As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I grew up in a tiny town in the northeastern corner of Montana, very close to the Canadian and North Dakota borders. Drive twenty miles north, and you’re in a different country. Drive twenty miles east, and you’re in a different state. When I was growing up, the nearest mall was in Regina, Saskatchewan, about a two hour drive directly north. I bought my prom dresses there. The nearest Wal-Mart was in Williston, North Dakota, about an hour and a half southeast. We made that trek at least once a month for the two years I had braces, because that’s where the nearest orthodontic clinic was located. Going to Williston was always such a treat because it was the only time I got to eat things like Happy Meals or personal pan pizzas at Pizza Hut.
I moved away from home about two weeks after I turned eighteen. I went to college at Montana State University in Bozeman. I wanted to go much further than that. If I’d had my way, I would have been attending NYU and living in New York City.
I hated my hometown. I had plenty of reasons to hate it. Plentywood was isolated from everything and everyone. There was nothing to do there, with the exception of high school athletics and the movie theater that showed one movie each weekend. As a teenager, I drank a lot. I did drugs. Everyone did. It was how we passed the time, and time was something we had in abundance, particularly in the dreadful winters.
Most people were also small-minded and racist. They were homophobic. Everyone was in everyone else’s business, and gossip was almost as addictive as the meth that gripped our town by its throat for the better part of the 90s and early aughts.
And I was just different from everyone else. I watched weird movies, like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Kids and Foxfire (which was the film that made me fall in love with Angelina Jolie, and, if I’m honest, was the biggest indication in my teen years that I was most certainly a lesbian from day one). I wore clothes that other kids didn’t wear. I hated country music, which was the only music we could get on the radio. I was a budding feminist–I even wrote my senior paper on the legalization of the abortion pill, RU-486. I wrote dark songs and poems. I listened to Sleater-Kinney and L7. I desperately wanted to be in a band, living out the grunge rock dream in Seattle.
In any city in America in 1999, you could have thrown a rock in a crowd of teen girls and hit a dozen just like me. But in Plentywood, I was a green alien walking amongst humans.
But I wasn’t an alien. I was one of them. I was born there. I attended school with the same group of kids for fourteen years, from pre-school to graduation day in 2001. I participated in music and drama all throughout my school years. I dated boys (and some age-inappropriate men), I had best friends and acquaintances (and even a few enemies), I knew every kid in the two years above and below me in school. And all throughout college, I came back to my hometown at least three times a year for holidays and summer visits. I even got married there–the first time, that is, when I married a man at age 21. More than a hundred people attended my wedding.
Then things shifted. I came out. I divorced my husband. My relationship with my family was strained. I moved to Washington, a full fourteen hours away from my hometown. I married a woman from Pittsburgh, which my family thinks is “East Coast,” no matter how many times we have explained that Pittsburgh is closer to West Virginia and Ohio than to the ocean. My stepfather died. My mom was diagnosed with cancer and moved to the west side of the state, where she was closer to medical attention, and closer to me. My aunt, the only other family left in my hometown, moved with her. Then my mom put my childhood home up for sale.
The only ties I have left to my hometown are two or three friends from high school who never left, and with whom I’ve stayed in touch. Last weekend one of them got married, and for the first time in many years, I went to my hometown for a visit. I had been back a few times since my stepfather died, but always for a specific reason–clearing out my childhood home, picking up a piano, etc., and only stayed for a night and avoided interactions with people as much as possible. This time would be much different. I would be at a public event with people who had once known me, and known me well. What would they think of me today? Would they be the same small-minded people who liked me better when the closet was shut?
On the last leg of our trip–the lonely, sparse section of two-lane highway that cuts through farmland and over the Missouri River–I started to feel anxiety traveling through my veins, making its way to my heart and brain, wrapping around the fragile parts of me. The closer we came to my hometown, the tighter the grip. I told my wife I was suffocating. She laughed, then sighed and rubbed my back.
I prepared myself for a lot of things, some of which happened, and some did not. I thought I’d see and hear a lot of racist shit. But there was only one old man who said inappropriate, racist crap, and everyone turned away from him and ignored him until he left us alone. No one said anything homophobic (though one dude did say, “I love gay people!”, which, for the record, allies, is fucking weird and you should definitely never say that). Other than some seriously questionable food and drink, nothing truly terrible happened.
Except this one thing. This one thing that has wormed its way into my psyche, where it has holed up and will not let me be.
Hardly anyone remembered me.
People I spent eighteen years with didn’t recognize me as someone they once knew, as one of them. There was a lot of pointing and whispering behind hands. Sometimes a person would nod his or her head and say, from afar, “Oooooh, I see.” When I did chat with people, they often spoke to me as one would to a foreigner or a tourist–explaining idiosyncrasies to me of the place I knew by heart.
Three or four times someone asked me how my mother is doing, and when I awkwardly and stiffly told them I didn’t know because we no longer speak, they awkwardly and stiffly nodded their heads and quietly walked away. No one asked me where I live, what I do now, who the beautiful woman was standing next to me, if we have children, if I ever started that grunge band.
I was erased from their collective memory.
I’ve spent the last week grappling with what this means to me. I know there are plenty of you who might be thinking “good riddance,” and part of me agrees with you. But most of me is devastated. Growing up there defined me, it made me who I am today. And even though I’ve painted a pretty grim picture of my childhood and teen years, I still have plenty of fond memories associated with that place. I used to believe, and maybe I still do, that being from there made me unique. Everyone else had access to the world, and the world had access to them. But me? I lived in no-man’s land, and yet, I still thrived.
Now, I am completely and utterly rootless in this world. After severing ties with my mom, I already had the bizarre feeling of being an adult orphan. This trip “home” compounded this feeling.
So, here I am, a 34-year-old orphan woman drifting aimlessly about, with only my wife holding me here, giving me some sense of existence, of roots, of place. I love Spokane, but it’s not where I’m from. I love Bozeman, and while it was an integral part of my growth as a young adult, it is also not where I’m from. I’m from Plentywood, Montana.
Or am I? Part of what makes someone “from” somewhere is that the place claims that person as one of their own, for better or worse, and I’m unclaimed.
Rootless. Unclaimed. Orphaned. Forgotten. These are the new words I have added to the lexicon that describes who I am. I don’t know what I expected from my return to Plentywood, but this definitely wasn’t it.
Or maybe this is exactly what I expected–to walk away feeling the way I did as a child and teen–confused, rejected, isolated, alone. Maybe that is what defines home for me.
Maybe I need a new definition. A new home. A new place to be from.