At the age of 20, my closest cousin and neighbor became pregnant three months after meeting a boy. She announced this on a crisp day at the end of January— this and the fact that she would be marrying him two weeks later, on Valentines Day. Sitting in a dented plastic chair at the reception, the wind having blown my ears numb and deaf, I leaned to my left, asking my 60-year-old grandmother to repeat what she had just said.
“I said,” she began and then paused. Her eyes turned teary and lingered on my cousin sitting across the room, who looked beautiful and who had refused to have a first dance with her husband. “I said not to worry. This can happen to you, too.”
Growing up in Lincoln Country, West Virginia, I imagine, is like growing up anywhere else in the world. Except that when it’s you growing up there, it feels different. Just like everywhere else in the world. My family has been low-income as long as we’ve been alive. This was the same for my neighbors, and the neighbors of my neighbors, and the neighbors of everyone I knew. Most of the kids hated their families for it. They demanded nice clothes with bejeweled pockets to cover their asses and 100-dollar price tags. And their parents, somehow, made it happen. My parents knew those sparkling jeans were uncomfortable when sitting and refused, not that I ever asked. Instead, they sent me to school with lunches my mom packed the night before, complete with sandwiches stuffed with square, pale pink ham and chocolate puddings with plastic spoons. My ass was covered.
Like most people, I grew up resenting the place I called home. Everyone was racist, and publicly so. During a 4th of July parade, all of the American flags were replaced with Confederate ones. Everyone said “nigger”. And they said it hard, lingering on the “r”. Heaven was a place for Baptist, white, straight men and their wives, if the women were willing to hush up. We married early, had kids early, and died early (usually, it was the cancer). I can remember giving a speech during my graduation, looking out onto a field of sinking chairs in the mud, seeing all of the male, and some female, classmates spitting their chewing tobacco into empty water bottles they carried out with them.
I spoke about achievement and beginnings, pausing and smiling as my voice reverberated. And I told God, privately, that I would saw off both of my legs and never take a sip of alcohol if only he would let me die somewhere other than up a holler in Lincoln County.
I’ve been writing my whole life, but never about home. It seemed too easy and too boring, so I actively avoided it. I came to college and wrote about hitchhikers in Montana and city slickers and Mars and anywhere but a bumpy back road with two exploded meth houses. I used to think that seeing a place for what it is meant that I had to write it exactly how I remembered it. But I was not seeing. I was not looking for stories, I was looking for an exit. In doing so, I missed it. The point. The moments in between. The magic.
This November, I went back home for Thanksgiving— a three-and-a-half hour drive with nothing but exits. My cousin had her baby, a healthy boy. As did my brother and his girlfriend, a little girl with his face. We sat in plastic chairs and I watched the babies sleep, holding their fragile little hands attached to their fragile little fingers. I was with my people. Low-income people with low-income neighbors and low-income family— all of us knowing that we didn’t care. My grandfather blessed the food and my grandmother packed it away in red Tupperware containers for my three-and-a-half hour drive back up. My ass is covered.
“This can happen to you, too.”
For one terrible moment, I thought about answering, “I hope it doesn’t.” And for one, even more terrible moment, I thought about answering, “I hope it does.” But in the end, I only smiled. I was there. Right in the in between of things.