I’m from Las Cruces, New Mexico, a city populated by around 99,000 people where you can somehow still run into everyone you know at the Super Walmart on Valley Drive and Avenida de Mesilla. It’s the kind of place where high school sports rivalries are king, where teenagers huddle down into a dusty ditch bank and drink watered down beer while fields of cotton grow dry and wooly and the sun bakes the ground into a crack-fissured clay. The weather forecast forms a bingo board of little yellow sunshines, disturbed every once in a good while by thunderous storms that pour in fresh wet stripes punctuated with whipcrack flashes of lightning.
People there talk in funny accents — a marriage of cool, laid-back, Californian English and dramatically elongated Spanish syllables. One “gets down” from the car to go into the store, and carries the onus of a silly nickname like a mythological birthright. The food is fat with flavor, the culture, thick with artists. Stay long enough and a slow and sleepy boredom seeps deep into your bones, not a boredom that irritates so much as builds a gravity that keeps you in one place, makes you stay — warm, dream-heavy, happy. When choosing a grad school, I picked faraway places on the map fearing the lotus-eater lull of my beautiful home and an almost genetic tendency toward petrified paralysis. I’ve been working through the cold perspective of living in East Lansing, Michigan for about 10 years, now.
I’d never been to Boston, Massachusetts until a few weeks ago. Everything I knew of the place was a small collage of colonial history, Celtics basketball, the regulars of the downstairs bar, Cheers, and some dramatic scenes from Good Will Hunting. (“I gawt huh numbuh–how bout them ah-pples?”) Representing the non-fiction journal I work for at MSU, I attended a conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in a complex hamster cage of a hotel conference center/shopping mall in downtown Boston. Imagine thousands of writers anxiously milling about in their scarves and wryly chosen spectacles. Aisle after aisle of booths, books, authors, publishers, editors. In some ways I felt completely at home. Not geographically, per se, but in my seat of comfort and power; I was in a place where my love for literature and language could find friendship and revel in nerdy delights. In other ways I felt completely lost and alienated. Amidst the movement, the clouds of chatter, the thousands of people just like me, I could at times feel dull, null, nil.
The snow outside was falling sideways in wet messy sheets. The streets were puddled with thick ice water ponds much deeper than my sneakered toe could dip. Inside, the conference hummed with body heat and dizzying distraction, the intermingling exhalations of too many mouths.
Making my way through the labyrinthine levels and turns, past the conference center, the Starbucks, the Coach store, beyond the reach of Armani, Louis Vuitton, the kiosks at the mall, down the escalator and across a hidden underpass below the exposed snowy street above, I bought a ticket on the train and booked it to Harvard. Nervous and alone I watched the stops on the map too closely. I focused tightly on the colored lines, the dots for each station, as Boston people populated and detrained the car with an easy indifference.
After trudging through slick muck in Harvard Square for at least twenty minutes, I was cold, lost, and spent, but I found the tattoo shop, finally. My friend’s brother, Sky, was my artist. He’s from my hometown, but I’d never met him. And here we were, together, two desert kids in Massachusetts telling stories of sun, Spanish art, the power of tamales and cholo style. And he was quiet, funny, smart, thoughtful, with a tiny Zia symbol etched behind his ear. A teacher, a maker, an avid Netflixer, much like myself. And he carved a red heart into my forearm, needled in colors of New Mexico sunsets onto the banner, marked my love of TV (with equal parts wink and sincerity) into the geography of my body. When the pain burned hotter and my eyes would roll back away from the whirring, Dia de los Muertos and retablo inspired pieces settled my gaze. We talked about loving a place, our home, and how we could never really go back. Our stories overlapping with the colors he was stitching. Intersecting lines and routes. Mappings. Intersecting lines and roots.
No longer lost, I made my way back to the dirty subway platform, still concrete and grey, still alien, but a little less scary, a little more known. Cold, tired, surrounded by strangers, I carried my new gift home. My heart throbbing in my coat sleeve, hidden, secret, and mine.
Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.