by J.E. Sumerau
“Whatever you do, do not underestimate the joy that may be found in a pack of Ballpark hot dogs, cable included in the rent, and a furnished apartment.”
I said the words above with a chuckle.
I said them while wearing one of the skirts I only wore in private at the time. I said them into a small, black flip phone that came from a Sprint store in Augusta, Georgia. I said them to a guy I dated or slept with from time to time in college. I said them when he asked if I was okay down in Florida. I said them knowing he sounded just drunk enough to find them funny. I said them sitting in the most beautiful home I had ever been allowed to spend the night in, sitting on a wooden porch that looked like something rich people would entertain on in a fancy movie. I said them because I didn’t know what else to say. I said them because I knew whatever I said might get back to other people in the places I had left behind with as little fanfare as possible.
I had been in town less than a month when my old sometimes lover surprised me with his last phone call.
I remember arriving in the state of Florida. I stopped at a Starbucks on Thomasville Road that I still sometimes visit when I’m in Tallahassee. It’s next door to a Walmart, and not quite in the city, technically speaking. I sat outside smoking a cigarette. I was on the phone with my new landlady. She was telling me it was okay to come by and move in at any time. She was telling me the format for the money order. She was going to be at the house all day. She was wondering if the sometimes girlfriend or friend-with-benefits she met the only other time I was in town would be moving in with me. The answer was no. She didn’t seem to like that answer. I didn’t like the sometimes girlfriend anymore. I counted us even. I finished the same kind of latte I once made for others in Augusta and headed for my new home.
The house was like something out of a novel by Katie Crouch or John Irving. It was a three story, to my eyes, mansion in Midtown Tallahassee. The first floor was a kind of workroom meets living space that the landlady used and maybe lived in too. It was hard to tell. The second floor was a spacious common area with two bedrooms that were each rented out for extra money. The third floor was a loft apartment. I was on the second floor in the bedroom closest to the street. The front porch, a long wooden number I spent so much time on, was right in front of my window. There was a space of concrete, separated from a busy road, where I parked a run down 1993 Oldsmobile the day I arrived. It never moved much after that.
The room I rented was furnished.
My daily routine a collaboration with previous decisions, someone else’s tastes.
This meant the room already had a bed, a desk, and a file cabinet on rollers that, for some reason, I thought was the coolest thing ever. I wonder if I saw one in some movie as a kid. There was a closet that was at least as big as any I had ever had. There was also a television with cable I didn’t have to pay for, and this became an important thing that summer. There was a bathroom. I shared it with a woman from Auburn, Alabama who was fifteen years or so older than me. I don’t recall much of anything else about her. We rarely saw each other. The common area had a living room that felt like it stretched on forever. It also had a bigger kitchen than any I had known. The kitchen utensils and appliances as well as the furniture in the living room were fair game. I remember moving my few things into my room, drawing a cup of water from the spout in the refrigerator, and standing on the front porch for hours staring at the street. I honestly couldn’t believe I was in Florida, or that I was going to graduate school.
Of course, my old friend monetary problems came to call in the morning.
After paying my deposit and first two month’s rent, I had very little left available to me. I had some. I mean, I had a few hundred dollars that had to last. I had no room for error. I had to be careful. It was going to be tight. My first checks from the Florida State University would not come until early September. I had a couple of checks coming from arts and culture pieces I had written right before leaving Georgia-Carolina, but they did not add up to much. I remember trying to find writing gigs in Tallahassee. I even found one. It was unpaid. There seemed to be no others. It was 2008. It was going to be tight. That day, I began a ritualized existence that carried me through the summer and much of the first fall I spent in Tallahassee.
I woke up at whatever time my body chose at random. Once awake, I sat on the porch, sipped cheap coffee I made at the house, and read. When I finally felt the need to move, I walked up the main avenue to another road called North Monroe. I turned onto North Monroe, walked past an assortment of shops, and arrived at a manmade hole fool of water called Lake Ella. It was one of those lakes with a walking track around it and ducks loitering everywhere. I’ve since seen them in so many towns and cities that I wonder if they were kind of a fashion accessory of some prior decade. During that summer, however, that kind of lake was new to me. I would walk three to six laps before entering the Black Dog Café on the edge of it. In the café, I would order a coffee, ignore the rumbling in my stomach, and sit outside sipping the coffee as slow as possible while reading whatever book I started that morning. I would stay there for a couple hours. Afterward, I would walk back to my home, make two hot dogs, and eat them in front of a television tuned to a baseball game or sports commentary.
Next, I would generally try to read on the front porch if I still had pages left in the latest book. If the book was running out, however, I would get on the bike I spent more than I could afford to buy. I kept it under the back deck. It was definitely the most valuable thing I owned; Oldsmobile included. I would ride downtown. I would go to the library for another book or six, and swing by the Florida State University campus. The campus was often useful in such cases because there were events in the summer that included free food. I would blend in with the students and staff at these events to swipe a piece or three of pizza or a hamburger or a few bags of potato chips. This was how I supplemented my hot dog, I mean grocery, budget. I could only really afford hot dogs, coffee, and Kraft mac & cheese on my own. I was already sick of Kraft mac & cheese after years of limited grocery opportunity. I did buy Ballpark hot dogs, I mean, I had some standards even then. These campus excursions provided dietary variety and became an important part of my life. In fact, when I learned that I had to pay money I didn’t have to declare residency in Florida before starting my graduate program, these trips to campus became a necessity if I wanted to eat at least once every single day.
