Looking back at photos is a dangerous game. Nostalgia can be a caustic drug, particularly when loss is involved. Here in the New York winter, those August days in the South feel impossible, unreal, until a picture brings it all back, all of it, the good and the bad, and there were plenty of both.
This is the story of my introduction to the American South. I am a 29-year-old white gay man from the West, born and raised in a small town where most folks were loggers or farmers or worked at Boeing. My West is the poor white West, the rural West, the outsourced, economically depressed West that doesn't seem to exist in the minds of many.
This is the story of my introduction to the American South, but this is not a love story.
Joan Didion, claimed that in New York she was "most comfortable with the company of Southerners. They seemed to be in New York as I was." In my early years in New York I too found myself surrounded by Southerners. Maybe it was a common magnetism that drew us all to here. New York symbolized the great queer adventure, the great queer future, to those of us growing up in the great queer elsewhere. We arrived, refugees, and we found companionship and common experience.
D— was part of this circle that dominated my early years in New York.
This story would not exist with him.
I love him, but this is not a love story.
I met D— at a party years ago. He was short, cute. That night he was wearing frames with no lenses in them and was proud of himself for it. After poking my finger though the empty space that should have held the lenses, I gave D— nonstop shade about it. He gave me shade all night back. There are a lot of things that I find attractive in partners, but intelligence and wit are probably numbers one and three. I was hooked. But I was dating someone, and so was he.
Two years later I was single and he RSVPed to an event on my campus. We got a drink after. We talked, that night, about the (im)possibility of anti-white "racism." We kissed, that night, on the cheek. A week later, drunk after a happy hour, my lower lip found the space between his upper and lower lip in the tentative beauty of a first kiss with some one you could genuinely care about. His lips parted, just slightly.
A couple of months later, D— was my boyfriend. I loved this man in the real and terrifying way you love the first person you can picture as the father of your children, the first person you can see by your side in the hospital decades later.
* * * *
I have always thought that to truly understand someone you had to know where they were from. D— grew up in South Carolina. Because this part of the story is truly not mine to tell, I will simply say that D— had a hard beginning to his life but was smart and survived extraordinary circumstances. He was bright but also hard to get close to. Over our first months together, I watched D— open up, and I saw the attributes I knew and loved become clearer. We both grew better. That is exactly what I thought love would do to me. D— and I were shocked, at times, by what we had in common: a twinky white scientist/educator from the West and a fierce black activist from the South.
But this is not a love story.
A friend of mine dealt with his recent breakup by posting to Facebook three times a day about his workout routine. He had never been much of a gym guy before, and this performance seemed, to those of us watching, sad and unconvincing. Breakups can feel like vertigo, they can make one feel adrift, unmoored, as the minutiae of daily routine can no longer follow the same beat. We all have our ways of working through that particular brand of devastation.
D— and I were going to move in together. But, when I needed him most, D— told me he simply wasn't ready. The future I imagined, that I wanted, that I had built in my mind, unraveled in hours. Maybe unraveled is the wrong word. This future was demolished. I want to imply destruction. And I still see D— sitting in the seat of the wrecking car, pulling back the massive metal ball, releasing it, and letting gravity pull it toward our collective life together.
But this isn't a breakup story, either—it's a story about a place, and how I came to know it. D— traveled a lot for work. He probably still does. When a trip in late summer took him to Atlanta for five days, we started to scheme. I had never been south of Washington, D.C., and I wanted to go. We could rent a car, drive down, camping along the way, seeing the south, and end in Atlanta. On the way we would spend a few days at his sister's place in South Carolina, and he would show me his roots. It was pure coincidence that his time in Atlanta overlapped with ATL black gay pride, after which we would work our way up the coast, camping and making things up as we went.
We left in late August, driving south, inland from the coast. Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and into Virginia. Rural Virginia, where we camped our first night, was another world. The mountains looming further to the west kept the late summer heat low, especially at night, and the foothills rolled a deep, saturated green. I had a knot in my stomach pulling into the first campsite. D— had never camped before, and while I grew up with it, I had never camped as one half of an interracial gay couple in rural Virginia. D—, the good Morehouse man that he was, presented as fairly straight, but I don't. You can smell my gay a mile off, and it is not an accident. I love being perceived as queer, even if it makes people feel uncomfortable.
