by Josh Sczykutowicz

You drive through here along the highway that takes you to the turnpike on your way to Disney World and not once do you ever stop to think, “Somebody lives here.” But someboddoes. A lot of somebody’s do, and these are many of them: burn-outs and potheads, pregnant teens and fetal alcohol syndrome babies, minimum-wage slaves and cops waiting for a reason to pull you over, drunk kids in cars careening down dirt roads and toothless men that hang out by banks and libraries, no one really knowing what it is they’re doing, least of all themselves.

You pass through and maybe stop at a gas station, pumping mindlessly while the kids lose their minds out of an obscure cocktail of anticipation and numbness that only childhood trips can bring the onset of. Some future sex offender dressed like a mouse will take photos with them in a few hours. Rain starts to spatter, as it so often does here, rising in cadence before beating down on the windshield that your wipers work in overdrive to keep clear. Assholes on motorcycles and idiots in trucks with wheels that are supposed to make it look big but instead just make the vehicle itself look comically tiny spray water across the hood and deep, potholed stretches of road flood, making you think you’ll surely stall out at any second.

There are tiny bars you will never enter but may already want to drink in. They are the kinds that only exist for alcoholics, places so small in a town so empty, empty like that feeling you always got when you’d come down from those panic attacks that had you convinced that it was surely different this time, that your lungs really were too small for the oxygen your sobs desperately fought to suck in. They’re already serving the regulars, men in varying degrees of out of shape who maybe never even knew what it meant to be “in it” to begin with. The most exciting thing to happen here in the past five years was that time that they opened a new fried chicken drive-thru (spoiler alert: they closed it).

And that’s all this place is, you think, turning your head in the torrential traffic to look at the body of water where better places wait to be found along the coast, the one that’s really not so distant but sure does seem it from here. That’s all it is, a drive through. It’s a place you stop because your legs are locking up from too-long a drive, one you chose to make to save the airfare and skip booking a hotel for the night because “that would just negate the whole point of driving,” you’d told your partner.
And they’d said, “Maybe it’ll give the kids a chance to soak up some different culture,that should be good to them,” but all they’d soaked up so far was overcast weather and cars with Confederate flag decals across the back windows, stickers demanding that you not blame them, because they voted for Romney. They’d soaked up billboards advertising adult superstores and signs with pictures of fetuses and toddlers telling you how many weeks after conception that a heart starts beating (it’s three, they reminded you every fifteen or so miles, in case you’forgotten just quite yet).

Along the way you’d wondered, where are the beaches? Where’s the white sand and hotel resorts, the Miami flavor and the rushing, rolling waves so blue they make that of your eyes look gray by comparison? You’d stopped in convenience stores and spotted rednecks on meth with TRUMP stickers plastered to the windows of their trucks, and you’d seen groups of kids passing glass pipes full of weed laced with coke around in the front- and back- seats of cars that drag too low to the ground, but you’d yet to see the swimsuit sandblasted tanned figures you’d always seen in magazines and movies.
You’ll drive through it all, disenchanted by swampland if you go too south or by towns built out of too many churches and a Wal-Mart, where twice-married low-level managers in their fifties will fuck girls not even half their age whose lives are sad enough to have led to them working there to begin with. You’ll ignore it, sticking to similar strips of highway and finding comfort in that low-orange light glow of streetlights that dot the way. You’ll pay the toll for the turnpike because it’s worth it to avoid the empty, vacant attempt at civilization that you find yourself passing through.

You’ll get to Orlando, and the billboards about Universal and Mickey Mouse will make the kids put their hands on the glass when they’re not too busy trying to charge your bank account for Clash of Clans purchases. You’ll eat in restaurants where kids who bring you your food wear long sleeves to hide their cheap tattoos and flip ugly septum piercings up into their nostrils during the day. You’ll wait on plates of over-priced microwaved food prepped by kids doing bumps of cocaine off of the ends of keys or cutting lines in the handicapped bathroom stall so they can get through the day that started four hours ago and ends in nine, if they’re lucky, who snort powder up between smoke breaks, where they suck carcinogens in just to get their five minutes away from people like you.