I spent a lot of time counting the days to my first check.
I spent a lot of days counting the time until I received my student loans.
Without the help of the national fellowship I won, I would not have made it.
I would usually go back to the house after I finished my errands downtown. I would try to sleep, but that almost never happened without help. Help was in short supply. I couldn’t afford to buy sleep medicines or pain killers. I couldn’t afford to buy alcohol. I would do sit ups while a baseball game, cartoons, or sports commentary played on the television. I would do pushups after the sit ups in case that would help. I tried running in place, but that just hurt my knee. I knew exhaustion was my only option, but it became clear that the limited things I could do in the house were not going to cut it.
I was pondering this situation one day when I overheard someone at the Black Dog Café talking about a twenty-four-hour coffee shop in another part of town. The person mentioned that you could get drinks for a dollar if you brought your own cup. Somewhat suicidal and dressing butch in public anyway because of fear and the fact that I had no clothes that fit my shrinking body, I decided to start going to this place when I couldn’t sleep. I figured it had to be at least a little bit healthier than trying to exhaust myself or simply sitting around holding the handgun I brought from my prior life every night. Hell, I might even get hit by a car on the way there one night and save myself the trouble of deciding whether or not to keep at it anymore.
It was worth a shot.
I would leave the house around 11 p.m. on my bike. I would ride down to North Monroe, and then follow that road all the way to Gaines Street. I would then swing down Gaines Street picking up enough speed to thoroughly risk my life each night. I would turn onto Railroad Avenue, which, back then, was pitch black and mostly deserted at night during the week. Now, it’s kind of a hotbed of activity that feels somewhat alien to me if I’m being completely honest. I would hang my bike on the hooks in front of a coffee shop called the All Saints Café, go inside with a cup I bought on discount from the Starbucks in Augusta, Georgia while I still took shifts there, and get a dollar decaf coffee or even a regular if they didn’t have decaf that night. It didn’t seem to make a difference vis-à-vis my ability to sleep. I would sit on the porch reading and writing in my journal. I was trying to work on a novel I would not actually write and publish until my mid-to-late thirties. It was called “Kid” then. It was published under a different title, as two novels instead of one. That still surprises me.
I was trying to kill the time between waking up and whenever my body and mind would let me sleep again.
I met a baker from Toronto who sometimes gave me free pastries that, though he likely didn’t know it, were often the most food I had on a given day.
They tasted like possibility.
I did this ride as many nights as I could.
It was my new ritual.
It was how I really lived on the night my sometimes lover or maybe former boyfriend called to check in on me while slurring his words.
These are the things I did not tell him about.
These are the ways my days were actually going in the first two months I lived in Tallahassee.
The thing is, though this might sound odd to many people, I look back on these days with a fondness that knows no limits. These were good days. They were the best days ever as I far as I knew at the time. Yes, I was so hungry it hurt. Yes, I was in pain and all alone and barely eating. Yes, I could have and maybe should have died on a dark road in the middle of the city one of those nights. Yes, I was beginning to hide my gender and sexuality for the purpose of maybe gaining a job that would pay me enough to eat and maybe continue transition someday. Hell, I learned just how similar Tallahassee and South Carolina were one night when I got in a fist fight because a guy didn’t like the “gay sound of my voice” and the “girlie way I moved” because I forgot, for a moment, to watch how I spoke and moved. I remember how hard it was and how much I hurt those first months in Florida, I do. They were still the best days of my life at that point, and I still smile thinking about them over a decade later.
The thing is, I often feel like the person I am today began to become possible in those hungry, bitter moments in 2008.
My spouse and I actually go back to Tallahassee for Christmas every year because their parents live there. Every time, I begin grinning like a child in an amusement park the closer we get to the city. I go back to the Starbucks on Thomasville Road. I go back to the Black Dog Café and take a walk around Lake Ella. I go back to the All Saints Café and walk around campus watching my earliest days on the campus in my mind. I sit on the steps of the library remembering checking out books that summer. The same way the Georgia-Carolina border holds integral pieces of who I was before I came to Florida, Tallahassee holds an important piece of who I have been able to become the last decade or so.
It was in those moments that I learned the sweet, calm beauty of sitting outside on a porch writing and reading for hours.
The porch where I write these words tonight is a reflection of those days and nights in a new college town. It was in that mansion-looking house that I began almost entirely drinking water and coffee and stopped using alcohol or pain killers as much as I had before and during college. It was in that home that I became accustomed to multiple television offerings and realized that the sounds of sports commentary sometimes calm me in some way I still can’t explain all that well. It was in Tallahassee that summer that I began taking the long walks that I continue to take almost daily now. Each of these habits arose as a response to my circumstances. I was alone, hungry, broke, and hurting in a new place. But these habits also became core aspects of the person I am now, and the life I live today where I am no longer alone, nowhere near broke, and hurting a whole lot less most of the time.
J.E. Sumerau (she/they) is a writer and scholar focused on the intersection of sexualities, gender, health, violence and religion in social life. They are also the author of six novels and five nonfiction books, including the Southern Gothic queer coming-of-middle-age story Scarecrow and an exploration of masculinities titled Violent Manhood. They are also the director of applied sociology at the University of Tampa and the author of more than 100 short fiction and nonfiction works published in varied literary, medical and social scientific journals and edited volumes.