It’s Okay to Talk About Leaving

I drove back up to the Pacific Northwest alone. I drove up the 101 with the mountains to one side and the deep, blue expanse of the pacific ocean on the other. Then I headed inland in northern California through the Shasta mountain range and pine forests. From then on the drive was harrowing. I wound through narrow mountain roads with sharp curves and steep cliffs beside eighteen wheelers and signs warning of rockslides and precipitous inclines. I leaned forward in my seat, gripping the steering wheel, certain I’d go careening off the side of a mountain to meet my end in a deep ravine at any moment.

“Just let me get over this mountain.” I prayed to no god in particular. But as soon as I was past the mountain….THERE WAS ANOTHER FREAKING MOUNTAIN!

Things didn’t level out until Eugene, Oregon. By then I was shell shocked and just ready for the trip to be over. An indicator that one or more of my tires was low kept blinking on my car’s dashboard. I don’t know how to put air in a tire, or how to change a flat, so in addition to all of the other things that deeply concerned me, I was also afraid of being stuck on the side of a mountain with a flat tire, waiting for AAA to come.

I spent two nights in cheap motels. One in Fairfield, California and the other in Cresswell, Oregon. In Fairfield, the room was nice, and I watched cable television while some terrible children above me yelled for no reason until their terrible parents yelled at them to “shut the fuck up.” In Cresswell the only room available was a smoking room which smelled like stale cigarettes and misery, and the room was shabby and outdated. I lay in a lumpy bed with lumpy pillows, worried that someone was going to break into my car and steal my meager belongings, or that I’d wake up to a flat tire or both. At 3 am I listened to a man and woman have sex. The way the woman was screaming, I’d have been concerned that she was being murdered rather than made love to, had she not kept yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The weeks leading up to the move were hard. I was unhappy, and my unhappiness was a gray cloud that covered the whole house. Santa Barbara felt like a prison, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t happy, that I wanted to leave. We were no closer to getting a place of our own and still sleeping on couches in his parents’ living room. He was frustrated that I wasn’t trying harder to fit in and I was daunted by the prospect of spending $1600 a month on an apartment in a town where I had no friends, where there were no coffeehouses and bookstores, where everyone was tan and smiled toothpaste commercial smiles.

“You should go back to Seattle.” He said one evening. “You talk about it all the time. You miss it.”

It had become clear as time passed that we didn’t want the same things, or to live in the same places. I’d already been thinking of escape before he suggested it. Seattle was the last place I was really happy before we’d begun our haphazard, cross-country odyssey. Once the words were said aloud, it became fact. I was leaving.

We spent the last couple of weeks taking pictures of beaches and streets lined with palm trees. Of red-tiled rooftops and ocean sunsets. We sat in the garage watching the same shows or playing the same video games as if nothing was changing, but a distance was already growing. The invisible miles that separated his heart from mine.

His family had one last dinner for me before I left. C deep fried tortillas, and we had tacos. We drank wine from the glasses his mother had given us for Christmas.

“I really appreciate how well your family treated me,” I said.

“They’re your family too.” He said.

I didn’t cry until the morning I drove away. Then I sobbed, hard, wracking sobs onto his shoulder. He cried too, and we just stood in his driveway holding one another.

It’s very hard to leave someone you still love.

When I got back to Seattle, it rained. I drove up hills lined with wooden houses with rosebush front yards sporting “Black Lives Matter” signs, “No One is Illegal,” “Love is Love,” and I knew that I was back.

My friend Bill had been kind enough to allow me the use of his guest room. I unpacked my few things, my computer, a handful of books, and my clothes, and got settled in. After months without, such simple things as a closet and a bed that I’d taken for granted became precious. To have a room and privacy again was a gift I can never repay.

I couldn’t help but think about C still living with his parents. Still on a couch, still having no privacy or space of his own. Without me, he can’t afford to move out, and without my car, he has to rely on them or buses to get to and from school. He makes plans to transfer to a school in Northern California where the rent is cheaper. We talk about me going to visit at the end of the month, to see if that’s a place I might want to live for the next three years until he’s finished school. But I don’t know that either of us really believes that’s going to happen.

