Going back to your Gulf Coast hometown after a long time is weird, a little uncomfortable, especially in the middle of a highly politicized pandemic. Things look the same; they look different. Buildings you grew up in became Panera Breads or are abandoned altogether. Your childhood home is still yellow but is covered in the green mold your mother pressure washed off every summer. There are more broken shells on the beach than you remember. It’s weird to be a Southerner who’s become a Northerner in so many ways.
You drive down South with your partner and your dog, and the only thing that lets you know where you are is how many masks are being worn inside the gas station. An unmasked father with his daughter gets aggressive with your best friend while she waits for her lunch. “Oh, what, you afraid? You social distancing?” She tells him to go fuck himself or else because she’s a Northerner now, too. He leaves her alone but makes fun of her to the other customers. She rolls her eyes and takes her cheeseburger to go.
You get stuck using the “men’s” room in a gas station (and really, the only difference between them is the broken urinal on the wall and lack of changing station). When you leave, a man who’s waiting looks at the sign and your mask, then laughs. You don’t really understand why. Pipes are pipes. You want to say something, but Virginia makes your skin crawl and for the love of God, let’s get in the car.
You have several emotional breakdowns and lash outs while driving because you’re nervous to see your family. You love them, but you’re worried about how predictably unpredictable your family is. You’re more worried about seeing your dad, though. You waffle between being okay and snapping at your partner for missing the turn. You make him cry in a gas station parking lot. You feel horrible. You hug him with everything you are. You drink four gallons of water. You can’t stop shitting. You want to listen to white noise. You want silence. You wonder if you’ll ever be okay.
You spend New Year’s Eve in the busiest La Quinta Inn in Charlotte, North Carolina. You will always call it that, even when you’re old. There is gunfire when you turn off the interstate. This used to feel familiar to you. It doesn’t anymore. You, your dog, and your partner lay in bed watching Adventure Time five minutes ‘til midnight. Is anything darker than a hotel room? You miss midnight, but you pause the show to stare into your partner’s eyes and tell him why it’s been such a good year and why this year will be even better. Your resolution? Be kinder to this man. Minutes later, you and the dog are asleep.
In the morning, you pack up the car and drive to your brother’s home. It’s an actual home. One that he bought and is fixing up. He’s expecting his first child any day now. You’re so proud of the man he’s become. His wife is a marvel. She made cookies, her grandmother’s recipe, and then made eggs, pancakes, and bacon while you wait for your sister and their mother. Your sisters are so big now, especially the one that looks like you. She’s maturing now, and you weren’t expecting that. Her hair is thicker than yours ever was. She’s learning to play the cello, just like you did. Your younger sister is a tomboy, and you know you won’t be friends until she’s in her twenties and wants to see the world. You wish you could gobble them up and keep them with you. You are not a Peppermint Pikehead. Your younger brother isn’t there, too busy nursing a hangover from the night before. It’s better this way. He has COVID for the third time. He still doesn’t believe in vaccines. You’re relieved.
When it’s time to go, you pack up your sisters and a niece you do not know to drive them to the place where your dad is staying. You’ve never met his girlfriend before, but she can afford a house in one of those cookie-cutter communities. She has a lot of dogs. Her house smells like your grandmother’s, which means you should probably change your clothes when you leave. Your father looks awful. He’s bloated and sad and still drinking even though he’s told you he isn’t. He keeps gripping your shoulder, testing how real you are. You’re real, aren’t you? Before you go, he gives you his grandfather’s watch. He says he isn’t sure how much time he has left. He’s been telling you that he’s dying for a long time now. Having a reminder of time in your hand makes it feel real.
When you leave, you cry because you always do. You wonder how many more goodbyes you’ll get. Your partner rubs your back. Everything is okay. You drive to Pensacola. The longest part of the trip is the last hour-long stretch in the dark.
You visit your best friend’s grandmother’s house; it’s bigger than you remember. She greets you with black-eyed peas, collard greens, and fried chicken on New Year’s Day because it’s tradition. You don’t think you grew up on this tradition, but everyone thinks you did. It’s delicious. The next day, you drink sweet tea on the back porch while your best friend cuts her uncle’s hair, then her grandmother’s. You talk about COVID. You’re so tired of talking about COVID. You tour the garden. Your partner is ecstatic to see a lemon tree. Lemon trees don’t grow in Boston. You realize you miss lemons and azalea bushes and warm Decembers.
You convince your cousins to meet up for dinner even though you’re not sure they want to see you. You’re not sure you want to see them because politics are a thing, and we no longer live in a time where politics can’t be a thing. They’re still family, and the three of you loved each other dearly once. You meet up in your favorite restaurant and are so pleased to see how much they’ve grown. Their husbands are quiet but attentive, and that’s what matters. You’re surprised to hear that they want to come to the wedding, but only if their dad won’t be there. You talk about family drama and spare no detail. Your partner has every right to know what he’s getting into. You missed them. Dinner comes, and it isn’t quite as good as it used to be, or maybe your palette has developed. In any case, your drink comes in a plastic mason jar instead of a glass one like all your others, and you’re disappointed. You’re not sure you’ll keep it. When you say goodnight, it is without incident, unlike the last time you were all together and your brother tried to fistfight your dad in the parking lot, and your grandpa shit his pants.
There’s a lot to talk about in therapy. Your therapist is proud of your progress. So are you. You’re not sure how much longer you want to do therapy. Eventually, you’ll have to stand on your own.
On your last night in your hometown, you pull every pot in your Airbnb out and do a proper shrimp boil, potatoes and all. You have to call your mom to figure out how long to boil the shrimp. Six minutes on the nose. You cook way too much because you don’t know how to do small. You see a few people you haven’t seen in almost a decade. It’s hard to see them older. When they all leave later than they should, you zip up your bags and fall into bed.
The last morning in your hometown, you pack the car and compulsively clean before everyone else is ready to go. You get frustrated because no one is ever in a rush like you are. Sooner or later, you’re on the beach to say goodbye. You don’t find a whole sand dollar this time because the ocean has forgotten your face. You have a last meal of fried shrimp and bottomless Coke. People stare at you for wearing a mask. You’re ready to leave. Before getting in the car, you find a cactus plant and stab your finger. It seems a fitting goodbye.