I strolled through an old neighborhood at sunset like a stranger. My old neighborhood. I used to live here.
I weaved through the streets on foot, walking my dog, exploring old places, greeting invisible old haints. The ratty humble homes were no longer ratty, nor humble, but instead were all fixed up by homeowners who must watch a lot of HGTV. Christmas decor was everywhere.
I still remember when my family lived in this place, when it was nothing but modest homes, not far from the beach, with backyards full of sandspurs and dollarweed.
When I passed the house we used to call home I stopped walking. There was a guy on a ladder, stapling Christmas lights onto the house.
The little old place had changed so much. The house had a porch swing, a fence, and a lawn with actual grass. Unbelievable.
The man saw me staring. “Can I help you?” he said in a slightly aggressive tone.
“No, I was just admiring your house.”
He didn’t answer. He seemed annoyed.
So I kept strolling the loop. I passed kids on bikes, people going for jogs, and puppies out for nightly walks.
Another old house on the corner had also been redone by young ambitious homeowners. It looked superb. Even so. No matter how they gussy up this area, I still associate this neighborhood with a freckled kid who had telephone-pole legs, big teeth, and no dad. Who entertained himself with a clunky old manual typewriter.
I finally exited the neighborhood and made it to the old beach access. Ah, yes. The Gulf. The water was loud, and my face was covered in seaspray. You never get tired of the feeling the Gulf imparts. It will always be home.
I saw a teenage couple walking the shore. Arms hooked. He wore a Santa hat, she wore his jacket. I don’t know what their story is, but I know this beach is full of both love and heartbreak. I got my heart broken here.
I remember one night having my chest cavity torn open. She came from old money; I came from a single mother. The girl ended our romance using the same patronizing voice you’d use to speak to a kindergartener. She said, “The thing is, see, well… Uh, we come from different worlds…”
And I’ll never forget presenting my hand to her and saying, “Good luck with your life.” We shook hands like business acquaintances.
How embarrassing. What was I thinking? Shaking hands? You don’t shake a girl’s hand when she breaks up with you, you big dweeb. But I was so nervous and humiliated that I didn’t know what else to do.
That night I remember walking back to my modest house and promising myself I wouldn’t cry, but I broke my promise.
The sound of this water brings it all back. The good, the bad, and the yucky. My life. I remember everything. The years my mother and I delivered newspapers at three in the morning to make ends meet. Christmas morning when Mama bought me a new guitar.
The time I drained my cash box to purchase a tiny diamond ring. And the day I gave the ring to Jamie Martin.
We got married within eyeshot of this shore. Just down the road. And after the ceremony, we spent the night at an old beachfront inn. The same shake-and-shingle inn where my mother worked in the kitchen.
On our wedding night, I tried to be gallant, like in the movies. I attempted to carry my bride across the threshold of our suite, still clad in my rented tux. But I stumbled and banged her face on the door jamb so hard that she fell out of my arms.
This really put a damper on the mood.
My brand new wife started cussing and rubbing her head and she was supremely ticked off. I kept telling her I was sorry, and she kept asking how I could be so dumb, and I said we should try the threshold bit again, and she said hell no we shouldn’t. Finally, our tiff ended in gut-busting laughter, then tears. Good tears.
Almost two decades and one back surgery later, there will be no more chivalrous threshold scenes for me. But my love has only gotten deeper, and that counts for something.
My dog and I left the beach after the sun disappeared. I retraced my steps through the neighborhood in the dark. And I thought of the wonderful life this fatherless kid ended up having. I thought of how different I am now. None of the people in this borough would even recognize me anymore. I kept thinking about what a good thing this is. To change.
I stopped in front of my old house one last time. The place where I grew into a man. The same four walls where I discovered music, writing, clunky old typewriters, great books, faithful dogs, Louis Armstrong records, loss, bravery, rejection, courage, ambition, the power of ice cream, and the sweetness of love.
The guy on the ladder was still hanging lights on the old place. He was standing over our old living room.
“Looking good,” I called out to him. Just because I’m naturally gabby.
The guy looked at me and seemed annoyed. He gave no answer.
So I wished him a merry Christmas, then I started to leave. When I was a few hundred feet away, he plugged in the lights and the home lit up in the darkness like a multi-colored beacon.
The arresting scene made me stop walking. I saw it and felt like I wanted to cry, good tears. I stood looking at that house where a broken kid once learned that you don’t have to be perfect to be okay. And I am okay. For once in my life, I can honestly say I’m all right.
I never knew a humble home could shine so brightly.