helen had sent postcards from St. Petersburg: A pelican on a piling, tan girls on golden sand, warm sun sparkling on the gulf.

"I don't know much about Florida," Dan had told Jenna. "Except everyone says it's paradise."

There comes a time when a guy just has to dust the dirty snow off his Air Jordans, grab his girl and go.

That weekend, while snow piled up outside the drive-through, the young couple worked overtime. On Monday, they put their paychecks together: $530. On Tuesday, they each packed a pair of jeans, two T-shirts and shorts. His tent. Her hair-straightener.

They left everything else in her room they shared at her mom's house. They didn't tell her mom that they were going, or that they weren't coming back. Jenna slipped a photo of her mom into a sock.

Wednesday morning, when a friend dropped them at the Greyhound station in Madison, the air was 39 degrees. Jenna shivered in her hoodie. Dan held her hand. They bought two tickets to St. Petersburg, wherever that was. Total cost: $388. That left them with $141, a bottle of water and a half-pack of Marlboro reds.

"It's going to be great," Dan kept telling Jenna. "You'll never be cold again."

• • •

Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight.

Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century: To stop shoveling snow. To escape. To start over.

They weren't worried about unemployment rates or hurricanes or oil spills. They were young and in love and they had each other. All they needed were a few waves. And a tan.

"In Florida," Dan told Jenna, "they say you can eat oranges right off the trees."

• • •

She sobbed as the bus pulled out of the icy parking lot. Over her shoulder, she watched Wisconsin fade behind them.

"What about sharks?" she kept asking. "What about alligators?"

He is broad-shouldered and outgoing, with homemade tattoos inked across both forearms. His sideways grin is endearing: Leonardo DiCaprio with a Dumb and Dumber haircut.

She is slender and shy, her blond ponytail streaked with hot pink. On one hand, her fingernails are blue; the others are black. She wears a tiny diamond ring he bought her at Walmart.

He still can't believe she said yes.

They met through Jenna's brother, and have been together for more than a year. Jenna knows all about Dan's past. He told her how, when he was 9, his dad shot and killed his mom, and how he and his brother went to live with Mom's sister, Aunt Helen. Everything was okay until Aunt Helen got divorced and moved to Florida.

Dan was 11 when she sent him to foster care.

Jenna knows Dan has done stupid stuff: got kicked out of high school for carrying a pocket knife, stole a convertible whose owner left keys in the ignition, got in a fight in jail. She knows he is still on probation and wasn't supposed to leave the state.

But she loved the way he called her beautiful and kissed her eyes and promised to take care of her, to take her away.

For the first time, she imagined a world without winter.

• • •

The air was thick the last Friday in April when they stepped out at the St. Petersburg bus station.

Dan and Jenna felt like they had landed on another planet, where everything was sticky and green and the sun was so close you could feel it frying your face.

Dan shoved up his sweatshirt sleeves. Jenna pulled sunglasses from her purse. They checked a map, found a stop near Aunt Helen's trailer park, and bought transfer tickets to the city bus.

While they waited, Dan steered Jenna toward a sandy median. "Look," he said, pointing at a palm tree. "They're real!"

• • •

After we have been here for a while, it's easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year.

We crank up the AC, close our blinds and watch TV. Instead of venturing into the Eden outside.

This young couple had journeyed more than 1,350 miles to find Florida. Now that they were here, things seemed so surreal.

"Look! What's that crazy bird? It's got a scoop bill," Jenna said, pointing, as the bus ambled west along Bay Pines Boulevard.

"I think it's a pelican," said Dan.

"What's a pelican?"

"You know," he said. "Like on Finding Nemo."

• • •

They reached the stop by Aunt Helen's house about 1:30 p.m., found a sign for her over-55 trailer park. But before knocking on her door, Dan wanted to go swimming.

They were close now. He could smell it. The breeze blew in salt and seafood. So they set out walking west, to find the beach.

He paused by a hibiscus bush, plucked a scarlet flower and tucked it behind Jenna's ear. "There," he said. "Now you're a Florida girl."

After a while, they ducked into a pizza place. "How far to the beach?" asked Dan. The waitress told them 3 miles.

That was too far to hike, especially carrying all their bags. So they went back to the bus stop and got on the first bus they saw.

It carried them across another bridge, then turned left toward Madeira Beach. Strip malls and souvenir shops flew by. They passed an ice cream stand, high-rise condos.

Suddenly, Dan jumped up. "There it is!" he shouted. Between two low buildings of the Surfs Inn, a sliver of sand stretched all the way to the water. "Look at that!"

He pulled the overhead cord. The bus driver eased the door open. And, carrying everything they owned, the young couple from Wisconsin walked into the afternoon sunshine.

They followed a short walkway, climbed four concrete steps and stopped. Sunbathers were scattered along the shore; skim boarders splashed in the shallow swath; farther out, a sailboat drifted beyond the breakers. "Oh wow," Dan said. "It's so much more than I thought." Jenna nodded. She didn't know what to say.

All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.

"Come on!" Dan said, kicking off his Air Jordans and sprinting toward the water.

Beneath their bare feet, the sand was soft and hot. They didn't have bathing suits, so they ran into the water in their shorts, laughing and leaping the little waves.

"It's so warm," she said. "I thought it would be cold."

"I told you," he said. "We finally made it. Look at us! We're in paradise."

Behind them, the tide crept up the beach, erasing their footprints. In front of them, the gray-green gulf stretched forever.

She jumped up and threw her arms and legs around him. He kissed her, tasting the saltwater on her lips. He had never tasted saltwater.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

• • •

Tell us your story

What do you remember about the first time you set foot in Florida? (Sorry, natives, this one's not for you.) Tell us your Florida anecdotes in 300 words or less. We'll run the best of them in a forthcoming Floridian. Send submissions to Lane DeGregory at degregory@sptimes.com or 490 First Avenue S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. Please give your name and the city you live in.

Diving headlong into a sunny paradise 05/29/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 22, 2013 12:33am]

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