For New England
The smell of low tide, a Dunkin Donuts hashbrown, a Sox hat in every Goodwill.
I was born in Massachusetts (Beverly, right by Gloucester). I tried to kill myself in Vermont (Lake Champlain, Virginia Woolf). My father spoke his last words to me in Maine (fifteen years old, “you can be a real cunt sometimes”) and I have spent hours getting to New Hampshire for not one but two different lovers (to remain unnamed). I faked orgasms with balding twenty-somethings in Boston and taught arts and crafts to wealthy Manhattan children in log cabins at sleepaway camp. I grew up in the woods and the middle of nowhere and the historic epicenter of arts and culture in the United States and the place where old money vacations and the place where poverty and boredom and endlessly long winters give birth to fentanyl overdoses and gun violence. Two direct descendants of L.L. Bean himself were in my Girl Scout Troop. They live in California now.
I spent most of my childhood in the town of Falmouth, Maine, a wealthy and seaside town of 10,000 which shares its name with the wealthier and seasideier Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Falmouth is directly north of Portland, where everyone goes to work and eat and drink and the only things in Falmouth are the country clubs (of which there are three) and the yacht clubs (of which there are two). My high school mascot was Yachty the Yatschman, a giant foam mascot suit depicting a white man who owns a boat, who was deposed in an unanimous school board vote a few years after I graduated for being “snooty” and “exclusionary”. It took the town seventy years to come to this conclusion.
Our house sat at the geographic and social periphery of Falmouth, not near the ocean like the really rich people but at the end of a cul-de-sac where the forest began to begin. My mother was the only single mother I knew and the house was built in 1988 making it too old to seem modern and too new to have any historic charm. We kept chickens in the backyard and my Midwestern mother was too busy for PTA meetings and my brother was in and out of detention and suspension and I was often the subject of ridicule and harassment before queer was a word you wanted to be called. We lived in Falmouth, payed Falmouth taxes, went to Falmouth public schools. My mother is a doctor and we had a beautiful and stupid Golden Retriever named Pumpkin and went skiing in the winter and my name was printed in real black ink in the Portland Press Herald when I made honor roll. We sold the house and moved to Colorado when I was sixteen and when I look up my childhood address on Google I still see my elementary school finger paintings on the walls and my old stack of National Geographics on the bookshelves and the cabinets in my mother’s bathroom that I’d steal expired eyeshadow from in high-definition real estate photographs. It’s true that Dunkin Donuts tastes better in the Northeast.
New England is made up of uptight Type-A freaks in black turtlenecks and good-natured and perpetually rosy-cheeked fishermen with impossible accents. New England is made up of college towns where the buildings look like something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and tuition is twice the average annual income of the locals. New England is made up, a fantasy nation, authored by suburbanites in Connecticut who believe in seersucker and Gilmore Girls and writers from the deep suburbs of Boston who do not speak about the grey, gravelly slush in the Hannaford’s parking lot that fill your shoes with dark, salty snow and pebbles.
We moved to Denver when I was sixteen. I hated it. I hated wearing colors in the winter, I hated smiling all the time, I hated the way that the snow couldn’t commit to sticking around for more than a week at most, I hated how nothing was ever green and I hated how it seems that once you go west of Pennsylvania the whole country is just beige strip malls and their giant parking lots. I missed Polar Seltzer. Within eight months of moving to Colorado I had flunked out of high school and moved to the Berkshires, burying myself in a mountain of student loan debt for the chance to feel at home again.
You quickly learn that the New England winter is so bitterly cold that it is foolish to believe that this is an act of rebellion against you; the weather is not divine or personal retribution, but instead simply the meteorological expression of barometric pressure and humidity and distance from the equator and the wind will continue to blow, with or without you, and well maybe there is something even more spiritual about that. In the winter the maple sugar houses puff perfect white smoke and the air smells like something sweet and magical and the “pancake syrup” made from corn syrup found in hotel continental breakfasts and college dining halls will leave you homesick and heartbroken.
