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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.

Texas

IMG_1842You could drop me anywhere in Texas, and, without having to be told, I think I could tell instinctively that I was there. Despite being a large and diverse state, it has a presence so distinct that I could recognize it immediately, even if I’d have arrived blindfolded. No matter how much I try to deny my heritage by living thousands of miles away, Texas courses through my veins. It resonates with something fundamental in my being.

This was my thinking when my plane arrived from New York City for my first visit home after living nearly a year in The Big Apple. I’d spent an uncomfortable ride aboard a plane full of douche-bag indie bands heading to Austin for SXSW, bragging that their song was number five in Israel, and acting as if they were arriving to fanfare on par with the Beatles.

In the airport terminal, there was country western music playing, the smell of BBQ, and pot bellied men wearing camouflaged baseball caps. The culture shock was great enough that my first instinct was to turn around and get on the first plane back to New York City.

I saw my parents before they saw me waiting downstairs by the baggage claim. In the time since I’d last seen them they seem to have aged considerably. Both were grayer, more stooped, more frail looking. I took a deep breath and then walked down the stairs to greet them.

My mother hugged me. My father stood back with a disapproving once over at my clothes, but was remarkably restrained, because he didn’t actually say anything. I loaded my bags into my mother’s new, black car, and we began the long drive home.

Miles passed with brown, winter fields, wind-mills, the rusting tin of old barns, grazing cattle in green pastures, scrubby, leafless trees. The absence of people, and skyscrapers, and taxi cabs and concrete was disconcerting.

My parents asked me what I wanted for dinner. I said, “Anything but pizza.” So of course we ate at a Pizza Hut. They asked a few questions about New York and my flight, but mostly they talked and I listened. Since high school I’ve felt so guarded around my family that I find it impossible to have a natural conversation with them.

I listened without really paying attention to what was being said, just hearing southern drawls, picking out the “y’alls” the “fixin’ to’s” the “do whats?” New Yorkers have an entirely different syntax, different words and ways of speaking, so clipped and aggressive, that my parent’s Lone Star vernacular seemed like a foreign language.

My parent’s house is newly remodeled with hardwood floors, and a rustic elegance that  seems incongruent with my father’s hunting trophies and my mother’s paperback romance novels.

That first night I fell asleep in my teenage bedroom and couldn’t get over how quiet it was, how dark. Without the light pollution of the city, the sky was full of stars, and the country air seemed so clean and fresh. The night was so still that when a train rumbled past in the distance, or a neighbor’s dog barked, it startled me awake.

The next morning we drove to College Station, early, because my mother had an appointment with a specialist to remove some cancerous growths off of her face and arm.

“It won’t take long,” she assures me. “He just zaps them off.”

It didn’t take long. Before I knew it we were shopping and having lunch at an Olive Garden. “I just love their breadsticks.” My mother says. I agree that they are good. “Tonight’s my night to spend with Maw Maw.” She tells me, over bread sticks, never ending salad, and eggplant parmesan.

My grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and now my mother and her five sisters are taking turns spending the night with her. They set out her pills for the following day in little plastic cups beside the times she’s supposed to take them. They make her meals. But they can’t spend every waking moment with her, and for the hours when she is alone, she calls my mom, or aunts, sometimes fifty times a day asking what day it is, or when she’s supposed to take a pill, or saying that she lost her hearing aid.

“She’s driving me crazy.” My mom says.

My grandmother’s house is the same, except she no longer has a bath. Now she has a shower with a rail and a chair so that she doesn’t fall.

“Come in she says,” when we come through the back door. “Don’t get too close hon, I have a cold.” She says.

“No she doesn’t.” My mom says to me.

We sit in my grandmother’s living room, and I think to myself that she doesn’t seem as bad as my mother has made out.

“Where are you living now?” She asks me.

“New York City.” I say, loudly because even with her hearing aid she has trouble hearing.

“Oh me oh my!” She says, shaking her head with a look that says jet planes and skyscrapers are too horrible to think of.

A few minutes pass and she asks again, “Where are you living now?”

And when I answer again, “New York City,” she has the same shocked and horrified expression. Over the next hour she asks maybe three or four more times, and each time she is just as genuinely surprised as she was the time before.

One night during my visit, my mom and dad and I drove to Madisonville, TX to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant with my aunt and uncle, my cousin Clint and his wife and their two small children.

Taking a cue from my uncle, aunt, and cousin I order a margarita with dinner. We live in a dry county, and as far as I know, my mother has never even tasted an alcoholic beverage. Neither of my parents drink, and this is the first time I ever had a drink in front of them. Because I don’t really drink all that much, myself, I’m tipsy fairly quickly, and I begin regaling them with stories from the big city.

Real Mexican food made by real Mexicans is a treat as I’ve become accustomed to Mexican food in New York being made by Chinese people who serve it alongside General Tso’s chicken, and who have no idea what an enchilada actually is.

The food is amazing, and the conversation is the first “real” one that I’ve had in years, even if I omit large chunks from my history that I imagine my family might not feel so comfortable with.

