Stranger to Blue Water

River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Photo by Girma Nigusse on Unsplash

Summer 2017

My purple spaghetti dress was stapled to my back, dripping with July heat. The gods surrounded us; they came in the form of Gucci and YSL stores, the beggars at Duomo di Milano, and the cathedral itself. I could not bear to cover my shoulders to get inside. The heat was too intense. We had been on the bus for a few hours, with no air conditioning. A few days before we ascended to Milan in the manual double-decker, we explored Italy’s southern borders, where everywhere was gelato and sun-kissed teenagers. I glanced at them, insecurely, with nothing to cover my shoulders except sunscreen. I still couldn’t believe that it only cost each of us three hundred euros to sweat in Italy for a week. Getting to Europe was the hard part, I guess.

My friends from Germany directed us to a gelato stand, and before I knew it, mango gelato dripped down the cone it belonged to, twisted in my fingers, bent to the curve of my tongue. It was sweet and sticky, dreamier than ice cream. Worth however many euros it cost. Two or three, maybe four. The details don’t matter. I romanticized every lick.

A skip down the cobblestone, floating from the gelato stand to the sunnier street, a familiar tune rang through the air. In English; a language I was starting to forget among my German peers in the days we spent in Italian cities. I struggled to listen, told my friends in broken German and slow English that I recognized the song. The only other American girl, Louise, from Spartanburg, understood my strain. Someone was singing, strumming their guitar, accepting the tips of people like me who felt seen in their foreignness. I hadn’t heard “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in a long time, and all of a sudden, homesickness consumed me.

 

Winter 2021

I was running out of money, but when in Europe, you drink, especially if otherwise, in America, you can’t. As a twenty-something in Europe for the new year with barely any money, spending it on alcohol seemed like a good bargain.

The hostel was cozy, mostly housing skiers for a week in a village suspended in the Swiss Alps like deli meat on a sandwich. My friend Evonne and I, however, were not skiers. At this point, we were just Southern girls experiencing real snow for the first time; cheap Americans trying to prove we were cultured by visiting Switzerland for a day and a half.

Swiss food was pricey, so we ate pizza and rösti, an almost breakfast-style mountain meal with tomatoes, eggs, potatoes, and other things I no longer remember. We saved room for drinks, venturing into the bar, where the bartender spoke to us in her New Zealand accent and served us chilled shots of Jager. We cheered to “no more bullshit” for 2021. In the hum of the winter night, I hear Almost heaven… and I trailed into thinking that’s indeed where I was. And then I realized.

I lit up, “They’re playing the good shit!” And that’s all I could say before I sang along.

We laughed and made fun of it, decided we would drunkenly roll in the snow, and danced in the laundry room for warmth. We weren’t used to the elevation, the rolling hills, or the weather. And I still wasn’t used to that song following me everywhere I went. It was always a nice surprise, a grounding moment in reality.

A few days previous, a Parisian had told us he loved our southern, country accents. We looked at each other, shock spread across our faces in the form of laughter.

I said, “You should meet some other people we know, then.”

It was almost an inside joke, as we told him about Marion county, a place all three of us were sure he’d never visit.

It was as if we thought we forgot our accents at home, like a toothbrush or a phone charger. As if they weren’t built-in like all our organs were, like muscle memory could change the longer we stayed in a foreign country.

 

Intermission

“Where are you from?”

“West Virginia.”

“Country roads! Would your parents still be brother and sister if they got divorced? Are all your teeth real?”

Yeehaw is the new yes.

 

Teenage: In some order or another

My childhood memories are sometimes scattered and blurry, and other times vibrant and all-at-once. Even as I’ve gotten older, it’s hard to even remember where I was at any given point as a teenager.

The last time I went to West Virginia may have been in 2015 when I packed a black dress just in case my grandpa died from medical trauma (he didn’t). We were terrified, or at least I was. But when I learned about the violence the women in my family had suffered at the hands of my grandpa, I couldn’t bear to even think about my own feelings toward his death anymore. The road to my grandpa’s old house made me nauseous. It wasn’t paved well, or maybe it wasn’t paved at all. All I remember was the roads felt like rollercoasters. My stomach folded in on itself when the hill revved upward with an incline so steep it felt like I was going to fucking outer space, all laws of gravity abandoned, making the car sputter and spit as a papaw chewing tobacco would. Down the gravel road, to the right, was the river. I never knew if it was the Shenandoah or not, and never asked. I never knew where it began or ended.

