Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?
We left Portland three weeks ago today. Our friends, Miles and Amy, had been gracious enough to open their home, hearts, and liquor cabinet to Paige and I, and we spent the last week engaging in as many “Oregon” activities as we could. Restaurants we hadn’t tried, trails we’d put off hiking. We finally got around to trying craft cocktails at new (and old) hipster bars we’d never set foot it in. We made the rounds with our border collie, Jackson, letting him say his goodbyes to his furry friends and the street lights and sign posts he’d left his mark on. Paige put her toes in the foam of the Pacific while I took her picture and she took mine while we filled inner tubes on the banks of the Clackamas river. There were going away parties and BBQs, concerts on the sprawling lawn of Portland’s backyard, and goodbyes.
Too many goodbyes.
And then it was time to go. What we couldn't fit in the moving truck, or deemed too vital to our lives (everything from birth certificates to signed books), we shoved into the back of our car, coaxed Jackson in with a month's worth of MilkBones and started out, careful not to spend too much time looking in the rearview. The first day we listened to a good chunk of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, barely looked out the window at the state of Idaho, and ended up at a Best Western on the Utah/Wyoming border. Behind the hotel was a manicured park where Jackson saw his first school of Koi fish swimming in a clear pond and promptly looked at me as if I'd been depriving him his whole life. The first (and probably the greatest) surprise of this stop was that the town had an In-N-Out Burger. Oh, how that neon sign gleamed like the waters of an oasis. It took some effort to stop eating when shredded wrapping paper was all that remained.
Day two brought the expansive beauty of Wyoming, the "Wild West" I'd always pictured in my mind, followed by the mind-eroding traffic of the greater Denver metropolitan area. In a flash of stupidity, I decided I could keep driving, put another hundred miles in our rearview, and we ended up in a small Eastern Coloradan town where the locals stop their conversations when you enter the room, like a priest pushing through swinging saloon doors, where hastily typed "Boil Water Due to Contamination" notices are posted on the windows of the only businesses within fifty miles, and where insects—fellow travelers themselves I assumed by the town's minuscule population—crawl through the massive crack in the door frame, seeking shelter and sustenance in the same lodgings you and your family have.
Flynn's novel came to an end just as we rolled into Tulsa on the third day. We'd burned though most of Kansas and Oklahoma, on a few hours a fitful sleep from the night before, and pulled into another hotel parking lot. To make up for the previous evening, I secured a room with air conditioning, a jacuzzi tub, and a reliable pizza delivery service. We gorged ourselves, had a drink or two, then crashed hard while a marathon of home remodeling reality shows flickered on the TV. In the morning, we left the city along with the ice cream we’d been pining for, forgotten in the hotel room’s tiny refrigerator.
Texas was exactly as I’d hoped, small towns with burger joints, populations hovering in triple digits, and tremendous amounts of love for their high school football teams. Even as we blew through each burg, the highway doubling as Main Street in most, we saw the blue and red and green banners hanging in store windows and down from old-fashioned lampposts. License plates and rear windows smeared with shoe polish, showcasing jersey numbers and crudely drawn renderings of mascots. Life appeared to be simpler, more focused, and just as I began to think that might the sort of lifestyle I’d been looking for all along, we crossed a line—from one state to another, from a county to a parish. We found ourselves in the dense green of Northern Louisiana.
Jackson, relatively comatose in the backseat for most of the trip, began to perk up, pacing back and forth between the windows sniffing at the thick, humid air. It was as if he knew the journey was almost over, that we’d soon be in the next place he would call home. Little did he know: the three of us still had a few nights of hotel life ahead of us. Without a book for us to listen to, we flipped on the radio, trying, as we closed the gap between us and Lafayette, to program in new stations into the preset keys. We found a multitude of great rap and jazz stations, with decent classic rock sounds sandwiched somewhere in there, and the DJs spoke of cities we’ve never heard of and festivals we’d never been to. They talked football and shrimp. These were the voices, the instructions, of our new home.
The sun was reduced to a sliver when we pulled off the highway. The haze burned on the horizon, deep reds and oranges like the high octane swirl of color in frozen daiquiri machines. We booked a room, decompressed for a few minutes, then took a tour of our new city. Lafayette. Colorful beads hung in the trees around campus. Billboards and banners advertised upcoming music and food festivals. The fleur-de-lis was everywhere, etched into the skin of the city. Nearing nine, ten in the evening, the temperature was still in the B+ range. We’d entered a whole new world. And I felt, above the anxiety of change, simply electric with possibility. This was a place of culture, of heart. And I now called it home.
The first few days were a blur of carpet replacement, parking permits, get-togethers with other new students, school orientation, grocery shopping with Mom and Dad (without whom none of this would have been possible), getting lost in the car and on foot, more school orientation, sweating while standing still, unpacking and the discovery of what had been broken in the move, dinner with old friends and new, office and classroom assignments (after still more orientation), and the thrill of a real thunderstorm. Then suddenly, there I was, babbling in front of twenty-five freshman students, telling them I would be teaching them how to write college-level essays. It felt as though I’d just been on the Clackamas river, somewhere between Barton and Carver parks, ropes tied between my tube and Paige’s, between mine and the floating cooler, between us and the world we knew. Then, I blinked. Just a fraction of a second and I was here, telling a room full of strangers to call me Mr. Attana. Or Mr. Drew.
Just Drew, if they liked.
I really have no idea what to expect. There is no way to tell what I’ve gotten myself into—on a teacher, student, and social level—, but I feel so blessed to be a part of this program, and a part of this thriving culture. Leaving behind our lives in Portland, the wealth of friendship and memories, has been more difficult than we could have imagined. Much harder than we pictured when I received word that I was accepted, back when a new life was only a theory. When we were doing Google searches about alligators and Cajun county. When we were deciding what we should take with us, and what we should leave. Back when we were making our friends promise they’d come to visit, and assuring them, in turn, that we wouldn’t be gone forever. It felt like a dream, something intangible, always on the horizon. In the future.
Now that it’s here and our little family unit has boots (or paws) on the ground, the ethereal, pixelated images of the fourth largest city in the State of Louisiana, have begun to sharpen. This is all real now. There are alligators here, though they aren’t waiting on the new carpet in our apartment when we get home. The humidity is rough, unlike anything we’d ever experienced on the West Coast, but the air conditioning works just fine most places. And hey, a second shower never hurt anyone. Standing in front of a classroom of freshman really is just as terrifying as I pictured it would be, but what I hadn’t factored into those fever dreams, was the support of my new classmates and colleagues. We truly are in this together.
And what has lessened the severity of this entire transition, the reality of what our family has undertaken, is the warmth of not only the friends we’ve made—folks from here, and from across the farther reaches of the country—but of the city of Lafayette. Everyone here is smiling. They’re sweating, but smiling. New friends and strangers alike seem like they want us to be here, to find the beauty that they have. They’ve made us feel welcome, a part of.