I'm not from a small town where everyone knows everyone. Where we stop to smile, greet, and wave. I'm from the capital, where the roads are scarred and the pollution in the gray sky is terrorizing school children with asthma before they even learn their ABCs. I'm from the city with the most violence. Car break-ins, assaults, and murders. Where people spit on the sidewalk, where the homeless man sleeps at the bus stop. Where every year, the same politicians promise if we vote for them, they'll be the ones to change this hopeless city. Then they turn around and use our tax dollars to vacation in places I can't even pronounce. But, I learned to drive on those scarred roads. I paused and waited on the playground as my weezy friends got out their inhalers. And I cried as many of them inevitably moved away. I gathered with hundreds of others on my city streets to protest those same politicians and seen the homeless man from the bus stop awake from his slumber to cheer us on.
I grew up in a small town. There were farms everywhere. Though I never lived on a farm, I would wake up everyday to go help my neighbor on his farm in exhange for eggs. Waking up early to go to work at the age of ten was my desicion. In doing what I did, I learned very young that if you work hard you can acheive many things. I learned that when you help your neighbor's, life around the neighborhood can be quite peaceful. Learning these lessons at a young age has made me continue to live this way even into adulthood. The only thing that has changed from then until now is that I no longer wish for anything in return.
Bare feet slap on blacktop. Another car slows to crawl over one of the speedbumps spread throughout the neighborhood, and I step into the sweet relief of grass. The familiar smell of a papermill covers it all, and a sticky wind thickens the air.
Blue skies burn like the skin of my shoulders in the afternoon sun, no clouds at all.
Like a fortress, the pool stands on a small hill in the middle of a savanna. All approaches to the perimeter are kept free and open, the only shadows cast are from a ten foot chainlink complete with barbed wire along the top. Standing guard within the concrete oasis, a woman in her mid twenties.
Tall, muscular, and severe, she served Uncle Sam in that strange time between Saigon and Grenada. Her uniform now is a bikini that combines with her long brown ponytail to soften her lines and accentuate her femininity, but the mirrored lenses of her sunglasses convey that she is all about business.
Each summer, this oasis is hers, and she is tasked with keeping away the lions.
The pool is private. It isn't a very exclusive club: either provide proof of address within the neighborhood, or pay $50 for the season. Not a member? An all-day pass can be had for $10. Cash only. No checks. Exact change, please.
It is 1985, and Jim Crow just goes by the new name, "Member's Only."
No one ever paid, because by default, the only people who were allowed in were residents.
There is a clear division between neighborhoods. On one half of the blacktop stand sentinels of live oak and Spanish moss, and in the shade of those ancient trees, lined up like aluminum soldiers, are the trailers. On the other side of that street, with no shade to speak of, stands the perfectly-aligned concrete bunkers of public housing. This skirmish line is never crossed without consequence.
The street itself is no-man's land.
This front encompasses only one side of the roughly oval-shaped neighborhood.
For weeks at a time, I sit beneath the watchful gaze of my stepmother. She teaches me to swim; I learn about Marco and Polo and Sharks and Minnows. Uno tournaments fill the hours that aren't spent in the water or caring for it.
If I could only learn to remember shoes.
Three of five days each week, I head back to the house for varied reasons.
Blacktop reminds me of the value of shoes in the summertime.
Sunscreen, too, is an afterthought. Peeling earlobes and tender back reiterate that lions, real or imaginary, aren't the only predators at the oasis.
Hiding within the soreness is an odd comfort, though. The pain isn't so much a hurt as it is a reminder of time well spent; another day poolside and carefree.
Nearly forty years later, the fence still stands in rusted testimony to the divisions that were. No oasis exists; there is only a concrete hole filled with memories.
Those memories still make me smile each night that I lie down and sheets drape across skin slightly burned by a summer sun.
Home is where the heart is, but mine’s still stuck at a light on Route 50
Fairfax County is the least remarkable place in the entire USA. Full of chain restaurants and highways. People move there so they can have good jobs as government contractors and their kids can go to good K-12 schools, so that those kids can go to good universities where they can get good degrees that will get them jobs as government contractors. It’s all just traffic, functioning alcoholism, and never-before-seen unaffordable housing prices.
