I grew up in a tucked away corner of Central Texas, east of Austin. I knew we were east because the sun set in my eyes as I drove west to the city, blinding me on the way to high school parties. I had never really looked at Texas on a map—I knew where everything was in relation to my childhood impression of the world. Starting point was the land I grew up on, boundaries made by highways, distance marked in time, with everything past what I’d seen like a blank brick wall at the end of my universe. Austin was on 71, an hour and fifteen minutes away. Houston was also on 71, two hours away in the other direction. You had to take the turn off you would take if you were going to Granny Nawara’s house, but then you would just stay on the highway, stay on it and stay on it until a map, instinct, or Dad told you to turn off. To get anywhere was to be led by my nose—this landmark, then this one. Abandoned trailer houses, that live oak tree, that country bar with a lit up sign shouting BEERZ but no other signs of life. If anyone asked me directions, I couldn’t tell them shit but I knew exactly how to get anywhere you needed to be.
This was my experience of growing up in Texas—predetermined, led by the nose. Everything outside of it was a big impossible blank, everything inside as it was and ever shall be. A given. It was a given that we lived in a doublewide, on ten acres of craggy land with the cattle, mesquite trees, and tractor parts strewn about. It was a given that my father would drive truck until he couldn’t anymore, that my brother would take over the family business of raising cattle, farm crisis be damned. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a cowgirl and then a large animal veterinarian in that order, which, according to my father, were the correct dreams. It was a given that I would go to the community college down the way, maybe the ag university toward the west, and then come back and work the cattle. It was a given that we would continue to raise cattle on land that technically wasn’t ours. We sharecropped some acreage near the Colorado river as part of a deal made by my grandfather with a rich man in Houston decades earlier. We’d worked that land so long, it felt like ours, until the dot com bubble burst and the rich man’s son threatened to sell. No recourse. A given.
When I entered high school, the towers came down and I came in from the outside. On TV, I saw stories of happy families who lived in two-story houses, fathers who worried over their children’s problems at the dining room table, wise neighbors who offered advice from beyond a backyard fence. Stories of young, white, beautiful people living in NYC, chatting at coffee shops about innocent shenanigans that could only occur in the big city. Their friends lived across the hall and came over unannounced. We lived on empty, rough prairie with dry-cracked land that doubled as grazing pasture for the herd. Our nearest neighbors were at the other end of the acreage and all I knew about them was that they stole our dog.
What was on TV did not apply to me. We were too isolated, too country. We didn’t have the beautiful things they had, and I wasn’t sure what we’d do with them if we did.
My world, once so vast, began to grow claustrophobically small. More and more, I wanted nothing to do with the deeply patriarchal nature of the land around me. Everywhere I looked was oil rigs, machine parts, broken down trucks in front yards. Thirteen year-old boys drove cab tractors that girls were never allowed to touch. I’d learned early on that it was acceptable for me to ride horses and man the ear tagger when working cattle (largely known as the kid’s job in the operation)—but to express interest in things like driving tractors, working large machinery, and other men’s work would invite jokes at my expense. I’d grown tired of hearing them, grown even more tired of expecting them. So when I went into high school and found teachers who encouraged me in things like art and music, I leapt on them like life preservers in the ocean.
My father and I began to circle each other warily. Sixteen, with a car, a driver’s license, and enough burned CDs to match any shade of a mood, I would spend hours driving around the backroads and singing at the top of my lungs just to kill time until my mom got home so she could serve as the necessary buffer between me and my father. I broke down lyrics line by line, seeing myself in each one of them. I wasn’t angry yet—that would come later. But I had come to see all the faults of my father clearly: a drinker, distant, quick to use cutting remarks when threatened, insecure and bullish over it, a stubborn son of a bitch ill-equipped to raise a teenage daughter who had all the same quirks as he did. Our bad qualities were so alike—remain so alike—that my mother still calls me by his name when I do or say something so in character that it warrants a verbal face slap.
To me, my father was a misogynist who didn’t respect my independence. To him, I was an idiot kid who didn’t respect her elders. One night, when I’d had enough of his drinking, I ripped his beer from his hand, poured it down the kitchen sink, and screamed in his face that I hated him. A cliché teenage moment—but I can still remember the look on his face when I said it. I’d pierced through some armor and I’d pierced deep. I hid in my room, terrified of my own power. We didn’t talk much after that, not even after I left for college.
I desperately wanted to go to a university out of state, specifically a conservatory to study music. One of those expensive schools on the East coast—or better yet, California—where the life on TV seemed to actually exist for people. I imagined myself surrounded by creative soulmates posted up in bohemian city walk-ups where the walls were covered with our own art, a piano in the corner that everyone knew how to play, rooms lit by lamp light, reading into the wee hours of the morning because there was nothing else we were expected to do. Who were these people? How would I meet them? Why this particular fantasy? I had no idea. But I was certain that this life waited for me, if only I could get out of Texas to find it.
I ended up in North Texas, where the music school was still one of the best, but the tuition was cheap enough to land me on the lower end of student debt.
The college wasn’t the exact bohemian replica of what I’d envisioned—North Texas is sparse, flatter than flat, windy and dry as hell. To drive on the highway there is to watch an hours-long wraparound background of the same strip malls and corporate restaurants on every side of the metroplex. But, there was a music school. There were old brick dorms with original glass panes. The basement of the music dorm was purported to be haunted. Across the street from the Literature building was a line of gritty bars, a crappy and beloved pizza joint, a Chinese restaurant that made the whole area smell deliciously of garlic, a hippy jewelry store that reeked of patchouli, a copy and fax store painted in psychedelic colors, a coffee shop with painted-black walls so full of cigarette smoke I’d take my shower after spending the morning there working on music theory homework. No chain stores in sight, save for the Jack In The Box at the end of the street where I would get my hangover burgers. Not exactly what I had seen on TV but also nothing I had ever seen before. It was four hours from home. Close enough to far away.
