About a year ago, I went home. “Home,” as in, “to my hometown,” which is neither a place I was born nor where I will, at some juncture, have spent the majority of my life. My life is young yet, after all, and there will be a locus of provenance that surpasses this previous place somewhere along the way—sooner than not, actually. I left Birmingham, Alabama, in the winter of 2008, never to return. It was a vow. As our shambly U-Haul made the trek up the westbound 290 ramp as it merges with I-35 south, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech played on the community radio station. We took it as symbolic.
In the interlude where I lived away from Austin, in Little Rock, working for the magazine, I had reasons to return “home” more often. My parents and my sister left Alabama even before I did. If I journeyed back, it was solely of my own recognizance. No force compelled me. First, for Thanksgiving—I drove the six-ish hours through Memphis, down through Mississippi, then northwestern Alabama for a few days’ respite. Some friends of mine were renting a house in the south side then, we had a night with a campfire and all the coolest lingerers came over. I shared a bed with my old friend, an ex-boy, in a moment of simple and utter Platonism. His enormous and beautiful dog, still in the midst of a custody dispute, rested nearby.
Six hours was a negligible drive, though, and I grew accustomed to dialing in to the radio stations in the tri-state area as I crossed borders in my little red truck, the CD player long since broken, the days long before factory auxiliary hookups. I made the journey as often as time permitted, and even once with a new boy, who would later become my husband, while he drove us to several less-traversed burgs as my personal chaperone throughout the magazine’s celebration of Alabama’s musical heritage: long pulls of Buffalo Trace in a hot tub in Florence, sleeping four to a double among clamorous and competing snores in Tuscaloosa, slimly surviving the unseasonable ice luge that highway 78 became on the way to Birmingham, where I last-minute emceed a sparsely attended concert on the same stage I darted across to intercept my high school diploma.
But since I have moved away from the Deep South and found myself somewhere in Texas, apparently to remain, I have to make a concerted effort to venture to Birmingham. It had been several years, I missed my best friend and she missed me, I felt the rumbling of a life crisis; it was certainly time to go.
The trip was planned with care: I would first rent a car and drive myself out to Talladega, to a farm owned and operated by a few friends, for two days’ work. Talladega is a lovely drive. I listened to the hip-hop station the entire way, last spring’s hit “God’s Plan” was the final sound I heard as I shut off the engine in a dusty driveway crawling with dogs. We fell into old comedy routines, from a time we were much younger and shared a summer together on a farm. We spent the night eating shitty Mexican food, cracking jokes about hot tub stores, and philosophizing on mental health and siring children while watching NCAA basketball that nobody actually gave a shit about. I slept on a living room chaise in the morning sun under a quilt stained with dog hair. There was no hot water at the house and I relished it. The next morning I worked solitarily in the half-sun, harvesting carrots, collecting flowers, and broadforking two new rows. My friend’s parents swung by to drop off a niece, we caught up on old times and his dad snapped a few pictures of evidence that I actually did perform manual labor at some point.
That night I drove into town, had a scalding shower at my friend’s apartment, and took her for dinner at the place that would win the James Beard Award for Most Outstanding Restaurant little more than a month later. We spent the next few days having meandering and baldly honest conversations. I arranged to observe two days at my old high school, and promptly spilled coffee all over myself in the Uber on the first morning over. Seeing my old teachers and former classmates who are themselves now teachers, was only manageable largely because I have inhabited the teacher’s thirst for professional development so indubitably that I am impervious to embarrassment.
There was a time, on the second day, where I was dutifully engrossed in conversation with the twelfth-grade charge I was assigned to shadow. Across the cafeteria, at which she kindly let me sit with her and her friends in the booth, I heard the oaky voice of a teacher-mentor I had loved and who had helped me, a person I have since cited when pressed as part of the reason I decided to work with teenagers. There was some formative crush there, in honesty, there were many nights I’d charter my best friend’s sober vehicle to drive us past the apartment we thought was his, laughing and listening to Blondie. I think I did that often, and with more than one man, as previously mentioned. Here was my chance to see him, to slip away and just re-introduce myself, but I am resigned to the fact that my life is a Henry James novel, and I couldn’t break away from the person I was accompanying; I dance with the one who brought me, after all.
We all went out once, as a group—something arranged. We went to a bar that was, hilariously, far more amusing in its novelty than many of the Austin bars I attend these days. We tried to play games, a younger, Chris Eigeman-esque guy insulted me, and I felt huge and irrelevant. We wandered up to our friend’s bachelorette loft, festooned with labyrinthine indoor plants, dripping from the ceiling and concealing the utter absence of corners. It was like a fertility lair. I was lost for a moment, and located later, weeping in the coat rack, behind the small partition that concealed the door. It was in response to the announcement of her marriage. Because her house, with its vines and ferns and well managed rescue dog, seemed to me a paradise. A thing of unspeakable envy I could never discover for myself; she rescued me from the coat rack, tucked a blanket over me, and hoisted an Underwood typewriter from nowhere, clacking out a letter in artistic indents that asked me if I really wanted to stay married. I found the letter, on lined legal-pad paper, in a jacket a few months ago.
There was a cloudy but balmy afternoon I spent waxing philosophical again while traversing the Botanical Gardens with an old high school friend. Someone I’d reconnected with on his travels around the globe; he saw the Ferris Wheel in Vienna that Orson Welles spies the tiny dots from in The Third Man. He’d thought of me and thus began a rekindling. It is those people who you forget you impress that I find the most surprising validation from. And, in another sense, it reminds me that I’ve always been teaching, in some capacity, somehow.
One night, my best friend offered to read my tarot. I have purposefully avoided tarot, because I know my personal will is made of iron and will manifest whatever it wants. She asked me to meditate on something. I chose my relationship, but never spoke so out loud. Needless to say, the reading was so abysmal, it was as if one card trumped the previous in its terror: here is the Star, followed by the Nine of Swords. Here is the destiny you have told yourself to not yet believe. Helpless, I wept quietly. She felt so terrible she sent me a conciliatory email that explained in greater detail some of the cards’ meaning. But by this point, I more or less knew.
And I don’t know the true meaning of “home,” for me personally, or if it is variable. Obviously, I chose to return out of some sense of staying connected; my friends had married and had children I’d never met. There were new places to explore, new lifestyles to absorb. I went without the conscious expectation of receiving any answers; I think in some subconscious way, I always go “home” with the desire to impress. As if there is a part of me, eternally in the amber of seventeen, who wants to feel welcomed and adored. I have worked to give up most of such insecurity, but I see too much evidence that it exists all the same. The dialectical experience of seeing the vestiges of your life as it was against the backdrop of how it exists presently is illuminating only in the ways the viewer currently values: I felt professionally secure, so I was professionally validated. I sought the comfort of dear friends, so I received the affection of dear friends. I was in denial about the health of my relationship, so I was confronted directly with the truth of my relationship, exactly so far away from its milieu I existed within.
Spring is a symbolic beginning, and it felt strange to have stepped into the past. It feels even stranger now, recalling this trip as if it were just lived in, when it was now over a year ago. How quickly everything in my folded-up life has accelerated since then. How quickly might I lose the significance if I didn’t stop to write it.