Summer is horseflies and sunburns and swimming in the lake or the river or the ocean—someone has a cabin or camp with limited electricity that their parents paid four-thousand dollars for decades ago. People from away occupy beaches with twenty-dollar parking next to restaurants that sell forty-dollar lobsters and talk about the “simplicity” of New England as if the region begins and ends with wild blueberry pie and handmade wool mittens. Middle class tourists eat fried clams and buy ugly t-shirts and crowd the streets, pointing and staring and drinking Sam Adams. Wealthy tourists don’t dare to engage with the locals and instead maintain secluded seasonal residences and oversee the construction of juice bars and tapas restaurants in Burlington, Woodstock, Portland, Stockbridge, and Portsmouth.
Summer is the season of confederate flags owned by people who have never gone further south than Providence, an expression of resentment towards California and New York City and the places where there are no shut-down mills or steel factories or barely functioning manual transmission pickup trucks. There is a bitter racism towards immigrants, a feeling of invasion, a historic amnesia to the fact that New England was the first campground of genocidal settlement that would murder and displace the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Mi'kmaq, Penobscot, Aroosaguntacook, Mohican, Abenaki, and Wampanoag peoples (among others). Maine is almost entirely White—according to census data, Falmouth was 95.4% White in 2010. Six years later, I was accused of “crazy SJW bullshit” for suggesting that perhaps “Black Skinhead” would not be an appropriate pick for the Class of 2018 spirit song.
I’ve always been a bit too mean or sarcastic or closed off or all of the above, the biological response to growing up in New England. I like people, but I operate under the assumption that we all know we’re all just doing what we feel like we need to do, and so there’s no point in saying anything other than what you mean and what you feel—with the important distinction that feelings and emotions are not topics for family discussion. Topics for family discussion include: news stories that were on NPR, memories of winter storms (Patriot’s Day, 2007), and whether or not the milk has expired. I know that a lot of people are smart and clever and hardworking and we all have things to do and people we care about and places to be, so we must walk fast and help others when we can and yell at cars that do not use their blinker. It is too cold to waste hot breath on meaningless pleasantries just as it is too cold to leave anyone behind.
When I was seventeen and living in Western Massachusetts, I got alcohol poisoning while sitting on top of a glacial erratic, which is a type of large rock left behind when the glaciers receded at the end of the last Ice Age. We had to take the Mass Pike to the New York border to buy alcohol and light blue American Spirits, I had to shoplift from CVS and listen to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers to feel like I was doing something greater than skipping class and walking to Cumberland Farms.
I spent summers eating popsicles with my feet half-submerged in rivers named after tribes relegated to cramped, underfunded reservations in the harshest parts of the Maine climate. It is a small and unimportant pedantry, but I want to scream when I hear people ask why goose becomes geese but moose do not become meese that moose is an Algonquian word that means one who strips off tree bark, and besides there is no need for a plural form of moose because they are so unimaginably big, much taller than horses, that a single moose is already a plural entity. Their antlers are covered in velvet and in Driver’s Ed they teach you to never, ever hit a moose with your car because their center of gravity is so high that the weight will crush you from the top into paste, but if you have to hit one then you ought to brake until the last second and then release so your car pops upwards.
The suburbs of New England are not like the suburbs of the rest of the country. The houses do not all look the same, the streets are not planned out for any level of convenience. There is a psychotic form of wealth in these places that believes itself to be uniquely moral because it is the type of wealth that makes up Edith Wharton and Louisa May Alcott novels, as if wood stoves and flannel shirts cancel out the drunken Irish-American fathers who only say racial slurs after the Pats lose a game. There is poverty in the woods, in the many, many towns that have no doctors or artists or bakers but plenty of heroin overdoses and people who used to carry union cards instead of Medicaid cards.
There are no words to describe the delight of living in Robert McCloskey’s world. There is the statue of the ducklings from Make Way for Ducklings in Boston Public Garden and there is a matching statue in Novodevichy Park in Moscow because First Lady Barbara Bush (a figure greatly more benign than her husband) gifted it to the children of the USSR, who I imagine are equally bundled up in the winter and equally delighted by ducklings as the children of Boston. My first therapist told me that I reminded her of Sal from Blueberries for Sal. It remains one of the greatest compliments I have received in my life.
Ounce for ounce, pine needles have more vitamin C than oranges. When I was a teenager and I thought I wanted to kill myself I would walk into the ocean wearing all of my clothes. I didn’t actually want to kill myself. I don’t know what I wanted, but I know that sitting in someone’s backseat, wet and silent and shivering and smelling like the sea feels a lot like coming home.
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