Being back in Seattle is strange. The city I used to live in has been replaced by a newer, more expensive one. I walk down gray, rain slicked streets, past the new restaurants and bars that have taken the place of my old haunts. The old city and the new city are superimposed over one another, so I see both at once. I feel like I’ve fallen out of linear time, and the past and present exist at once, giving me a never ending sense of deja vu.

I sit in a coffeehouse that I used to sit in when I lived here before. The barista is the same barista that I dated 10 years ago. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” he says. “How’s life?”

“Interesting.” I say.

Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by joblessness, the temporary room, the drastic change and stark absence of him beside me, sharing this with me. I weep a little as it rains outside and hipsters in wet jackets walk inside shaking umbrellas. I wonder if coming back was the right decision, or if this will be another in a string of decisions that I regret. I wonder if I’ll ever live the settled life of people with families and houses who have made better choices than me.

I sit in coffeehouses and walk to bookstores. Already I’ve reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in years. I’ve had brunch and drinks, I’ve made plans for dinners and happy hours. Piecemeal I try to reassemble the life I used to live. I sit in the same corner of the same cafe I used to sit in, and for a moment it’s as if I never left, as if the last 7 years never happened. But they did happen. The weight of them creases the corners of my eyes in wrinkles that weren’t present the first time around. The cities and the people I’ve encountered have left their mark inside me, invisible maybe, but present like scar tissue criss-crossing my heart. I look for jobs while folk music plays in speakers overheard, while people younger than me sit illuminated by smartphones and laptops, hoping that this time, I’ll make good decisions. That the second time around I’ll be able to do everything right, and that everything will finally work out….despite historical precedent.

For now the sky is heavy with dreams and the future unfolds like a map, clouded with uncertainty, but, for the moment, full of promise.

Holidays on the West Coast

stockingsDowntown the Boy Scouts are selling Christmas trees. People walk past in board shorts and sandals. Cars roll by with surf boards strapped to their rooftops. Little Mexican markets sell horchata with cinnamon and breakfast tacos. People are wrapping the palm trees in their yards with strings of Christmas lights.

On my days off I walk to the beach and back in my unfashionable anywhere else carpenter shorts and gray hoodie. I walk to the beach to be alone. I walk because I find the sound of crashing waves to be soothing. Sometimes a hot, shirtless guy will walk out of the water, chest glistening in the pale sun, and sometimes tan guys are playing volleyball, or surfers are climbing into or out of their wetsuits. Usually though, the local beach is only littered with older couples, retirees from the UK, pasty in sun hats. I walk to the beach because there is nothing else to do here besides walking to the beach.

A few weeks after moving I landed the best job I’ve had in a decade. It pays well, and doesn’t involve me interacting with any people, so it easily eclipses the string of entry level positions I’ve had since we first started bouncing from city to city. During the week, we wake up at 6 am, get dressed in the cold garage where our clothes are still in boxes and bags, and C drives me to work. Since we share one car, he drops me off in case he gets called in for a job interview, or wants to go somewhere while I’m at work. I work from 7 to 3:30 in a cubicle where no one speaks to me.

After work, I walk around the corner to the gym and work out for an hour. A little-person with frat boy hair and Iron Maiden tattoos sold me my membership, which I took as a harbinger of good tidings. The locker room is full of unabashed old men who stand naked and sagging as they talk about golf and the upcoming marriages of their adult children.

After the gym I walk down to catch the bus back home. The buses don’t seem to run on any kind of schedule. Sometimes the bus is crowded, and I sit crammed next to an Asian kid in a suit who falls asleep on my shoulder, and sometimes I sit alone and listen to a couple of men argue about politics. I stare out the window as the dark gets darker, and the wind whistling through the windows grows cold.

On our seventh anniversary we drove up the coast and spent the weekend in a cheap hotel in San Luis Obispo. We had sex for the first and only time since we’ve moved, taking advantage of the brief window of space and privacy. Then we wandered the city, spending money we shouldn’t have on clothes from overpriced shops, and browsing through book and record stores. We wandered all over looking for a sushi place, but the first place we went to had an hour wait, and the next place we went to ignored us until we left, so we ended up having an anniversary dinner at a bar and grill where we waited for over an hour for food, only to walk back to our hotel to discover it was right next door to a sushi place where we could have eaten in the first place.

