I cannot help how I’ll misrepresent this place to you. I’m afraid I know no other way. I’ll try, I will, but I’ll fail, as I always do, to explain why the closer we get to Cleveland the more awkward I’ll become. I’m ashamed of this shame, I am. Mine was a happy childhood- I was so well raised and loved that I’ll stop at nothing to provide to you the same. Yet the rising heaviness returns time and again, leaving me full of inexplicable and intense bitterness.
I’ll say, ‘Blink and you miss the skyline.’ You’ll bounce your head around, looking in all directions, so curious to catch a glimpse of your father’s hometown. No matter from which direction we enter town, the first, often only, landmark you’ll see is the Terminal Tower. It lingers there like a broken promise, named as if the seer predicted the broad-shouldered steel town was about to undergo a slow but epic decline into urban obscurity. Cleveland- known now as the butt of the joke, of rivers afire and highlight reels of athletic heartbreak. Native to many and home to few. I’ll explain none of this to you because it’s implied, even to a boy your age.
Round Dead Man’s Curve at 20-mph, the lake on the left and the blinding decay of urban blight on the right. A factory building that used to shine bright during the holiday season with ‘Seasons Greetings’ but which now stands with its windows cracked and black stains scarring the brick exterior. An old park now fencing in overgrown weeds, smashed truck fenders, and large shards of rubber tire. I’ll study your wide eyes, watch your nervous hands as you roll your fingers against one another, a moment that’ll make me miss your grandmother that much more.
And then there we’ll be, one day not so long from now, pulled to the side of that street. We’ll stand on the gravel in front of the cracked driveway that leads to the small two-story vinyl-sided house where a million years ago I lived.
I’ll point and you won’t understand. It’ll feel so foreign to you, a world beyond your understanding. Different. You’ll see a small house. I’ll see a soft-spoken boy, not unlike you, staring out the window back at us, wondering what resides on the other end of the horizon. You’ll hear a bird’s chirp, maybe a distant lawnmower. I’ll hear an old song, my own father’s husky voice a broken drum and my mother’s the soothing scratch of vinyl. This place, how my parents used to stand together on the lawn, tapping feet and arthritic wrists waving hello. Or all too often goodbye. Home, they’d say. Welcome home. Okay then. If you say so, I used to think.
You’ll see an old basketball hoop hanging over the driveway. I’ll see my father, poor posture, wrinkled, gray. Alone.
I’ll see it in your eyes, that strong desire to get away, to go back home. Like how I used to stare out that window, say to family, friends, to anyone who’d listen, that all I wanted to do was travel and tour other cities, the sophistication of my daydreams growing with each book read: destined to wander the halls of Spanish cathedrals, spin linguine in cafés in Italian alleys, drink wine on a blanket in a park with a Parisian stranger, our bodies falling into one another as we laughed and kissed, language no barrier as I’d ride trains through the Swiss countryside en route to Prague or Munich or Budapest. Smoke hash in Amsterdam with a group of foreigners or watch a football game in London and a rugby match in Dublin. A bar fight that ends with everyone swaying shoulder-to-shoulder singing dirty Limericks. This was my worldview, a stamp collection of clichés and images from countless novels. The world according to a Cleveland boy who’d never been west of Hopkins Airport.
You’ll have traveled more by age one than I did in twenty-two years. You’ll have lived in more homes. I’ll say this to you, outside that house, and you’ll shrug. As you plot your escape, I’ll drift back to mine.
Of how I moved to Boston, Chicago, Denver, now Boulder, travels along the way taking me to Ireland, England, France, most of Canada, Mexico. I haven’t been to Budapest or Fiji or Phnom Penh. Yet. And though the small town boy in me often stops and marvels at my journey, proud of my ability to wander so at ease in a foreign landscape, it’s the simple trip back home to Cleveland that rattles me to the core: confidence wanes, nerves kick in. I fumble and fiddle and fall apart.
If only I’d dreamt of truck-stop diners and small town greasy spoons, conversations with folks who, like your grandfather, seldom stray the confines of the neighborhood bubble. Fast-food chains and corner stands hocking variations of hot dogs and processed foods, ice cream, Twinkies fried and sprayed in powdered sugar, even salads that’ll give you diabetes. This was where my world shrunk, where highways and country routes looked all the same. Suburban strip malls cloned and traced over and again leave me lost even on streets once so familiar. We all go unhinged and things fall apart.
Your childhood will be filled with hiking trails and ski lifts, mountain towns, waterfalls and farmer’s markets.
Inside that old house maybe we’ll look at photos together and I’ll see what you see: a boy who looks so much like you, son of a woman who collected ducks and a man who worked hard for little and stretched nothing into everything, a deferential brother to an older, far more loyal sister. Maybe your favorite picture will be of me riding a wave in Myrtle Beach, or hugging Goofy in Disney World, and you’ll leap up and ask over and again, your beautiful voice growing more excited with each question, if we can go there too.