I do not recommend living there or even visiting. There’s little reason to. And that’s not to say that Virginia as a whole isn’t great - because it absolutely is. Richmond is great, the Blue Ridge mountains are great, even Fredericksburg has its charm.
D.C., though not in Virginia, is actually quite nice - most people who talk about it haven’t really been there. They think of the metaphorical “Washington” - which nobody in the area calls the city (it’s either D.C. or sometimes just “downtown”) - the non-existent place that’s home to the politicians, or they like to talk about this terrifying, crime-infested city that doesn’t exist either.
Recently, I was in Savannah, and I spoke to a man who owned a cigar shop. He said that he would never ride the metro these days because there’s so much crime. The only thing criminal about the metro is the fact that it only runs until 1 AM now, and that’s only on weekends! It used to be open until 3.
With all that being said, Northern Virginia is my favorite place in the world, purely due to the familiarity. I have never grieved anything more than my childhood home, not dead relatives, not my worst breakup. If I gave you a tour of the area, I could give you stories about every place we pass on the highway.
It would go like this: my friend and I used to go to the Burger King next to our neighborhood all the time in high school, just to get milkshakes and fries; and Every year we went to Baskin Robbins for a field trip in elementary school; and my best friend and I used to walk in the park behind my neighborhood and tell each other scary stories; and my grandma and I used to watch the turtles at the one closer to my high school. I’d pass that one on my way to work everyday in senior year. I could show you the hospital where I was born. The gym where my graduation ceremony was held. The lake where I took my junior prom pictures. The houses where my friends used to live, the schools we don’t go to anymore, the neighborhood pool that probably got rid of the payphone on the wall - we have cell phones to order pizza from now.
I could go on for hours and tell you every story I have, but I lived there for 20 years. Almost all of my stories are there. When you read my writing, you’re reading pieces of me, and I’ll always be a girl from NoVa.
I'm growing up in a tourism city. i'm growing up in a city where I pass groups of homeless people living in tents under the overpass on my way to school. I'm growing up in a city where my parents are scared to let me walk around my neighborhood alone because I might get shot. I'm growing up in a city where people only really give a shit about the notable places, the places tourists go to. Where half the city looks like it still hasn't recovered from Katrina (among other hurricanes). Don't get me wrong either, there's plenty of reasons I love living here. There's a unique punk scene for one. My best memories are all moshing at some show where music was blasting so loud I couldn't hear shit the next day, or sitting in a circle with my older brother and his friends when the shows got lame, while they all got high and cracked jokes. that's sort of part of the unadvertised part of the city though, the part tourists don't fucking go to. The good parts. I think maybe that's why they're the good parts though, they haven't been genercized to the point of being incredibly boring. I almost wish I was in a small town sometimes, one where your not expected to be a jolly local with a thick Cajun(and or southern) accent, who's ready to tell you some ghost story about the french quarter, or tell you to try the fucking beignets.
Attempts to Escape
Naguib Mahfouz said: "Home is not where you are born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease."
Perhaps starting this piece with a quote about home is contrived. But I've always struggled to define it, for myself.
My "hometown" is where I tell people I'm from. But when I tell them about my "hometown", it's actually my second hometown. I don't speak about my first hometown, the one where I'm really "from."
I lived in my first hometown from ages five to eighteen, making it my 'real' hometown. Because those are the years you become a person, right? "High school." "Prom." "Puberty." These might ring a bell for some. For me, they represent that feeling you get when you get an ice cube put down the back of your shirt. And then having to watch the ice melt while you feel the cold wetness of your shirt cling to your body.
My first hometown was a farming town with a top-notch school system, where I graduated number twenty-four in my class of two hundred. It had a "downtown" that consisted of a Dunkin Donuts and CVS and a gas station. It was a plastic bag put over your head; the risk of suffocation was always there, although if you were quick, you could pull it off just in time to see the bored looks of your high school contemporaries.
I don't mention this hometown to anyone because I almost died there. Not of boredom, but of depression. It was a WASP filled wasp nest, and I was the lone wasp who declared I had a mental illness, and was shunned for it. No one wanted anything to do with me. The bored looks of my high school contemporaries turned to pity, and then confusion. I had been so 'normal.' And now? I was asking for the plastic bag.