That night, after the tent was pitched and we were sitting around a small campfire, neither of us was at ease. I wouldn't admit it, speak it into existence, and I know that D— wouldn't either, but I think we were both waiting for some angry rednecks to come floating out of those woods. We went to bed late, with my arm wrapped around his frame. In the end, I think each of us thought the other one strong enough to handle whatever might come. In the end, nothing did.
The next morning, we hit the road. Driving was the best way to see the country. We moved through it slowly and it slipped inside us almost without being perceived. I saw thousands of forgotten miles flash by in dark shades of late-summer green at 75 miles an hour. When twilight hit, we rolled down the windows and let the humid air fill the car with the smell of trees and cut grass. Country smells, Southern smells.
The next day we stopped for a late lunch. Virginia has a lot of country, and we were deep in it. We chose a barbecue restaurant, one of the places where you order at the counter and get your food on a tray. As we walked in I was performing the straightest version of myself. It didn't matter. It's not that there were only white people in this establishment, but the tables with white people had only white people, and the tables with black people only had black people. Already as people who were clearly not from there, we probably would have attracted a certain amount of curiosity. But, as a black man and a white man, just two of us together, we were an anomaly. Perhaps we weren't great at hiding our intimacy.
D— and I were both good at powering through. We were both from places not too different from this. And we weren't the types to walk away, walk out. We got our food. We sat and ate. A white woman at a booth behind us had her neck turned 90 degrees to stare at us. She was the type of old white lady who is both so old and so white as to appear almost translucent. She sat there, head turned, for the entire time we were in the restaurant. She appeared not to eat. At a table to her right, there was a relatively young mother and her two children, a girl and a boy. The boy was rambunctious and kept getting up from the table and walking around the restaurant.
He walked past our table, time and time again, and stared at us from a foot or two away. On his third lap, I realized that on the back of his T-shirt was a drawing of a confederate flag with a growling dog in the foreground, decorated with words "Cross the Line, Your Ass is Mine." He wanted, this young man, us to see the shirt. He kept making laps around the restaurant, looking at us to make sure we understood the message. As they were leaving, his sister stood by our table for a few seconds, sticking out her tongue, bright blue from a sugary drink. She stared. We sat in silence. We sat, and we ate. We did not hurry, but we were happy to get back in the car, and get moving.
We landed in D—'s home town of Columbia, South Carolina, where we camped on the floor of his sister's spare room. She was hilarious and warm, and I loved her before I knew her for the role she had played and continued to play in D—'s life.
Columbia is the state capital, where the Confederate flag still flies, where college football rivalries are the central topic of conversation, even in August, and where Chik-fil-a makes the best damn chicken sandwich you could put in your mouth. That night, relieved to not be worried about safety, we drank Miller High Life and played cards. D—'s sister went to bed and D— and I just relaxed and talked smack and reveled in each other's company.
D— had lived in Columbia for a while after college working on local political campaigns, and I asked him to show me a Columbia gay bar. Gay bars can tell you a lot about a place. Here the windows were papered over and we had to double check the name and address. It was maybe a Tuesday night and there was a smattering of folks, a mix of gay men and women, mostly sitting at the bar, mostly alone. Nursing drinks, talking to the bartender, talking to each other.
D— and I sat and lingered over two drinks and never managed to strike up anything more than a superficial conversation. People seemed wary of anyone they didn't know, and the papered-over windows made me think they were perhaps wise for being so guarded. After our drinks, we drove home in silence. Twenty minutes later, I lay awake in my sleeping bag on the floor staring at the ceiling, my arm again finding its way around D—'s torso, but sleep wouldn't descend. I was thankful, I think, that he had survived Columbia, and I could see how this place had made him strong, and fierce, and silent, and wary.
