The stars at night are big and bright

Heading West

For my 16th birthday, I asked my parents to drive me out to the middle of nowhere. We left the Houston area, passed the Buc-ee’s (side note, California, y’all should invest in a Buc-ee’s establishment; you’re sorely lacking), left Huntsville behind, turned off the highway and then turned off that road before we ended up on a dusty stretch of gravel. There were two houses in sight, both miles away in opposite directions. The rest was farmland. My birthday is in the end of November, and that night was fairly cold. I could see my breath as I climbed onto the hood of the car to look at the sky.

They say everything’s bigger in Texas, and when it comes to the sky, that adage is true. I’ve seen the Milky Way in its entirety only once, and it was on that night, in the middle of southeast Texas, on the hood of my parents’ car.

To talk about Texas is to remember those small moments, and I can’t fully understand those moments if I stay 2,000 miles away in the Bay Area. So it’s fitting that my summer of reminiscing on Texas was split between here and there. May saw me traversing campus, while June landed me in the places I had left behind, surrounded by memories.

I can hear the metronome from my backyard in August when the marching band starts practicing. When it rains in Texas, it pours. The sky fissures with lightning and shakes with thunder so loud and so close that you can feel it in your bones. You get caught on the road and pull into a parking lot to ride it out. Texas is big, and so much of it is empty. You’re constantly left reminded of how small a player humanity is in the natural world.

There’s a movie theater in Tomball, Texas, called Silverado where I worked the summer after my freshman year at UC Berkeley. Sometimes I think I could map my entire life by different conversations that have happened in the parking lot of that theater. The lot is at its most vulnerable around 1 a.m. in the summer, when you’re coming out from the last showing of the evening. Nights don’t really cool off in southeast Texas. They stay humid and heavy, but there’s a light breeze that’s always most noticeable in those in-between hours.

BookPeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, is one of the safest places I’ve ever been. It’s served as a linchpin in some pretty major developments in my life. It is two stories and full of corners where one can sit surrounded entirely by shelves.

Texas is my home, or at least, it was home first. I learned to drive on those terrifying highways. My elementary, middle and high school were all a stone’s throw from the same spot on the railroad tracks. Late summer days faded from chlorine-scented pools into a cicada-ridden twilight. And Texas was the closest I’ve ever been to the stars.

Everyone’s journey out of the South is different. Some people are totally fine and don’t miss it. Some people miss it, but are loath to visit. Others, like me, visit and are subjected to a range of frustrating and conflicting emotions.

In “Joe Gould’s Secret,” which I’ve never read just to be clear, Joseph Mitchell writes, “One of the damnedest things I ever found out about human emotions and how treacherous they can be — the fact that you can hate a place with all your heart and soul and still be homesick for it.” Sometimes I think it would be easier if I hated Texas, but I’ve never quite felt that way. And unfortunately Mitchell didn’t tell me anything about how it feels to both hate and love a place in equal measure.

I worry writing about the South sometimes, mostly because it is still a place that holds a lot of pain for me. I tend to focus on the negatives. I don’t plan on ever moving back there, or if at all possible I’d really like to not have to move back there. But I cannot deny it is my home. If it came down to it and I suddenly had the omniscient power to change my past, I wouldn’t. I’d choose to still grow up in Spring, Texas, to go through what I went through, because there are some beautiful things there.

I have hated Texas, and I have loved Texas. I realized I was gay there. I was baptized there. Almost every life-changing event I’ve undergone has in some way been tied to Texas. It is both a beautiful place and an ugly place, and to know it is to have seen both.

Danielle writes the Thursday column on finding your home. Contact her at [email protected].