There are genetic tests through hair samples to map out every single place you’ve ever been. There are new studies that show that starvation and trauma-induced depression and psychosis can be hereditary through small changes in RNA that is outside of the genome–the essence of you. Every roadmap we trace our little fingers on, every winter your mother stayed under the covers and forgot your birthday, everything the genome forgot to tell you, it’s all built on experience.
I thought about this when we finally found my brother’s house. Blinking back the sunlight, seeing the church my brother would be married in four days’ time. I thought about what moments changed me so greatly the RNA inhibited growth in certain genes: The hatred I felt when I came out. The deafening silence I felt when I banged my head on the church altar the night my mother told me my uncle died in Afghanistan. The detached realization that I wouldn’t make the funeral because I was in Italy studying art. The summers I spent as a child, screaming into a locked closet door while my brother was on the other side with the key. Those experiences changed me molecularly, cellularly. I dreaded reliving those moments in the silence, how each pause or lull in conversation could be interpreted as resentment.
Really, truly, the only thing I resented was not learning how to forgive when i needed to most.
And I did. I forgave in a way that was unlike my grudge-harboring self. I forgave my aunts and uncles for the unspoken words as they greeted me with beer at Nag’s Head. I forgave my sister for all the foolish adolescent arguments we still held onto and we opened up to each other on the three hour ride to the beach. I forgave my grandfather for calling me the wrong name on the phone after not talking to me for five years. I forgave, I forgave, and I forgave. And I smiled and lost sunglasses (and found them at the bottom of the tides). Sometimes it was overwhelming, sometimes it was organic. And each time we made promises to keep in touch, we knew it was never going to happen. But, it was the clarity of knowing where our weaknesses lie that made it all the more real to make those promises. It was a gossamer veil of a relationship that was just a little too transparent for all of us. In the periphery of our embraces, we could all sense the charade.
I still have not received the phone calls I was promised. I am still the stubborn boy I was before I left and need proof of their love before I give in and make the first call. But, at least now I know my family. And I understand my mother and know her as an adult now. We drank four nights straight and laughed for five. We hugged tight at the airport and I knew it was different each time I said goodbye, how the promise of seeing her again all depended on schedules and airline prices and her progressive arthritis. But she opened up to me, found comfort in my understanding her ways, and held her hand in the silence on the way to the airport. The windows stayed down and my grandfather’s pipe formed tails of smoke motes that floated between our heads.
I wear a Piggly Wiggly shirt that we bought together almost every night to bed.
But it was not just my mother I got to know better, not just my relatives whom I’ll drift away from casually and expectantly again. I got to relive all the moments of high school with Carissa, experienced new ones and solidified our friendship with a tattoo. We dedicated it permanently, and it’s a perfect emblem of our relationship. A small outline of a hummingbird sit on my right shoulder, hers on her back. The edges on mine have blurred a little, but it’s permanent nonetheless. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, a poem about us I can’t write just yet.
But, I never had a moment alone with my brother. A moment to be the best man I was elected to be. He helped me with my corsage and that was it. In silence, he handed me a card that thanked me for coming out and I hugged him in an awkward, obligatory way. I do not know his wife, Jennie, and I kept my distance. They have their house in North Carolina and their jobs as teachers, their dog and toy collection, their bedroom in their attic. They are building a life together, they went diving in the Florida Keys together. I don’t need to disrupt a harmony I had no part of. I kept my distance. I’ll always keep my distance with him, and it’s understood and not forced anymore between us. It’s comfortable, and that’s relieving.
But in all those moments as the trip wore down, each second I took to remember where I was and whom I was talking to, I never forgot that I have a life in California. A life no one can relate to, but old women in the church basement will ask if you know so-and-so, who may have visited there in 1973. You know they mean well, but they know nothing about you and expect you to know everything about them. Now I am a scatterplot of triumphs and failures that have somehow formed this version of myself that’s at once cynical and optimistic, serious and the performer. I’m transitioning between two worlds and constantly having to remind myself that I physically am not in Pennsylvania anymore, that I cannot hold my mother’s hand again for another six months. That those laughs were not promised like they used to be. To look each person in the eyes and mean it when you say you love them. I have learned these things through mistakes and I could write a million vignettes about my week in North Carolina, but none of them were as important as that lesson.