I didn’t want to go back to his parents’ house. Not because they are unkind or unwelcoming, because nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve been nothing but warm and accommodating. I just didn’t want to sit in their cold garage, watching re-runs of cartoons we’ve seen a dozen times which has become the new normal. We’ve looked at some apartments, but until C gets a job,we can’t actually afford to move out of his parents’ house. Even once he gets a job, I don’t know how we’re going to possibly afford an apartment here that isn’t really far away from my work, and/or a total dump. We’ve started talking about maybe buying a home because the mortgage would be lower than the rent, but then we’d be living far out in some small town, even more isolated than we are right now.

Back at his parents’ house, we watch home movies from when C and his little brothers were young. C was a surly, little smart-ass. (Not much has changed). We watched him rollerblading down the sidewalk in 90s clothes with feathered hair. We watched his brother Jesse playing soccer, and his brother Anthony running around as a naked toddler through the sprinklers.

“My weiner is a lot bigger now.” Anthony says.

“Anthony!” His dad yells, and we all laugh.

On Thanksgiving his mother makes a turkey, and I make cornbread dressing like my mother makes back in Texas. It doesn’t come out very well, but everybody says it’s good anyway. I sit at the table eating turkey and green bean casserole, wishing instead that I was back home in Texas, sitting at the kid table and arguing about the recent election with my republican relatives.

Being the odd man out in someone else’s family has left me with with a constant feeling of homesickness.

The day after Thanksgiving is C’s birthday. I got him a Kindle and some yoga shorts, and we we go out for breakfast at a small cafe, and then drive to Santa Barbara and walk along a beach that’s overlooked by tree-lined cliffs. We walk past the pale tourists and the leather skinned locals, looking for starfish and seashells. We want to go out for a late lunch, but all the Sushi places that he wants to go to are closed, so we settle for a bar and grill that has an “adults only” section, eating overpriced Mexican food with a view of the ocean.

Back home, his parents barbecue ribs for dinner, and we sit in the back yard around a chimenea. Back in Chicago I’d still be wearing short sleeves in the 50s and 60s, but in California, the cold seems colder. We shiver around the fire with glasses of wine and bottles of beer. C gets very drunk and demands that we watch Sleeping Beauty, so we sit in the living room while he sings along to Once Upon a Dream. I put him to bed in the fold-out couch while I curl up in a blanket on the couch opposite him. At night I listen to him snore as his dad snores down the hall in unison. I doze off for an hour at a time, and wake up feeling lost in still unfamiliar surroundings, wishing more than anything that I still had a big, comfortable bed like the one I had back in Seattle.

After Thanksgiving, C’s mom puts up the Christmas tree and hangs stockings on the fireplace mantle. I see the green and red stocking with the letter L, for Lance, and my eyes well up with tears. It’s touching that I’m included in their holiday, that I’m a part of their family. But it only makes me feel more homesick for my own dysfunctional family who I won’t be able to spend Christmas with this year.

Today it rains, and we sit on the back porch and watch the rain.

“People go crazy when it rains here.” His dad says. “Because it never happens.”

The clouds roiling over the mountains look surreal, like a landscape from a dream. Oranges are ripening on the tree in the corner of the yard. The dog refuses to go outside for a walk. C looks at me and says, “I’m never going to drink again.” I sit in a corner on the couch that at night becomes my bed and play a video game on my phone. When the rain stops, maybe I’ll go for another walk along the beach.

Until then, I sit and listen to the din, the rain, C’s little brother saying something about vaginas and laughing to himself, and C’s dad yelling at his little brother, and the dog barking, and his mom clanging pots and pans in the kitchen.

I wonder if we’ll have an apartment soon, and if not, how long I can handle the lack of space before I collapse into a puddle on the garage floor, or load up the car and drive away to parts unknown? I wonder if we’ll buy a house and settle here, if we’ll become proper Californians, sun tanned and sitting in cafes demanding organic, gluten-free everything. I wonder if I’ll ever stop being homesick, and will actually just be able to feel like I’m finally home.

Home

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.