I'm not proud of who I was. I was learning what it meant to be depressed, and sure, that's hard, but it was also so pathetic. While everyone was doing 'normal' things, I was in therapy, hospitals, doctor's offices. I was stunted, and it was only later, in my "second" hometown, after age eighteen, that I learned what it means to be a human being. And not a corpse, or a wasp.
So, there it is: my initial hometown was a hell hole of sorts, but maybe that's just high school, growing up, etc. When you ask me where I'm from, I'll mention my second hometown, think fleetingly of my real, first hometown, and then smile, content that "home" is no longer somewhere I want to escape from.
Token of the Town
There was a park, evergreen with hanging willows that obscured doeful readers from the burgeoning heat, but allowed the sound of splashes from the children merrily tearing around the waterpark to filter by. Doting parents stood watchful of their children to catch them with fresh, fluffy towels before they could make a break for the slide and risk a friction burn or tumble to the lush grass.
The large rock by the gate stood proudly, steady for nimble hands and youthful yelps as children scrabbled to sit upon it for a family photograph. It was not the trademark of this obscured slice of paradise- rather something the locals had taken as the token of their town. Not far off, past the whomping willows and swings was there a decrepit bridge a older child would stand beneath in a hunkering position to scare off the weary travellers that would pass over into the parking lot of the adjoining schoolyard. I remember bathing in that filthy water within the divot of park and school, run-off from the cemetery's rain or pressure washer, as a little girl with my two school aged friends. My mother took to chatting up their mothers, laying out snacks on the picnic table a few yards shy of where we splashed in the cold. Splashed in weather-worn stone that someone had pressed their hands, lips, flowers to as they stopped by to lay an offering to a past loved ones grave.
Now, I have stumbled that same park that is bereft of light in the dead of night, with empty bottles in my bag and a cigarette hanging loosely from my lips as I sit beside the big rock. I hear the forlorn howls of coyotes that prowl the cemetery in the night, a cemetery I am bitterly acquainted, but I do not stir. I know this park is safe from the scrabble of gunshots and stabbings that rip through my large city. But this park is just a slice- a piece that people overlook for bigger, better, newer. I set the ash off on the knee of my jeans, rather than ever muddying the hundreds of handprints- mine and my siblings alike- that have pressed into the sides of that rock. A token of my town, a token of my time I always find myself returning to. Loved over, loved lingering.
I grew up in the last century. Back in the last century, I grew up in a hometown before crack. Before meth. Before teenagers on bikes had guns. Before AIDS and hepatitis. Before daily mass shootings. I could go anywhere, whenever, and it was reasonable to conclude I would get back safely. Public transit at 3 am. Drinking in a bar till dawn. Back when life expectancy was, well, the life expectancy.
My hometown was New Orleans and, except for the "drinking till dawn part," the other things apply to any hometown, really.
Now there's crack cocaine and addictions. There are addictions and then there are addictions. When I was growing up, everyone cared whether they lived or died. Now there are those who not only don't care whether you live or die, they don't even care whether they live or die. And they're the ones with guns. At 3 am and — really — any other time, too.
When I was growing up, there was no road rage worse than the birds that were flipped.
Of course, back then we had fluorocarbons, DDT, leaded gasoline, lots of nuns, and lots and lots of asbestos. No seatbelts. But I think I'd rather take my chances with the past, because the music and food in my hometown made it worth it. Do remember, though, it was New Orleans.
Richardson is a whole other world filled with intellect, maturity, and life and lights! The DART stations and the rush of a train! It's all so amazing and fabulous! Three days a week I walk among modern buildings and shining windows coating grand buildings meant for study and note-taking.
Then can you imagine, that I began in a house about seventy years old to the very day right now, where the door hinges and fridge door have begun to creak? Where there are rows of houses just as small with leaking paint and where likely the youngest child got the smallest room where the roof leaked? At least, unlike the rest, this space was all mine.
And I have to say it was a lovely start. My bed was it's own princess tower. I saw everything, I was ruler over all I saw. I had a veritable horde of toys and stuffed animals. My parents-- Mama y Papa-- were very indulgent. I wish I'd been much more grateful, but autism is an elusive, confounding beast. My parents never judged me so harshly. They simply read the signs and got the right people involved.
