Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

13 years

 

This is the first time I had to do the math to remember how many years we’ve been together. Was it 2001 or 2002? Is it 12 years or 13? I interpret this to mean we have passed some sort of invisible benchmark where neither of us is sitting around holding up fingers, counting time, asking ourselves “It’s been 3 months, seven days and 55 minutes…I think it’s really going somewhere!” Could this really be something? Could this be…LOVE?

We’ve been together 13 years, but it feels more like three. We’ve been together since I was fresh-faced and 25, and now my eyes crinkle at the top as I inch toward 39. Thirteen years makes our relationship a gawky teen, wide-eyed and hopeful but thankfully short on angst and ennui. The training wheels are off. We’re really in this thing, albeit still a little awkward.

Thirteen years in means less spontaneity, and more durability. Thirteen years in means planning ahead for fifty years in, and making decisions now that will help us feel secure then. It’s not the dopamine-rush of year one, or the wobbly uncertainty of years two and three, it’s the shelter and safety of having some real time behind us, of having shared experiences that really shaped us as people, taught us as individuals, and bound us as partners.

Sometimes I think there’s a certain amount of luck attributed to each person, and I used all mine up when you hitched your wagon to mine. Sometimes I think that the universe has already given me so much good by putting you in my path that I couldn’t possibly be eligible for more. Now I think that you are my luck, and your presence in my life is such a grounding force that it helps me create my own abundance. 

Thirteen years, and in a lot of ways we’ve only just begun. In the grand scheme of things, 13 years is a tiny drop in a big bucket. We’ve still got a long stretch of road ahead and though I’m no fortune-teller, I have a feeling the view’s about to get more interesting.

And at the risk of sounding like Thelma and Louise, let’s keep going.

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Not Home for the Holidays

This past July, Vin and I went to Texas to hang with my family and sweat all over ourselves. We spent one afternoon splashing in dad’s pool and everything felt right with the world.  It was a perfectly casual summer day, and there was literally no where else I wanted to be. Dad kept bringing out pitchers of frozen cocktails, my niece and I were knocking around in the water, and we basically spent an afternoon laughing our heads off. Then Vinny got a text message: His sister had the baby!

We all lifted our plastic margarita glasses in celebration. “To Baby Kevin!” But Vinny looked sad. He wanted to be back in New York with his family. Something important was happening, and he wasn’t part of it. I could see it written on his face, that wistful sense of longing when you realize everyone is hanging out and carrying on without you. I felt bad that he wasn’t there; he wanted to be and he should have been.

I have that feeling all the time. It started when my parents divorced, and intensified when I moved to New York. I’ve lived thousands of miles away from my family throughout my adult life, so you’d think by now I’d be used to it, but I’m not. It still sucks.

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It crops up on anniversaries and holidays, when I should be there, but I’m not. It happens on Mother’s Day, when I’d love nothing more than to bring a bouquet of flowers to mom’s door and cook her breakfast. It happens on a sunny Saturday afternoon when friends and neighbors gather in dad’s yard to drink cold beers and eat fish tacos. It happens when babies are born and school plays are produced and birthday gifts are unwrapped. I wish hanging out with my family weren’t an elaborate production. I wish it didn’t involve planning and plane tickets and large sums of money. I wish I could drive over for Sunday dinner like it’s no big deal. I want to share lunch with my niece in her school cafeteria on a random Tuesday. I want to eat mom’s Mickey Mouse waffles next Saturday for breakfast.

But more than sadness, I carry guilt. I created this distance. They all stayed in place, and I chose to move. I feel guilty that I’m not there to participate fully in our family life. I wish I had the time and the money to attend every important event with them. I keep waiting for my mom or dad to get a wild hair and move to New York City. In a few years I’ll put a bug in my niece’s ear, convince her to apply to Columbia or Fordham or Hunter. My brother will kill me, but I’m willing to take that chance.

A few weeks ago, mom sent me a text message: “Your brother’s wife had the baby!” I lifted my coffee mug in the air and toasted “To Baby Aiden!” even though no one was there to clink the other side. He was born in late November and I’ll meet him in early February. I timed our next visit with my niece’s 11th birthday. It’s about damn time I attended one of her parties. Pretty soon she’ll be too old to have them.

I just packed up the Christmas box I’m sending to my sweet niece and brand new nephew. It’s filled with books and toys for the baby, baking supplies for our big girl. We travel to Texas every other year for Christmas; this year we stay in New York. It is what it is.

Included in the box is a book from the ’80s called PEOPLE. It’s the most wonderful children’s book I’ve ever seen, filled with illustrations of people from every possible country and culture to help children notice and appreciate the vast and beautiful diversity in our world. I think it’s actually out of print, which amazes me. The world could use a few fresh new copies of this book.

I found it abandoned on a curb in Brooklyn, while trick-or-treating with our New York City nephews and their parents. I already had a copy of the book at home; it’s been one of my favorites since childhood when my aunt and uncle sent it to my brother and me. Scrolled on the inside cover was a brief but touching dedication– “To Jennifer and Adam– two very unique and beautiful people”– Love always, Aunt Renee and Uncle David.

