East Toward Home
I fell in love with Austin in the seventies. Now I have to leave because I’ve fallen in love again—with a man from Pennsylvania. And it breaks my heart.
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WE DROVE WEST ON U.S. 290 TO U.S. 281 SOUTH, then turned off to Medina and Vanderpool. After crossing and recrossing the Sabinal along sunset ridges from Utopia to Lost Maples, we spent the night at the FoxFire Cabins with our four children. In the morning we headed north to the Willow City Loop, surely one of the most beautiful stretches of road anywhere in the world.
Five miles of that narrow byway with its single barbecue shack and its many cattle guards is enough Hill Country to break your heart—spectacular vistas, one after another, that no outsider would dream existed in Texas. Knolls as green as Ireland, dramatic bluffs, rolling meadows, and terra-cotta river plains. Knotty live oaks shading winding creeks that run through valleys so thick with bluebonnets they seem, at first glance, to be lakes. Then fields and fields of long-stemmed white prickly poppies lit by the sun, hovering above the grass like tiny angels.
For six months I have known I would be leaving Texas to marry and move to another state. Trying to let go, I have been living like a ghost, in a world where I am already gone. Friends call, but I sit motionless as the machine picks up, struck silent by the image of them lunching at Las Manitas without me. I envision I-35 without my car, the Town Lake soccer fields without my sons, my front steps without my feet. This is my way of easing out gently, and I think it’s working. People now greet me by saying, Are you still here?
Dear Texas, good-bye. You are the only place I have ever loved. In fact, you’ve taught me everything about love of place I’ve ever known. Shot out of deepest New Jersey before the ink dried on my high school diploma, I ricocheted between Providence and New York until I learned I could drive to Atlanta or Chicago overnight. I embraced the interstate highway system like a cult religion. No telling how far I would have gone if I hadn’t screeched into Austin so early in the game, traveling with a college friend from Dallas. There I stopped cold in my tracks, stone in love.
What did a born-to-run Jersey girl see in the Texas capital that tender green spring of 1976? Back before booms and busts, before skyscrapers and silicon, before latte and microbrews and national home delivery of the New York Times, before the whole rest of the country found out Texas was cool? What she saw was a little city with a great big head. It was Texas, all right. Big drinks, big ideas, big university, big fat toast and big wide streets, the biggest swimming pool you ever saw, smack in the middle of town.
Milling around this supersized paradise was a motley crew of hippies, cowboys, hippie-cowboys, Mexican day laborers, sorority sisters, and UT exes in burnt orange Caddies, every one of them so damned happy to be in Austin they couldn’t stop themselves from beaming and calling you honey, couldn’t wipe those big Texas grins off their face, even standing in line outside the convenience store on the melting asphalt in the burning sun, apparently thrilled just to be waiting to pump their cheap Texas gas. This contentment bordering on self-satisfaction bordering on pure-dee arrogance got my attention, then my curiosity, and finally my rent check. In this alien place, so beloved by its alien inhabitants, I had the intense, compelling, and life-changing desire to be at home.
It took me a couple of tries to get my roots to take in the caliche soil. One summer I drove for Roy’s Taxi, shuttling my roommates to jobs serving chicken-fried steak at the Stallion; later I spent a few years in a crazy house over in Clarksville where we tried to stop the South Texas Nuclear Project and used a red bandanna as a communal napkin to save money. “Impeach Reagan” was silk-screened on our front door. More than once, New York or New Orleans lured me with its siren song, but when it was gettin’ on time to grow up, I came to Austin and stayed.
So did a lot of us, I think. I came here two decades ago with a bunch of people like me in their twenties who had weird hair and wobbly bicycles and stayed up all night, then recovered from hangovers with 49-cent breakfast tacos on their way to business school or beauty school or Barton Springs. I’m leaving a group in their forties who wake up in the dark before the alarm goes off, who talk on cell phones from their sport utility vehicles, who are lawyers and motel owners and social workers, who have to leave the kids’ baseball game early because of the book club. The magic of this place is that it made that transition almost painless.
In Austin you can grow up easy; adulthood isn’t all that adult. You can take your time. Your problems don’t have to kill you. They can—I’ve seen it firsthand—but they don’t have to. Unlike cities in the rain-soaked Suicide Belt or the northeastern overdose metroplexes, this place has a sunny spirit that can take your edge off. Maybe you stay a little bit crazy, but nobody minds. They say Austin rocks!—but the real point is that it rocks. Like a hammock, like a mother, like a cradle.
