Nonfiction by Emily Talapa
It was summer in Hammond, Wisconsin and the sky was like a wash of pale blue. It was only like a six-minute drive to the BP in town, but I inched above the speed limit, sky roof wide open. The warm manure-wind gushing into the car was like a suffocating hug from a trusted uncle. I passed two dairy cows wading through swaying weeds. They had knobby knees and sloping hipbones. I honked my horn and they lifted their heads. I liked doing that. A couple minutes later, I pulled up to the gas station, determined for some glazed Little Debbie Mini Donuts.
A 40-something dad was steering a John Deere tractor lawn mower into the gas station parking lot. He had a Carhartt baseball hat and dusty denim overalls. Trailing behind him was a wagon full of kids. It was tied to the back hitch with rope. A massive American flag was posted on the wagon and flapped slowly as they came down the street. A chubby yellow lab trotted alongside them, carrying either a massive stick or a tiny tree in his mouth. For Hammond, this was a typical Wednesday afternoon.
In Milwaukee on a bitter winter day, I was huddled in the bus shelter on 1st and Pittsburg, waiting for the Green Line to come take me back to my house. I used whatever thawed thumb-skin I had to scroll through Instagram, trying desperately to ignore the whipping wind. Suddenly, a large hand pushed a small rectangular bundle under my nose.
“Hi, uh, ha, this is for you. Hum, heh-heh.”
I looked up to see a tall middle-aged man looming over me. He had eager eyes and a freaky banana-smile filled with nubby teeth. My face flushed. I didn’t even look to see what he was holding out to me.
“Um, no thanks.”
He was wearing a knit cap and denim overalls spattered in dried white paint. His hands were twice the size of mine.
“Well, I’ll, uh, put it on the bench for you, then. Ha-heh. Good news in there.”
Ignoring him, I scrolled even faster through Insta, my thumb like a door hinge. I heard the familiar hum of the city bus (bless) and hopped on without looking behind me. I flew to the back corner and nestled into a seat. The Green Line started moving and I looked out the window — the strange guy had disappeared. I scanned the area but he was gone. On the bench I saw what he had left for me: a flyer, a pocket Bible and a small brass key. For Milwaukee, this was just another Wednesday afternoon.
My graduating class in Hammond had like eighty kids. During prom season, guys drove their dates to the Grand March on tractors. In the winter, people drove to school on snowmobiles. In the summer, we jumped off a low bridge called Double J. The water was cool, and, depending on your dismount from the railing, your toes would brush the muddy bottom.
Hammond has two gas stations, two restaurants and a spooky old hotel. Every August, we have a celebration called Heartland Days. There are car shows and bouncy houses and bingo tournaments. We close down Main Street for Running of the Llamas, where farmers contribute their least-stubborn animals to race through town. There’s a lot of laughing and clapping and sometimes there’s poop.
After I graduated, I accepted my offer from UWM and headed southeast. I was the one person from my graduating class to attend and one of two kids from Hammond at the entire university. Initially, Milwaukee’s sirens and honking and tight streets bothered me. But eventually, they became a comfort.
The concept of home. It’s a soul-dwelling concept that is inside each human. Sometimes home is a certain doorframe to a room or the sweet scent of a childhood blanket. Sometimes it’s the crunch of gravel when you walk up your driveway — other times it’s in the presence of another person. For me, it’s the new-puppy-meets-vacuum-cleaner smell of my dog’s fur. It’s the whining of my dad’s coffee grinder at 7 a.m. It’s the rain-induced spunk that causes old cows to run around. Home is in all of us, but when does it develop? And how?
Before my first year of college, my parents took off work to drive me to Milwaukee. From Hammond, it’s a four and a half hour trip if you’re speeding. As we drove, I watched the rolling hills melt into highways and highways rise into cities. We spent the first night at some hotel downtown and after my family fell asleep, I went into the hallway and pressed my back against the wall. I couldn’t breathe. Everything was too loud; everything was too small.
The next morning, my parents were overtly supportive. We made our way to the East Side and passed the lake. “Oh, Em, it looks like the ocean!” I wore a frown like it was the only thing I owned. I chewed my fingernails until they were raw. I didn’t want to be there. Why had I left?
I answered that question when Milwaukee become home three months later. At first, I struggled through frustrated tears, temporary friends and half-finished applications to other universities. I desperately tried to mimic Hammond in order to adapt — by adding darkening shades on my dorm room windows, taking long runs through city parks, eating lots Ellsworth cheese curds. Integrating familiar aspects into my new setting seemed to help. Soon, that ocean-sized lake became a familiar neighbor.
As for company, I had finally befriended some good, weird people. They lived on the same floor as me in Riverview. We were on campus together and instead of asking if they were going back to the dorms, I said, “Are you guys going home?”
From there on, a part of myself detached. It burrowed into the roads and seeped into the sidewalk cracks. There were many factors in establishing my sense of security with the city, but it was primarily the aim to make myself uncomfortable — that was the only way I was going to grow. I had to challenge myself to belong somewhere other than my tiny hometown. This metamorphosis was prompted by choice and discipline. Instead of hiding out on the top bunk in my dorm room alone, I took an offer to play Cards Against Humanity with some other freshmen I hardly knew. We played for hours and the next night I ate at the café with them. Then we became Dinner Buddies. One time, I noticed a girl in the lounge drinking Peach Snapple. She lived a couple doors down from me so I hesitantly struck up a conversation.
“I love Peach Snapple.”
“This isn’t Snapple, this is Purple Drank.”
She seemed offended, I was terrified. That was the line that broke the ice, though. (It has been four years since the Snapple-based encounter and that same girl is my current roommate and best friend.)
I used to try to explain Milwaukee to my friends from Hammond, but they often held on to rumors.
“Milwaukee is full of crime. My parents told me that people there lie under your parked car with a knife and when you come back from dinner, they pop out and mug you.”
“That’s completely untrue, I’ve never heard that in my life,” I’d say.
The rumors came from both sides, and I was quick to defend Hammond, just as I would Milwaukee.
“Do people in your town all know each other? And, like, do cousins all date each other?”
My eyes did a casual roll like they were professional gymnasts. They’d been tumbling often and I was surprised that I wasn’t feeling dizzy. For some reason, incest was always the go-to topic when you told people that your hometown had a less than two thousand population.
“I mean, I don’t think so, but everyone pretty much knows everyone.”
Sometimes I missed the country. I craved a long drive or a long run. I missed the singing frogs in the summer and the air in the winter that stung my throat and lungs in an intoxicating way. I wanted to drive past the miles of corn: the 7-foot plants smiling at me with yellow teeth. I missed the smell of firewood and the distant hum of a lawn mower or my neighbor’s barking labrador.
But when I was back in Hammond, it was too dark to sleep and too quiet to focus. I missed tall buildings and lights and almost getting hit in the crosswalk. I had a hunger for the wind off the lake and the creak of my kitchen floorboards. I wanted to see the city bus drive past my window, full of people with headphones and occupied stares. I missed walking to 7/11 with my friends to get giant pickles wrapped in plastic.
The most infuriating and interesting part of this situation is my desire to be in both places at once. These last couple of years between my two homes have taught me something: I now have the ability to fit myself into different places. I’m adaptable. I can belong. Another thing I’ve realized is that although these cravings stay with me, their holds on me are short-lived. I’m meant to keep moving.
I’m going to start crumbling my heart into a couple more pieces; I’m bound to feel at home in more than two places.