Growing up, I barely saw my aunt and uncle. They spent their young married years sleeping in tents in Greece and teaching English in Japan. They were never around on Christmas morning and I’m pretty sure they never huddled around the cake as I blew out candles and made a wish. They weren’t a big part of my childhood, but I feel very close to them as an adult. They’ve hosted us countless times in Austin, and we’ve shown them some of our favorite spots in New York. We learned how to make authentic paella and pan de tomate together while traveling in Spain. I hope one day to have the same relationship with my brother’s kids, the ones I barely see.

I plan on scrolling a little message to my own niece and nephew on the book’s inside cover, just like our aunt and uncle wrote to their dad and me. ”To Allison and Aiden– two very unique and beautiful people. Wish we could be with you on Christmas. We love you, and will see you soon.”

I’ll stuff the box with crinkled tissue paper and deliver it to the post office later today. I’ll feel good for a minute, congratulate myself for being a thoughtful and dedicated auntie. And then I’ll feel that twinge of guilt twist and burn inside, wishing I could always be there to watch them open my gifts in person.

 

 

 

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Final Push for the Luby’s Tea Cart Ladies

Growing up, nothing was more comforting than dinner at Luby’s. Now Luby’s, for the uninitiated, is a cafeteria chain and apparently a very, very Texas thing. When you’re a kid, the place you call home is the sun and every other place is like another planet, orbiting around you. I just assumed people in other states spent Friday night shuffeling down a line with a green plastic tray, waiting for a lady in a hairnet to fill their plate with the Lu-Ann special– half a piece of chicken, fish or pot roast, two sides, and a hot buttered roll. I thought everyone else bought fresh shrimp from a little trailer in the K-Mart parking lot and pinned enormous mums to their chests for Homecoming. How arrogant we are, the very young.

The food is probably not as special as my memory of it is– how could it be?– but I do recall having some pretty satisfying meals at the Luby’s off 61st Street in Galveston. My typical dinner was the fried fish with a squeeze of lemon or the chicken fried steak, surrounded on all sides by tiny ceramic bowls filled with gluey mac and cheese, waxy green beans that piled on top of one another and squeaked against my teeth, and velvety mashed potatoes, dented with a spoon in the middle and filled with a puddle of thick brown gravy.  We’d shove our trays down the line until it was time to pick the final flourishes– a warm cloverleaf roll or a big slab of cornbread (toss-up), a thick piece of gloppy but luscious chocolate cream pie or a glass parfait dish filled with chunks of electric blue jello (pie–always, forever, that’s not even a choice), iced tea or lemonade, or if your parents were feeling generous, fountain soda. (Iced tea, no question).

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Dad would foot the bill as dads are wont to do, then we’d carry our trays to the nearest booth and shimmy in, one by one. We’d eat our dinners and chat about our week. Occasionally people we’d recognize would pass our table and say hello– a coworker from dad’s office, a classmate from school, a neighbor, a friend. It was the kind of town where it was often hard not to bump into people. Luby’s, TCBY, Home-cut Donuts, Randall’s grocery– go there, you’re going to run into somebody you know every single time. Maybe that’s why my mother taught me to never leave the house without lipstick. Although I think that might be a strictly Texas thing too.

My brother’s personal tradition was to finish his meal, take a deep breath, then untuck his shirt and unbutton his pants so he could hit the line again and go for round two. Eating dinner at Luby’s was a lot like Thanksgiving; you had to go in hungry and commit to a well-constructed plan. My brother viewed a night at Luby’s as a marathon, not a sprint, and made his preparations accordingly, not only by picking the right outfit, but by harnessing his mental energy to become a strategically mindful eater, choosing just the right dishes to leave him calm and satisfied rather than overstuffed and lethargic, or so bloated and comatose we’d have to haul him out in a wheelbarrow.

While he was gone, one of the tea cart ladies would roll through, offering refills. Wait… you don’t know what a tea cart lady is? Oh. You must be from one of the other planets. Bless your heart.

Iced tea is a big deal in Texas. My mother brewed a glass jar of it weekly on our back porch, under the sizzling beam of a blazing Texas sun. My camp kept it ready and available in the dining hall for us to guzzle throughout the day, huge galvanized pitchers we barely had the strength to lift. And my father, in several restaurants where they know him, is given an entire pitcher of the stuff because he requires more refills than any mere mortal could possibly keep up with. Being a truly Texan chain, Luby’s recognized the importance of free-flowing iced tea, and thus employed a fleet of cordial ladies to circle the restaurant pushing metal carts filled top to bottom with slender glasses pre-filled with our favorite beverage. They wore muddy brown or maroon smocks, tied at the waist with thick, white apron strings and flat, sexless footwear like candy stripers asking, “More tea? More tea?” in lilting Texas accents as they paraded up and down the aisles. The tea cart ladies are long gone now, replaced by people who simply take your order, and come back with your refill. I miss the good old days, I really do.

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I spent Halloween in Brooklyn this year, dressed in cowboy boots and a western shirt to match a few members of the great New York family I married into; the family I was born into would not have considered my outfit a costume. Our twin toddler nephews were adorable little cowboys–custom-made baby chaps included– and since I already have a few pieces of Western wear, it was difficult not to oblige the offer to join in the seasonal fun.

