Although I’ve never lived in Galveston, it is one type of home. My parents met in high school there; I know the house where my grandfather was born; I can reference streets, shops, and restaurants without missing a beat. In this way, it is where I begin.
The island is consistently bright with color, tropical flora vibrant in vivid pink, near-neon orange, sunshine yellow, and bright, clean white. Flowers burst forth from alleyways and along sidewalks, and I want to know them all. Oleander, jasmine, esperanza: I say the names again and again, willing myself to remember words that sound like the prettiest worlds, though I often forget them in between visits.
About 30 miles in length, and no more than three miles wide at any given point, Galveston sits like a forgotten stroke of paint in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1900, it suffered what is still the worst natural disaster in American history, when a hurricane slammed into it, killing more than 6,000 people. No one knows an exact number; entire families and communities vanished, simply and suddenly.
The island rebuilt itself, investing in a seawall and raising the entire city – to protect structures from future flooding – by lifting them up and filling the empty spaces below with sand. It is an amazing undertaking to consider, even now; I can’t imagine how it happened during the first years of the 20th century. There have been powerful hurricanes since then – most recently when Ike hit, in 2008 – but none have ever come anywhere close to that level of devastation.
The threat of a serious storm is always present during hurricane season, which runs from June to November. My aunt, who has spent her life on the island, keeps her most precious belongings in boxes during those months, in case she needs to evacuate quickly. I imagine that the possibility of a hurricane seeps into the consciousness of everyone in Galveston; even as people live in island style and on island time, there is respect for the water that surrounds their small strip of land.
I spent last week in Galveston, surrounded by family, remembering myself without asking, both because of the familiar town and because of the people who have known me as a baby, a girl, a teenager, and now as an adult. I don’t see my extended family often, and the week reminded me that I am part of an ever-present “we,” invisibly connected by shared blood, silently fueled by shared history.
In my own history, today is an anniversary.
A few years ago, on this date, I walked into a coffee shop and met a man who changed my life. The meeting was by chance, a complete accident of timing and curiosity. We talked for hours as the sun descended, and I remember detailed snapshots: the clothes we each wore, the drinks we ordered, the acquaintance he ran into, the suspicion that I had walked straight into the beginning of something that I could not yet know. That first night, he told me the outline of his life, and looking at him out of the corner of my eye with a sense of amused already-knowing, I decided he was either the most interesting person I’d ever met, or more skilled at making up stories than anyone I’d ever known.
Years later, I know the stories were all true, and he has remained fascinating to me.
We’ve spent every July 14 since then together, as we spent most of our days, but on this one, we are somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 miles apart. I don’t know when we will see each other again; our lives are taking different paths. It is still hard to believe. In the 3 ½ months since we parted, I have half-expected to see him walking towards me in all the many places I’ve visited, imagining that I’ll turn a corner and there he will be, his right foot turning slightly out like it does, his smile breaking the world open as it can. I know exactly how our embrace would feel.
No other single experience has impacted me more than the reality of loving this person. He made me see the world in different ways when we were together; in his absence, I again have a new lens. Even after many weeks apart, I am still awed by his presence. I think of telling him first when something funny, wonderful, troubling or pedestrian happens; I buy a dress and wonder if he will like it; I sleep in a different position without him next to me and it still feels foreign.
Though I understand and support why we are not together, I have stopped trying to analyze the truth that when I take a stark, honest look at my heart, he remains there, folded deeply within. I am learning that the entirety of love is mystery. I don’t try to hide this reality. I sit with it, instead, requesting the ability to always have in my sight the tremendous beauty of our shared past, and in our separate futures.
Still, and of course: I miss him.
Someone recently asked me what was so great about this relationship. I’ve thought about that a lot, questioning whether or not I have imagined it to be something that it wasn’t. We were not perfect, and I know that. Yet when I look inside, the love I find is genuine, and continues to resonate.
The question of what I loved cannot be answered with a single image or sentence. One thing that comes to mind is this: sometimes, working on different projects at neighboring desks, one of us would silently reach out a hand for the other to hold, and we would continue on our separate tasks, linked together. In that touch and knowledge, that sweet and passionate awareness of one another, there was no need to speak.
Nothing I can say, when I try to answer that question, feels complete. Like Galveston, the experience of that love was just something I inherently knew.
It was one type of home, and today is an anniversary worth celebrating.
Last week I walked through the island streets, through the thick and humid air, hopping down off of gigantic curbs designed to keep water at bay, strolling past houses vaulted on 12-foot stilts to protect living rooms and furniture. Imbibed with a sense of belonging, certainty untouched by circumstance humming along the length of my bones, I moved with an understanding of what I know to be true. Place, person, love.
Oleander, jasmine, esperanza: I said the words again and again, holding on to the scent of their blossoms, the curve of their leaves, the shape of their wild unfurlings.
Some things will always be worth remembering.