* * * *
There is not, obviously, one south. After three hours on I-20, we landed in ATL at Bulldog's for the opening night party for black gay pride. Line around the corner. Hundreds of boys and girls. Drinking in the parking lot. Kiki-ing. Folks knew each other, but tourists flocked in from all reaches of the American south and beyond.
Outside Bulldogs, the air was alive, and you could literally hear the excitement people felt for the night, the weekend to come. Gurls being loud and acting up. In this space, I couldn't help but smile, add a little extra sashay to my own step. Especially since it was a step that had been very actively avoiding a sashay in order to feel comfortable camping in rural Virginia. D— and I were ready to drink and wile. Our drink: gin with a splash of tonic, and the grand total for two was $5.50. I laughed, and said that this sure isn't New York. We cheersed, and we drank. We mingled, moved, mixed, hopped outside and back in—this night we had no problem striking up conversation, laughing with strangers.
These types of spaces are healthy for my soul. I love being around queer folks, surrounded by them, speaking our language, using our non-verbal communication that was practiced for so many generations of hiding in plain sight. I feel the most myself, whatever that means. It's a space where I can just be, do, act. Dance, even, if the mood should strike. Flirt, talk. Where my language is understood without translation by either party.
D— and I had our worst fight ever in Atlanta. It was Sunday of pride weekend and I was hung over. It was a beautiful day and there was a live house music party and picnic in a park across town. A bunch of D—'s college friends were going and it sounded dope. We showed up at the picnic and the music was blasting from an open-air building, essentially a roof with no walls. Folks had set up tents all around the park with food and chairs. I didn't know a soul, but people were friendly and made sure I always had a plate full of food and some one to talk to. D— was drinking and smoking, and giving into his vacation mode of being. Going in. By the time we left the party, he was pretty drunk and extremely high.
Afterward, we had a chill drink at the house of a friend of mine. Let me just say that D— was still in full pride mode. He was too drunk/high for the situation and kept talking over folks. He asked if he could smoke up inside and then didn't offer to share. Nothing dramatic, but I was annoyed. By the time we got back to the hotel, he was so fucked up that I should have let it drop. But that's not something I'm great at. I was pissed and he laughed in my face. I lost it. I had been babysitting the man all day, driving him around. I screamed. I wasn't pretty. I told him to take his drunk ass to bed, that he embarrassed me, that he was so fucked up he had no idea what he was doing. I told him that he didn't respect me, that I was taking the car that night and driving home, to New York, without him. I went to sleep on the couch, that night, but two hours later there I was. Back in bed. Lying next to him. After all that time I just slept better with my one arm wrapped around him, with the back of his head being bristled by my stubble.
On our way out of ATL, we spent one day in Savannah, GA. It is supposed to be the stereotypical South. Looking back at photos is a dangerous game. There is a picture in Savannah of a horse-drawn carriage with the words "Plantation Carriage Company" written in a pleasant gold cursive on the back. There is D—, in shades, holding a sightseeing guide in front of his face. There are my feet and D—'s on the plaque demarcating "Calhoon Square" - named after the vice-president from South Carolina and which, Google now informs me, is the site of an 18th century slave cemetery. We had no idea that we were standing on the graves of black people, a hidden history. This seems to me to be stereotypically Southern. Next is a photo of the plaque in front of the home of Jefferson Davis, where I shot with a wide angle lens, in black and white, and tried to make the tree branches behind the plaque seem ominous. Finally, the reflection of a bridge in D—'s sunglasses as we got out of town. Savannah, I think, was too pretty, too picturesque, to be the site of hidden slave cemeteries and plaques commemorating the worst of our history as though it were the best. There is tension in Savannah between how things look, bright and sunny and clean and old in the charming sense, and how I felt there, confused and almost sad and very very queer and, at once, close to home and very far from it, as though my home, itself, had become shifting place, as though all places suddenly were jolted beneath my feet.
