crying under the bleachers & why I never want to leave the South
THIS IS GOD'S COUNTRY, PLEASE DON'T DRIVE THROUGH IT LIKE HELL.
Let’s set the scene: a cow pasture in front of my house. My backyard is filled with grass, trees, fallen branches, and a pond I used to take a small boat on to talk about the day I had at school with my best friend. The bugs chirp and squeal at night, and during the hot, sticky days of summer months, they get even louder. The nearest grocery store is two highway exit’s away. Whenever you go to the gas station you see someone over the age of sixty your parents somehow know. When I was fourteen, my biggest fear was to die here.
As of now, I don’t think I’d ever want to leave. I, myself, am a lesbian. I’m also gender non-conforming. I grew up in the Southeast. North Carolina, to be specific, and I find myself becoming one with the soil I tread on more and more, every single day. The things I have just stated play a very large part in the way I feel towards the places I have spent my entire life. Homophobia and the fear of being targeted for the way I look and the way my body looks runs through my body every single time I go out. I keep my keys clutched between my knuckles. I practice witty remarks in the mirror before and after I shower.
I have, however, found that some of the best people I have ever met live right down the road from me. Whenever you are thirteen years old and you are struggling with not only the way you view yourself but the way others will view you, you get terrified. I once thought I was the only little gay girl in the entire county. I let the fields of nothing and the eroding soil swallow me whole. I looked across rotting ceilings and peeled up tile from my trailer and felt sick. People like me don’t succeed in a place where you move across the street from your parents and then you die. I didn’t know that outside of this village I call a hometown, there was more for me. I think the combination of intense Northern-only areas being the only place where I saw gay people thrive and the content I consumed in which everyone who felt their lives change from the internet who suddenly, and with a certain calculated easiness, transferred their existence from Missouri to New York City.
Maybe it was the idea that I could finally be myself there. Maybe I thought I could finally find myself in the streets that resemble various TV shows I watched and the people I’d meet there would be like the best friends I saw in the movies and the Tumblr posts. I thought solace would be found on trains and in sirens. If I filled my ears with the noise of something other than the voices I heard around me I could see myself clearly for the first time. All the work I had attempted to put in would be worth nothing in the long run if I had simply abandoned those who built me from the ground up. If I had simply packed everything I owned and left the people who baked me cornbread in the afternoons, or stuck my middle finger up to those who took my challenges and difficulty and did not hit me, but told me I have one more chance to be good.
Go on, get the wicker switch from the woods and hit me on my bare ass.
Looking back on the way I grew up, I realize I was very lucky to be in a family full of people that really did not care whether or not I ate dirt. I played in creeks naked and threw sticks at my grandparents because those were the only toys I had brought down with me. I told them I was fishing. I may sound like an eager graying man here but technology has ruined me and has shifted the way I used to act towards others and the growth I once had as a small child but have since lost. I fundamentally believe that if withholding me from an iPod touch whenever I was nine years old was prolonged even a year or two more I probably would have been normal. Not that I’m not, but I think I could have enjoyed when the grass was a little bit greener and the way the trees swayed during the spring months. Technology has without a doubt ruined many of the people I know and a lot of the children I see in the area I live.
Growing up on the internet as most of the people I surround myself with or have had the pleasure (and displeasure) of growing up with, I was force-fed content and opinion pieces about the place I live. By no means am I saying you need to love the South or any hometown, but I think from such a young age, because I was about ten or eleven, as was most everyone whenever they first started taking in this type of rhetoric and actively consuming these opinions that were rooted in not only stereotypes but flat-out painted the South as some type of newer nation permanently stuck in like, 1929. It was just yesterday I saw a TikTok comment from a teenager on the West Coast expressing that she didn’t know Alabama was “developed” like that. Whatever she means by that, I do not want to know any further details.
Maybe the internet is a part of it, sure. Blame the kids for expressing how the South is filled with redneck hillbillies and women who still wipe their husband’s asses and eat the toilet paper afterwards to sustain themselves. I think most of the women I have met here are some of the most damaged people in the entire world. I think growing up in an area like this has opened my eyes to some of the most empathetic, hardworking women I have ever had the pleasure of growing up with. Certified trailer trash, women who did not tolerate my bullshit even whenever I started spouting words from the mouth’s of people I knew were smarter than me. Women who told me they didn’t really get the whole gay thing. Men with thick accents and beards that are matted and gross. Real men wear pink. What good came from telling my grandparents I didn’t want to grow up here?
