I’ve been blogging since I was 16. If you go back, year after year, and look at my posts around Christmas, you’d known that I usually become “The Grinch”. I hate The Holidays. I hate that every year I get fooled into thinking it will be different. I go to dinners out, I see friends. It hasn’t changed.
This year was a departure from all that -- my parents invited my sister and I back home for a week. So I took Christmas Eve off work, boarded a 6 am flight to Charlotte, and met another plane headed to Mobile, Alabama. I landed at 10 am, where my parents were in the arrival corridor, smiling. They hadn’t seen me in a year and a half.
I never know how to write about going to Mobile, Alabama. Exiting the airport, hitting those easy roads, and the bright open sky (unblocked by big buildings), and seeing all the trees. I feel like I’ve been spit out of the roller coaster that is New York -- my feet back on the ground. Its hard to really describe it beyond that. You could use the word “suburbia” but I feel like that’s Everywhere U.S.A. So then what sets it apart? I haven’t decided yet, but it’s home.
I had no plans, besides seeing friends, maybe if I’m lucky hit up a gallery, or two. We mostly had a quiet few days. My father cooked a prime rib for Christmas dinner, we gorged on four slices of mother’s homemade cake daily. We exchanged unwrapped gifts on Christmas Eve without fanfare.
Word made it to my (very large) extended family that my sister and I were in town. On Friday after Christmas, they all drove from Pensacola, Florida (my birthplace, an hour east of Mobile) to see us. Unlike the majority of people in my extended family, my sister and I grew up in a different city than they did. This removed us from the day-to-day closeness and familiarity that my cousins shared. When we finally moved closer — from 12 hours away only an hour away — we saw them more often. But we still felt a little like strangers. I used to whine frequently about them, focusing more on their flaws than their positive parts. But now that I’m older I realize that they always come through. They always show up and they give their support and I’m grateful for that.
For hours we caught up and took photographs by the Christmas tree. I was mostly amused by my 16 year old cousin, who in every picture is staring at his phone, on SnapChat.
Friday was for family; Saturday for seeing friends. I scheduled lunch and dinner with two high school chums. Whenever I see them, which is usually years apart, I feel like we live totally different lives. Both are married with children.
Mira was meeting me at Spot of Tea, the downtown brunch Staple, at high-noon. I took my fathers car and hit thunderstorms the whole way downtown. I have a love affair with Downtown Mobile. I always feel lucky and happy turning my car down Dauphin Street (the main drag) and meeting the buildings and the streetlamps. It’s all about the architecture -- the two story facades from old-world France and Spain.
Too bad it was storming. The historic Mobile waterways couldn’t handle it, and I cautiously drove through flooded crosswalks. I parked at Cathedral Square and went inside the restaurant to wait for my friends. Mira and family were running late due to the weather so I leaned in my chair and looked at the tables having meals. Way back when I would have been mortified sitting alone at a table for five, but the new version of me just smiled and looked out the window and enjoyed the solitude.
Seeing Mira and her family was an absolute treat. I had the pleasure of sitting next to the boys at lunch. Her oldest babbled away to himself and the youngest smiled big and often. The rain persisted, so we went to the porch of the restaurant to watch the boys play in puddles and feed a squirrel.
As I wrote in a post about Mobile earlier this year, “All the good moments in my life seem to revolve around Downtown Mobile.” In 2013 for a similar trip, I ended up at Space 301, my favorite Mobile gallery and had the most eye-opening, revelatory experience with Xavier de Richemont’s “Hokushima.” It was so eye opening, that I cried and I wrote about it immediately upon my return.
By happenstance, the same artist had done another installation at the same gallery. After lunch with Mira I made plans to go directly across the park and see it. But, as I learned from the receptionist, sometimes happenstance gets trumped by other happenstance.
“There’s a private event so the video space is closed,” said a young girl with dramatic, pink pearl earrings. “A wedding. So I didn’t even turn on the installation today. I mean, the wedding isn’t until later but just because of the set up.”
I let my face fall.
“But, you can see it tomorrow,” she said.
I would be leaving “tomorrow” but just smiled, thanked her, and quickly rushed through the other photographs and exhibits. I’d be back downtown for dinner, but too late to catch it.
Downtown Mobile on Saturday nights transforms from brunching families post-mass to college kids and frat boys. My mother whimpered when I took the car keys and told her I’d be back.
“Downtown Mobile is dangerous,” she said.
“I live in New York,” I said back.
At 7 I met Monica at T.P. Crockmeiers (a block or two from Spot of Tea). The last time I’d seen her was in New York, we had dinner at Landmarc restaurant, but that was nearly four years ago. We had a lot to catch up on, she had many questions about Bo. I got to gossip about everyone from high school and eat the fried seafood that I missed in New York. She ordered the Chicken Teriyaki. (Of course, only in the south does a Japanese dish like Chicken Teriyaki come with a side of Texas toast.)
Through Instagram, another old high school friend heard that I was in the area.
“Come to my coffee house!” he wrote to me. I told him I’d be back downtown but didn’t confirm if I was coming there (to make it a semi-surprise). Monica walked with me a few blocks in the dark. Mobile’s grand bragging point, the RSA Tower, was glowing red and green for Christmas.
Alex and I met as teenagers through my sister’s best friend. He happened to be the object of everyone’s pubescent crushes because he was extremely affable and harmless. We hadn’t seen each other since my sisters debutante ball, almost seven years ago now. Seeing his face in a new context was interesting. We both now had adult filters with which to view the world (and each other).
“So do you still dream of being the mayor?” I said. Back then he and I were both in love with Mobile.
“No,” he said. “Not anymore. I used to be starry-eyed about Mobile but not anymore. I’m actually thinking of leaving within the year.”
“To go where?” I asked.
“New Orleans. My band is there,” he said. He was playing keyboard for a band.
We shared with Monica all our favorite stories from high school and college.
“I remember you saying you wanted to move to New York and then you did it. You’re one of the only people I got to watch go after something they wanted.” he said. “It’s been really cool to see you chasing that dream.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” I said dismissively.
We got some photos for prosperity, and when I left I heard him telling his co-workers, “I haven’t seen that girl in a very long time.”
It was late, and the bars were beginning to fill. When we reached Monica’s car, she posed on the sidewalk, and in summary said, “So work is good, Bo is good, life is good?”
I hesitated. “Yes.”
I took the long way home, a route down Highway 90 that allows me to take my fathers speedy car a notch or two faster. It was still drizzling, the traffic was slow and the businesses dark. I skipped on taking a drive past the Civic Center, or a stroll past Spanish Plaza Park. There was a time when going to Mobile meant seeing those places. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I needed it.