Then again, they could stand to call my sister by her proper name. You see I have two elder brothers too, still living in this house, but they work and earn the food and space. How wonderful, I could only aspire to be like that.
Now it isn't wholly accurate, turns out the eldest was given the wrong pieces. She'd never been a boy but the dressing and the skin and the parts all contradicted what she had known to be true. And of course, she is still here so there is that. I wasn't wrenched away from my sister, who in her ache and dysphoria had been a bit cold to be honest, for some years.
Though Father still calls her by that name. The "deadname." Which I won't humor even on here, since it. Is. Well, dead.
I grew somewhat self-centered I will admit. I grew up among Spanish speakers, and homely women wearing normal sweats and a bit on the plumper side. I grew up with a Panaderia just past the road.
On that same strip is a gas station, an auto shop, some other food place-- there always is one here in this country-- and a laundromat. Big, automated machines, shiny, new looking washers and dryers. There had been a time where ours malfunctioned so we went there to pay for a wash, for a quarter.
And the rest? Those were given to me, since they had wonderful arcade games on the back wall. To my eyes such games were candy. Absolutely perfect for always moving always animated hands, fidgeting in weird--
I say it over and over but that's because it's just as formative as the lower class, predominantly Hispanic and Black low-class speck of Dallas, Tx I grew up in.
A child always in her own head, I suppose a parent would have to hold on a little tighter.
I remember a little red ball. More than any doll or stuffed animal I put to sleep or decorated the living room with to be a little less empty as I watched cartoons with only my own company, the red plastic, in such a vibrant color and softly bopped against my head enchanted my eyes. I rolled it across a nice little lawn on the front porch, kicked and threw to my Mother who played with me. Until it rolled onto the main road that divided each line of houses and spat out onto the street proper left and right. Point is, I would have absolutely walked onto the pavement in the way of a car for that little red ball. Not even notice-- if my mom hadn't held me with a word, firmly in place so she could get my little red ball.
I could wax on, tell each and every little thing that made my neighborhood small and mundane as it was the very best or how I rolled down the main road while learning to ride a bike that now sits collecting rust and spider webs-- again spoiled-- however the challenge read good or bad.
For better or for worse. In ill and in prosperity.
There was school. And like I said, I genuinely believe there was no 'White' kid in that entire three floor unit. Or was it-- no it was two. Oh, there was a White teacher! Quite a nice man and he taught us out of a one-room schoolhouse! I think that's where all the first grade classes are. And they have metal steps girls can sit on to play patty cake.
Everyone there for the most part were Black or brown.
And, did you know that at that age all primary school kids care about is being loud and beepy games. I like those things too sure.
But no one minded the teachers who were trying to teach or did very well with reading. They were all sooooo slow.
And I know it wasn't very polite, the teacher screamed at me to get that point across, it was just so slow.
I decided to stay much more quiet after that.
School became boring waiting for most of the class to catch up.
And frankly kids are not very kind.
They're demons and I never knew what I did wrong! All I did was be nice and smile. My family had liked it, why did no one my age like me?
I hadn't had a friend before school, I didn't count my cousin then. Such a mistake. He may have been hard to understand before he learned to talk though no one else brought me candy when I was sick. Or thought of me in middle school after I had broken an arm to bring me chips and fruit in a pretty basket.
In place of a wider world that shunned me I found solace in the warmth of my family.
I focused on the wonder of yearly easter egg hunts and what flowery, light colored dress I would wear. On the Christmas prayer-- "misa"-- thing at another Aunt's house, where we opened presents at midnight.
My childhood was birthday parties with awful Mexican music blaring from speakers, at least they shut up when it was pinata and cake time. It was random weekend visits to one cousin whose father owned a ranch and so, so many animals. Who had a Netflix account and gush about cartoons we both liked or hammer out what to watch when and for how long.
"Two episodes of yours... finish this... and then the rest for mine."
"Outside time, just for one Demon Game."
"What are we doing out here? The pizza's come!"
My house isn't exactly a den for activity and entertaining two kids with a burgeoning obsession for TV. Either way we made do.
We played games, we scattered toys, and my brother was always smiling and responsive for a scant couple of hours when we took up his console.
Where did all that time go?
