I got back home from Michigan exactly two weeks ago, and my head is still spinning around in dizzy little loopy circles. No, that’s not quite right. My head is a thick bank of clouds hunkered low and heavy. Eh, that’s not right either. My head is a helium balloon floating four feet above my shoulders, tethered to my body by a thin grubby string.
That’s a little more like it.
I hate coming back from a trip, and not just because I’m forced to face the narrow confines of my regular routine again. There’s something about the first few days, when your body is here but your brain is back in the place you just left. There’s a troublesome waking dream quality to these days. You don’t fully exist anywhere.
One foot in both worlds.
My family is from a tiny town at the very tip of the thumb of the mitten shape that is Michigan’s lower peninsula. It has a population of just over 700 people. There is a grocery store, a liquor store (a “party store,” in the local parlance), two churches, two bars, and one stoplight forever blinking red. Beyond the last strip of grass at the south edge of town there’s a ditch full of Queen Anne’s Lace, and beyond that corn and soybean fields stretch to the edge of the sky, bending and rippling in the wind.
In the summer the village swells with weekenders who come for the farmer’s market and the waters of Lake Huron. In the winter the village shrinks and folds in on itself. Snow covers over the artificial grass turf of the miniature golf course, and the windows of the gift shop stay dark.
Family ties run deep, but they’ll only get you so far. It doesn’t matter who you’re related to when you’re an unfamiliar face behind the wheel of a rental car. Most folks assume I’m a tourist, or a “citiot” — a combination of “city” and “idiot,” like those strangers up from Detroit tend to be.
I feel like a fraud when I come back here. I feel it when I spot the bag of organic fair trade coffee I brought on the counter next to my parents’ plastic tub of Folgers. When I pull into the gravel lot of the bar and park my imported subcompact at the end of a row of domestic trucks. When I put on a hand-printed geometric tank top from Etsy just to bike down to the Tastee Freeze.
I know this area, and I love it, but I won’t ever really belong.
I live in a medium-sized city on the coast of California, north and west of Los Angeles. It has a population approaching 90,000 people, all jammed into an elbow of land between the where the mountains descend from the clouds and the ocean hurries to meet the horizon. Downtown is an maze of white adobe walls and red tile roofs snaked with flowering plants. Coach and True Religion stores stand between gift shops hawking cheap silkscreened sweatshirts.
Summer and winter, the streets are overrun with pale tourists who come for the palm trees and mediterranean flavor. They clog the sidewalks, plodding in slow motion as their heads swivel. I curse under my breath as I meander behind them, waiting for an opening.
On my first day back in California there’s no food in the house. For lunch I decide to try a place a couple blocks from my office that bills itself as “healing” vegetarian. I order a kale salad, some vegetable spring rolls, and ginger tea, and the total comes to $29.41. I lapse into a momentary blind panic, but I’m already committed, so I just nod and sign the receipt like this is totally fucking normal day in my fucking normal life. But in my head I’m picturing the people I left behind in Michigan laughing at me: thirty dollars for lunch? Are you out of your mind?
Yes, I am, I guess.
I head back to the office dangling my overpriced meal from one hand as the other protectively presses my bag to my chest. I’m wearing an old pilled maxi dress, tired eyes, frizzy hair. I set my jaw and push through a swarm of teenage girls with brown toothpick legs and baggy high-waisted shorts, looking like they just stepped out of an Urban Outfitters catalog.
I feel like a fraud when I come back here.
Here on the left coast, I usually hear the middle of the country referred to as the “flyover states.” I don’t usually hear what people say after that, because I am too busy imagining my fist making contact with their faces. I am fiercely protective of the Midwest, even though I don’t always understand or agree with it. But I suppose this is true of all things you love.
Like California. I can knock it all I want, but it’s part of me. It informs who I am. And part of who I am is someone willing to spend $30 on trendy health food. Yet the same time, I’m the only person I know who changes her own oil. Midwestern sensibility and work ethic, meet Western capriciousness and convenience.
It’s not as simple as that, of course. That’s me reaching for generalizations, like I tend to do when I’m trying to put something into words that maybe can’t ever be explained. We’re talking about regions with layers and layers of different social, economic, educational, and political belief structures, and each one is more subjective than the last. There’s no truth, and no certainty — just this continual sense of having been very messily divided between the two.
I’m fascinated by the concept of being from somewhere, mostly because I’ve never felt like I particularly belonged anywhere. Much like Goldilocks, I’m beleaguered by a series of prejudiced variables that mark each place as being “too” wrong for it to ever be “just right.”
Is anything ever “just right,” though?
The places we’ve lived define us, so much so that it’s the first question we usually ask a stranger. So I’m going to go ahead and ask you: Where are you from? And have you ever felt truly at home there?