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Living Panama City #2: small town, sad story

May. 25, 2018
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After my Applebee’s dinner from hell, I couldn’t imagine that this year’s Panama City trip could get any worse. I was wrong. 

My grandparents live on a dead end street full of broken down houses. Each house is strange in its own way: one has a shed with bullet-ridden windows, one has a plastic pool in the front yard housing baby ducks. I was standing in the front yard of my grandparents’ house attempting to look at the ducks when a young girl sprinted up to me. 

Her hair was short and bangs brushed her brown eyes. She reminded me of myself at her age. A huge smile curled at both corners of her lips. She ran up to my grandma, who was standing behind me, and gave her a big hug. My grandma instantly began to ask her questions. “How was church? Weren’t you baptized this weekend?” 

The girl, whose name I learned to be April, grinned and nodded. It didn’t surprise me that my grandma and her neighbors’ daughter might know each other from Sunday School—most everybody in this town had met each other through the Baptist Church. April happily explained to me all of the details of her recent baptism. For a young girl that I had met only moments ago, she certainly wasn’t shy in starting a conversation. Her voice only lowered when the front door of her house opened. 

April’s parents glanced at us from across the street. They seemed to be distracted by the large dog they were walking. The dog looked vaguely similar to my own (an adopted pitbull), but his eyes looked ferocious and hungry. 

“Did you get a new dog?” my grandma asked April. She seemed uncomfortable. Almost on cue, the dog looked up and growled viciously at us.  

“Yep,” the young girl replied. “My dad got him to scare people away.” 

It dawned on me that the dog had another expression hidden in its eyes—fear. April’s father’s grip on the leash was so tight that I could see the blood pulsing throughout his hand from across the street. April, noticing my confused expression, continued to explain. “My daddy’s the boss. He wants to make sure we’re safe.” 

Something in her eyes told me that she didn’t feel safe.

We talked to April for a few more minutes before my family had to leave for dinner. Watching her cross the street, I felt myself start to tear up. This girl would likely be stuck in that house for years to come, alone with a controlling father and a mother who didn’t seem to mind his behavior. 

Small town seemed to be a synonym for sad story. 

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This year’s trip to Panama City ended rather abruptly. After two short days of visiting, it was time for me, my dad, and my grandparents to pack up our things. We were all headed to the swamp for a wedding. 

My dad’s brother, my Uncle Zachary, was getting remarried at a Florida state park known for its abundance of alligators. I found myself thinking back to a wedding that I attended only last year—the wedding of Zachary’s eighteen-year-old son. 

Uncle Zachary has two children, my cousins Daniel and Liam. As kids, whenever my sister and I visited Panama City, we would spend hours playing in the dirt with them. The two boys grew up just down the street from my grandparents and have never traveled far from their hometown. Today, as my sister and I prepare to leave our families and move to big cities, Daniel and Liam are both living two minutes away from their childhood home. 

Daniel’s wedding occured in 2017. He proposed to his girlfriend of less than a year just a few weeks after she graduated high school. My family was invited to attend the ceremony.

The wedding was indescribable. Seriously—I have no idea how to describe it. Imagine a wedding ceremony so painfully awkward to watch that it physically hurts you. Daniel and his now wife, Sarah, reminded me of a middle school couple. They were shy to kiss in front of a crowd. Alcohol was completely banned from the wedding because, of course, they weren’t even old enough to drink it. The wedding felt like years instead of minutes, which was strange because it ended two hours earlier than scheduled. Nobody wanted to dance.

The two have managed to stay together since the wedding. Daniel scoops poop out of Porta Potties, and Sarah is unemployed. Despite my sister and I doing everything in our power to create a strong future for ourselves (like attending college and making an effort to be involved with social activism within our community), my grandparents have always preferred Daniel and Liam over us. After all, they’re the men of the family. Why should my sister and I bother traveling when we could just be stay-at-home moms?

Uncle Zachary graciously decided to pay for Daniel and Sarah’s gas and hotel rooms so they could afford to attend his wedding for the weekend. However, after reading dozens of Daniel’s Facebook posts comparing the Stoneman Douglas survivors to Nazis, I decided that I wouldn’t be spending much time with him.

I’m not much of a religious person, but I said a prayer before heading to the swamp: I prayed that it would be over quickly.