There’s always that moment of panic as I’m walking down the steps at the Austin airport, and I see my parents standing, anxiously awaiting my arrival, where I have the overwhelming desire to turn around and get back on the plane.
This trip was no different. In the airport bathroom I’d changed from the dapper hat that my parents hate, to the baseball cap that they find acceptable. My mother, for one, still hasn’t forgiven me for going bald, despite the fact that it was her family’s genetic legacy that has left my scalp bereft of natural covering. The hat is one of the many ways I feel I have to change myself to make myself acceptable to them. I lower my voice. I dress like a frat boy. I limit my conversation to my job and the weather.
On the plane, I’d sat next to a woman who apologized for smelling strongly of lavender. The scent reminded me of C who is always diffusing some concoction of essential oils in our bedroom. I decided the woman was probably a yoga instructor and wasn’t sure whether this revelation should make me like or dislike her.
We sat on an exit row. The flight attendant reminded us of our responsibility to help other passengers out in case of an emergency.
“We paid more for these seats, but in an emergency we’d be the last ones off the plane,” the woman said.
“In an actual emergency, I’d be the first one out of the plane.” I said. “The rest of these jerks can fend for themselves.”
“Who am I sitting by?” The woman asked, before adding, “Of course if the plane really crashed, it wouldn’t matter because we’d all be dead.”
After that I put in my headphones, even though they’d stopped working, and pretended to listen to music to discourage further conversation. I just wanted some time during the course of the flight to try and sort my life out before I was thrust into my family’s quiet chaos.
The first thing my mother said when she saw that I’d grown a beard was, “What’s that on your face? I don’t like it!”
That set the tone for the rest of the car ride home. I sat in the backseat of my mother’s car, and stared out of the window at silos, yellowed pastures with hay bales, grazing cattle…while my parents sat up front bickering about how fast to go, what lane to be in, and where to stop for gas.
My father is losing his hearing, and so every time he asked me a question, I had to shout back at him. My answer to nearly every question was the same. “I don’t know.”
“I DON’T KNOW.”
What are you going to do in New Orleans? What is your roommate going to do? How are you going to afford the move? When are you going to start saving for your retirement? When are you going to settle down and stay in one place?
The two and a half hour drive from the airport to my parent’s house out in the country was longer than the flight from Chicago to Austin. We stopped on the way and had Mexican food for lunch. When I lived in Texas I never wanted Mexican food, but in the nearly 15 years that I’ve lived in various northern towns, after having been deprived of actual Tex-Mex, it’s suddenly something I crave in much the same way I imagine that junkies crave smack.
Once at my parent’s house, things mellowed. My dad puttered around outside, and my mom sat at the kitchen table reading a romance novel. I sat in my old bedroom, now home to my father’s guns and hunting trophies and my mother’s library and extended closet. The past and present were superimposed over one another. Two rooms overlapped when I closed my eyes. The current one that my parents have repurposed, and the former one with my posters of Trent Reznor and Kurt Cobain, Lego blocks, and Super Metroid.
The next day my dad had to drive back to West Texas for work. I was relieved when he left, because the dynamic is always more relaxed when it is just my mother and I. We watch shows where people renovate houses, and then we retire to separate rooms to read until it’s time to eat something.
Most of the trip we spent at my grandmother’s. My grandmother’s house is small with wood paneling, and is cluttered with pictures of her children, grand children, and great grandchildren. In the guest room there are two pictures on the wall. Jesus and John Wayne. Two snarling bob cats are mounted on either side of the entertainment center, decaying gifts from my uncle, the amateur taxidermist.
One of my aunts recently left her boyfriend and has moved a travel trailer next to my grandmother’s house where she lives with her four chihuahuas. My aunts and my mother all take turns taking care of my grandmother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“Let’s go out and sit in the swing.” My grandmother says.
“Mama, it’s too hot right now. We’ll go out this evening when it cools off.” My mother says. It’s disturbing to see their roles reversed. My mother making my grandmother dinner, bathing her, dressing her, giving her her medicine and telling her when she can and can’t go outside.
“I can go out if I want to!” My grandmother says.
“Alright, old woman.” My mother says. “Go outside then.”
My grandmother and I go outside and sit in the swing. We’re there for less than 5 seconds before my grandmother says, “Oh lordy, it’s hot out here! What are we sitting out here for?”
“I don’t know, Maw Maw.” I say.
We sit for a little while in the shade, sweat dripping down my back. The still air is unmoved by even a hint of breeze. A gold and black butterfly skitters out of the sky and dies at my feet. We get up to go back inside, and, once there, my grandmother says, “Why don’t we go out and sit in the swing?”
She’s like a cat who can’t decide to stay or go.
She has too much money and too many assets to qualify for any kind of assistance, but is too poor to hire someone to care for her, so my aunts take turns spending the night and staying with her during the day.
When she turns 91, they throw a party to celebrate, but my grandmother keeps thinking it’s Thanksgiving.
“Are you making the stuffing?” She asks my mother.
“It’s not Thanksgiving, Mama,” my mother says for the 15th time. “It’s your birthday tomorrow.”
“My birthday?” My grandmother says. “How old will I be?”
“Ninety one.” My mother says.
“Oh lordy!” My grandmother says.
The change in routine confuses her. “What am I supposed to do?” She asks. She is red faced and confused, and shuffles back and forth, clutching her wrinkled hands.
