Veins of Soil and Sand
A breeze lifts the phantom bangs from my forehead and whips them around to the side of my head, where my golden hair wildly wisps, splayed like I’ve dipped into the waters off the gulf coast, like I had done so many years before. Alongside this airborne memory of salt and shore sits a windy drive along the small hills of Midwest backroads, a windows-down journey to school, and for a moment, I can hear the whispers of a distant summer soundtrack (not to mention the fond remembrance of having hair, adding a self-centered layer of mourning to the experience). The empty road populates itself with the traffic of my nostalgia, and every mile is a memory.
Nostalgia persists within traffic, however, as a twinge of dread pulls on my gut when I stop my car behind a line of others, recalling my once hour-long drive to work, remaining in just one city throughout. I don’t miss that sand-flecked pavement. Instead, I am brought back to the Gulf in a different way, one that the Midwest seems to celebrate more than the coast itself: A bright red pickup truck hosts a particular decal hidden between the political slogans and anti-social awareness propaganda, one that reads a term so ironic for that Illinois license plate. The decal reads: “Salt Life.”
The backed-up traffic lends itself well to the sting of salt that fills my nostrils now, and the slowness of the world gives me all the permission I need to cast myself off the shore and onto a sand bar, moving excitedly between the warm spots of the ocean and the rushing currents of cool, play fighting with the ocean in a serene and comfortable dance. Naples, Florida, was my first time falling in love with the glistening white sand, small pearls of heaven that stick with you even after your first shower when you get home (what a fond remembrance of something I despised at the time). It was in Cape Coral where I learned to miss it, and in Ft. Meyers when I got to taste its dry, stinging kiss on my lips beneath the waves again. From my car I amuse myself, recalling the dismal speeds of my friends’ golf carts putting along neighborhood sidewalks and carrying putters across a Gulf golf course. If only I could go that fast now, I mused, and if only time moved as comparatively slow.
The tide, as we know, pulls in and spits out again. With a final embrace, it gently tossed me back onto the shore, into a minivan, and then into Brighton, Illinois. This wasn’t an immediate change, of course, as it was prefaced by many moves that resulted in a strange homelessness, not to say that we never had shelter, we just stayed in temporary homes for a few weeks to a month due to financial choices my mother and her husband had made. Eviction after eviction, vacation home to vacation home, hotel to hotel, and back again. No more, said my grandmother. And thus, no more it was as we made the drive up to her small-town Illinoisan village.
For two years I made my way through the single stoplight in town, driving to school and back, going to Walmart for fun or 2 a.m. drives along local “haunted” roads, where the only supernatural I had experienced was the unfamiliarity of lasting friendship and hearty laughs. Up until this point, I had no capacity for maintaining a friendship, as I had never started and finished a school year at the same school. These friends are what defined the town for me, what gave me the feeling of a hometown. I learned that although I was not the center of the world, I was the center of my experience with life. I became this village as much as it became me. The winding backroads leading to my grandma’s house from anywhere else became my veins, and my home, my heart. My relationships were each beat of that heart as friends came to stay the night, to play a video game or a board game, for costume parties and swimming parties. Do these things define a village? Or do the Dollar General, or Subway? The closed-down supermarket behind the Shell Station? The newly opened Hispanic restaurant by the Casey’s? Or do I, a denizen, a customer, a citizen, a student? I learned about myself in this town, and while I have no intrinsic love for Subway or Dollar General, I found so much self-love and graceful happiness in their beat-up parking lots that they’ve become a part of my love. Yet growth is eternal within human hearts. Love swells and grows, and like the ancient and silent koi that swam in my grandmother’s pond, continues to grow until the confines of its environment stagnate it. I did not want stagnation. I wanted self-discovery and growth. So, in pursuit of myself, I cherished those relationships and left them here, returning then to Bradenton, Florida.
Brighton and Bradenton could not be more different from one another. Brighton: small, empty, silent. Bradenton: loud and demanding attention. It was filled with culture, art, streets of prosperity, and streets that either struggled with or reveled in addiction, depending on which of their neighboring street folk you asked. I drove an hour and a half and remained in Bradenton, I toured art museums and brought myself back again and again to the water, the ocean, the sand. In the morning, my drives were gilded with the scent of golden dough, commuting past a seemingly industrial bread bakery on my way to work at a Performing Arts Center, Van Wezel. After work, I shed olfactory tears because the Tropicana factories in Tampa sent their trains of oranges and waste down through our city, dragging behind them such a potent citrus stink that we never had much of a mosquito problem. And like that scent, the city remains with me today.
Of course, I am here again, going to school in Edwardsville, Illinois, living in Alton, Illinois, all about twenty minutes from Brighton and sixteen hours from Bradenton. I left because I felt complete enough in myself to begin to pursue something beyond internal comfort. My blood is a muddied mix of harvest air and sea salt, my skin flecked with sand and caked in gravel dust. In my veins I hold a sense of self, peaceful and comfortable, given to me by an understanding of scale thrust upon me by the experience of a city larger than I could ever hope to let my heart grow to fill, coupled with the introspection that a village the size of Brighton promotes. In the spirit of fulfillment, though, I find myself yearning to leave the midwestern dogwood bark shell enveloping me to be offscouring, so an unassuming breeze may lift and lead me to a rocky Washington shore before depositing me in the bounteous ocean crashing against the cliff.
Forever in my veins swims a swirling mass of Brighton and Bradenton, of cornfields and beaches, of hills and art museums, of choice and circumstance. I’m from no one place, nor two, even, for everywhere I may be from, I’ve taken pieces of with me. As a result, I am from me, and in myself I shall continue—indefinitely.
Kevin Cox is a junior studying English and Creative Writing. He wants everyone to know that he still can't say the alphabet backwards without reciting it to himself forwards like twenty times. Usually. He's also bald, and has a beard, which he has been told is incredibly unique. So, if you ever find yourself wondering: who was that bald guy saying his ABC's under his breath? You may rest assured that it was Kevin.