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IMG_4288There’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.”

“Huh?”

“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.

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.

Existential Crisis Road Trip

IMG_3870The week that I turned 40, C took me on a road trip to New Orleans. We got up early on a Saturday and loaded up my little, second-hand black car. A screw fell out of my glasses, and the right temple fell off. I spent the whole first part of our trip with them carefully balanced on the bridge of my nose so that they wouldn’t fall apart.

We ate terrible snacks from suspect gas stations in shady towns where people drove pick-up trucks with Trump bumper stickers, and meals from fast food places that we’d never go to in a non-vacation setting.

C drove, and I tortured him with 10 year old hipster music. The Handsome Furs. Helio Sequence. Ra Ra Riot. I sat sweating behind tinted windows, looking out at corn fields, at rusty barns and grazing cattle, wondering what I’d done with my life. How could I possibly be 40? I didn’t feel like a forty year old. I felt as young, as directionless, as lost as ever. Wouldn’t a 40 year old have his shit together by now?

My friends who are my age all have houses, children, and careers. All I have for 4 decades of existence is a growing list of cities that I’ve lived in, of jobs that I’ve irresponsibly quit, a savings account with less money in it than when I was 20. I’ve rationalized the string of poor decisions that have led me to this place by citing the fact that I’m an artist. But I just haven’t had the time to get around to writing that alleged novel that I’ve been working on. I’ve lived a life rich in experiences that looks terrible on a resume. Now that I’ve reached my life’s half-way point, I can’t help but wonder what might have been, if only I’d stuck with that decent paying job that corroded my soul, if I had stayed put and put down roots, if I hadn’t cashed in those 401(k)s to fund all of those cross country moves. Would I be happier or more fulfilled?

I wonder if I’ll ever write that novel. I wonder if C and I will ever stay in one place. If we’ll buy a house together somewhere on the California coast. Or if I’ll go from cubicle to cubicle in some two-bit town or other. If we’ll decide to call it quits and go our separate ways. If I’ll spend my autumn years struggling to eke out an existence in a town I’d rather not be living in. Alone with my no longer cool MP3s, a collection of other people’s books, re-posting pics of me when I was younger and still someone that someone else desired.

When you’re sitting in the passenger seat of a used car whose check engine light is perpetually on, on a 14 hour road-trip, there is a lot of time to contemplate one’s failures.

We stopped for the night in Memphis. Since it had just been a place that we were going to spend the night, and not a destination, we were surprised at how quaint a little city it was. We checked into a 3rd rate hotel where the elevators didn’t work. Our room was across from a pool that was crowded with people who obviously weren’t guests of the hotel.

IMG_3745We walked down to the water, the fecund stench of the green, bloated Mississippi permeating the air, trickling down our backs, hot and sticky. Sweaty brides were having their engagement photos taken. We took pictures of the strange, pyramid stadium, the bridges, and the skyline. We walked back up to Beale St. with it’s blues joints and barbecue places. We had drinks and watched horse-drawn carriages covered in Christmas lights clop by with fat tourists, glistening in the neon sky.

That night we lay in bed at the sleepless hotel, with re-runs of the Forensic Files playing, telling one another how we’d kill each other and get away with it.

The next morning we had a southern breakfast at a place called The Blue Plate Cafe.

C said, “You order. You speak the language.”

We had homemade biscuits and sausage gravy.

Then we were off again to New Orleans. The cornfields turned to scattered trees and coastal plains. The gas stations and rest-stops remained uniform in their evocation of the movie Deliverance. We drove over a long raised freeway with nothing but swamp beneath us, and no exit for miles. The car’s cruise control worked every other time we stopped and started.

We drove into New Orleans late Sunday afternoon. Our hotel in the Central Business District was much nicer than the place we stayed in Memphis. There were art-deco chandeliers in the lobby, and elevators that worked.

After we freshened up, we walked directly to the French Quarter. I was crossing my skeptical fingers that I’d like it, or, barring that, that I could tolerate it, since C seems determined that we move there, even before either of us had seen it. I was pleasantly surprised when it surpassed even my most hopeful expectations. The French Quarter was magical. It was purple, and blue lit, otherworldly, with an energy that reminded me of parts of New York City, of San Francisco, of Paris. There was a sort of crackling vibration that tinged the air, that rang through the cobblestone  streets, the iron gratings of balconies, the decaying, old-world buildings, out of place in a southern, new-world state.

