Hostitality

by Nola Propst

issue 69

Thinking of South Carolina summers I think of the sensation of biting into a rotten apple. I think of the way in which my teeth sink into an elastic skin and through to a pulpous body, then the taste of decay. And No matter how vigorously I scrape my tongue and flush with mouthwash, there is that lingering rot until I blind my mouth with spicy foods.

To step out into that humid heat is to accept the inevitable sweat, which is actually the more pleasant downside of one-hundred-plus degree days with a relative humidity of ninety or above. The worst part, I think, is the fact that you can never escape it. Outdoors it is hot, indoors it is hot, in pools it is hot, in the dead of night it is hot, awake it is hot, asleep it is hot. It is hot. I am a cold-bodied lover and so to be in such heat is borderline agonizing.

As gelatinous as the air may be, there is another stifling element to the culture of states south of Virginia commonly known as southern hospitality. I have coined the term instead as southern hostitality. This is when we all gather somewhere public under the scorching summer sun. The men cook while the women set the picnic tables. We are all one unified, unanimous body of smiles, one conglomeration of a happy entity, while in fact we are all dancing on point, trepidly, around each other in fear of bringing up anything which could upset (the family’s failed marriages, the drinking problems, who we all voted for in the 2016 election, et cetera).

I have felt no situation more tense than at a family reunion mere weeks before I underwent Delta’s abominable, one way flight up to Boston. My grandparents’ back yard is lush to the point of excess. The grass is uncannily green, the bird fountains always at capacity with blue jays and robins, the hydrangeas blue in bloom in and out of season. It was a reunion and also a going away party. In four generations of my family, I am the first to move north. Our family is spread like roots through the south—in Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida—but never have we touched the cold-weathered, cold-peopled places. And so my leaving came as a sort of a shock, like I was a hot-weathered plant trying to go live in a cold-weathered environment. Imagine a venus fly trap in Antarctica.

We were all in the backyard, adults on chairs and children on the grass. Some uncle of mine once-removed was talking about his wife behind her back when she’d gone in to grab another glass of wine. My grandparents sat silently and smiled sweetly. My mom talked to her cousin about me, half positive and half passive comments in the same way that she had been speaking about me for months. She talked on how I was leaving, leaving her and leaving the family. Never used the word going, never saying, she’s going to Boston. Never, she’s going to have a wonderful experience. Never even, she’s going away. Always, she’s leaving us! Can you believe that? My little girl, leaving us. I remember my flushed face and the pressure that built up in my chest, thinking through those words’ respective connotations. Leaving implies abandoning; going implies arriving. There was something throbbing in the pit of my stomach resembling guilt.

It was sweltering out, so I sat in the shade, not on a chair because they didn’t consider me a grown up, but not in the grass because I didn’t consider myself a child. They only ever had enough chairs for the adults. As I sat near them, they acknowledged me with a nod of the head but nobody made a move to go pull another chair from the garage. I sat on painted red concrete and watched tiny fire ants ravenously attack a dead beetle. I would occasionally tune in to the conversations around me and then, like an older radio, flip to a static station and focus on the beetle again. The thing is, with beetles like this, they usually aren’t dead when the ants find them. Rather, they are older and frailer and the ants exploit that. On the day the beetle loses its vitality, if it hasn’t tucked itself away where nothing can get to it, ants swarm into its cranium and belly and eat it from the inside out until it finally dies. The worst part is the fact they can never escape it.

“Oh, but isn’t it so great that she’s really getting away and branching out,” remarked some cousin or uncle over my shoulder. The tone of his voice held a similar sting to when hydrogen peroxide first hits an open, infected wound. It was not a compliment, the getting away part. I thanked whoever it was without looking over my shoulder.