She and I are watching the Ellen show. She keeps getting up and walking over to a picture of my cousin from his high school graduation. She reads and re-reads the graduation program. She sits down and she stands back up.
“You’re not supposed to do anything, Maw Maw.” I say. “Just sit here and talk to me.”
She becomes more and more agitated. “Should I take the pictures with me when I go?” She asks.
“When you go where, Maw Maw?” I ask.
“When I go home.” She says.
“Mama, you are home.” My mother says. “You’ve lived in this house for 40 years.”
“I’m staying here?” My grandmother asks.
“Yes.” My mother says. “You’re staying here.
My grandmother laughs and throws up here hands and says, “I guess I’ll just camp out here then.” She reads and re-reads the high school graduation program. “I just can’t make any sense of this.” She says. “Everything’s all mixed up.”
I stay for five days. We go back and forth between my mother’s empty house with it’s immaculate furniture, to my grandmother’s where everything is worn and cluttered. At my grandmother’s I sit in a chair in front of the TV while my mother and aunt put a puzzle together.
One night my mother spends the night with my grandmother, and I stay home alone. I feel giddy like a teenager who has been left alone again. I take pictures of myself in my underwear and post them on Instagram. I don’t know why I’m doing this. I took one picture of myself with no shirt on and it was strangely liberating. Now I’m addicted to exhibitionism. Me, the prude, who sleeps in pajamas, who is barely naked in the shower, the scrawny boy who was always too embarrassed to get undressed in the locker room, is suddenly taking pictures of himself nearly naked and posting them online for strangers to gawk at. I don’t even recognize myself sometimes.
The time passes by quickly, and before I know it, it’s time to leave. Despite the fact that I can’t really be myself, that I feel like a complete alien around my born-again, open carry, registered republican extended family, these people and this place will always be part of me. No matter how many cities I live in, the other countries I visit, the skyscrapers I work in and taxi cabs I ride in, a fundamental part of me will always be most content among dirt roads, cicadas, with country music playing on an AM radio.
My mother drives me back to the airport. We pass double-wide mobile homes, cars on cinder blocks, horses in fields, churches, John Deer Tractors. We pass yards with Trump signs prominently displayed. Trucks with gun racks and confederate flag decals.
“Why don’t you stay here?” My mother says when it’s time for me to go. But I can’t even imagine staying. I’ve become a city boy. Accustomed to the hustle and bustle. The excitement of strangers and possibility.
She starts to cry as I get my bags from the backseat of her car.
I tell her that I love her as I rush to get my boarding pass for the return flight.
On the way back to Chicago, Dan Rather is on my flight. He looks old and frail in a suit with a hearing aid. A young, Asian woman travels with him. I resist the urge to take a picture of him. On the flight he is in first class, of course, and I’m at the back. The flight isn’t full, and there is an empty seat between me and the pretty, blonde woman beside me.
At first I’m reassured by Dan Rather’s presence on the plane, because what are the chances that a plane carrying Dan Rather will crash? Then I become anxious as I imagine the headline, “Beloved veteran news anchor killed in crash, along with a hundred nobodies.”
The plane doesn’t crash. I change back from my baseball cap to my weathered, gray ascot. I catch a taxi back to my apartment. Because of rush hour traffic and lane closures, the 20 minute ride takes over an hour.
Back home C kisses me and takes my bags. I can tell there’s something on his mind before he says anything. His long, black hair is pushed behind his ears. His fuzzy beard tickles against my fuzzy beard as we kiss.
“So I’ve been thinking,” he says. “Since you can’t work from home anyway, why don’t we just move to Santa Barbara?”
He goes on to tell me that he misses his family. He wants to be close to them. He wants a support network. He thinks we’ll be happier there with the beach on one side of us and mountains on the other. His family is already working to find us an apartment and jobs. They’re so excited for us to move back.
The thought of moving again fills me with anxiety. Since we’ve been together we’ve lived in 5 different states. Every couple of years we’ve moved to a new city. We’ve exhausted our savings, and I have to find some new job and start all over in a new town. We never stay long enough to make friends, or put down roots. I feel as if for the past 7 years we’ve only been squatters, moving from place to place.
I want some stability. I want to stay in one place. To buy a house. To have people over for dinner. To have longevity in a career. To not have to start a new entry level job again. I don’t want to max out my credit card to pay to move our belongings to a place where neither of us will have jobs.
I tell C that I want to stay in Chicago for a couple more years.
C says that he absolutely will not spend another winter in Chicago.
“You’ll love Santa Barbara.” He says.
I’m unconvinced, and suddenly no place feels like home.
You can’t go home again.
There’s no place like home.
Home is where the heart is.
But right now my heart is torn between the past and future. Between what feels like home to me, and what feels like home to him. I try to imagine myself on sandy beaches, with palm tree moonlight, and clay tile rooftops. Bright smiled Californians and avocados.
Try as I might, I just can’t picture it. Home is just a word on Lifetime specials, and holiday greeting cards. I thought the two of us could make a home anywhere, with second hand furniture and thrift-store prints. But home for him will always be the Pacific Ocean, landslides, and tennis courts, and home for me will always be a Texas thicket, an overgrown pasture, and dirt roads, always winding into the distance.
Always leading me back home.