But you won’t know it; you won’t notice it; and maybe, if you’re thinking of that time you waited tables as a kid in your packed city you grew up in, you’ll think for a few seconds fondly of those days spent soaked in sweat and hustling for tips to buy more drugs with, not really remembering what it felt like, just what it was like, and forgetting how different those two things usually are.The kids will like the rides. They’ll pose for photos you snap with your phone with people in costumes and beg for expensive plastic memorabilia destined to be lost in rest stop bathrooms and forgotten beneath car seats. You’ll eat the damage to save the day from turning any worse than you know it’s been for you. And they won’t notice; they’re in Disney World.Their smiles will distract you from the rest of it. They won’t see the places you’ve driven through, or where you’ll have to go back through. Crowds of tourists speaking different languages will swarm past, locals with annual passes more relaxed than everyone else, straps of purses cutting across pale skin surrounded by deep tans. 

You’ll let yourself forget the people you saw, the towns you drove through, the lives y
ou intersected with for split seconds that will continue to go on long after you have returned home. The photo album on Facebook will be of smiling children and your face next to your partner’s,
all teeth and grins. There will be blurry images of statues that hundreds of thousands of other people have taken photos of long before you. There will be t-shirts that will fade and get retired years from now, a faint smile you’ll get when you dig through a drawer and don’t remember any
of the emptiness you had to get through to reach it.

You’ll feel all warm inside in all the right places they want you to. You’ll wear a t-shirt with a cartoon alligator that you never had eat one of your pets like so many other people have and you’ll think you got the local flavor. You’ll have purchased a product, an empty pill when
you finally bite down on the gel capsule, a hollow promise wrapped up well enough in the prettiest gift wrap that you won’t even think to see a receipt.

On the way home, you’ll go down the same roads, your windshield wipers putting the kids to sleep, low and rhythmic. Taillights will trail, tracers of red and smears of orange from street lamps on the sides of the highway making empty lots and motels easy to ignore.Everything will be in soft focus, and everyone will be gone, just other people like you too cheap to buy a plane ticket following suit. Semis with drivers who are on their sixteenth hour needing to make sure that the eleventh Wal-Mart you pass is stocked with the right kinds of foam swords while foreclosed homes get stripped for copper by the local meth heads just a block away, behind
the trees, where the customers don’t have to see it, will zoom past in the opposite lane, swerving for just a second too long as all the local news headlines flash before your eyes before the anxiety passes. It’s an accident someone else will get in. This is what passes for relief.

Mosquitoes will stain the windshield where the wipers don’t reach, and you won’t see the person absent-mindedly swigging from a bottle of Fireball in the lane next to you, but you’ll notice the guy in the eye patch speeding into the distance, smiling, as if he’s finally escaped
something. You’ll have missed out on so much. You’ll never figure out what a purgatory this place is, or how much of a last-stop it is for so many, how it’s often just an in-between, a step between life and death for the old and a step between birth and life for the young, or, at least, the ones who make it out of here.

You’ll forget it all, the anxiety, the fear as you fill the tank one last time before finally crossing state lines. You’ll never get to deal with the sound of motorcycles at three in the morning every year, flowing in droves, the thirty-somethings in pre-frayed fishing hats and mouthfuls of chewing tobacco getting ready for another day spent in the global-warming empowered sun. You won’t get to deal with police pulling people over at the end of the month on dark country roads, making up speeding charges to fill their quota. You’ll never meet the homeless people who brave the underpasses of Orlando traffic, trying to scam teens out of concert tickets and find a way to fix the lack of shoes identifiable on their street-stained feet.
You’ll be asked if you saw the ocean, and you’ll forget about the swamps. You’ll tell them no, and that you’ll have to go to Daytona next time. They have a lot of themed bar and grills and opportunities for mini-golf. Maybe you’d like it there. You’ll enjoy how it feels as you
drop the bags and slip into your bed again. No one here will wonder why you left.

Author Bio: Josh Sczykutowicz is a young author from central Florida. In less than a year he’s gained over twenty publishing credits. He’ll be 20 in June. You can Like him on Facebook and follow him on twitter @jsczykutowicz1 and on tumblr at http://joshsczykutowicz.tumblr.com/.