“Just so great,” my mom replied, “so great. So long as she doesn’t come back with that Bah-ston accent!” I laughed along with everyone else. “Or that Bah-ston political stance!” Everyone else laughed, while this time I remained silent. Immediately my mom switched onto a different topic. Something about how good the mac n’ cheese was, how my grandmother had really outdone herself. This was her usual evasion tactic—like a hawk swooping down and piercing the heart of a mouse with its talons, then whipping back up into the sky. You blink and it’s like nothing ever happened. If I brought up the politics, the air would sour and I would probably end up booted to the grass.

(I’m wondering if anyone can tell me the word for this—for when the sun casts down strands of gold through scattered clouds and the monarch butterflies swarm the honeysuckle bushes and everybody is so wildly joyful and the mac n’ cheese really was phenomenal—and still, I am miserable.)

The image I have painted thus far of the family reunion and goodbye party is the completed painting. Six hours sitting outside in lawn chairs and on grass, tip-toeing dangerously close to topics with actual gravity to their names, then scattering from them. Sticking our toes into the water without then diving in. As I walked out the door at the end of the day, people who I swear I’ve never met before (not even the kind of distant relatives that you have on Facebook out of obligation) wished me teary goodbyes. Said they’d miss me. Told me to call them and catch them up every now and again. I said I would.

In Boston it is cold and gray and it oftentimes feels like the pigeon-to-human ratio is 10:1. I had never realized until leaving South Carolina that there is so much body language contained in the southern states. So much outward expression, with palms outstretched, with teeth bared in a smile, with customary nods of acknowledgement to passersby if you so happen to lock eyes. The body in the south is obligatorily outwards and towards each other. The body in the north is contained, nearly to the point of quarantine.

And yet I can’t bring myself to mind. It’s almost like, with the absence of surface-level niceness, all that is left is a more raw interaction; it is instead a more honest kindness.

Imagine beetles when they wake from hibernation and crawl out from high-up crevices in trees and see the world all green and flowery as they left it. Can you imagine their pure, unabridged joy when waking from that kind of nap? All that time they have not been around to see it, so when they do, it is magnificent. I think of this when I think of the body in the north. The passing faces behind glass windows of coffee shops and bookstores; I would never imagine these people to be so filled with joy. And yet, I have never met people so optimistic, so surefooted. I believe this comes from their selectivity as to whom they show this joy.

It is a hard intimacy to pry from others. We, in the north, all move so fast. But there are infrequent moments in which I find myself in a room with those who are as passionate about the world as I am. A room full of artists who often don’t show that they are artists, who are maybe afraid to. Who only do so in the confines of that room, but do so genuinely; it is the best feeling I have ever known. It is times like these that I appreciate the north and simultaneously miss the south. How we, in Carolina, all so lightheartedly confide in one another because it is the way we were taught to comfort. How we, in Boston, starve each other by withholding this passion until our breaking points.

I occasionally find myself missing the miserable southern heat. Most often when it is so cold outside that, even long after I step into a building, the winter wind of Boston feels like it is still pressed to my skin. Or when I’m sitting on the pier overlooking the Charles River, and the sun is setting, and the water is liquid gold and liquid magenta and liquid champagne, and I’m listening to Keaton Henson’s newest album, and I’m sobbing because the world is so beautiful and I don’t know how to tell everybody that. At least in the south, there is an unspoken obligation to discuss the amazing things we see. Be it an act of kindness or a sunset or beetle being devoured. Sometimes I think about the fact that fake intimacy is almost as good as the real deal.

Thinking of Massachusetts winters I think of the sensation of frozen hands beneath steaming water. I occasionally take long walks in the bitter cold because I enjoy the lack of eye contact, the two hour break from the obligations of pupil-to-pupil interaction. I often leave my gloves because I often (foolishly) decide that I don’t need them. And so I always end up with burning, rosy fingers. A Massachusetts winter feels like the decision to turn on only the hot water and let it gush until steam surrounds the spicket head, and then to hold your red shaking hands, palms up, beneath the tap. And then the singeing of the nerves in the tips of your fingers when the hot first hits them. The singeing, the prolonged singeing, until you begin to acclimate—and then the comfort.