Think of it like this. All over the country people are trying desperately to relax. In Austin you really don’t have to try. In these other places, if you work nights and weekends, people understand it: You’re a go-getter, gotta be. In Austin, if you do that—unless you’re playing in a band or making jewelry out of Fimo clay on the side—your friends worry about you. They say, “What’s the matter? You’re working too hard. Come to our dinner party.”
These dinner parties were once potato soup in mismatched bowls. Then they were barbecues on the deck of somebody’s first real house, where discussion of interest rates was heard mixed with the usual scat of CDs and movies and various local celebrities’ drug problems. Then they came indoors to a dining room with a dhurrie rug and halogen lights or to the apartment after the divorce, with baked blue-corn chips and Thai noodles from the gourmet take-out. People who once drank Lone Star or jug wine somehow wound up with a preference for Veuve Clicquot over Roederer—or for Stoli straight out of the bottle, in which case they found themselves at twelve-step meetings with those very people they used to talk about at the barbecue.
By this time, of course, there was always a second party in progress in the background: a bunch of smaller guests playing with Legos in the bedroom, splashing in the inflatable pool outside, shooting hoops in the driveway, or coming to blows over Nintendo. Yes, the children. As if leading us to Narnia, they beckoned us—through the darkness of bars on Sixth Street and places where you could buy a joint at four in the morning—to an Austin we had never seen: a prelapsarian garden of playscapes and baby pools, choo-choos and real canoes you can row. A place with parks full of peacocks and bridges full of bats and springs full of ducks, where every restaurant had crayons. We helped them color. We remembered, then, how much we loved to color.
In my case Austin worked. To the surprise of many, I am not just alive, I am grown up, with hardly a self-destructive habit left to my name. Instead of burning my candle at both ends, I light it only for special occasions. “Came in a miniskirt, left in a minivan,” that’s what they’ll say. In another blink my two boys will be teenagers. Meanwhile, the new owners of my house are circling the block again, discussing the future of my nandina bushes.
I sold my house because I met a man who lives in Pennsylvania. By the second time we saw each other, it was perfectly clear how we should spend the rest of our lives. He had complications that prevented moving and I did not. He is a college professor who shares custody of two children with his ex-wife. I am self-employed. I am a widow. And I’m from New Jersey.
Without even thinking, I was saying, “Sure. Of course I’ll go. I have to go”—so quickly I have to admit that something in me was ready to say it. “Will I be here forever?” I used to wonder, but I guess I knew the answer. “After the kids finish elementary school . . .” was the sentence that would start in my head, and though I never quite finished it, I knew I was not built to stay.
It took quite a while for this snap decision to sink in. Here’s the problem: When you’re totally obsessed with missing your lover in Pennsylvania, you can hardly worry about missing the place where you still live so intolerably without him. It took his coming here to visit for me to realize what I had done. Then we took what I knew would be my last trip to the Hill Country.
By the time I got back to Austin from our afternoon among the wildflowers, I was on the verge of tears. The sight of my house—not my house anymore—pushed me over the edge. With this love of mine sitting close enough to touch, close enough to scare me to death with what we were going to do, I finally saw my beloved landscape receding, and dissolved into sobs.
Though I’ve lived in this state for more than two decades, I never answer the question “Where are you from?” by saying “Texas.” I’ve argued with other non-natives over that. They say, “Sometimes people just want to know where you live.” But I don’t think you should say you’re from Texas unless you are, and I am not.
Nonetheless, I feel that some part of me will stay behind. Perhaps the mirrors at Hyde Park Gym will still contain my reflection, as if I were a reverse vampire. Books will be checked out of the library in my name. A phantom Jeep Cherokee will be sighted making illegal U-turns on the Drag. Someone will swear they ran into me shopping at Kathleen Sommers in San Antonio, eating barbecue at Angelo’s in Fort Worth, watching the sun set in Big Bend. My children’s names will echo faintly through our old neighborhood at dinnertime, my horrendous bellow resonating for years to come. I will leave no family, no ancestral home, no rightful claim. And yet I will have to return, like a character from another ghost story, to get back my heart.