We ate alligator, gumbo, crawfish omelets, red beans and rice, beignets. We drank ridiculous cocktails on Bourbon St. where an unsuccessful hustler told us, “Come on, fellas. It’s titty time!” And a half-hearted prostitute asked if we were looking to have a good time. We sat in an outside courtyard and listened to a middle-aged man (like me) sing Frank Sinatra. He even sounded like Sinatra. Our waitress there was liberally drinking every time she walked back to the bar, and was hammered when she misplaced C’s drink. Later she came up to us and said, with a slurred, southern accent, “I gave your drink to those Chinese people! And they aren’t even drinking it.”

Another sleepless night in another hotel room. Another marathon of Forensic Files.

The next day, after breakfast we took The Saint Charles St. Car to Uptown, and walked down Magazine Street. A developmentally disabled woman on the train warned me to watch out for black people, because they don’t like white people. On Magazine Street we walked past funky little shops and restaurants. In a record store called Peaches, C picked up an album of Stevie Nicks’s greatest hits. We stopped by an optometrist and I had my glasses fixed. We ate snow-cones while we waited, my lips stained cherry red, and his stained hand-grenade green. The drink, not the explosive. We walked through parks with trees, branches heavy with hanging, gray moss, past white-columned mansions and pastel colored houses.

IMG_3869That night we took a haunted tour of the city conducted by a woman who professed to be a fifth generation Voodoo priestess. She was a charismatic storyteller, and took her 25 odd charges on an enjoyable tour of the seedy, sinister past of the old city. As we made our way to the tour’s apex, the house of Madame LaLaurie, there was a violent, southern thunderstorm. We huddled under awnings as it rained, as thunder rumbled the iron gratings and window panes, and lightning streaked across the sky. A Scottish couple, perhaps unfamiliar with the thunderstorms of the southern U.S. squealed and moaned in terror every time the lightning flashed or thunder cracked. The tour was the best $50 I’ve ever spent.

The next day was my birthday, and we spent the day in Museums and sculpture gardens. It rained again that afternoon, and we stood in the entrance of a parking garage while I talked to my mother who had forgotten my birthday until my dad reminded her.

“I can’t believe you’re 40!” She said. “That’s old.”

It rained, and a pair of tourists played “Heads Up” on their iPhone, and my mother berated me for having accomplished nothing with my life. “You should be saving for your retirement!” She said.

“Why should I save when I’m the sole heir to the Brister fortune?” I asked.

Back on Bourbon St. a pair of street hustlers conned C into paying for an unsolicited shoe shine.

We walked to Frenchman St. where the Voodoo priestess said that the locals went instead of Bourbon St. The said locals eyed us warily as we walked past tattoo parlors and goth clubs playing 80s music.

When it was time to check out of our hotel we didn’t want to leave. On the drive back to Chicago C made me listen to Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac, and Pink Floyd. We drove all the way back to Chicago in one day. The gas stations and fast food all blended together.

On Wednesday I went back to work. I sat in an office, staring out the window. My office mate was lamenting the fact that she had turned 29 and hadn’t accomplished anything with her life. I didn’t point out that she owns a home, has a husband and a child, and has a higher-paying position than I do, 11 years her senior.

On Saturday we got up early and drove to Toronto. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in Chicago and rest after the trip we’d had the week before. But C wanted to see a Lebanese pop band that was playing Toronto’s gay pride. So we piled in the car again, and C drove us north to Canada.

The toll way to cross the bridge into Canada was backed up, so we sat in traffic for a long time before we even made it into customs. A douchey Canadian customs officer in mirrored sunglasses asked us why we were going to Canada, where we were staying, and for how long.

In Canada the roads were noticeably better maintained than the roads of the U.S. I felt like a poor relation visiting my better-off relatives. They called their rest areas On Routes, and there were Tim Hortons’s everywhere. The farmland, at least, looked the same, the barns, the silos and the houses could be anywhere in the U.S.

