The morning of our departure. Puffy eyed and exhausted. My plane was boarding at gate C24 and his at gate E16. A, B, and C gates have a different security checkpoint than D and E gates, so we reluctantly split up.
I take off my shoes and hat and go through the full body scanner. Unnecessary radiation. A strange TSA agent looks at my junk. But I am too tired to care about these things.
A text from him, “I don’t think I’ll see you after the checkpoint.” A sad face emoticon.
His plane is starting to board and mine is about to. I reply, “Have a safe trip baby. I love you.” Disappointed that we didn’t get to say goodbye in person.
Then my phone rings and he says, “I can’t leave without a proper goodbye.”
So we run toward each other through the terminal. Me from the C gates and he from the E gates. We run, shouldering our suitcases, past families with strollers, security guards, old people in wheelchairs. We meet in the D area, breathless and sweating in our winter coats. Wrap our arms around one another and kiss goodbye.
He says, “I love you.” I say, “I love you too.” We run back to our respective gates to board our respective planes. Him to Santa Barbara and me to Austin.
6 am. The Estée Lauder flight attendants smile as I board. Blue skirts and red lipstick. I sleepwalk to my seat. Behind me a baby begins to cry and is soon joined by other babies so that they are shrieking in surround sound for the duration of the flight.
I change planes in Denver. The flight is delayed. We sit on the tarmac for nearly an hour because the lavatory is being serviced. The captain says over the intercom that the toilet will only flush while the plane is in the air. I guess I am the only one that realizes the simple solution would be to fly the plane.
My parents pick me up from the airport in Austin. See them standing at the bottom of the stairs. Hair grayer than I remember. My father’s arm around my momther’s shoulder. I breathe in deeply and brace myself for the criticism I’ve come to expect.
“You look ridiculous.”
“You look awful.”
“You look like a refugee.”
These are some of the phrases I’ve been greeted with in seasons past. But this year, a Christmas Miracle. They only hug me, and my dad asks if he can carry anything. So I hand him the heavy bag, and we walk to his truck.
Admittedly, I’ve gone out of my way to do nothing that might elicit a critique. I’m wearing blue jeans that are neither too tight, nor too baggy. A dark green sweater. A baseball cap. My closest approximation of traditional masculinity. Being home means being unable to be myself. I try to project the least disappointing image of myself that I can muster.
“Where can you eat?” My mother asks sometime during the two and a half hour drive from the airport to my childhood home.
“Anywhere.” I say.
“A steakhouse?” My dad asks. Every year it’s the same. For eight years I was a vegetarian, and my dad is such a jerk about it, that I’ve vowed I’ll never tell them that I started eating meat again. Two years ago. We end up eating at a Pizza Hut in Caldwell, TX. My dad stares at my mushroom and black olive pizza in disgust, and asks how I can live without meat.
My mom, who knows about my recent forays into sushi says, “Fish aren’t vegetables.”
“What did you get your girlfriend for Christmas?” My dad asks as we’re waiting for the check. This is a new thing. I came out to them as a teenager, and in previous years he’s asked if I had a boyfriend, but in the past two years, he’s started to ask about girlfriends.
For Christmas I got Carlos a fancy kitchen knife, and he got me a nice coat to wear in NYC. We both got new iPhones and signed up for a family plan. A two year commitment. We’re now contractually linked.
In lieu of an answer, I just stare back at my father blankly and my mother immediately changes the subject. We’re all relieved when the check arrives and we can leave.
That night I’m lying in my teenage bed. The rockstar posters of my youth have been replaced with racks of my mother’s clothes and my dad’s old hunting trophies. Her growing shoe collection and his growing arsenal. Lightning flashes, bright and blue through the bedroom windown. Then thunder, so loud it rattles the window panes and sets off car alarms down the street.
My mom creeps through the dark house unplugging appliances. I lay in bed counting the time between when the lightning flahses before the thunder rumbles to gauge how far away the storm is. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t have storms like this. I count the time between the lightning and the thunder. The thunder and lightning is followed by rain that lulls me into the deepest sleep I’ve had in months.
It rains the whole time I’m in Texas. My mom complained all summer about the long, lingering drought, and she complains all week about the rain.
We spend the days shopping and eating. The mall. Two different Super Wal-Marts. Morbidly obese people ride around on Weasels trailing their sausage toed children. We eat at Olive Garden, Taste of China, and Casa Olé.
If I was drugged and dropped off in Texas, I’d immediately know exactly where I was just from looking at the old ladies with their football helmet hair and welded on make up. The Wrangler jeans, and chain restaurants.
