The Georgia clay is burnt orange, almost red, under my sandals and the air smells like wood and dust. Clean, dry wood though. The kind that looks white. They’re erecting new cabins for the summer camp I attend; knocking out patches of trees to build looming green bunk-bedded homes for tweens.
Have you ever been driving and looked to each side and seen the mountains your car is cutting through and been mesmerized? Have you ever seen a lone house nestled on top and thought about who lives there?
Even if I can’t remember exactly where everything at the camp was, (and I can so far, but maybe when I’m old I will forget) I could be drawn back to Georgia by smell alone. Southern summers are always sweltering, but outside, people (poorer people, locals, “hicks,” I later realize) work to built homes for privileged children, which is a strange and sad reversal. They leave their homes to build one of my many homes on top of their home.
I grew up in Florida, in a house with a red roof on Fillmore Street in a neighborhood outside Ft. Lauderdale called “The Presidential Circle” because all the streets were named for US presidents. Millard Fillmore Street was as unassuming as the president it was named for. I loved the “red house.” It felt lived in with the worn wall paper and scuffed tile and spilled-on carpets.
The backyard was the part of the house that really made it. Like even the poorest of South Florida families, we had an in-ground swimming pool. There was a gazebo, a swing set that my parents had surprised me with as a birthday present when I was in kindergarten and that glimmering, blue pool.
Sometimes the drain would get clogged with leaves and my dad would throw on a University of Florida visor, black Adidas sandals and blue and orange short shorts and skim the water manually with a net. My dad loved being outside. He’d often put on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and cut down wayward branches or gather mangos, avocados, grapefruit and bananas.
Years later, on a beach near Boston, a boy and I sat watching a sculpting contest. Elvis Presley materialized in the sand.
“They ship it in,” I overheard a fat woman say to her husband of the mounds unused. “It’s not sand from this beach.”
So in a fitting metaphor, I’ll say that I am not sand from any beach. I was just flown in to different places to be molded.
Consider me the human version of a potted orchid. An old, stern woman on an airplane once told me orchids are the most difficult flower to grow. They’re temperamental and delicate plants, easily breakable in the tilled garden soil if a gardener accidentally gets too rough.
“Too much of a hassle,” she’d scowled when I’d called them my favorite flower.
My sister is now 20 years old and still lives in Florida — in Tallahassee. One of her Facebook pictures is her, blond hair streaming down her shoulders, tan skin, white shirt, cut off blue jean shorts, Ugg boots, twinkling tiara nestled on the crown of her head, silver Coors Light can in her hand. “T@ll@na$tyyy,” her friends write beside it.
We were close as kids, went through a rough period and then became close again when I went to college. When she came to visit me in New York City in April, I hadn’t seen her in about a year. She looked good, like the sun itself — golden and brown. She dresses too provocatively for my tastes, but feminism is “really all about choices” I tell myself when her nipple threatens to burst through the top of her tank top.
Our mother is from Queens, New York. Our father is European. Florida is almost an after thought. In high school, I did not have a lot of friends that weren’t from the internet. She has lost multiple sparkly Steve Madden high heels on yachts in South Beach.
My sister’s Florida is very different from mine.
I’m in the middle seat of the Toyota Corolla even though I always get car sick and we’re driving through the Ninth Ward in New Orleans for the second time in the past couple of years. After college, my best friend Kim moved here to teach special education in a rapidly deteriorating — both physically and spiritually — high school.
On my first visit, we drove through the devastation handing out water bottles to the workers there to rebuild houses in the area. We played Lil Wayne out of respect, I guess, and stopped to look at the various houses with spray-painted numbers and Xs meant to signify how many were dead inside. Some were just stairs leading up to nowhere or the wooden, splintering door frames. Some houses were on top of other houses. Some seemed like they were just partially invisible.
There’s a business being run called “The Disaster Tour” where tourists can pay to be taken around the damage in a bus. The New York Times wrote a really amazing article about the surreal nature of taking a “tour” of Katrina, of poverty, of devastation. In the car, we all talk about how exploitative the whole thing is, but we still take time out of our vacation to drive around the Ninth Ward, to show it to our friend who has never been to New Orleans before. The night before we’d drank Hurricanes on Bourbon St., our tongues tell-tale red and our faces drunken red. I’d texted a boy I know who doesn’t like me back. Kim put a dollar in a stripper’s be-jangled underpants. On Frenchman St. that next night, we ate Cajun food and danced to a brass band at a bar called Blue Nile. The Ninth Ward seems like a different place altogether.
On one of the houses we pass is spray painted the words: “Home. This Was Home.” I have seen that house twice now — on both of my unofficial “disaster tours.” I can stay in the AC of the car. For someone else, this was home.
In Boston, during college, I lived in a duplex called “The Dime” with two roommates. From day one, we committed to never decorating (sans one crude movie poster in the kitchen for an independent horror film called Donkey Punch) because we wanted the house to be a safe place to party. On the first floor was a living room big enough to create a spacious dance floor and to hold a record player, and both a front and back porch perfect for lawn furniture and entertaining guests.
From the window of the second floor bathroom, we could climb out and sit on the roof where we would drink wine, smoke cigarettes, and look down at the chaos of Brighton Avenue. One time, in a drunken fit, Kim, our friend Ariel, and I threw eggs we’d drawn faces on with a Sharpie down into the shared community parking lot in an effort to voodoo/exorcise a crop of shitty ex-hook ups.
I’ve moved every year I’ve lived in New York. Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Chinatown, the Upper East Side, Harlem. New roommates, new neighborhoods, new walls. Sometimes I take my furniture, sometimes in a Craigslist fit I’ll sell it all and buy new, cheaper furniture when I get my new apartment. Moving is expensive, but you get better at it with time.
New York City felt like home to me before I ever lived here, which is admittedly a twenty-something cliche. My brother moved to Manhattan when he was in his twenties and worked as a stage manager and lighting designer and professional Ramen noodle-eater. When I was fourteen, I visited him and got really drunk in an apartment with “actual gay people” (I felt very sophisticated and very closeted). It was real and they were artists and they were young and they were beautiful and the city skyline beamed.
For the first few months after I moved from Boston to New York, I’d leave my apartment with my arms flung open like Belle from Beauty and the Beast. “Bonjour!” I’d exclaim to the homeless. “Bonjour!” to the droopy commuters. “Bonjour!” to the overworked barista.
I was just so happy to be home.