Blue Stretches: Marking Time in Suburbia

On homesickness and staying in one place for too long

Near the end of this past summer, I was really missing Florida. I don't usually miss home, until I start to think about it, and then I miss all of it and everybody, the Gulf beaches, the herons and spoonbills and ibises, the way the humidity frizzes out my hair. I hadn't left Baltimore for more than a day since December, and, oddly, I craved a suburban respite from this city. Staying in one place too long can wear you out; that's what made me leave my hometown of Seminole for Baltimore in the first place.

But I needed a change, however short, so I bought a plane ticket and took a week off work for one last summer sunburn, a salty swim, a visit with whoever hadn't moved away, and a night spent sitting in my mom's house, bored and listening to records—as saccharine as it sounds.

Though it's been three years since my parents' divorce, my memories of home are all stuck in pre-2012. "Home" is still the house we lived in on Queen Street, the robust maple tree whose leaves never turned at the right time of year, the all-blue living room, the enormous hibiscus in our tiny backyard. My dad is sitting on his 20-year-old furniture (which he kept until it fell apart), channel surfing and eating potato chips out of the bag. My mom is sometimes in class, or she's working late; sometimes she's sitting on the other couch reading a book. We moved into that house on my third or fourth birthday, and there's a picture of me from then in my underwear proudly holding up my presents (two bags of Lay's Salt & Vinegar chips) with my new bicycle in the background. And it was close to my 21st birthday, when I was back at school for the semester, that I got a frantic phone call from my dad that they were getting a divorce and selling the house.

Surprisingly, they had no trouble selling it quickly. I never got to say goodbye to that house. Instead, I continue to resurrect snippets of what I can remember of its corners and its light and its colors, and I make paintings that concentrate on the same. Looking back and remembering this way has helped me deal with it and miss it less. I sometimes am, admittedly, a bit of a wound-dweller, which author Leslie Jamison tells me I shouldn't have to apologize for. In her essay, "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain," she defends women making art about pain. "We shouldn't have to disclaim—I know, I know, pain is old, other girls hurt—in order to defend ourselves from the old litany of charges: performative, pitiful, self-pitying, pity-hoarding, pity-mongering," Jamison writes. "The pain is what you make of it. You have to find something in it that yields."

In Seminole, the TV flickers, and at night it makes the whole room glow with a shifting bluish light. When I was a kid, I would spend an hour washing the dishes after dinner because I was watching the TV as it reflected into the sliding glass door, which opened out into our backyard. After the sunset and just before it got too dark, that projected image tangled with the hibiscus bush that grew just a few feet away from the glass door. My parents looked comfortable back then, sitting on separate couches. In her new house, my mom sits on the couch at night and reads or works on the computer with the TV on. In his apartment, my dad turns on the TV "for background noise," he says, while he sits in his chair and draws or writes. He'll put on a baseball game or the news, even though it's mostly bad news, and usually goes to bed early.

News from home comes to me in Baltimore in short bursts—like that phone call from my dad—in text messages and quick phone calls. Not being there when things are happening makes every divorce, death, and move over the past five years feel abrupt. Right before I was to give a presentation at school about my City Paper internship, in 2013, I found out, via Facebook, that my uncle had just died of cancer. The following spring I was at the Bell Foundry, at a going-away party for someone I didn't know, half a beer in and drowsy when I found out, through a text message, that my grandma had died. The night was quiet and somber to begin with, so I quickly fit right in with everyone else's mood. My boyfriend at the time talked to one of the people who lived there, who let me sit in his room while I cried a little bit and talked to my dad on the phone for a few minutes. I finished up my half of a beer, some people I didn't know well hugged me, and we left.

When I go home, things are very different from how I want to remember them. The aforementioned deaths and divorces have obviously changed a lot of family dynamics. Everyone grew up and moved, including my siblings and most of my friends. Even my creature comforts are alien to me now; the thrift stores I used to shop in have shuttered or switched owners over and over, and the cafes I frequented in high school for sugary mochas and board games, or to watch some kids' Conor Oberst-y indie-rock band perform, have either closed or been replaced by new ones with cleaner, better branding.

One night on this last trip, I thought a drive would clear my head. I borrowed my mom's car and told her I was going to CVS—which I did do, by the way; I bought a good blue pen. But I took a scenic route back home, through some Main Street intersections, parking lots, and strip malls. With my phone I took pictures of sad, worn couches sitting out by people's mailboxes, and pictures of neon signs: One advertised a carpet shampooer; another was for a restaurant called Country Boy. I didn't grow up in this neighborhood, but it was full of similar suburban oddities that my old neighborhood had, the same profusion of chain gas stations and drug stores, and a Publix on every corner. Paying attention and documenting the strange and the familiar here felt like the right thing to do, but I was starting to count down the days until I headed back to Baltimore.

Toward the end of my visit, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg with my dad—which was a go-to for me in high school. I was surprised to find a painting by a Baltimore artist I'd never heard of. His name was Lee Gatch, and the wall text next to his 1964 painting says that he was "born in a small town outside of Baltimore" in 1902 and that he later studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art (which, back then, was simply called the Maryland Institute). His nearly-3-foot-square painting on display here, 'Strata Tree,' uses oil and stone on canvas in a playful, abstract way. A muted yellow L shape hugs the left and bottom sides of the canvas, while a dappled, muddy greenish-blue fills up the rest of it—it looks like a forest at night, and creates a sense of depth in the painting. Embedded into the middle of the canvas are about a dozen flat strips of slightly bumpy, brown stone, mirroring the way the yellow canvas looks like it was ripped into strips and then carefully pieced back together. Two little pinkish ear-like shapes perk up from the bottom edge, complementing a few thick swaths of bare canvas that pop out against the blue, rectangular background. All the materials and marks in the painting—the stone parts in particular—make it seem like Gatch wanted to shake your shoulders and say yes, this is a painting, but this painting has a presence that you need to reckon with.

Squinting at the muddy blue rectangle, my dad said he thought the shapes in the background looked like a couple holding hands, and I could kind of see it.

I liked the painting's rough sensitivity, its textured mass of brush strokes, and the carefully stacked stone pieces, though I knew that 'Strata Tree' was probably not the best painting in that museum. I think I took a liking to it mostly because I was missing Baltimore.

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