I had not lived in Florida in 18 years.
I'd spent most of my childhood in Tallahassee and Fort Walton Beach, done college at the University of Florida for the cheap in-state tuition (I hear it's not so cheap anymore), and fled as soon as I graduated.
Yes, I fled. I couldn't get out fast enough. This was partly the age-old leaving home thing, but on top of that I was going to study creative writing at Syracuse University, where, I learned, among many other useful and frivolous things, that what spoke to me in fiction was a tandem that had been coded into my DNA by a Florida upbringing, the very stuff of Florida itself: beauty and weirdness.
After Syracuse, I got around, lived in New York City and L.A. and Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Mich., and Toronto and Russia. I hadn't even lived in the United States in five years, when, in July 2011, I moved to Tampa direct from Moscow for a job that would have me build my own creative writing program right here.
I took an apartment in Hyde Park, near downtown Tampa, rented over the Internet. I arrived late one evening and, the next morning, had my first look at my lush new neighborhood. I stepped onto the front porch and saw two lizards writhing near the doorjamb. I thought they were mating, but one of them was eating the other. I walked to the end of the drive and a praying mantis was finishing off her mate on a curb. I turned the corner and, after several steps, noticed a hawk defeathering a pigeon behind a shrub. I spooked the hawk, which tried to carry the pigeon away but dropped it.
I stood there staring at the dead bird. The symbolism was clear: I had returned to my own and they would devour me.
I had watched over the years as Florida vied with Arizona for Most Dysfunctional. As it nearly brought about the collapse of the Union in 2000. As it became infested with pythons and as hurricanes lashed its shores and as its real estate bubble burst.
I felt safe at a far remove. But now I was here, and it was hard to see the beauty through the weirdness, an altogether higher order of weirdness than polite Canada and oppressive Russia.
My neighborhood was populated with cannibalistic critters and soccer moms doing Pilates in the streets. I couldn't understand why no one sat on their beautiful wrap-around porches on cool nights. Downtown, which I'd angled to live close to because I'd gotten used to cities, became a ghost town after 5 p.m., circled by vultures.
The city was ranked one of the most dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians, and Florida drivers nearly killed me a minimum of twice each day riding my bike the 10 minutes to work — once on the way in, once on the way home.
This you-can't-go-home-again trauma began to ebb when I found the point on Davis Islands where, all in one decidedly beautiful and weird view, you can see a marina, maybe a porpoise trolling among the boats; a small beach, maybe a young mother lying out in a bikini; the dog park, maybe a chihuahua taunting a harlequin Great Dane; then the downtown skyline, pink in the glow of the sun, maybe the vultures are coasting on the thermals and it's all the better; a barge; and piles of stone or gravel or granular something; probably a cormorant perched on a tree drying its beautiful and weird furry wings; a cruise ship coming through like a horizontal skyscraper; fish jumping; a small plane taking off from the little airstrip; a herd of mini sailboats; and the TECO power plant puffing big plumes of smoke into the sky.
And across the bay, in the shadow of the monolithic power plant, there's the Manatee Viewing Center with, in the winter months, a never-ending sandbar of manatee. And back downtown there are the minarets, feigning the Muslim call to prayer, constructed by Italian immigrants and adorning the top of Plant Hall at the University of Tampa, where I work. Within several blocks of my old apartment, there are both a frou-frou wine bar and a self-proclaimed (and true to its word) world-class dive.
And as you walk the sidewalks, dodging Pilates-ing soccer moms, lizards blur by in front of you. And the gargantuan palmetto bugs pay regular visits. And the birds, man, the birds. I had forgotten completely about the birds. What is more beautiful and weird than a statuesque snowy egret standing on its golden feet in a drainage ditch?
Jeff Parker is the director of the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa.