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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.