We went to Fort Greene Park where hordes of revelers were dressed to the gills. We saw whole families dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, gangs of superheroes, Mister Potato Head, a walking banana. I kept waiting for one of them to dethrone the greatest costume I ever saw, but it’s been 18 years now, and no one has ever come close.

My brother, the same one who used to unbutton his pants and untuck his shirt in preparation for his 2nd dinner at Luby’s, joined a fraternity in college. The year he pledged, the active members made him dress head toe as a wolf–not the scary, threatening kind, but the plush, storybook version you want to cuddle up next to because the fur is so soft. In one of my favorite photos, my brother is unrecognizable in his wolf costume, with his arm around his older sister, adorned in blonde braided pigtails and dressed like Baby Spice. Flanking my other side is one of my best girlfriends, a spunky sorority girl wearing an old prom dress, fake dreadlocks and a sash that reads “Miss Jamaica”. If Facebook had been around back then, she’d have probably made national news. 

We clinked our red solo cups and danced the Monster Mash, then halfway through the party, one of the other pledges finally made his appearance. He was at least 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and quads like tree trunks. His furry leg hair was the same color as his frumpy brown dress, and his waist was so thick he could barely tie the apron strings around the back. His hairnet was secured with thick metal pins and his enormous feet barely fit inside his orthopedic shoes. He slowly mingled around the party, pushing an old metal cart across the stained concrete floor. When he finally made his way toward us with his cart full of glasses, I couldn’t help but put down my beer and toss back a Lipton.

Aside from a few out-of-state admissions, we were all a bunch of Texas kids. Many were from Dallas and Houston, while others came from tiny towns no one else had ever heard of– but we’d all grown up grabbing glasses of tea off a traveling cart, all bargained with our parents for the cream pie instead of jello. It was a moment that made every one of us smile and feel nostalgic for our childhoods, even though technically, we were all still in it, albeit the tail end. There was beer on the floor and neon on the walls. Girls were dressed like naughty nurses and guys looked like wild animals. But suddenly, out of nowhere, out fell this little crumb of pure, innocent sweetness.

And oh, what a treat that was.

 

 

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This is Marriage (2)

 

Sometimes, when walking to dinner in our neighborhood together, I like to imagine we are Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise, two young, alluring people with sharp tongues and bright ideas who spend hours just walking around and talking about the greatest things in life– philosophy, passion, love, sex, books, travel, food. We wander slowly, treading carefully down cobble stone streets, using our hands to fill out our sentences. We ping-pong ideas off one another, and almost never run out of things to say. It’s easier to picture us like this when we’re strolling by tiny sidewalk cafes and charming fruit stands because our town in Queens looks vaguely European that way. It becomes a challenge when passing Dunkin’ Donuts or the auto body shop just off the feeder road.

These have been my favorite moments of the last 14 years, the length of time it’s taken us to go from coworkers to friends to partners to spouses. We started our walks on lunch breaks, two kids fairly low on the totem pole escaping their cubicles to go play outside. We’d walk all the way down from 23rd to 14th Street, pointing out women we knew were models and artfully dodging people from Greenpeace or Planned Parenthood asking for money or overpriced midtown salons trying to sell us a full day of beauty. We’d grab a bowl of noodles, plop ourselves on a park bench in Union Square and watch the world go by.

We never go out to lunch together now. Instead, I pack sensible combinations of protein, carbs and fat in our small shared kitchen and send you out into the world with a bag full of Tupperware. Now we take walks in search of brunch and dinner and always ice cream. And even if the meal isn’t memorable, the walk usually is because the setting keeps changing, but you are my constant. I get to admire your profile and you always hold my hand. Palm folded into palm– never fingers intertwined–because according to you, lacing fingers is for teenagers and puppy love and we are beyond all that.

When we first started dating we’d have 5-hour phone marathons where we’d yammer on and on about everything under the sun until we both passed out from exhaustion. A friend of yours said talking like that would never last, and he was right. There isn’t much to catch each other up on now; we share a home and a life, and as a result, our anecdotes.

Sometimes it feels like we’re going to run out of new things to say, and then one of us tells a story the other one has never heard before, and we both feel giddy with excitement. You’ll tell me about the kid who grew up on your block or the time you tried to impress a girl by speaking your shared native language, or I’ll share a memory that involved falling down or running into things when I wasn’t paying attention.

I’ll remind myself to be a better wife and a kinder person and encourage you to keep talking about what it is you do for a living, which, on a cognitive level is difficult for me to understand.

I’ll think about how lucky I am to create more history with someone as funny and sweet as you, and you’ll look at me with your head cocked slightly to the right with the corners of your mouth turned up and paint the words I love you with the curves of your face.

Last night when we walked to dinner we talked about growing older, not just the physical act of it, but what it must feel like to look in the mirror and see a wise old face that doesn’t quite match up with the young, dumb fool you feel like on the inside. We talked about Facebook and social media, and the kids who are growing up on it, and how one day they’ll be able to look back at nearly every day of their childhood and catch a glimpse of it, like one of those flip books where you turn the pages a mile a minute so it looks like the change happened while you blinked. Then I asked if you thought my feet were getting fat. There is room for all of it.

