Your state falls late that evening. This particular battleground has tipped the political war. The postmortem points to the county of York, where you grew up, as one of three nationwide that decided the presidential election. Old high school classmates rejoice/seethe over the whole keystone turning GOP red. You have no relevant response to their social media posts besides suddenly feeling unwelcome to participate. Because you left the county, the state, and the borders of your nation years ago. You live in a foreign time-zone, half a day away. Your absentee vote wasn’t enough to prevent the worst-case scenario. You should have seen the self-actualized death wish coming. Your sense of no longer belonging flickers along with the implausible idea of the United States of America that you’ve always defended to skeptics abroad. You wonder if you can still convince even yourself. You wonder if you can ever return. You retrace your steps in search of homes lost.
Layoffs at the steel plant hit the town of Lorain when you were in elementary school. You can’t play Atari at your friend’s house because his Dad watches t.v. in the den now during the day. You skip to collecting bottle caps of Sunkist and Genesee in the park that ends at Lake Erie. Someday in the future you’ll swim to Canada or dig to China, whichever might make you famous enough to be featured on PM Magazine. These plans stay with you, as the sun drops below the sycamores and you run home as fast as possible without the bottle caps spilling out of your pockets onto the uneven sidewalk.
Your eyes follow the dipping lines of the telephone poles along the train tracks. Your grandmother is bringing you for a visit to a temporary parsonage in Fort Wayne. Your grandfather serves as an interim pastor there for a small congregation at a Brethren church. On Sunday morning, you mumble to the beaming old women and their husbands with ramrod posture during the “passing of the peace to your neighbors.” Your grandfather delivers a sermon about forgiveness and then asks the people in the pews to stand again for a hymn. The warbling voices together declare that grace has brought us safe thus far.
Eazy-E rhymes about his Tec-9. It sounds more brutal because you’re in the passenger seat of a Mercedes Benz S-Class that your teammate received for his 16th birthday. You both stink from tennis practice as he drives and chugs Snapple, tossing the empty bottles into his backseat. You are probably both guilty of something. You consider making a joke about his uncle, the congressman from your district, currently in the news for overdrafting his House checking account. Instead your teammate talks over the gangsta rap to impart a vague lesson from the book that’s become his newest obsession: The Art of the Deal, by a real-estate tycoon.
You and your beautiful, hilarious family of college friends are free to entertain notions about the end of the rest of the world. You sing along with an REM song about it. You critique impending-disaster blockbusters and jarring indie films on societal decay. Meanwhile, the job market is the best the country has ever seen. But when your roommate turns to you the night before graduation and asks “So how does it feel to be living at the collapse of western civilization?” it becomes the most meaningful question about the passing utopia you’ve just realized.
You and your date attend prom at an East L.A. high school closed on a Tuesday in September. The wardrobe department has provided your tuxedo and your assigned date’s blue dress. All the extras have been warned not to actually drink the liquid in the punchbowl. Someone jokes about spiking it anyway. You’re all feeling giddy and eighteen years old. Through the multiple takes, you and your date pull off a twirl you conspired over to stand out when you watch, separately and onto other so-called fulfilling jobs, on the big screen. You both believe you’ve stolen the show. You will tell this story more often than that of your own high school prom as the moment gradually replaces your real, stilted senior dance under the low lights of your nostalgia.
You exchange instant messenger chats with a French woman in the cubicle beside you. She’s on the same dial-in conference call with your client whose dotcom company has almost nailed their narrative. The marketing executive reiterates that the Internet will take care of everything. Your focus remains on the tiny corner chat window of your desktop. What are you doing after this maybe we could drive to Half Moon Bay? You clatter at her and then hit enter. The cursor blinks silent on the reply. From the call in your ear, the executive affirms that they’ll be rounding up the unique visitor numbers in the press release. Half Moon Bay sounds like a magic California place that does not exist, your otherworldly coworker messages back. Once you finally get there, your resolve to show her otherwise will be enough to tempt the magical part.
You visit her French family and home in Burgundy. Your future father-in-law inquires if George W. Bush is hiding his real cunning and intelligence while publicly pretending to be a stupid cowboy. Your bet is on authentic stupidity. The fries in America have become freedom now because the French wanted no part of the war. In France, zero thoughts turn to frites. You stress that most Texans aren’t cowboys and likewise are not that stupid, as a posture or otherwise. “Same for most Americans,” you add in a way that rings all the more defensive and desperate in the dining room with his daughter, who is five months pregnant with your child.
