chicago, texas

on being “from” nowhere

“Born in Chicago, raised in Texas.” A simplified answer to a complicated question. Technically true, having lived in a handful of towns strewn up and down the vertical swath of the Midwest from Kaukauna, Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico: from estate homes to trailer parks, garages converted to living spaces, run-down apartment buildings, and tiny homes meant as way-stops but morphed into magical memories. Yes, born in Chicago and raised in Texas. I don’t identify, though, as either a Texan or a Chicagoan, and I’ll bristle if anyone tries to label me as such. I feel like a New Yorker, though I know it’ll be years before I’m granted permission to say so. That’s okay; I’ve waited 40 years to feel like I’m home, and a few more years won’t make much difference.

As I said, it’s a complicated question. When asked where I’m from, there’s always a pause, often perceptible, as though I’m deciding how much to smudge the truth. Born in Chicago (really, the suburbs), raised in Texas, then back to Chicago (really, the suburbs, mostly, though much of it in the city proper) for 22 years before deciding I’d had enough of living in places filled with more painful memories than the substances I needed to make a happy life. I was 38 when I moved to New York City; I’d spent 30 years in Chicago and eight in Texas. My knee-jerk reaction is still to say I’m “from” Texas when pressed – and somehow, people do press – but now that it’s wintertime and frigid in New York, I’m also “from” Chicago. The truth – and really, there is none, or at least none I can find in this regard – is that I consider myself from Texas but not a Texan. Because that would be giving up too much and denying all of the things that made me leave in the first place, all of the things that make me 100% sure I’ll never go back.

I have a friend – okay, the person formerly known as The Boyfriend – who likes/liked to tease me that I’ll go back to Texas. For a while I tolerated this, then started getting upset, and finally told him he needed to stop. It’s a touchy subject. For all the ways in which Texas made me who I am today – there’s this thing about Texas women that people who know them understand, and it’s something I picked up during my time there (call it chutzpah or being a stubborn mule or just plain being able to survive on toothpicks and rubber bands, I don’t know) – and for all the funny stories and charming memories I have about my childhood there, I also have a million more painful reminders of the place. I don’t often talk about the reasons I left – really, 1990 was a long, long time ago – but imagine the circumstances that would cause a 16-year-old girl to abandon her senior year of high school (ostensibly to start college a year early) and move nearly 2,000 miles away from the state she’s called home for eight years, to stake a claim for a life years before she’s remotely prepared. Yes, part of it was precociousness and genius and intelligence and being bored with whatever limited opportunities were available in the small town where I lived, the real-life version of the world of Michelle Shocked’s Memories of East Texas. But it was also what addicts and alcoholics call pulling a geographic: a deep-seated belief that if I could just leave the nightmare, I could find a daydream somewhere else.

It took a very long time for me to start thinking of Texas as a place where anything good ever happened. Probably it’s only been the past two or three years that I’ve even remembered anything good happening there. Until then – perhaps a side effect of rebuilding a relationship with my dad and becoming closer to my brother – it was just a place where a bunch of bad things happened. I was raped, molested, abused, neglected, largely abandoned by anyone who loved me, forgotten and left to my own devices by people who said they cared. I witnessed things no child ever should, and I protected my brother and sister from things no older sister should ever have to shield anyone from, much less their siblings. I carried my dead dog home after our neighbor shot him, his blood drenching one of my favorite shirts. I fought to be someone no one ever thought I could be – years later, when I was accepted into graduate school, my mother’s response was, “don’t you think you’re educated enough already?” – and was desperately, desperately alone. Had it not been for a boyfriend introducing me to his stepfather, who became my mentor and Academic Decathlon coach in high school, I would have had no one who gave a damn about my future. My parents did the best they could – I have to believe this – but they were busy with their own lives and all they cared about was that I followed rules; that’s why when I was raped in my own bed after school by a boy who brought me home and then asked to come in for a glass of water, and my mother came home half an hour later wondering why I hadn’t started dinner, all I was worried about was that I’d get in trouble for letting the boy in for water.

Years would pass before I could remember dancing in the rain in my bathing suit or riding bikes in the country with my brother, singing to country music while sitting on the dock and dipping my feet in the river, swimming in Landa Park’s pool all summer long, the way crickets would crunch under our car tires every autumn as we drove through downtown New Braunfels, the pride of being in marching band, what it felt like to go through the tube chute on the river, all the silly and funny things my brother and I experienced together as a mismatched and hapless team. Many more years would pass before I would learn to understand that the bad things that happened in Texas weren’t because I lived in Texas; everything was and is much more complicated than that. But I still won’t ever go back, and not only do I bristle at the thought, but the thought itself inspires a state of near-panic. Maybe it’s PTSD. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s not wanting to face my past. I don’t know. I’ve certainly visited since I’ve left, and things have been okay when I’ve done so, for a while, as long as I don’t remember too hard or too much.

In any case, I might be “from” Texas or “from” Chicago, but it’s only by a technicality. I prefer to be from nowhere, to stay where I am right now. And I’m definitely never going back to Texas except with a round-trip ticket tucked into my back pocket. There are just too many ghosts there; even if I don’t exorcise them all that often anymore, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still floating around, waiting to pop up the minute my flight hits the ground. There’s a reason I left, and even 24 years later, it’s the same reason I won’t ever go back.