Last fall I visited Texas for the first time, and found it a strange place. Different than the rest of the country, as it has always advertised itself to be—don’t know why I was surprised.
I flew into Houston and when I got there I ate a Greek salad in a New York-style diner inside Terminal C of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport. My waitress was this tall, light-skinned black girl, a dead ringer for Zoe Saldana, if Zoe Saldana was a waitress at an airport bar with bags like pale moons ringing her glassy eyes. She moved dreamily around the restaurant, skimmed the tile aimlessly in her dingy grey Keds, almost floating to the table with my Diet Coke, never really looking at me. When she would pause in her wandering by some laminate counter she would put one hand flat against the small of her back, as if hugely pregnant, but she was so thin you could see blue veins in her temples and her thick grey tube socks sagged at her ankles. I worried about her, how she had washed up here, against the massive sprawling Texan bulk of IAH, as light and pale as a piece of driftwood on some bad tide.
I had come to this lone star place to visit my boyfriend; he had recently relocated there for work. He fetched me from the airport and we drove two hours to the little East Texas town in which he lives. Two hours on the road, it readily became apparent, is an everyday thing in Texas, where geography seems so much more stretched and vast. You got the feeling, driving on this road (“FUTURE Interstate 69,” the green signs squawked), that if you kept going and going, eventually you’d get to the end of the North American landmass. That you’d pass through the endless tidal roll of Nebraska; skirt the industrial towns banking the Mississippi River, a whiff of diesel in the air, a cropping-up of far-flung McMansions, their backs against the road, around which stunted baby trees huddle; then onward to Canada, the light paling and cold, with small lakes like shards of glass scattered on the high plains; the endless pine, the earth curving relentlessly northward, the sun not setting now but rather dissolving on the air like an antacid tablet, until finally your car rolls to a stop upon the pebbled shore of some unnamed Arctic harbor in Nunavit, so far from all things.
Texas, I mean to say, gives you a sense of your smallness.
Even cozy inside his apartment, bundled in the collegiate bosom of the town, I felt an encroaching wildness at the window. It was easy to imagine his two-room backhouse a homesteader’s shack perched on some rocky frontier outcrop, surrounded by our hard-wrung fields of sorghum. We went out for dinner supplies (tilapia, avocados, gin), and great black thunderheads towered over the tiny tin Kroger, yet at such a distance that I could pretend they were above Mordor, and we were in the Shire.
We went to a Halloween festival in the town’s red brick square. Heavy-hipped women in ill-fitting denim led glitter-painted horses (in the manner of Oz) round a sawdust ring. A little girl, a filament of a child with line-drawn arms and legs, dressed like early Madonna in a miniskirt and black lace and stacked bangles and a huge ponytail, screamed a Texas scream: ride them horseys five dollars a ride come n git it. The weather had gone cold overnight and a wind whipped down from somewhere and the meandering crowds huddled in their hunting jackets and hooded sweatshirts, or toughed it out in skin-baring costumes: ballerinas and Spidermen, fortune-tellers and zombies. A middle-aged couple came up through the crowd. They were both tall and wide, obese even, and dressed as Smurfs, their bodies painted bright blue, white Phrygian caps on their heads, done up in artfully draped bedsheets stained indigo at their edges by the body paint, otherwise nude. They moved slowly, clasping hands, their blue faces expressionless, the man in bifocals, and the crowd parted for them as if they were royalty. I watched a child reach out and touch the woman’s blue skin in wonderment.
And the wind rushed down through the square and the piney woods and the freight trains clacked and lowed and in these faraway sounds you could hear the loneliness of long American journeys.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.