After Savannah we drove east, to the coast. Back to South Carolina. After the mess that was pride, the nights out and the acting up and the hangovers, we wanted a few days on the coast, on the ocean. Just us two, our books, cards after dinner, bed early. We decided on the lowcountry, a long series of deltas and plains extending to the ocean. My photos of the lowcountry, on Facebook, prompted a friend to comment that they made him nostalgic for a land he had never seen. This captures, more or less, my feeling. The sky seemed immense in the lowcountry, the colors saturated. At sunset everything appeared yellow and pink above the houses that dotted the planes, standing on stilts, water snaking underneath.
Our campsite was directly on the coast and it was idyllic, the stuff of postcards and corny calendars, just off a long sandy beach. The first thing we saw upon pulling into the camp site was the area reserved for long term campers, mostly RVs; the first RV we saw had, of course, a giant Confederate flag planted out front. And it wasn't alone. The notion of bringing a flag, any flag at all, camping, seemed to me entirely foreign. And this particular flag felt like an omen, a threat.
D— and I chose a campsite nestled towards the back in the woods where we could sleep in the shade until noon. We spent that first afternoon on the beach, lying in the sun, reading, enjoying each other and the relative silence, the rhythm of the waves. That night we played cards in the dark and D— complained about the animals, the raccoons and the deer, that rustled the nearby bushes.
After cards, we sat together on the picnic table at our site on the same bench, both facing forward, D— leaning with his back against my chest, my arms around his shoulders. This part of the park was empty, and we felt, both of us, tired and calm. I kissed his neck, and grabbed him tighter. Within a few minutes we were fucking, there in the campsite dotted with Confederate flags, out in the open, under the stars, under the trees that occluded that wide southern sky. I leaned back on that bench and looked up at D— above me, and the humid air enveloped us both. We felt, at that moment, like a couple, like any couple, camping, driving, fucking, fighting, loving against our will, and against all odds, against history itself, in this place. At that moment it didn't feel like anything complicated. It just felt like us.
Two days later, leaving this place, D— and I staged an act of protest. We packed the car, got every last thing ready and stopped just inside the gates of the park. We left the car running and walked to the RV with the biggest Confederate flag. I held my camera like a gun. I pointed it back at D—and myself. D— and I posed in front of that flag, hugged and kissed, taking every image possible. Me kissing his cheek. Him kissing mine. Him in my arms. The two of us hugging. And finally a daring kiss on the lips, with tongue. We ran back to the car, laughing, put her in drive, and drove. We stopped later to look at the images. I am looking at them now, as I write. I see two men who loved one another putting their mark on a place, and admitting to the mark that that place left on them. And trying, really trying, to love each other in spite of it all.
I want now, looking at these photos, to deny the anger, the pain, the hurt, and the hate. To rebuke it, to claim only the love.
There is a special blend of love and hate that we save for our immediate family, ex-lovers and hometowns. People and places that you cannot take out of yourself, no matter how hard you try. One can, as D— did, get rid of your southern accent, the external signifier of place, but getting rid of the south inside you is another story.
You can love a place, a place like the one where we took the picture in front of that Confederate flag, you can love a place for forming this man and forming this country and being an inescapable part of this story, personal and collective - mine, yours, ours - love a place for its beauty and its history and the struggle that it has been to just live there; but also hate this place for the real pain it caused, the blood that was spilled, the ways in which it has failed us and the ways we have failed others; hate it because of the culture that was built in that place that continues to fail us, all of us, even now, even today.
And you can love some one, real, present tense love, see the beauty and righteousness in them, you can know where they came from and how hard it was, at times, to survive, but also hate that same person for the hurt they caused, or the reasons they failed, or the times they came up short, especially that last, most crucial time, the only time, now, that seems to count.
Joseph Osmundson is a writer and scientist from the rural Pacific Northwest. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Systems Biology at New York University. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, and The Feminist Wire, where he is an Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter @reluctantlyjoe. This essay will be published in the forthcoming anthology The Queer South from Sibling Rivalry Press. For additional information or pre-sales visit: The Queer South.
[Image by Jim Cooke, source photos via Shutterstock]