I doubt the way we talk to each other is anything extraordinary, but sometimes it feels that way. I doubt I love my husband more than anyone else loves theirs, but sometimes I think that I might. Sometimes it feels like we’re two characters in a movie, swapping thoughts and ideas and stories and there is something really romantic about all of it. Sometimes I think I should stop to write it all down, that these everyday conversations with my husband are not banal or mundane, but poignant and memorable.

And then it occurs to me that the two of us are probably not extraordinary at all, that this must be what everyone thinks after having a really good talk with someone they love.

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Wherever I go, I’m taking you with me

The other day you frowned. At the time, you were gazing out the window of a new coffee shop down the street.  We’d just had a lovely afternoon in our neighborhood– eating lunch, shopping at the mom and pop bookstore, and sharing tiny pastries at a French-themed cafe.

“Astoria! I’m going to miss you!” you cried out. I bit my lip, and nodded in agreement.

I’ve been in this neighborhood eight years–you more than 10–and though we haven’t come close to picking out a new home, we have already begun to say goodbye to this one. It’s looking less and less likely that we’ll be able to find what we’re looking for in Astoria, and while I can’t say with any type of certainty, my money is on us moving to Brooklyn. Let’s place some bets. I could use the cash.

The great thing about a big city like New York is that it gets broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces and the piece you occupy– your local neighborhood–becomes a small city unto itself. The businesses on your street become your barstool at Cheers. The people who tend them greet you with warmth when you walk through the door. Your butcher knows the cut you prefer, and the same man hands you the free Metro paper every morning at the foot of the subway stairs. The checkout ladies in hijabs are always curious about your grocery items, especially when they vary from your normal sweet potatoes and heads of kale.

“Ohhhh, what are you making tonight?” they’ll ask, holding up your bags of z’aatar and lentils.

Lately we’re looking around and noticing everything. As we stockpile mental lists of things we like and things we don’t about a neighborhood, we’re finding few complaints in the one we currently occupy. It’s cool without being pretentious. It’s multi-ethnic without feeling divided. It’s convenient. It’s comfortable. It’s interesting. It’s safe.

I’m really going to miss it.

I’m going to miss walking up Broadway, where century-old barber shops with steel chairs and striped poles keep their windows open so you can see men getting their sides trimmed or their faces shaved. I’m going to miss my shoe-shine guy, whose tiny store smells like a polished saddle and who fixes my boots for $5 every winter so I don’t have to buy new ones. I’m going to miss the bakery on the corner beneath the subway, not because I ever buy anything there, but because the smell of fresh bread escapes from their vent every morning and drifts all the way up to the train platform. I’m going to miss walking hand-in-hand with you to Saturday brunch. I’m going to miss summer mornings writing and drinking coffee in my little backyard.

I will not miss the awful loveseat we’ve held onto the past eight years because a real-sized sofa won’t fit into our living room. For years and years we’ve talked about a bigger space so we can finally invest in a longer couch. This lumpy loveseat is not coming with us. It will spend eternity on an Astoria streetcurb.

I will never miss this couch, but I will miss the closeness it requires. I’ll miss its narrow, squat dimensions and how it’s forced us to attach our bodies together like they’re trimmed in Velcro. I’ll miss Sunday nights with my feet propped on your legs, and I’ll miss sleepy mornings with your head against my shoulder.

Thankfully, you pack up real easy.

I’ll miss this neighborhood something awful, but there’s great comfort in knowing that wherever I go, I’m taking you with me.

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My Love Letter to Texas

 

I didn’t stay up to find out, but I heard Boyhood didn’t win last night. It was the only movie I saw last year, so I really wanted it to take home Best Picture.

But that’s obviously not the only reason I was rooting for Boyhood. And I’m guessing anybody else who loves Texas had their fingers crossed too.

I saw the movie a few months ago, and knew about the 12-year filming process going in. But what I didn’t know beforehand was that the movie was shot all over Texas, in locations with which I am intimately familiar. The setting wasn’t mentioned upfront, but I could tell it by the landscape and some of the dialogue. Once “dang” gets tossed in a script, the geography gets narrowed down pretty quickly.

I loved every minute of Boyhood. If you haven’t seen it or heard that much about it, this movie is a subtle, slowly moving tribute to childhood, parenthood and life itself.  The opening scene is simply a little boy lying in the grass with his hand tucked under his head, staring at the vastness of the sky. There are no major plot twists or story arcs, just quiet, carefully strung vignettes that mark the confusion and clumsiness of being alive. Some people complained that it was long and boring, but I never wanted it to end.

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If you’ve read here a while, you’re well aware that I grew up in Texas. Like other traitors before me, I moved to New York City at 22 and haven’t looked back except to wax nostalgia on this blog. I’ve visited family back home once or twice a year for the past 15, and while New York is unquestionably where I belong as an adult, Texas is where I feel wistful and dreamy because I lived there as a child. It is still a culture I belong to, and a place that feels like home even when I’m gone for months at a time. Its dialect narrates my internal voice, and it’s something I can slip on and off as easily as an old shoe. Texas is my brace and my anchor, and visiting there almost always brings me to gentle tears.