One day my mom and I drive out to the old place where we lived until I was in high school. I was surprised to see that the old, windy dirt road has now been partially paved. We drove onward after the pavement ended, past mobile homes, cattle guards, beside barbed wire fences and slowly passed the old homestead.

It was completely overgrown with brush, the driveway barely a trail, and no hint of my mother’s old, immaculately landscaped lawns and flower beds. My entire childhood, the place that I’d grown up in, had been erased. Was overgrown with weeds and left in ruins. We turned around and drove back home, and all my mother said was, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come.”

Carlos calls me from California where he’s spending the week because his own grandmother is dying. I wonder what it would be like to bring him to Iola. To introduce him to my family. They would probably like him if they knew him. He’s ridiculously charming.

But instead I edit him out of my life out of habit. The pictures I show them of New York City are all of buildings, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center. When my aunt tells me I should get a dog so I’m not so alone in the city, I don’t correct her, because I know my mother would be horrified by my honesty.

Downtown Iola, the town where I grew up, has become a ghost town. All of the old buildings are boarded up, or torn down. There’s hardly anything left of main street. Driving past the Iola Missionary Baptist Church there is a marquis that says, “Pastor out of town. Come hear some good preaching.”

“Isn’t that an insult?” My mother asks.

She and my aunt and I take my grandmother to the cemetery to visit my grandfather’s grave. We drive down a single lane dirt road to Lake Grove Cemetery. My aunt and mother point out houses as we drive past and talk about who lives there now and who used to live there, and whose wife ran off with who, and who is crazy, or crippled, or sleeping with a black man.

At the cemetery my mother takes the Valentine’s roses from my grandfather’s grave and replaces them with Easter lilies.

“This is where I want to be buried.” She says, nodding to a plot not far from my grandfather. My grandmother is looking at her own headstone, which has already been engraved beside my grandfather’s.

“Look at this.” She says, upset and pointing to her tombstone. “They were too cheap to finish it.”

“What are you talking about, mama?” My mom asks.

“Why doesn’t mine have my date of death on it?”

My mother closes her eyes and pinches her nose before answering, “Because you’re not dead yet, mama.”

My grandmother mutters to herself about people being cheap, and seems to exist entirely in a world of her own.

“You know she burned all of her checks.” My aunt says to my mother as we’re walking back to my aunt’s truck. My grandmother has taken to throwing things away, or burning old papers for no reason.

“She needs full time care.” My mother says, but there is no consensus among the daughters on how this should be handled.

On the drive back to her home, my grandmother perfectly recalls walking down this dirt road when she was a child, the school she went to, and the names of her old classmates.

In the afternoons my mom and aunt drive to a gas station ten miles away and buy fountain drinks and scratch off lottery tickets. I sit up front beside her round dog who has to have daily insulin shots for his diabetes.

“You shouldn’t waste your money on those things,” I tell my mom. But the statistical improbability of winning doesn’t deter her. “Somebody has got to win,” she says and shrugs. So they scratch off their tickets with quarters, and give me one to scratch off too. My mother wins $4 and feels vindicated despite having spent $10 on tickets. “See?” She says.

Days pass with drives to town for lunch with family, or to have prescriptions filled for my grandmother or father. At another gas station another cousin tells us from behind the counter that another aunt has been diagnosed with cancer, but she doesn’t want anyone to know.

“She looks good.” My mom says of my cousin when we leave. “She’s lost some weight.”

I look out windows…of my mother’s car, of my childhood bedroom. In our backyard my mom puts flowers on the spot where she buried my cat who died this year. There is a little cat statue made of cement with his collar around it’s neck.

I get an e-mail from my cousin Clint. He Googled me, he said, because he realized that we grew up together, but he feels like he doesn’t even know me as an adult. He stumbled upon articles I wrote for the Huffington Post and blog entries and stayed up reading them, teary eyed. He feels terrible that my mom wasn’t more accepting, but he wants me to know that my mother loves me, and that the younger generation is accepting. “What is normal anyway?” He asks. I appreciate it, though inwardly I’m cringing and wondering why I never thought of writing under a pseudonym.

On the day I leave to go back to the city my mom and I have breakfast with my grandmother.

“When do you have to go back, hon?” She asks.

“Today, Maw Maw.” I say.

“So soon?” She asks, dismayed.

“Why don’t you just stay here?” My mom says. “You can break your lease. People do all the time.”

“What would I do here?” I ask.

“You can get a job somewhere.”

I don’t say anything. The truth is, I needed this week in the country. The stillness. The space. The quiet. The clean, country air. Mornings with biscuits. Family. All of it felt so good. I didn’t want to go back to the city, the noise and the filth, and all the people.

But I have a life in New York City. In Texas I only have the past. Disjointed. Eroded and rusty. Everything turning gray and faded around the edges.

“When do you have to go back, hon?” My grandmother asks again.

“Today, Maw Maw.” I answer.

“So soon?” She says. Surprised every time.