33

I’ve migrated my contact list over from the Stay Weird, Be Kind mailing list as the start for my Substack. No one is being charged for these newsletters unless they opt into the paid version (which doesn’t exist quite yet) and if you opt out my feelings won’t get hurt because that’s entirely your prerogative. But if you’re here, and you’d like some writing from me weekly or maybe twice a week, on things related to living and my life and the quiet, empty spaces in between, I wouldn’t mind your being here.


It is 3:45 in the morning and I’m either 33 now or in four hours, depending on whether you’re my mom or not. She called me just after midnight to wish me a happy birthday, a family tradition borne from my living long distance for a decade and trying to suture tight the distance between the East and the West coast. This is the first time I’ve celebrated a birthday in the town where I grew up since I left it at 18, and instead of being more than three thousand miles away from my childhood bedroom, I’m five turns and ten minutes away. Close enough to bike. Close enough to walk, if I had the patience and knees that wouldn’t scream in protest.

The bugs throw their bodies at the bright light of my screen as I sit outside on the porch and type. Almost 4 AM is never as quiet as I expect it to be. I can hear the hum of the cars on the highway from here, the long drone of eighteen wheelers trundling along, punctuated by the shorter buzz of passenger vehicles zipping in and out of almost empty lanes. The crickets call their incessant, repetitive vibrato, interrupted infrequently by a bullfrog’s low croak. The ficus tree in our front yard flings its seeds against the roof and they strike against the shingles with a bold, bright smack of violence that surprises me because it sounds unnatural against the sleepy pre-dawn bird calls. 

One of my favorite nightsongs here is the train tracks singing, the merry announcement of the bells as the crossing signals lower. There is silence before the roar of the train becomes a tangible thing, sucking out all the air from my lungs before whooshing into reality, so loud and so real that it feels like my heart is beating over there instead of safely behind my ribcage. I could hear the same song singing from my childhood bedroom, too; the notes haven’t changed over all these years, but it still reminds me that I’m here. That I’m Home. 

I say I just came back, but it’s been nine months now since we packed up our West coast lives in two cars and a trailer and criss-crossed our way on the hopes that something here would still feel like Home. Oakland was Home, the hustle and bustle of the city the San Franciscans wouldn’t cross into because of crime and the indignity of the time it took to travel over the bridge. (Oakland might always be Home, really, if I’m true to my heart.) The problem is that the cost of living in Oakland has become so expensive that it was less living and more surviving, and every time I got in my car I’d try to make sure I had water bottles and snacks and any spare cash split into small denominations to share, but the tent cities kept creeping bigger and bigger, blue tarps flapping and snapping in the wind off the Bay, and there was barely enough to pay rent and student loans, much less rent and student loans and healthcare bills and the guilt I felt at seeing those who were on the streets when I just barely wasn’t. I’d come across the country first as a new wife to an Air Force lieutenant with a guaranteed income and I’d managed to survive as a mortician after he abandoned me, but despite all the jokes about job security, working with the dead was toiling at a dead-end of minimum wage where no one survived, not even me.

We had the whole wide country to choose from when we left, and plenty of Californians were picking Colorado on their way out, but the first time I ever tried to use a space heater I’d tucked it under my comforter and nearly set the house on fire—what does a Floridian know about being cold, after all? I couldn’t imagine shoveling the sidewalk any more than I could imagine numb fingers frozen-gripped around a wheelchair push-rim slipping and sliding on salted ice any more than I could imagine the lights of the Bay Bridge in my rearview mirror on the way out of town, so that was off the list. Maybe the rest of the Californians were heading for Texas, to try their luck keeping Austin weird (the newest synonym for gentrification?) and though I come by my “y’all” by birthright as a Texan, that state felt too big to try to make a Home but barely big enough to not lose myself in as we crossed it in our search. 

What is Home, anyways? Is Home where my husband is? Where my dogs are? Where I can curl up between the deep and even breathing of their predictable inhalations until I am lulled into rest? Is it where I can make art—not just the kind you can type in any coffee shop (on a keyboard that always feels a little bit too loud), but the kind where you have to spread your supplies across a room and a half and the result never turns out quite like what you were picturing but it ends up tangible, tactile, total? Is it where you can sit down on your porch and drink a cup of hot tea while you watch the familiarity of outside slip by? That can’t be Home; that’s any coffee shop in America, so long as you sit long enough that you can see the predictable tropes of humanity weave in and out the front door. 