I romanticize Texas because I no longer live there. If I were still a resident, I wouldn’t dream backward about long flat roads and big open skies, and I wouldn’t feel a dull heartache when seeing these images on a movie screen in New York City. You can’t look back with fondness on something you’re still in the middle of, and it’s impossible to long for a space you continue to occupy.

I would have been equally touched by Boyhood had it been filmed in California or Ohio or Seattle, but watching two kids navigate the sweetness, confusion and wonder of childhood in the landscape where I endured all of that myself was a visceral experience. It left me thinking about the way places can stomp themselves into your soul, not because they were the most beautiful or interesting, but simply because you were there. How a certain song can open the dam to a flood of memories both good and bad, not because the song itself is so great, but because it played softly in the background as you fumbled your way through that first awkward kiss.

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Three weeks after watching Boyhood—the trigger for all my nostalgic navel-gazing– my husband and I took a week-long road trip through the Texas hill country. We drove all around the prettiest part of the state visiting my relatives and old haunts before eventually landing in the Houston area. The route was basically the one covered in the movie. Sometimes life shakes out that way.

It was exciting to have my Queens-born husband along for this trip, because I got to share more of my history with him by shaping it with physical context. We drove all around my college campus in Austin, my grandparents’ small town, the horseback riding camp where I spent eight glorious summers. I found myself highlighting silly things, like places where I got my hair cut and where I used to grab breakfast tacos. They weren’t spots that would ever show up in a travel guide or a list of recommended sights. These places weren’t notable to anyone but myself, and pointing them out to my traveling companion was the verbal equivalent of scribbling “I was here” on a bathroom wall.

As my husband drove, I snapped pictures and day-dreamed while memorizing the terrain outside my window. We rambled through miles and miles of flat brown nothing, past dry ground peppered with oak trees, their winter branches bald and curved like arthritic fingers. We took the highway through bigger cities, where billboards towered like giants and state flags the size of bedsheets rippled and swayed over car dealerships. We drove through tiny towns and stopped at roadside cafes where women called each other ‘sweetheart’ and wore rhinestones on the back pockets of their jeans. If I still lived in Texas, none of this would have registered as memorable. If I’d stayed, I probably wouldn’t have noticed these things at all.

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But after living 15 years outside of this scenery, the sights and smells and tastes of it make me warm. These are some of the things I remember about my life during the earliest part of it, the years when I didn’t know myself very well yet, and still had so much more of this world to see. As someone who was raised there, it is hard for me to separate the novelty of the place from my own experiences, and I would probably feel the same fondness for any place, had I grown up there.

It occurs to me sometimes that maybe Texas is not extraordinary at all. I’m certain there are other places with sunsets that light the sky on fire and people who are gracious beyond reason. Maybe the mild winters really don’t annul those blistering summers. Maybe I don’t even like okra, but have been conditioned to love it because nothing ever tastes as good as the things your grandmother rolled in cornmeal. Maybe some places are only special because our memories are stitched to them.

I didn’t think much about my home state until I moved away from it. I never referred to myself as a Texan until I came to New York. I guess it’s a natural condition to only reflect on something once it’s over. Only an adult can feel sentimental about childhood because he’s already surpassed it. Children don’t have the luxury to understand it really was just a phase.

Watching Boyhood was like poking my head out the passenger side window as my husband drove through Texas, watching a familiar world rush by me in a blur. It was like reading a wonderful book and being able to mentally insert myself into the story because the setting was my own backyard. But mostly it felt like lying in cool grass and looking up at the bright open sky, the place I still go when I need to look ahead and imagine, but is just as easily accessed when I want to look back and remember.

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<me at summer camp in Wimberley, Texas, late ’80s>

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<me outside my old summer camp in Wimberley, Dec. 2014>

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On the Road Again: Trying to Conquer my Fear of Driving

 

I was sweating when I reached the counter. I wasn’t sure if it was nerves, or the humidity that hung in the air like a damp blanket and hit me in the face like hot bus exhaust the minute I departed the plane in Houston. When you grow up in coastal Texas, humidity is more than just a weather condition. It’s part of your sense memory.

“I have a car reserved for rental,” I told the woman at the counter. We did the routine paperwork, and when she saw my New York license she became curious and started asking questions.

She leaned over the counter, and dipped her head toward me like we were two girlfriends gossiping: “I heard the people are really rude there.”  she tittered. This is a pretty tired New York cliche at this point, and as an outsider turned insider, I always feel compelled to defend New Yorkers and distinguish why their public interactions appear brusque. Plus, I can vouch that privately, socially, (ie: while they’re not commuting), the New Yorkers I know are some of the kindest, warmest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met.

“No, they’re not rude—there are just a lot of them in a small space, and they’re kind of in a hurry.”

“Well, what about the food? I heard they have really good food there.”

“The food in New York is amazing, but I like the food here better.” I wasn’t saying this as a courtesy. New York has every type of cuisine imaginable, but I can’t get a $2 breakfast burrito or my mother’s chicken pot pie in Queens. I have no early memories associated with a pastrami sandwich or a Michelin-rated restaurant, and nothing ever tastes as good as nostalgia feels.

