He asks me if I miss Tennessee, and I start crying.
This isn’t a routine—I didn’t even cry when I dropped my entire bag of lentil bean chips on the floor last week—but there was something about the suddenness. The attack of the syllables. And while I sat on the curb outside of his building and called an Uber, floral skirt loose around my ankles, I realized it was because he’s got a Northern accent. One whole year up here, and those things still throw me off. Yankees don’t hold out their vowels. They thin them like they’ve got frog lips. Which is silly, because where I’m from, the sound is nice and round.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, this girl needs to move back down South. It’s all she ever writes about, and maybe you’re right, maybe it is. The haze of the low-rolling mountains, the tiny mollusks squished between my toes, the way I pronounce creek like it catches on my teeth. The funny thing is I wasn’t even one of those outdoorsy Southern people. No whitewater rafting on the Ocoee. No hiking in the Smoky Mountains. I just liked sitting outside when the atmosphere is hot soup and you haven’t cut your grass in weeks and the lawn chair squeaks because it’s rusty.
It is July in Tennessee. I want to feel the soup again.
It is July in New Jersey and I haven’t seen Tennessee in half a year. Do I miss it? Look at what I’ve written during my freshman year and you’ll have your answer—a series of pieces that won’t stop begging God to recreate a place I didn’t mean to lose. This is the kind of story they tell you as warning. Don’t make deals with the Devil when you don’t know what you have. Check your pockets first. Take inventory. Then you can go down the mountain and tell him you’re willing to trade three clams and an entire childhood for a school up North.
(“Are you sure?” he asks me, and I imagine him behind the counter of one of those Gatlinburg stores, the tourist traps built out of glossy orange logs. I hand him everything.)
I’m trapped, as always, between the North and the South, and it’s a divide that pulls on my legs and my toes and it won’t let me go. A year ago, this was not a divide that pulled on any of my extremities. I simply thought, I am moving up North, and I will grow up and live in New York City, and I will never look back. Goodbye.
I never even thought there was a divide.
I sit in Pyne at night with my windows open, and the feeling of a box fan blowing on my bare legs is not the same feeling as a box fan blowing in my open garage while somebody mows their yard a street over. Listen. I played myself. I miss Tennessee so much, so urgently, that I can physically feel my chest tightening, and I want to walk barefoot in Mouse Creek as soon as possible but I can’t. Where do I go? What do I do? The answer, of course, is nothing, because you can’t do much when you’re twelve hours away from the valley you grew up in.
I have to remind myself that every single morning. I don’t think there are any words for this. Homesick, maybe, but that’s not quite right, and when I go to New York City on the weekends, I am enraptured, I am enthralled, I am in love, but I am not one of them, and it is not enough.
(“You don’t know what you want,” the Devil says.)
I am so talented at not knowing what I want—whether it’s which flavor of dried chickpeas to buy at the U-Store or which dress to wear to work—that this carries over into my academics. I finally accept being Southern, even if I’m really not that Southern, and the Devil whispers maybe you should study Appalachia. Which, of course, is stupid, because I’ve never wanted to study Appalachia. I’ve never even wanted to be Appalachian.
What, am I going to be that one middle-aged woman in floor-length skirts that travels to schools in the Tennessee Valley and tells folktales to the third graders? (This is an oddly specific image for a reason.) Am I going to live in the mountains and sew quilts? (Less specific, but still very real.) Give my children double-names? (Sarah Kate.) Play the five-string banjo? (Okay, this is a stretch.) But the answer is the same regardless of the question: of course not. Of course not. Of course not.
This is the part of me I hate so desperately. The part that’s come to identify with being Southern. This is also the part of me that’s saying, stop detaching, stop ghosting, just read your own history—just give them your time—they mined coal so you can go to an Ivy League school. They lived in poverty for to pay for your future. This is the least you can do. And when you pronounce Appalachian with latch in the middle, no soft ch, their ownership shows. Saro is an Appalachian variation of Sarah, after all, and she is you, and I am her, except I’m screaming I never wanted this. But I do now.
So I finally state my thesis. With every piece I’ve written about the South, this is what I’ve been trying to say—I belong nowhere. The one culture I could have called my own has slipped through my fingers. It’s too late. I waited too long. It’s something I could have had, but I didn’t even want it when it was around. I buried it in the dirt behind my house and forgot where it went as soon as the grass grew back. After all, nobody wants to say, oh yeah, those hillbillies with missing teeth are my ancestors. Nobody wants to be proud of that. Nobody. But nobody gets second chances, either, and I am sorry. I am vastly sorry.
So in the end, I am the Civil War, except nobody wins. They just walk away. And when he asks me if I miss Tennessee, I tell him Tennessee never belonged to me.