Everything in North Carolina seems too perfect. Too pretty. Huge, fluffy clouds against a piercing blue sky, big green trees, the biggest Confederate flags we’ve seen thus far, brand spanking new in bright colors right on the side of the highway.
I get pissed off in any city where the “COEXIST” bumper stickers and reusable shopping bags give people an excuse to talk loudly about how creative they are and how, with them, “things get a little weird!” And it’s not fair, I know. I would love a world full of artists concerned with sustainability and vegetarian options, wouldn’t I? But another expensive cup of coffee that tastes like watery beans and a group of white people yelling about their drunk brunch mere hours before makes me wish we were back in the woods.
A dog sniffs under everyone’s table and no one thinks anything of it (maybe this is just the way Asheville is?) until a woman with two braided pigtails high up on her head streams out saying “my baby my baby! This is my service dog because you can tell I’m not all here!”
We drive a long stretch of interstate to a city where we know someone: Durham, North Carolina. Pulling up to the house feels like a homecoming, and K greets us in no shoes, running up alongside the car to direct us into a real driveway. This is enough to make us decide to stay another night, and she says she would’ve been offended if we only stayed one night. She is accommodating and full of love and conversation, and even though we are tired, we make dinner together with the last of our disintegrating tortillas and share the final brews from Memphis.
We sleep on the hard futon under a faded handmade quilt for ten hours straight, and it feels life-changing. We do laundry. We make to do lists. We write. We run errands. We get groceries. We recycle shoes. We do all the work we haven’t had the strength or time to do. We dry the tarp across the windshield. We are airing ourselves out.
All of this home life, this look into the way someone else is living, someone who left the place we are going back to, it makes me anxious. I need a minute. I take one. I take two. I think about the career I don’t have. I think about the work I’m not doing. I think about the life I could have. I think about all my flaws. This window into someone else’s life feels the most visceral, maybe because her life was so similar to mine (not really) before she moved away. This self-indulgent angst is cut short by a trip to dinner.
She drives us downtown, and we eat too many chips in the warm, waning light of spring’s exhalation. It will be summer soon, and so hot. But now, the sky is a pale lavender, we are tipsy and laughing as we pay and flee, half-running to the car to make it to a government-run ABC liquor store before it closes. She is home but it is new for her again, and new for us the first time, and we have to use GPS to get home. A friend who moved away from New York and is happy. Happy! Should we move?
We play a game. I love games. It feels good to invest in something other than my life for a minute – to invest in bean crops. To plant the bean crops. To harvest the bean crops. To haggle for other bean crops. Apparently I get too intense. That brings me back. To my flaws. To trying to plan for things we can’t plan for.
Everyone our age seems to be figuring out their relationship to place. They are lobbying for tree protection. They are thinking about which neighborhood to make a life in. They are seeing historical inequity and they are living inside (or beside? or within?) its effects. They tell us about the big Confederate flags placed along the highways by white supremacists. They tell us about the city — this city, where they grew up, where they met, where they are together again — with a mixture of love and apprehension. It’s the same story everywhere, with the same story of black main streets replaced by an overpass, margins made central, the marginal pushed further, mimicking tree rings with a thick shrug of inevitability. None of us have the answers.
Her mom calls, and tells her she’s found a beautiful set of chairs on the curb. She will get them for her, she will bring them over. She insists. There is love in this city full of big perfect trees and a river. There is a painful history and there is a general insistence that there is something worth saving.