We thought that maybe Home was where family would be; we had family in the Bay, his family, but maybe we weren’t as close as everyone wished we were despite weeks in therapy together, and even if we had been, well, everyone was working so hard to survive they could barely find time to breathe as the water kept creeping, up our collarbones and past our chins and towards our nostrils and the money swirled away on gentle eddies that led to rip currents threatening to drag us under.

(Someone is using a tool to hit concrete catty-corner to where I sit on the front porch, the metal echoing as the hard surfaces grate against each other, and there is a flutter of laughter light as the creeping fingers of dawn but the sky is still dark and I can’t see who’s out there. That sound doesn’t scare me but the ficus seeds that bounce off of the hurricane shutters and clatter to a stop against the flower beds do, and my startled jumping interrupts the drooping of my eyelids as I fight sleep to write.) 

If Home is where family is, maybe it was time, after more than a decade, to be closer to mine again, closer than text messages sent line by line and calls that crackled and caught in the space between the vastness of the country that separated us. Maybe Home was less than ten minutes away from the house where I grew up, in a little yellow three-bedroom I’d never seen before nestled in a neighborhood I’d never visited that was nevertheless right there, next to the train tracks that sang a familiar aching song. 

Maybe we’d find Home in the damp and humid warmth of the tropics, a place where the ocean never seemed as wild and untamed as the Pacific, even on her worst days when a hurricane churned into existence and the rain lashed against the windows until we cowered inside against the onslaught. 

Maybe Home would be somewhere in there, between warm temperatures my body understood and all the bodies I’d missed for years. Maybe we’d find Home in the faces that looked familiar in the pixels of our screens (though we hadn’t touched them, smelled them, smiled at them, even though all we’d done was scroll and scroll for so long), but it turns out that distance is measured in the space of a double tap and once I got here no one wanted to actually see me in person. I set a personal rule: I’d only ask people to hang out twice, no matter how lonely I got, I wouldn’t debase myself by begging, and so here I are, nine months later, long enough that we could have created a whole third human between the two of us if we really wanted to and if I still had the working parts, lonely and wondering what feels like Home and whether I made the right decision by leaving the one I’d carved into the golden brown hills of the California countryside and the ficus tree keeps throwing seeds at me to remind me that maybe I don’t belong here but

but.

It’s 4:31 AM and I turned 33 four and a half hours ago, or maybe just an hour and a half ago, by West coast time. Or maybe I haven’t turned 33 quite yet but it’s coming, in less than four hours, by 8:04 AM, when I’d finally squawled my way into existence and demanded the world pay attention, back when the world was one person (not even sundered into two yet) and I’d just been torn from her warmth.

I’ve turned 33 and I’m turning 33 and I’m not going to lie, even though so much of this feels familiar as a heartache, the loneliness feels new, but I built a Home in California way back when I was only 22 (was I only ever only 22?)

The tracks keep ringing as if the train is going to pour through town like a shot of slammed whiskey and the lingering cool of watered down soda as the ice chips clink against my teeth, but it doesn’t, or maybe it does but it’s a background sound so familiar I don’t think about it anymore, like the river-water rushing of my whitewater heart or the way my eyelids plink together when I blink but then

it’s there, the train, the song, the hum across the tracks and the bells singing and it still feels like Home, whether I’m writing on the front porch or tucked into bed beside my husband or hearing a different train entirely thousands of miles from here. I’ve turned 33 or I’m turning 33 and I’m lonely now but I think I’ve made a house a Home before and I’ll do the same thing here, so I breathe in the heady smell of a Florida night shifting into dawn—not quite, no tendrils of pink or sherbet orange melting in the surf, but close—and I hear a siren wail from east towards west and it sounds like Oakland for just a split second and I realize the pull of metal against asphalt was simply a sprinkler system shuddering to life and I think 33 might feel good on me yet.