Paradise Lost

Maybe transplants and tourists can tell us where to go

When you grow up in paradise, it's easy to take natural beauty and a moderate climate for granted. A breathtaking beachfront moonrise? Hey, I've got work to do. A gorgeous beach day? Just a hot, sweaty inconvenience that can melt my makeup, wilt my hairdo, and deep-set the wrinkles in my outfit. Now, remind me again: Why am I dodging hurricanes to live among all the Barbies and Kens in these humid subtropics?

So a person tends to overlook obvious things. Like, I didn't even know there was a beachfront Patio Bar at the Howard Johnson's in Deerfield Beach. It was the Colorado transplant at my day job, Kim, who raved about it to me and our co-worker Christine.

"Why don't we check it out one night?" I suggested. So we arranged a Friday "girls' night" happy hour to appreciate both the beach set and the night life.

Christine and I arrived just after 5:30 in our Capri pants and tank tops to kick off the weekend. We claimed barstools and waited for Kim as we faced a mirrored wall and lots of labeled bottles rather than the gently rolling indigo expanse outside. The peppy cruise-ship music overhead was an intrusion above the ocean's whispered shoosh. But still, the kissing couple next to us seemed transported to heaven.

"What are y'all drinking?" I asked the pair when they came up for air.

Their sunset-orange Goombay Smashes were garnished with a cherry almost as red as the guy's eyes and sun-singed skin. I ordered one myself and quickly got to know the couple — vacationers from New York. The two, already adopting local customs, sat at the bar in their bathing suits.

She began sharing their day's itinerary: "We left JFK at..."

"6:30," her partner offered, radiating so much color from his tattoos that he looked a little like a human Lite Brite.

"... and were on the beach by..."

"10:30," they said in unison.

I liked that sort of solidarity, but I suspected that maybe they were just trying to corroborate each other's realities through a Goombay haze. I didn't want to ruin their dream by explaining that even in paradise, there can be too much of a good thing, which I could have demonstrated by showing them several small scars left by a dermatologist's scalpel where he'd swiped off suspicious-looking moles for biopsy samples, the results of my own frolics in the sun.

"Just in for a little R&R," she said. "It's so much warmer here." Her accent made it sound like womma HE-uh.

She told me she was a 38-year-old registered nurse, and I told her I was the ageless Night Rider.

"Call us Laurel and Hardy," she said, realizing I was documenting her vacation behavior, which the two intended to spice up with the bottle they had in a brown bag.

"Who's the fat one?" the man asked, bringing a scowl from his partner. "I'm the fat one," he said, recovering quickly. "Is that Laurel or Hardy?"

Our newfound nurse friend suggested she had earned the name Laurel, offering a glimpse into her suffering back home. This included not only inclement weather but also heartache at the job and difficulty with her kids, whom she referred to as "little torture machines." She and her man (not the father of her children) had earned this much-needed getaway, put together three days in advance.

"In Staten Island, there's only one place to have a drink outside," she said. Outdoors, yes, but next to a polluted sea and offering a limited drink menu. "The water's dark... it's dirty. You can't get a tropical drink there."

Who knew that the local expertise at combining fruit juice and rum couldn't be duplicated?

"You just can't," she insisted, shaking her blond head emphatically. "I don't know how to explain it. They just can't make it."

A Staten Island tropical drink would be missing a certain je ne sais quoi. Maybe because they didn't have the little shrine where Jesus looked down on the bartenders, like the one above the bar here. I had to admit, there was something, let's say, divine about my Goombay Smash.

Meanwhile, Christine was yukking it up with two guys who happened to be sitting below the two candles bedecked with identical images of the Lamb of God. Guy Number Two sported a shark's-tooth necklace that contrasted with his own white teeth. Nice touch.

There was an abiding principle there somewhere, I decided.

"If you're going to wear animal teeth," I announced, "make sure your own teeth are whiter."

Kim finally showed up, her deep tan accentuated by her white gauze cami top. She was late enough that she could have used the excuse that she was still on Mountain Time. But it was all good. After all, we were by the sea and, thanks to her suggestion, safely ensconced among the plastic tables and fish murals of the Patio. Meanwhile, Laurel and Hardy departed — and, we discovered after they had gone, left behind their hotel-room essentials (the bag of booze and cigarettes).

An attractive silver-haired guy in a T-shirt and shorts claimed the stool next to me. A Toyota salesman from Cincinnati, Bill had just finished a three-day conference about automotive something-or-other (it made sense to him, anyway). He summarized German engineering as "a bit overdone" and explained their design philosophy thusly: "Fuck the cup holders. Fuck America. You should have two hands on the wheel."

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