The Georgia clay is burnt orange, almost red, under my sandaled feet and the air smells like wood and dust. Clean, dry wood though. The kind that looks white with the knots sanded down. They’re erecting new cabins for the summer camp I’ve attended for over a decade — bigger ones on the other side of camp, knocking out patches of trees to build looming green bunk-bedded homes for tweenagers in the throes of pimples and crushes. The smell of the cut wood tickles the inside of my nose with scent, but also actual shreds of chips and thick beige particles. It’s a smell that makes me think “camp” or I guess, “temporary home.”
Have you ever been driving and completely overwhelmed by the mountains that your car is cutting through? Looked up? Seen a lone house nestled in between the forest branches? Thought about who lives there? They must love the isolation, the coziness, the quiet.
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 would be drawn back to Georgia by smell alone. Sense memory. Southern summers are always sweltering, but outside, people (poorer people, locals, “hicks,” I later realize) work to build homes for privileged children, which is a strange and sad reversal — to build one of my many homes.
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. The house on Fillmore wasn’t necessarily a nice house. It was too small until my parents knocked out the garage and built a new master bedroom. For a while, my grandmother occupied the larger “side” bedroom. My sister was in the middle and I was on the other end, closer to the backyard. 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, blue and orange short shorts, and skim the water manually with a net. My dad did love being outside. He’d often put on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and cut down wayward branches or gather mangos, avocados, grapefruit and bananas. Sometimes he jumped in the pool with us at the end of his chores, and my sister and I always reacted like a couple of ‘60s teenyboppers at a Beatles concert.
Dad in the pool was awesome chaos. He’d dive way under the water and come up from under us, balancing our squealing bodies on his shoulders, or toss us from the shallow end into the deep end or cannonball in and leave us soaked by his splash.
The pool also often had some creepy-crawly visitors. There were constantly swarms of cockroaches getting stuck on the sides. Whenever he spotted one, my dad would pick it up, dangling it by its scrawny, kicking legs and then, as far as my sister and I were concerned, drop it down his throat. “Mmmm, delicious,” he’d say, rubbing his hairy belly. My sister and I would flip out.
“NOOO!” We’d yell, “Don’t eat the cockroaches, Daddy. That’s gross!”
My dad would laugh, treading water out of our reach. “It’s okay, girls,” he’d joke. “All boys eat cockroaches.”
My sister is now 20 years old and still lives in Florida — in Tallahassee. One of her Facebook pictures has 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, and silver Coors Light can in her hand. “T@ll@na$tyyy,” her friends wrote 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 “all about choices” I tell myself when her nipple threatens to burst through the top of her tank top.
In high school, I did not have a lot of friends outside of the superhero message boards I frequented, but she’d lost multiple sparkly 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, a lanky girl with stick-straight chocolate hair, 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, part of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right program there to rebuild houses in the area. We wanted to help and also to experience for ourselves how an entire city came to be destroyed and left to rot.
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 just 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 exploitive 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 with the words: “Home. This Was Home.” I have seen that house twice now — on both of my unofficial “disaster tours.” It always makes my heart stop. For me, I can stay in the AC of the car. For someone else, this was their home.
In Boston, during college, I lived in a duplex with Kim and a boy named Sean. I loved that house, which we nicknamed “The Dime” because the address was 10 Higgins, almost as much as the two people I shared it with. 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; there’d be no broken lamps or smashed framed pictures. The house was cheap, and in a transitional neighborhood most called a “student ghetto.” 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.
I had a huge bedroom on the second floor next to Kim’s. Sean slept downstairs in the biggest room, on a tiny twin bed he inherited from his grandmother. Even though Sean and I started dating soon after all moved in, Kim and I could more often be found sharing one of our two queen-sized ones, wearing each other’s clothing without needing to ask.
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-hookups.
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 cliché. 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” and felt like I had fallen into the show ‘Rent’, except more amazing because it was real and they were artists and they were young and they were beautiful and the city skyline loomed.
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.