The line was getting long, so it was time to get down to brass tacks. She asked questions about insurance and GPS and whether I wanted to pre-pay for a full tank of gas.

“I’ll go ahead and leave the gas pumping to y’all.”  I told her. “I’m from New York.  I’m gonna be in a hurry.”

She passed the keys over the counter, into a palm still tinged with perspiration. She could have said “Welcome to Houston” as I headed toward the lot. Instead she winked, and welcomed me home.

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***

What I couldn’t bring myself to tell the agent was that I hadn’t driven a car in 10 years. Sounds long, doesn’t it?

A decade-long sabbatical from driving has been another side effect of living in New York City;  in addition to giving up simple luxuries like central air, big closets and dishwashers, I’d also turned in my car keys long ago.  I liken New York City traffic to an aggressive and hostile video game with cabs and bicyclists and horse-drawn carriages all darting in and out trying not to get hit by their opponents. I have never felt compelled to participate in this game. I get anxious and jumpy as a spectator.

Vin has a car and feels completely energized driving through the city. Meanwhile, I’m gripping the door handle just waiting to get side-swiped by an overzealous cab driver. When people ask me if I drive I joke and say, “I don’t drive…I’m driven.” Vin thought it was cute the first time. Now he finds it pretty annoying, and he’s completely right. Especially when I want to be driven somewhere he has no interest in going. I’m one Long Island IKEA trip away from marital counseling.

So, no… I didn’t explain all this to the rental agent because no one wants to rent a car to a girl who’s terrified of driving. I didn’t tell her that renting a car in Texas was phase one of my three-phase New Year’s resolution to get back in the saddle again. This rental wasn’t just about getting myself around while visiting Texas; it was about reclaiming my independence and reintroducing myself to something I used to love but have grown to fear.

Driving used to be one of my very favorite things to do. When I turned 16, I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel, and my favorite memories of my teen years include driving up and down the long road overlooking the Galveston beach in my little red car. Driving meant independence and exploration and freedom. It’s what I did when I was overwhelmed or anxious, stressed out or sad. Driving was my escape, and my car was my sanctuary. I was never afraid of getting lost. I never worried about everyone else around me. I was fearless. But I’d avoided driving for so long that it had now become frightening, and the longer I put it off, the scarier the concept was becoming.

So here I was. Twenty years after learning how to drive and muttering “you can do it, you can do it” under my breath in the Hertz parking lot. Finally I found it. Stall 523. And wouldn’t you know it?  The car was red.

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Adjust the mirrors. Move the seat forward. Strap in. Ready. Go!

Before I knew it, I was on 1-45 south, moving out of Houston and toward Galveston. Neither of my parents live in my hometown anymore, but neither one is very far away. I’d purposely scheduled my flight to arrive after rush hour, so the highway lanes were wide open and mercifully empty. I rolled the windows down, tuned into the classic country station and looked around. It was the first time I’d been alone in a car in ten years, and I’d forgotten how much I liked it. Forgotten how loud and terribly I let myself sing when no one else is around. Forgotten how easy it is to disappear in your own thoughts when the roads are wide and empty and clear.

And then I missed my exit and started spewing obscenities.

But I called dad, and he directed me to the restaurant where he and his wife and neighbors were eating crawfish and boiled potatoes. When I pulled into the dirt parking lot in my little red car I was surrounded on all sides by big Ford trucks. The building looked like a distressed barn, and the entire front was painted like a huge Texas flag. To my dad, it was just another dinner up the road in Bacliff. To me, it was a total caricature. It was exactly what people outside the state imagine Texas to be. It reminded me of the questions New Yorkers asked when I first moved away, when my old roommate from Brooklyn would lean in and say: “I heard everyone in Texas rides horses to work and carries a loaded pistol. Is that true?”

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***

The next day, everyone I was visiting had to work, so I had the entire day to do as I wished. I chose to use up some of that pre-paid gas by driving into my hometown. As the wheels tipped onto the causeway– the stretch of highway over the water that connects “the mainland” to Galveston Island– a pop country song called “My Hometown” began to play. The song was corny as hell, but the timing was eerie. And though I like it far better, the Bruce Springsteen version just wouldn’t have been the same.

I spent that entire day driving around alone, and it was my favorite day in a very, very long time.

I drove down the long stretch of Broadway, past historical homes and mansions that survived legendary hurricanes, and parked on the cobblestone streets of Galveston’s historic Strand district. I walked in and out of tiny shops and bought myself a chocolate malted from La King’s, an old-fashioned candy shop with wrought-iron chairs and creaky wooden floors, where you can buy gooey homemade fudge and watch candymakers in white aprons and stiff hats stretch their arms out wide as they pull taffy in flavors like root beer, key lime pie and sassparilla, whatever that is.

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I drove up and down the seawall, over and over again, just like I did when I was a kid learning to drive. I drove by new businesses and old haunts, past miles of sandy beach and restaurants where we’d order shrimp po-boys and fried hushpuppies. I drove to the far east end, where kids would drag race, and then back to the west side, where we’d gather on Saturday nights to gossip with friends and flirt with boys.