It could’ve been in 2017 when I visited my aunt in Martinsburg; when she took me on an Amtrack to NYC for the first time, where along the way, the Pennsylvania Amish saw us in their backyards.

It could’ve been last night in a dream, or today in a poem, or tonight in a memory.

My old house was somewhere in Harpers Ferry, an area sometimes considered to not be West Virginia by more southern Appalachians. Not quite D. C., not quite Maryland or Virginia, it’s the thumb of the state. The address of the place my dad killed a snake under my trampoline, where I hypothesized my neighbor's chickens would give me chickenpox, was regrettably not on Google Maps, where I’ve tried time and time again to find surveillance on it. No Zillow page. It’s almost like baby shoes that were never worn and also never sold. It’s almost like I was never there, even when my toes were inches away from touching the river water. Even when I stood on Jefferson rock or snuck through the haunted tours. Even when John Brown felt like a distant relative. Even when the tow truck rear-ended my dad and me on the hill and I felt his inherited rage. Even when I cuss like a trucker.

These memories feel like they belong to someone else—a friendly ghost, a cicada’s lost shell. Home is malleable in that way. It’s the roots of a tree system, hidden underground like telephone wires. It’s the smell of Marlboros and porch talk. It’s threats disguised as love. It’s tender violence, the inherited trauma of somewhere forgotten. The lung cancer and poisoned water. The moocher mushrooms harvested by a young picky eater’s hand, dipped in ketchup to mimic fries. It’s also my favorite microwaved meal. The unspoken language of the mountains. Radio waves of music by men who try to understand bodies of water like women do.

 

Back to 2012 (forgive me)

My parents were going through a rough patch. I remember watching my dad hit the wall so hard, it shook. I remember being scared, but missing West Virginia. So, I packed what little kids do, and fled to my mamaw and papaw’s house, near Charleston, with my dad and little brother. Just for a week. The trailer my dad grew up in and got kicked out of was situated behind train tracks, which I walked up and down all day when I pissed them off and was scared to get yelled at or hit on the butt, something my grandpa liked to do to me into my adulthood. Perhaps I thought generational trauma was avoidable if I refused to go inside.

One day, my papaw and dad took me to the woods and tried to get me to shoot a gun, but I was too scared, and allegedly too much of a girl to be my father’s daughter or my papaw's granddaughter. I trusted the mountains, the car I sat and cried in afterward, and even the gun, more than I trusted the men whose blood ran through my body. Sometimes, I think I need to cough up coal to prove I’m one of them.

When my mamaw called my mom a slut, I told her. Like the loyal feminist I’ve always been. After all, I am my mother’s daughter. My dad took my phone. Actions have consequences. But, I went home eventually, back to the ocean, where the foam tickled my toes and handed my precious social media back to me. While I was stuck on those tracks and in that cigarette-stained house belonging to my paternal line, I don’t remember if I took any pictures on it, but I’m glad I don’t have any evidence I ever existed there, suspended in time and space like laundry on a clothesline.

 

Today

I don’t know if Europe has moonshine. I didn’t taste it while I was there.

At least I’ve learned something from the boys—that whiskey does the trick if I can tolerate the taste. I’m not afraid of my love for cocktails that taste like juice, but sometimes drinking something a grandpa does reminds me that alcohol is not worth the liver failure, the diabetes, or the risk of becoming like the men in my family. I want a drink that tastes like mountain water, like hollering, like the lips of a woman. I want a drink that tastes like all the poetry I’ve ever read, from nursery rhymes to repeating my own over and over again until the words come out meaningless. I want a drink that tastes like where the woods and the beach meet.

I am beckoned to the moonlight that you can bathe in at the top of the mountains, almost like you can reach out and touch the face of a grandmother, a doorknob to a house you don’t remember, anything that haunts you, beckoning you back to the place that birthed you from its wide-hipped rivers.

They say if you ever leave Appalachia, it’ll call you back. And when it does, it’s best not to send ‘er to voicemail. It’s best to stay on the phone, at least for a while; tell her you love her and you’ll see her soon—even if it’s a lie. Some things are best left unsung, in dreams, in memories that gather ‘round her.

Scroll to Top