It’s a question that people keep asking and I never know how to answer. Social media usually just wants a location– in the current sense: where are you now versus where you’ve been– and my apartment’s zip code is enough to handle most trivialities, where to send the bills, the magazines, the letters from home.
It’s just that eternal filler for the dead space in parties that trips me up, that last question on the online form for which I can’t provide a satisfactory answer.
your profile is 90% complete: where are you from?
Place and I have a complicated relationship.
I moved around a lot when I was younger. Despite my love of all things naval, I’m not a military brat, just the kid of an upwardly mobile professional chasing a career across the States. I stopped memorizing streets and maps when my family moved to Boston from Chicago, then had to learn Cincinnati to help my parents navigate.
Sometimes in dreams I find myself back in places in foreign towns and countries: the Winner’s Pizzeria in Reading that had the best Cajun fries I’ve ever had in my life; the main stairwell of my high school, four floors of soft glass spiraling upward–first is ground floor, second is the chapel, third is classrooms, fourth goddamn it finally is where my locker is, and in front of everything is this three-story cross; the short drive from my house in Illinois to the Jewel; running through small town streets along the coast for cross country meets.
The one place I never dream about, though, is South Carolina.
My first word was “car.”
This was probably a little disappointing to my poor parents, who must have spent ages and hours hovering over their firstborn repeating sounds and listening for something to stumble out that resembled their names. Instead, they got me: small child getting very excited about going on grocery shopping trips in our silver Volvo.
Despite this illustrious first edition to my lexicon, I didn’t get my own car until post-college. I’d been so adamant about needing to live in a city and, hence, not driving, that it was only my parents gifting me driving school lessons for Christmas that I actually started.
My family names all our cars, except for Dad (we name his for him anyway). Mum’s first Volvo, the silver one that was my first word, was named Ogla, and the one I learned to drive on’s Lars. My younger brother has driven Jaeger and Valkyrie (both of which met sad ends) and will soon add a new car to his pantheon. My mother calls my dad’s truck Rex.
Belial was a 1998 BMW 328i I purchased using my $800 of graduation money–I’ll give you a moment to blink because, yeah–thanks to aforementioned brother’s unreal charm and haggling technique, also thanks to an opportune ice storm. Hail-damaged and with an inside dotted with foil star stickers that I am still continually discovering more of, Bel was the sort of thing I never expected to own but was perfect.
My first post-undergrad apartment, job, and school were all in upstate South Carolina, which, if you’re not familiar with the geography of the region, is in the upper left corner of the sideways triangle that is the Palmetto State. It’s about two hours away from everywhere, though if you go about twenty minutes in any direction you’re nearly guaranteed to hit a boiled peanut stand.
So you either stayed in town, or you took the highway.
US-123, or Calhoun Memorial Highway, has a speed limit of 70mph. Driving in the rural South is a little different from up North. People joke that I-85 is so named because the speed limit’s 85, and while it might not be entirely legal, that’s about the going speed of traffic.
At least twice weekly, I’d find myself on 123 late into the night, no cops, hardly any light except for headlights, and forests tall enough to scrape the stars.
You go fast, and there’s not enough people around to force you to slow down. You swing around turns and perfect cornering, and maybe you get such a rush that you sign up for a vehicle dynamics class, because suddenly you want to know how this is possible. How, in a world where so many things are so easily terrible, you still have this one thing to wonder at, this empty road with the occasional pin-prick twins of taillights up ahead.
You’ll learn a lot about camber and slip angle, but you won’t be able to nail down why driving so fast late at night makes everything feel like breathy strands of electric guitar, impossibly grand.
And that’s why you keep coming back.
“So where are you from?” A friend’s friend asks me one winter break. I’m back up North again, back in some bar/restaurant in Pittsburgh, and I’ve tried dodging this question already, but the guy wants an answer. My date is curious, too, the kind of noninterest you feign with elbows on the table, leaning in close enough to pretend we’re already casually intimate, that you don’t care that much about the answer, but actually do.
“A lot of places.” I say. I tell the table about Chicago and Boston and Cincinnati. I give the cliff notes version of South Carolina. “And now I’m here again.”
“So…?” The guy across from me trails off. He wants a conclusion to the story, an easy ending to an ongoing exodus, one that I’m not sure I know myself. “Where’s home?”
And I’ve had it. I’m tired of people asking me this damn question and tried of never having an answer. My mom insists that home is where my family’s house is, but Cincinnati’s a place I spend fragments of months in, not my daily life.
“Nowhere,” I say, finally. “I’m not really from anywhere anymore.”
“You can be from here.” My date says and takes a sip of his unsweetened sweet tea. He doesn’t live here either; he moved out a while back and is just visiting for the holiday. The conversation shifts to other things, like home-redecoration and kayaking, but someone gets it and that’s, I think, all I want.
Except it’s not.
My long commutes now are mostly I-70 to I-75, visiting my parents. I drive early in the mornings, sun soft over flat prairie, bean crops and corn fields, and, my perennial favorite: the “Where Will You Spend Eternity? HELL IS REAL” signs. The highway is silent and sparse, this Saturday sort of divinity where you can find good songs on the radio that come in clear.
One time I sat in on a seminar on travel writing in Miami, and the speaker said that, in her experience, you had to live in a place for at least a year before you knew it well enough to write about it. And I think part of why I keep moving places is that.
I’m from everywhere and nowhere, and to be one requires the other. It’s nomadic and occasionally lonely, but hey, whatever–sometimes you’re just an object in motion, wheel to pavement, memorizing the exit numbers for as long as you can until some new place aligns itself with your coordinates.
Some nights you are going to be so exhausted and drained, you’ll fall asleep with your face mashed into the section on driveshafts in your textbook. But other nights you’ll be on the highway again, listening to how the sounds in your car shift up as it goes from 60 to 80, hoping the rain will hold off until you get home.