The window was down so my hair got wild and tangled and messy. The radio was cranked and when the first 30 seconds of “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” began its steady rise and haunting swell, I almost lost my mind. Everything about the day felt familiar and warm and safe. Everything about it reminded me of being 16 again. Everything except my reflection in the rear-view mirror.

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And then, because I was alone and feeling grossly sentimental, I drove myself out to our old house, which my mom sold about five years ago. Childhood homes are emotional landmines, and that day I really, really wanted to feel the hit. I pulled slowly into the old cul-de-sac, and geared myself up for a really good cry. Instead, I laughed. For no logical reason, an enormous and beautiful peacock was strutting around my old front yard, as if I had spent my childhood on some magical wildlife preserve. It was one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen, and for a minute, I was sure I imagined it.  Life is so cool, isn’t it? And weird. Life is really, really weird.

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It struck me then how something so familiar can also feel so foreign. How time and distance and perspective can shift expectations and routines and lifestyles, even accents.

It’s almost 20 years now since I lived in Galveston, and the truth is, it will always be my hometown but I no longer consider it home.  I am almost 100% positive I will never live there again, and though I think of it fondly and often, I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time longing for its grasp.

Let’s put it this way:  I bought a souvenir t-shirt while I was in town. If anything proves I’m no longer a local, it’s that.

I notice the quirks and charms of my hometown in a way that I never could when I lived there, which is perhaps less a result of being an outsider peeking in and more the result of a grown-up looking back with great affection. I feel gratitude to have been raised in a place where women call their contemporaries miss and their elders ma’am. To have grown up in a town where you can wish your friend happy birthday by placing an ad in the local paper,  and you are nearly always recognized at the grocery store. My parents did me a great service by raising me and my brother in that town. And I did myself a service by exploring other places and wandering other roads, even when the path was very unclear.

I learned to love driving again by going back to the first place I ever did it. How’s that for a circular ending? And though my husband is always missed when he’s not around, the journey would not have been the same with a guy from Queens along for the ride.

If he had come, I wouldn’t have pushed myself to rent a car and drive to and from the Houston airport. I wouldn’t have had the luxury of driving around by myself for hours, reminiscing like crazy as I wove that little red car up and down memory lane.

And I wouldn’t have had him on the other side, standing outside La Guardia in the pouring rain with open arms, waiting to welcome me home.

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You’re gonna love my grandpa by the end of this post.

 

He insisted on giving me a full tour, even though I’d already visited several times.

My grandfather walked me through their living room, past the burnt orange couch from the ‘70s, the antique steamer trunk inherited from my great-grandmother, the shelf of shot glasses picked up on cruise ships and trips to Mexico. He showed me his new Keurig machine, the wood floor they installed in the computer room, the spare closet he converted into a makeshift bar.

Then he led me out the front door to check out the yard and driveway. It was October in Texas and it felt like heaven.

“Here’s the rosemary grandmother puts in her pot roast”, he said, pointing to a huge bucket of herbs.
“Over there’s the air conditionin’ unit. Still works real well.”
“That there’s the feral cat comes up into the front yard every mornin’.’”

I continued following him, grinning to myself as I delighted in how proud he was of his property and all the little odds and ends that make a house a home. I’d always heard that people became ornery as they got older, but my grandfather has been growing more joyful and charming with each passing year. Everyone enjoys being around him. He is splendid.

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Then he took me into the cleanest, most well-organized garage in the history of the world. In addition to two pristine cars, he also had a separate tiny storage space and garage door for his golf cart. Along the left wall, a framed photocopy of the Mona Lisa was sandwiched between a few knock-off Monets. Just adjacent to the art was a door with a tiny metal sign on it that read: “Man Cave”.

He opened the door and welcomed me inside. “This is my favorite place in the house,” he said. “This is my man cave!”

Granddad’s Man Cave didn’t have a flat screen TV or a recliner in it. There was no computer. No neon beer signs. He didn’t have a whole basement dedicated to a pool table or his favorite sports team.  My grandfather’s most treasured space was a pocket-sized room in the corner of his garage—only slightly bigger than a closet– with a small window and several shelves lining the walls.

Every nook and cranny was filled with memories. The room was one big scrapbook. There were faded black and whites of our ancestors. Pictures of my granddad as a little boy in west Texas wearing suspenders and newsboy caps. Newspaper clippings from his days as a school superintendent. Golf trophies. Photos of my father and aunt in high school. My brother and me as babies. My grandparents’ wedding from 1948. My wedding from last October. My cousin, my niece, my family. It was his life, and by extension, it was all of our lives. I started feeling a little emotional in that little room.

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“So what do you do in here, Granddad?” The tears were hot, and hard to blink back without him noticing.
“Aww, not much. Especially not in the summer–woowee–it’s too hot. But I like to come in here at least once a day and look around at my life.”

We retreated back into the house where my grandmother and aunt had been fixing lunch for us. It was hamburger, zucchini and a tiny baked potato–a simple meal that tasted ambrosial because it was made with my grandmother’s hands.

