Depending on where I am and who’s asking, where I’m “from” will vary. In rooms where everyone lays claim to the East Coast, I will always be from Houston, Texas – just in case you’d never met a bona-fide Southerner before. In many a college icebreaker, I was from Washington, D.C. This was mostly an exaggeration of convenience; everyone knows that you get to round up to the closest metropolis when you grew up with access to its public transit. At concerts when a band asks ‘is Brooklyn in the house?’ I go wild. I’ve lied to shady characters in bars and said I’m from Algeria. And while I’m aware that this all smacks of cheating (especially that last), while I’m aware there are rules and loyalties I violate each time I pause to frame the answer to this oughta-be-instinctive question, I don’t quite think I’m lying.
These days, I mostly sleep and wake in Sunnyside, Queens. I take the 7 train, and here are some facts: a big, good coffee with milk and sugar is $1.60 at Baruir on the Boulevard – but remember this place isn’t open on Sundays and plan accordingly. Most people on the block are first and second generation somewhere, and I do mean somewhere because they could be Korean or Greek or Guatemalan or Irish and don’t try to say ‘hello’ in anyone’s native tongue because no matter what you thought you overheard, you’re wrong. In Sunnyside, I have a fire escape that I like to sit and read on when the weather’s nice, and the wine at my bodega – the one that always reeks of overripe fruit – is of the school of Chateau Diana and often >$7.00.
But I went to visit my parents just this weekend, and that was the way I told it: precision dictates that it is no longer “going home,” but “visiting my parents.” The Allen’s and most of my mother’s family are in Maryland, braided all along the inner loop of the Beltway. On this visit I took my aging golden retriever for a walk through the winding roads of Chevy Chase, section three. Chevy Chase has sections because it has a hyper-organized council, with meetings and newsletters and the like. I spent most of high school in this now- parent’s house, and while the furniture is rearranged every time I come home and less and less of my nebulous “stuff” remains to herald my visits, I still know the smell of the hummingbird formula my mother puts in her garden. I know all of the creaks in all of the stairs. I know that there’s a 45% chance we’re having leftover gumbo for dinner and a 20% chance we’ll get carry-out. My brother might practice piano. We’ll absolutely fight for the remote.
And I was born in Houston. About once a year I go back to visit my grandmother there in her pristine ranch house and I eat incredible food and hover on the periphery of distant family gossip, the goings on of many so-and-so’s whose names I can’t easily pin to faces. Yet everyone’s met me, and everyone’s missed me. They say I should visit more often. I marvel at how much taller the former babies have gotten in only bundles of months. I say ‘y’all.’ The outside smells like honeysuckles and there are fire ants in the grass and when I get off planes in Texas I’m actually looking to feel something rooted and particular in the air (so humid) in the water (so mineral, of wells) – but it’s hard to say.
And then I’ve worked and played in Manhattan for the past five years. I went to college all but on top of the cube at Astor Place, I rang in birthdays at all the dark bars along Second Avenue. I came to the city first when I was thirteen and immediately thereafter started proclaiming to anyone who would listen, “I want to be a NEW YORKER!” And I made it! I even lived in Brooklyn for two years and have since revised my Deep Secret Fantasy File to include a Cosby-esque three story brownstone in Park Slope, complete with food co-op membership and two hemp-swaddled children who will only play with wooden educational toys. I’ve lived in The City just long enough to be able to say in front of certain buildings, “remember when this was a diner?” And still I contemplate my life while scanning night skyline from a 7 train and am compelled to thank my lucky stars – even if I can’t see them well through the light pollution.
Does the act of ‘going back’ define a hometown, is it only a home if you’ve left it? They say home is where the heart is, but if that’s so I’m not convinced my main muscle’s of a piece– I love the ratty red couches of my mom’s living room and the stacks of new books on every surface, I also love buying a paper and a coffee in the morning en route to the train, I love the annual crawfish boil in that same damp Houstonian park. Where I want to be and where I’ve built my life is New York, non je ne regrette rien, but my roots are not competing. I was engineered in many spots. I owe a design credit to each: my brave new independence sits and is now thriving in Queens. Where I’m the most comfortable and carefree, the bed I know best, that’s Maryland. And reaching farther back for that guttural tie that my friends from faraway places mention, a sense of heritage and tradition and a long column of people with my name and face stretching backwards into history…that’s another world I always want my teeth in, too. This trail begins in Houston.
My mom read to me from The Chronicles of Narnia when I was little, and I remember from book one that description of a silent wood filled with little pools that are each a portal to a new world. So where do I come from, next small-talker or bureaucratic document that’s asking? I’ve got a different limb in a few different pools, I’m in bits. And thank goodness! It took a long time to get here and feel I could stand tall, it was like stairs, it was and is the long way home.