We buy groceries for my grandmother. The next day she sends us out again for things that she forgot to add to her list. “She’s driving me crazy.” My mom says. My grandmother is 86 and forgets things more and more often. When she can’t balance her check book, or remember if she took her pills, or find the television remote she calls my mom, sometimes at 4 am. I wonder, when my mom is in her dotage, will I be there for her?
Christmas Eve I’m surrounded by blond toddlers. My cousins are all now married with children. There are too many of them for me to distinguish among them, or to learn their names. My mother is the only one of her sisters who is not a grandmother. She dotes on her sister’s grandchildren. I feel guilty that she is unlikely to have any grandchildren of her own. I gorge myself on pie to make up for my inability to please my parents. The pie loves me just the way I am.
My father had already opened his big Xmas gift, a deer blind to aid and abet him in the stalking and murdering of Bambi. So my mom and I got him a giant toolbox for the back of his truck. We’d hidden it in my grandmother’s barn, and on Christmas Eve we loaded it ourselves into the back of his pickup. My mom put a big, green bow on it.
On Xmas morning he got a card that said, “Go look in your truck.” We all walked out together in the cold, and all he said was, “You wasted your money.”
My mom and I made out a little better. She liked (or pretended to like) her camera, perfume and bathrobe. I liked (or pretended to like) my money, sweater, gloves and gift cards.
Then it was back to my grandmother’s for Christmas lunch. My mom made turkey and stuffing and vegetarian stuffing for me. I sat in a corner beneath a picture of a blond Jesus and listened to my family with growing horror. My uncle was bemoaning the fact that the American Kennel Club wouldn’t let him register his dog under the name “Osama Bin Laden.” My closeted cousin made an awkward comment about how hot some chick was, despite the fact that he’s nearly forty, has never had a girlfriend and collects antiques. Then they engaged in our favorite family pasttime: Telling racist jokes.
Sometimes someone would ask me where I’m living now, and what the weather is like up here. The conversations never deviate from work or weather. Don’t ask, Don’t tell is still in full force at family gatherings.
After Christmas we shop some more. Eat at other chain restaurants. We visit my grandmother. But mostly we sit in different rooms watching different TV shows. As the week progresses, I find myself watching P90x infomercials for all the wrong reasons. I feel like a teenager again. Staying up late, hoping for a random Bowflex commercial. Long, aching nights. The barking of dogs. The constant rain.
In the days leading up to my departure, my mom starts saying things like, “Why don’t you move back to Texas?” Or, “Don’t leave. Just stay here.” I don’t know how to respond. I cannot wait to get out of there, and back to my real life. To sleep in my own bed. To be surrounded by my things. To be able to be myself. To be with him.
When I call him he is going to the beach. He is having a great time with his own family. I try to imagine a time in the future where I bring him home with me to celebrate the holiday together, but find it impossible to merge my life with him and my life with my family. The two are magnets that repel one another.
Driving back to the airport on my last day, I stare out at the central Texas landscape. Flat, barren horizon. Short, scrubby, leafless trees. Brown fields, dotted with grazing cows or blackened from summer fires. Wonder, what is it about this place that my parents love so much?
The whole trip I keep waiting for the right time to tell them I’m moving to New York, but the time never arises.
When they drop me off at the airport, my mother begins to cry. I hug her, and walk briskly inside before I start to cry too. If I were to describe our relationship in Facebook parlance, it would be “It’s complicated.” I love her. I wish I was able to be closer to her. I wish I was able to be the child she’d hoped for, and not the one she ended up with.
Flight back to Portland. I’m sitting between two middle aged women who spend the entire flight grilling me about every aspect of my life. They ask me all the questions that my own family is afraid to ask. And I tell them everything about Carlos, and New York, and my growing excitement and nervousness about the futre. They tell me they are envious of my adventures. Wish me a Happy New Year.
Strangers know more about me than my family.
Carlos comes home the same night. Our clothes are coming off before I can set my bag down. Afterward we lay in his bed and watch Pee Wee’s Christmas Special and Garfield’s Christmas Special. We watch the Goonies, and he falls asleep holding my hand.
His mother got me a hat for Christmas. My mother doesn’t acknowledge his existence.
On New Year’s Eve we debate going out somewhere, but can’t rationalize spending $20 on cover to a club we wouldn’t ordinarily want to go to for free. So we meet at the grocery store and pick up some food for a dinner at home. He cooks and I mostly try to stay out of his way. Red wine and laughter. French pop songs.
We try to stay up until midnight, but by 11:30 we’re both exhausted, and decide to go to bed. He says, “It will still be a New Year whether we’re awake or not.” This is all the rationale I need to cuddle up with him in bed.
Maybe next year when we live in New York we’ll be able to make it all the way to midnight. But for three years running, we’re at home in bed before the fireworks go off. And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.