I-- never realized how much bigger the world could be.
Now that cousin is five hours away pursuing hospital management. Management! It's-- it's so grown-up! So technical and well-paid, he'd certainly not seemed the type for such a job. However he certainly loved money. And I suppose, he is a bit used to cheating already.
Both my parents are too old to run with me now. My Mom just about in her golden years. I'd never had to think too hard on being conceived at forty. Not since my mother was fifty, and her daughter was still in the fifth grade. Hardly a functional pessimist.
My sister deems me worthy of hearing about politics or about sterilization. We each know a cache of memes to use in place of dry, bland little tidbits about our lives.
I deem her worthy of speaking anime with.
Two days a week, I speak with a thirty-two year old in the Student Union and I have him in my contacts.
Where has the time gone?
I'm a firm libertarian(?) or liberal. I firmly believe social issues must have more of a concentration in politics, and surely beyond the will of old White dudes.
To think, such nuanced and educated sounding notions coming out of my mouth and onto type. I wonder, could you believe? That I'd started in a poor little barrio where we made tamales from masa rather than turkey and rice rather than green beans and mashed potatoes to go with pollo?
The Black Sheep in a Circle of Wolves
It’s the holiday season. A time for families to come together and share joy and memories. And give thanks for all the blessings they receive in life. My cousin has been hosting the Thanksgiving festivities at her house for a while now, so going there has become tradition. I couldn't tell you what it's like. I've never been invited. So while my family enjoys turkey, ham, stuffing, alcohol and togetherness, I sit here. Alone. In my bedroom. For I am the Black Sheep of the family.
It wasn't always this way. Growing up I was the baby among my cousins and without a doubt the favorite. I never had any brothers or sisters so I guess you could say I was spoiled. On Thanksgiving, (which was always at our house), my mom would make us all write our name on a small piece of paper and fold it up. Then she'd take the pieces, throw them into a hat and make us each pull out one. The name on it would be the person we were supposed to get a Christmas gift for. I guess she did this for everyone else because she always made sure to get a gift for everyone and everyone always got an extra one for me.
As I got older, my interests began to change. I discovered boys and sex. Then after a bad break-up, I discovered drugs- and booze. My parents did everything they could but nothing helped. Before I finished my freshman year in high school, I was a drug addict. And that Christmas, everyone would know it.
Its funny how no one ever acknowledges the person who is aware of the signs. I had been able to fool my parents. But once my family arrived, the cat was out of the bag. My cousin's husband was the first to say something. A "former" addict and forever alcoholic. I use the term "former" loosely because looking back I realize he was telling the truth about being drug free about as well as I was. Still seeking approval from my family he saw an opportunity to take the spotlight off himself and shine it on someone else. A fifteen year old girl. Swell.
I should probably mention that at this time I was not the only active drug user in my family. I was just the only one that hadn't mastered the art of hiding it. How disappointed everyone must've been. I bet they talked about it the whole time they were getting loaded in my bedroom. The shame they must have felt when they discovered I was not of the same high moral standards.
Years went by. People pretended to get sober, myself included. Eventually we stopped having Thanksgiving at our house and my cousin took it over. My parents say it got too expensive having both holidays at our house but I'm pretty sure they got tired of being judged. After all, it is their fault for not being able to see the signs.
Funny how no one ever mentions the abortion my parents paid for. Not mine of course. But the daughter of one of my perfect family members. Who at the time was fifteen. They never mention the lying, cheating or violence. And why would they? Maybe I just don't get it. I've never stepped on that moral high ground they all walk on. I've never been invited.
See my parents, raised me to be loving and tolerant. To use the gift my dad gave me. Which was the ability to read people. To use that as a tool needed only for protection. He showed me how to listen to my instincts. How to use caution when dealing with strangers. But never, NEVER, stick your nose up. He taught me that humility was the only way to ensure that when the tables turn, (and I promise you they will), I have a seat on the right side.
My mother. She is a beautiful person. The epitome of a strong woman. Her unconditional love and loyalty was the only thing that got me through some days. Of course I didn't realize it until later on in life. When the entire world had given up on me and everyone else in our family had their nose up, she was there. And when I cried to her because I wasn't invited to my cousin’s she said:
"That's ok. We didn't really want to go."