Why did I think a life away from sets of mountains that has seen the harshest of my truth’s would ever treat me worse than the cold? That if I left it all behind I’d feel better? I like the support groups here, and the people I get to protest with. I enjoy sharing books to people I know would understand things better if I said it just a little slower. There’s comfort in knowing my friend’s parents give me fresh bread whenever I want it. I don’t have to beg for vegetables, my aunt has them in her garden. I see opossum’s in the grass and sometimes stray dogs let me pet them. I love the red cardinal, in all of her glory. She’s bright and her feathers are beautiful.
And I would be doing a disservice to not only the people in my area but the South as a whole if I did not mention that the reason I look at it as my family is the diversity all around me & the different groups of people and family all around me. I think part of my desire to stay in the South has to do with it ever-growing, and the people just like me & one’s not like me at all coming together to make it our own. It’s seclusivity and smallness, at least in my area, ensures we all look out for one another.
I’ve seen cities with their subway stations and crowds of people who didn’t know each other at all and didn’t want to. I did touristy things and I’ve walked across blocks of the same building and the ugliest beer garden’s and brunch stops you could ever see. I’ve tried pizza that cost way more than it should ever cost, and I still think the gas station kind is the best. Eaten food from faux-authentic places I think tastes better made during cookouts. Discussing politics and philosophical theory with people who grew up pronouncing the words “spider” and “crayon” different than I did, who would probably value my opinion more if I didn’t sound the way I did or dress the way I do.
I still think I’d prefer to be the change at my own home, outside of the bustle. I grew up introverted, you can ask my peers, but I still prefer to curve my accent and greet the folks walking outside my house or the people I pass on the trails I walk and restaurants I frequent. I like being bit up by mosquitoes if it means I get to make s’mores with my extended family at the third cookout of the year. Is there anything more important than family?
I try not to come off as too condescending or insensitive with the way I talk about family. I have looked family in the eye and told them I was tired. I have made bonds with people I see stronger than those I am blood related to. I think given the environment I have grown up in, and the culture I have been surrounded by my entire life, family is always the most important part of living.
In a conversation about death with a friend, I was told that it really doesn’t matter what happens after as long as I have family. And I do. In the South, the people you meet and bond with and stay with for an unthinkable amount of years, will become family with your family and you will become family with their family. Everyone infiltrates everyone’s lives and the way you see each other in public will make grocery trips five hours long because you can’t stop talking about someone’s obituary you saw in the newspaper from last week, knowing very well you are taking up so much space in the dairy aisle. You cook for everyone. You make a plate for your best friend whenever you leave Thanksgiving, Christmas, hell, even the summer barbecue. It becomes sacred. Mawmaw lets me take home green beans in a mason jar. I pick strawberries with my grandmother. You give and take and nobody gets mad. We love you forever, here’s country fried steak. Eat as much as you want. Put butter on those biscuits. It’s like the last supper everytime we get together.
Who wants to say grace? Not me, that’s for sure. Me and religion have our brawls. I find God scary. What more is there to fear than life itself? Than death? Than heaven and hell? I mean, I’m not really the type to be let in the pearly gates at first glance. I grew up Southern Baptist. My dad had a list of the ten commandment’s on the wall of our trailer. My mama has read the Bible more than three times. I’ve gone through phases, I guess. I don’t know how I feel about it now. A lot of my friends feel that being forced into organized religion at such a young age has impacted the way they look at their church. I think I sort of called it bogus from the moment a member of my church pointed his ear at the carpet of our youth room and told us he could hear the devil.
But, I do find the idea of comforting. My opinion on religion has changed as I’ve aged and I thank the lovely words of those different than me I’ve consumed and sat on my tongue for hours thinking about it. It’s not a bad thing to find peace in a world like this. Solace is not a bad thing to chase. Everybody wants their breathing to be evened out, why lie about it? Death is scary too, why not make a fairytale ending for your life?
I have sat and pestered and argued with Christians about all different things. I know sometimes change is hard. It is very difficult to pin-point the words you need to say to change a lie so deeply ingrained in them. It is no lie that Christianity has rotted America to its core.
As much as I have grown to hate the people I am surrounded by, there is also so much deep understanding and growth not only from myself but the people around me. I’m nearly eighteen years old now and since realizing not only the roots, but connections and comfort I have made for myself here feel way better than the lies I have fed myself in the city. May the ivy cover my dead body and I rest easy when I die.
It is not bad to leave but I want you to know you sometimes don’t have to. You can stay and it will be just fine. And if you choose to, there will be a group of old women in pink camo and overalls that will welcome you with open arms. Be the change you want to see and if you aren’t seeing it, get loud and nasty. It will only come if we don’t stray.