Winter Haven

There was this girl I met at a debate tournament once. It was some state tourney in Orlando. I was giving my god-awful speech about turning retired military bases into self-sufficient communisms run by the homeless. By that point, I had ceased caring about the speech’s content and was more concerned with the delusion that my technique would place me somewhere above last place.

Anyway, I was giving the speech. The nice thing about state tourneys is that you break the monotonous tedium of seeing the same local competitors, and instead are inundated with swarms of motherfuckers you’ve never seen before. So, in a room of 7 or so competitors, I really didn’t notice this one girl during one of my rounds. When I finished my speech, I walked down an aisle of desks. She was sitting in the right column, and as I passed her, she made a subtle, soft, glancing pinch at my arm, and whispered, “good”.

This kind of motion could have meant several things.

1) sarcasm. I sucked and I secretly knew it. Debaters are notoriously more competitive than Brazilian soccer fans. This could have easily translated into “thanks for sucking; you just boosted my rank, fuckwit.”
2) The rare, but not impossible, universal optimism. Every blue moon or so, there’s someone who suffers from a life threatening and sickening utopian dream that we’re all in this together. That an effort made to any degree is membership enough into some great allegiance of orators. Winning is just an ornamental distinction, reserved for any random lucky winner. This of course is monumental horseshit beyond galactic proportions. To this day, I refuse to trust these types more than I trust a heroin addicted pit bull in a nursery of week old baby seals. All in it together my fucking balls!
3) Genuine pathos. Even rarer than #2. She actually listened (?!) and liked what I had to say. This bears a .0003% chance of happening. Most of the time, you doubted the judges were listening to what you were saying. As for the competition, usually you were hiding in a seat behind the judge, fucking around, or in my case, reading a National Lampoon. Listening to the competition only happened when you were sitting next to the judge and had to pretend to care, because overtly fucking off was verboten.

So, later on, I’m looking for some fuck off classroom somewhere, I run into the girl again. She starts talking to me. Her name was Lydia, and it turns out she genuinely liked what I had to say. This was… unheard of. All of the judges and one asst. coach told me my idea was completely implausible. A few even suggested I was crazy. I’ll be honest, I haven’t thought about that speech for 13 years. Now that I look back on it, taking an abandoned military base, moving volunteering homeless people there, and giving them some shelter and some seeds and saying, “here, grow your food,” makes a lot more sense than letting the bases just dilapidate, while the homeless sit on every fucking corner between my office and my house indignantly asking me for the paycheck I just earned. But I digress. My point is, it was a huge, comforting change to see someone who actually liked my speech.

We ran into each other again during one of our breaks and sat out in some courtyard. I had spent plenty of time with the assorted miscreants and fuckwads from my school. I don’t know if she had friends. I’m sure she did, but as I think about it, I’m not sure she did in the conventional sense. Then again, I probably didn’t either. Unlike me, however, she seemed very good with just striking up conversation with strangers and befriending them. I admired that. I still do, actually. She was just a really cool soul from Winter Haven, a podunk offshoot from Orlando. We talked for a while.

A good friend of mine walked by during our conversation and made unbelievably awkward and dorky nudge-nudge looks at me, like I was scoring or something. And maybe Lydia was flirting with me. To this day, I still have a nearly impenetrable wall of ignorance when it comes to the opposite sex’s signs of interest. Backtrack 13 years ago, when my cumulative sexual experiences could be notched up to maybe two girls and their tongues in my mouth, and my density toward the subject could only be put on a comparable scale when compared to the Sun’s core. In any case, my friend’s gestures put a bit of a crimp in our conversation, because, being 15/16, I was forced to reciprocate with the required face that can only translate into, “shuddup, you’re so fucking lame.”

I don’t know if she was flirting or not. I don’t really care. But she was cool. That much I do know. She bore an unmatched sense of groove and cognizance. There was something about her that somehow rose above the high school mentality of what was cool and mature, something that knew there was a helluva lot more to life than high school, podunk towns, and absurd, fickle speech tournaments. And in no way did she flaunt this obscure knowledge. You wouldn’t even know she had it until you talked to her. She was likable, interesting, cordial, congenial. But what I really liked, and the reason I’d love to run into her again in any given situation, was that she exuded a unique, desirable, and relaxed kindness. She was just really… kind.

I’ve driven up and down and through this state in so many directions, it’s stupid. I’m sure I’ve been to or through Winter Haven, but I don’t remember anything memorable about the place. From what little I know, I really have no desire whatsoever to go there. If you’ve seen one podunk Florida town, believe me, you don’t want to see another. I’m just familiar with the name. But every time I hear it, I think of Lydia. Winter Haven always brings groovy, comforting thoughts to mind, and I can’t imagine a better hometown for a soul like her than a place called Winter Haven.

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