When lunch was nearly over, my granddad looked over at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Know what I’ve been really into lately?”

“What’s that, Granddad?” I was expecting him to glow about Fox News or Sudoku puzzles.

His eyes widened, and he broke into a huge grin before saying ice cream like a 5-year-old who’d just tried it for the very first time. “I’m on a diet, but I eat a little bowl every day after lunch as a treat. Ya want some?”

My aunt and I declined and took another helping of the kale salad she made. We ate our healthy greens while Granddad sat across the table from us, happy as a schoolboy with his dish of butter pecan. He’d brought out a second bowl just in case we changed our minds.

Finally, I snuck a tiny spoonful, and gave my grandfather a little wink.

He leaned in across the table, scrunched up his nose and giggled, “Idn’t it wonderful?”

Yes it was.

 

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Rocky River Girls Forever

*This post is a re-run, but it’s how I feel every summer so I thought it was worth revisiting. (Plus, I was uber-busy this week and didn’t have time to post anything fresh. It’s also the same reason I haven’t called my mother back yet. Sorry Mom–I’m on it!).

 

I am grateful to my parents for a lot of things, but I’ve always been extra thankful that they sent me to summer camp. Eight times. Either they really, really loved me, or they really wanted to be rid of me a few weeks a year.

They drove me out to a little town in the Texas hill country called Wimberley, which was on the news once for having the cleanest air in America. It’s the kind of town where women with soft voices and big hair rotate homemade door wreaths every season and clear kitchen messes with gingham dish towels. It is charming.

photo credit: homeonderange.blogspot.com
 

My camp was called Rocky River Ranch, and you had to drive over a cattle guard to get inside. It was on the bank of the Blanco River, which was crystal clear and always cold despite the crazy Texas heat. We slept on rickety bunkbeds in small wood cabins. Some of us even stayed in covered wagons. It wasn’t glamorous–it was rustic–but in my mind, it was where heaven and the hills held hands. That’s not my line; I stole it from the brochure. But as a kid, I really believed it.

We rode horses, and made lanyards and did eggbeaters in the pool. We watched movies at the outdoor theater down the road and found our way back by flashlight. We had no boys to distract us, no reason to fix our hair into anything other than messy ponytails. There was no internet access or cell phones–they didn’t exist yet–so the highlight of our day was mail call when we’d we’d race up the hill in hopes of getting a letter from our moms, our best friend or the boy who promised he would write.

I still have every single one.

Meals were eaten in a wood-paneled dining hall called The Grubstake. We drank sweet tea out of galvanized pitchers and ate things like fried chicken and mashed potatoes without worrying about clogged arteries and fuller thighs. After we ate, we sat around the table and sang.

I went out to a friend’s lakehouse in Connecticut this weekend, and I guess that’s why I got to reminiscing about my camper days. Sitting on the edge of a quiet lake reminded me so much of my time in Wimberley. As summer inches to its close, it’s hard for me not to dream backward about the best summers I ever had. I love the city lights, but they’re no competition for stars.
 
I went to summer camp well over 20 years ago. It’s a different time now, and I hope those Texas girls have the kind of experience we had back then.
I hope they didn’t add a computer station to the mess hall.
I hope they’re stripped of their little pink cell phones at the front gate.
I hope they write to their mamas, not on Facebook, but on real stationary.

I hope they still sing.

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Ten Years Ago

Ten Years Ago

 

Ten years ago I waited tables at a sports bar in Denver.  It was the kind of place that hired a lot of 20-something girls, none of whom were discouraged from tying the bottom of their t-shirt in a knot to reveal a sliver of belly. This was never something I felt comfortable doing, which is probably why I made terrible tips. What a waste. I was 25, and my abs were sublime.

I’d moved from NYC to Colorado not exactly on a whim, but without a properly developed plan, which contributed to a succession of odd jobs that helped me barely eek out the rent on my ’70s-style apartment. In a period shorter than two years, I waited tables at both the sports bar and a country club, nannied, tutored, and had some freelance writing assignments. I also went back to school for a degree in education. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and I had no idea what I wanted. It was the most confusing time of my life. It was also the loneliest.

Ten years ago today, a friend kissed me for the first time, and we started dating soon after. It didn’t make anything less confusing or help me figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. That’s something I’m still trying to figure out, ten years later.

But it was the first time I ever made a decision I knew would really stick. In the past 10-15 years I have reconsidered careers and cities a quarter dozen times, and I’ve doubted myself again and again. He is the only thing my whimsical mind and skittish heart were never fickle about.

So tonight, my boyfriend-for-life and I will have a nice, quiet dinner at the restaurant where we met 13 years ago. We’ll clink  glasses and wish each other a happy anniversary, and I’ll make a toast to the easy choices.

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                                                                                                                                                                            photo by Jason + Anna Photography

PS: If you’re interested, I scrounged up this piece I wrote for a Denver publication that sums up my frame of my mind. It was published as part of an essay contest called “My Quarter-Life Crisis”. Go figure. (You have to scroll down some…it’s called “How about a cold beer today?”

http://www.westword.com/2003-01-02/news/your-quarter-life-crisis/5/

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