BY BECCA LAMBRIGHT
The men of my family are bookish folk with parched skin and thin hair. My grandfather and father love the New York Times crosswords, so for years I gave them book after book filled with those puzzles for Christmas and birthdays—feeling relieved while they filled them out on the couch, legs crossed, side by side. I never realized why they liked knowing the right answer until I started to do them too. I can do a Monday in ten minutes, a Tuesday in twenty, a Wednesday takes a couple of hours; I feel a religious devotion to knowing how to fill in: 10 ACROSS—Sicilian volcano.
Grandpa loves Defiance, Ohio, or maybe he doesn’t love it, but he knows it so he stayed even when he could have left. There are people who still know him by his last name or his wife’s name or the position he held at the college—librarian and father of three boys (three too many)— and that’s something he likes. He likes going into town and counting the number of faces he recognizes. He likes that men in the park nod their heads when he sees them. He likes that the pastor always shakes his hand after Sunday service. He likes when Dad drives him to Defiance College football games and they sit in the stands with their creased khaki slacks and hair combed over to the same side, yelling the fight song they’ve had for decades, “Are you from DC? Are you from DC? From the school on top of the hill? Yeah, we’re from DC too!”
The summer before I turned nineteen I dated a boy from Chardon, a town twenty miles from me with small houses and big forests. His name was Will; he had vitiligo and a burning desire to be in a successful beach-punk band. I had known him all my life; our mothers went to church together and we had watched each other go through some unbearable stages—in middle school I had been aggressively into corduroy flare pants—and now, all of a sudden, I was going off to Philadelphia for college in a few months and I needed something that felt familiar. My imminent departure didn’t seem to faze him and we never talked about what the coming fall had in store for me. In his mind, school was an exit for a life he wasn’t interested in. At that point, Will had already dropped out of high school a few months before graduation. He hadn’t even stuck around long enough to get his senior yearbook.
It was cold for an August night when we drove out to a clearing in his neighbor’s field. It was a soybean field where a slew of teenagers had parked their trucks to watch the Perseid meteor shower. Will was high after smoking too many joints with his older brothers and I was hungry after pretending I didn’t want seconds at dinner with his family, but we stayed there on the roof of his truck all night anyway. The cattails were high that summer, I could feel the mosquitos kissing my elbows, and Will spoke into the space rural Ohio had made for us, “How could you want to leave this?”
I like the holidays with my dad’s side of the family because they have rules and traditions that feel preserved like worried walnuts and pungent raisins. The women always cheat at cards and the men get a little too drunk on local beer and stomachs full of ham sandwiches. Together we feel safe slipping into a familiar accent: we say “warsh” instead of “wash” and “ruhf” instead of “roof.” My uncle talks about how he almost drowned in the “crick” instead of the “creek” and my dad will say “fuhkem” instead of “fuck them” when he starts to lose the game to my sister and grandma. It’s a warm way of talking, the way we say ugly things with soft moons pushed in front of every vowel, a slice of cheddar in the side of your mouth preventing you from saying it just right.
My dad hates Defiance, looks back on it like a test from some higher power to see if he was worthy of knowing more than just a buffet at Eat’n Park. Back then it was a town of parents who loved Eisenhower and Sunday dinners, girls who rode pale blue bikes with fraying wicker baskets, and boys who really, really wanted to date Jeanne Fast because everyone said she was the prettiest girl to ever come through southwest Ohio.
Now Defiance has a Taco Bell and feels deserted even when there’s traffic. The residents feel like ghosts moored in open graves—children of people who were too sad to leave, too scared when it was so easy to talk about their college homecoming weekend and that one year when Theta Xi made the pledges burn a bonfire for a week straight. I dream about it in quiet colors and wonder if I could have found something good there, if we had stayed in Defiance. Maybe my dad would have married a different woman and maybe I would have looked a different way and maybe I would have gone to Defiance College too. Maybe people would know me by my grandfather’s name, tell me that they see him at all the football games and hear him chant during halftime. Maybe it would have felt right.
There’s a part of me that still dreams about booking it, leaving town, leaving school, and driving until I hit something that feels familiar like bad, unpaved roads and tall grass that warns your ankles with nettles. I’ll drive until I hit a town where I won’t know anyone, a town that invests in the local general store and thinks tucked-in denim shirts are formal attire; I’ll show up without a hairbrush and stand outside a diner until they give me a job because I’m that goddamn stubborn. The boy who washes dishes will walk me home at night after our closing shift and he can call me by a nickname he’ll be proud he came up with all by himself. I’ll bring nothing but three boxes of books and some clothes that won’t give up on me. I’ll braid my own hair at night and offer to bring Jell-O to town meetings and in the end it’s just because I had to find something good inside myself.
It’s a silly dream, self-indulgent and romanticized after years of looking at it like a crosswalk to the correct answer, the kind of answers I like, coming from a legacy of men and their New York Times subscriptions.
I have no right, but somewhere in me is the idea that Ohio is my home and there are crops that belong to me by right.
There is land that I am entitled to and a farm out there that is mine.
Becca Lambright is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, hailing from Cleveland, Ohio. She was a recipient of the 2015 Norman Maclean Nonfiction Award, and was a national finalist in the Norman Mailer Writing Awards. Her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Textploit, Polyphony H.S., Aerie International, and plain china: Best Undergraduate Writing of 2017. In her free time, she performs as a member of an all-female comedy troupe.
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