With your wife and two toddler-aged girls, you camp for the first night of a summer cross-country trip in Shenandoah National Park. White-tailed deer prance through your campsite in regular intervals. Your younger daughter chases them through the open woods. You deem the creatures an omen of a safe trip. You offer the benefit of doubt and a hello to a fellow camper with Confederate flag bumper stickers. You later visit sites dedicated to the story of Pocahontas, as your dynamo travel companions try to match the placards you read aloud with the Disney movie and the Colors of the Wind. You proceed on the wide-eyed belief that this is the new world.
It’s December and your daughters have grown twice as old in a blink. The Central Park ice skating rink is decorated and buzzing from the crowded cosmopolitan amalgam of visitors there to celebrate the season. The foreign language your daughters speak swirls together with the many others. The only outside influence that feels incongruous is a trademark stamped along the rink wall and on the cups of hot chocolate: Trump. You justify the money given by telling yourself that the brand is a dreary relic, long ago eclipsed by more advanced surroundings.
Your family continues to cross borders and languages because you still can. The Middle Eastern nation of Oman is demure and tranquil. Leaving the capital Muscat, everyone needs lunch before the open road along the Gulf and into the desert. You spot a KFC. The unmistakable image of Colonel Sanders smiles above the letters in Arabic. You eat there with extra helpings of irony and shame. At breakfast the next day, the hostess at your idyllic accommodation provides the opposite culinary experience, slow meals of astonishing fresh food shared with careful, glowing hospitality. Her fascinated questions about America don’t include the fact that, as you’ll later learn, US Secretary of State Kerry is also in the country meeting with Iranian officials, arranged by Oman’s sultan, to negotiate a nuclear arms agreement.
The Rocky Mountain green is deeper than the Appalachian. You’re on a hiking trail called the 4th of July. The Front Range trees and the wildflowers look too pristine to be real. You’ve reconvened with two old grade school friends. The dynamic among you has waited patiently after decades to resurface unchanged for this visit. You come down the mountains and drink while watching the last night of the GOP convention. At the first glimpse of the nominee, his silhouette appears to be levitated by the blinding stage lights. When he emerges to speak, he sounds sated, malicious, and lost. But your mind is still on the trail and you dismiss anything you’re viewing on a screen. From where you stood earlier that day, you were sure you could see the line of the continental divide.
A stranger visiting from Boston sits next to you at an ex-pat bar near the Place St. Michel in Paris. You watch separate, adjacent screens of American pro football, his loyalty to New England, yours to Cleveland since your days with bottle caps by Lake Erie. The Patriots are winning as usual. The Browns, as per eternity, are losing. During commercial breaks, the Boston man guesses that you are a Hillary Clinton supporter. The way he says so indicates he isn’t. He switches to the subject of the email investigation which the FBI director just reopened. He relates a story of his brother who works at a golf course near Quantico. James Comey had played a round a few weeks prior and someone in his entourage left a bag behind. When it was recovered, his brother looked inside to find it containing, not golf clubs, but several automatic weapons. When the brother returned it, the director invited him as a thank-you to an afternoon at the Bureau shooting range. The anecdote sounds true, you think, and Comey sounds like an idiot. But it’s not newsworthy enough to be fact-checked into falsehood. You sit on implications while the Cleveland Browns throw another interception.
The day after the 2016 presidential election, a viral video shows students at a school a mile from your old house in York, Pennsylvania. They hold Trump signs and chant “White power!” in the hallways. The country isn’t prepared for the further loss to come. You doubt most Americans can afford undivided attention. You doubt that your own far-flung words will make a difference. They will never rhyme or shock or flatter or move like a virus. You will continue to be a misfit introvert not from around anywhere. You will never stitch together the illusory connections of your native country and its various states of mind. It may never add up. But you will write despite the noise. And you will belong despite the doubt. You are still American enough to trust that the stories you tell yourself—an individual reaching toward the second-person whole, a state reaching toward an amazing, imperfect union—will lead you home.
Among the cornfields of your distant relative’s farm, you rode on the back of a Massey Ferguson tractor, the largest machine you ever thought possible in the wide world. Here is the churned soil where many of those who share your last name are now buried. It’s a place you can picture yourself emigrating to at the next honest call for unity. It’s where the heartland might have more porous borders. It’s where the cycle begins again.