Outside of Toronto there was a traffic accident and we sat in traffic for a while again, and ended up getting to the city hours later than we’d expected to. The city was beautiful with it’s distinctly Canadian buildings of green glass mixed in with European style architecture, the iconic CNTower. We walked down Yonge St. pleased to see how diverse the people were, to hear languages other than English, and to have food options other than the deep dish pizza and hot-dogs of Chicago.

The official website of Toronto Pride wasn’t nice enough to say what time any of the acts performed, so we weren’t sure whether the band had already played, and if we’d driven all that way for nothing. Luckily a kind Canadian at the information booth assured us that the band didn’t play until 10, so we walked down the street and had Korean food. All around us, polite Canadians were having politically correct discussions about philosophy. Straight people had brought their families in from the suburbs to take part in the Pride festivities.

We walked back to the stage where an Iraqi-Canadian rapper was rapping. Some preppily dressed, and well coiffed men sat down from us, discreetly smoking a joint and ogling the hairy, muscular men who passed in too short shorts. As the band began to set up, we made our way down to the front, past the tattooed tank-top with his hipster beard, and tall, thin Lebanese men who couldn’t stop kissing one another, past the progressive white girls, and settled in to watch a band called Mashrou’ Leila perform.

Belly dancers opened for the band. They waved colored scarves, and shook, and smiled, and balanced candelabras on their heads. A smoke machine kept going off right in front of us, and everyone waved their hands to blow the smoke out of their faces. Someone in the crowd kept bouncing a balloon back and forth, until, after the third time it hit me in the head, I removed the balloon from circulation, and shoved it to the ground at my feet.

IMG_3898The band was comprised of beautiful men in black, shiny outfits who sang in Arabic, but who introduced every song in perfect English. The music was fantastic, and I fell slightly in love with the handsome violinist with his beard, and sleeveless shirt, and goofy smile. But it was the lead singer who evoked Freddy Mercury that amazed me. They were wonderfully talented, and though I didn’t understand the words, I felt it. Introducing a song called “Ghost,” the lead singer talked about Orlando, describing mass shootings as a particularly American phenomenon, and I felt ashamed and defensive.

We walked back to the hotel after the show. Through the well-behaved revelers, the throngs of rainbow colored denizens of Pride. Toronto boasts the biggest Gay Pride festival in North America, which cannot be disputed. But even though it is certainly large, Toronto is still distinctly Mid Western, and despite it’s diversity, suffers from the same watered-down blandness that Chicago Suffers from. There wasn’t the grit, the people cutting loose, that you might see in San Francisco, for instance. And I wondered if this is just the way of the world now. Gays are so mainstream that even Pride is just a watered down, unshocking version of what it once was. Or maybe I’m a middle-aged man suffering from a case of the back in my days.

In the hotel, a deluxe suite much too big for the two of us, we spent another night unable to sleep, watching terrible, Canadian TV. No Forensic Files.

In the morning we had a nice enough Canadian breakfast at a restaurant called The Senator. We got sugary drinks from a Tim Hortons and walked down to the waterfront. This too was beautiful but boring, and after an hour, we walked back to the hotel, to get in our car and drive back to the states.

The drive back went much more smoothly than the drive there. The blonde, American customs officer was just as brusque as her Canadian counterpart. But she waved us through, and we were relieved when we got back to the familiarity of our own country, that despite its problems, and despite the fact that a disturbing number of it’s citizens are pro-gun conservative Neo-Nazis, was still our home, for better or for worse.

As we drove home there were early fireworks going off in the Chicago suburbs. Red, white, and blue lights flashing in the sky. My forehead lolling against the dusty window, the lights of the skyscrapers spread out hazily before us beneath a purple sky. C played Mashrou’ Leila on the stereo, and I sang along with words I didn’t understand in a language I didn’t speak, in a city, and a life I didn’t feel I really belonged to.

I may not ever write a novel. I may not ever live in a house by the sea. C and I may not grow old together. I don’t know what the future holds. But for the present, at least, I can look back at my life, now half-way over, and feel that maybe my mistakes haven’t been quite that bad, driving in a car, with good music, with a beautiful man beside me, and an open road ahead of us, pregnant with possibility.