That college gave me plenty—diverse friends, freedom to grow into whoever I wanted to be without fear of reprisal or judgment, the opportunity to make good and bad choices and still be close enough to home that I could run back if I needed. And it gave me my husband.
I had grown hopelessly infatuated with a cute boy in my piano class named P___. I had met him before even coming to the college. A friend of a friend asked him to show me around the music college during my audition. He had a girlfriend then. When he didn’t have a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend. On and on for three years, we circled each other until we were both single at the same time, always managing to share at least one class a semester. We sat together at every chance. The crush was so real and obvious, we both knew it was there and were still too shy to do anything about it until the night we agreed to just hang out and watch a movie—aught era code for Netflix and chill. He was brave enough to lay his head near my hip on the couch. I was brave enough to kiss him. We have been together ever since.
Incredibly, P___ came from the exact childhood I had grown up coveting from TV. He had two brothers and no sisters, a two-story house on the East coast that was beautifully decorated by his artist mother (she even had a drawing studio loft accessible by delicate wraparound stairs), and a father who owned a graphic design business in Baltimore and came home every night. They ate dinner around the table— at least on the nights when the boys didn’t have soccer practice or Boy Scout trips or other extracurriculars I had heard about from a distance. The first time I went to meet them, I was overwhelmed by how perfectly their life matched my TV fantasy. It was October in Maryland and the leaves were changing colors. It didn’t get any more beautiful than this.
“We’re so glad he’s found someone so smart and pretty,” his mother told me, at the end of the first visit. At the time, I was incredibly flattered. Looking back, I can see it another way, clouded by my own insecurity.
After going to P___’s home, meeting his parents in this beautiful house in this beautiful town with the fall-colored leaves and rolling hills with literal big red barns announcing the Countryside, I not only realized that the fantasies I’d grown up with about Other People might be real, but also that there were codes to this that I couldn’t possibly know. And when I broke them, I realized everything about where I came from. I didn’t know basic forms of dinner table etiquette, the napkin in the lap, the elbows off the table, the passing of the butter. Before P___, I didn’t even know how to cut steak; if it was fried (and it was usually fried), I would no shit pick it up and eat it with my hands. If it was grilled hard as a boot, my father would cut it for me. I didn’t know how to act in nice restaurants or any place surrounded by even pseudo-wealth. Too ingratiating and nervous, too quick to thank or apologize, too nice to strangers. I would eventually see the cracks in all this, a façade for insecurity—but until then, my eyes were wide open, hungry and eating it whole.
The first time P___ met my parents was when they came to help me move into a new apartment. They drove up in my father’s massive, mud-covered pickup truck with a lowboy trailer of furniture tarped on the back. My father wore starched Wranglers and muddy boots, a sweaty straw cowboy hat, and a long-sleeved pearl-snapped work shirt in the dead heat of summer. His drawling accent was so thick P___ almost couldn’t understand him.
I watched, nervous as they talked. My mother is the sweetest person alive, impossible not to love. My father is nice enough to strangers but prefers to break new people in with cutting jokes. He has a knack of picking out your most insecure flaw and running wild with it. He wields this power like a drunk with a gun. I wasn’t sure how I would contain my rage if he set his sights on P___.
But the conversation was cordial, brief. P___ went off to hang a cabinet in the dining room. I avoided my father, afraid of what he would say about this “yankee,” as he called anyone who lived northeast of Texas. When P___ finished with his work and left, my father walked over, studied the cabinet, and gave it a firm shake. It held.
Fantasies are built out of distance and wanting. We create stories when we don’t know the truth; we create stories when we do know the truth but prefer the story. When I brought P___ to our home for the first time, I was nervous as hell. The story I’d constructed from the collective imagination of Hollywood’s upper class ran rampant in my mind as I drove him further and further away from our college town and deeper and deeper into the Texas backcountry of my home.
His eyes stayed glued out the window, taking in the craggy land, the big Texas sky, the vast, empty prairie. All I could see were the broken windows, the abandoned machine parts, the forgotten sheds. But he could see the way the sun set the tall grass ablaze with light, a sunset you couldn’t see in the city or in a countryside with hills. He marveled over our overgrown pastures, our torn up barns. He couldn’t get over how men wore Wranglers and cowboy hats, for real for real. The old tin house bars were like something out of Roadhouse, his own silly TV fantasies coming to life. He ate brisket and kolaches with bliss. He hugged my mother who was impossible not to love.
He thought my father was something else; problematic, sure. Hilarious in how he matched some kind of TV caricature P___ had envisioned of Texas before moving there. I might have been offended if I hadn’t been doing the exact same thing to his yankee family.
Once my father realized P___ was here to stay (and he had tested the strength of the wall-mounted cabinet and found it solid), he dropped the tough guy act, reverting to the quieter, demure self I had usually only seen on Sunday mornings, before the beery afternoons and evenings. I kept my guard up, as old habits do die hard, but I found my father’s idiosyncrasies to be softened under P___’s gaze. Perhaps the same happened to my father the more he saw the way P___ looked at me. Either way, when P___ arrived in my life, it changed the way my father and I looked at each other. We never verbalized a truce, but a truce had been called.
That first evening on P___’s first visit, we had gone out to eat at one of the only sit-down restaurants nearby, a place that used to triple as general store, post office, and bar when I was growing up. Card tables scattered across the concrete floor with taxidermied animals up and down the walls. Everyone knowing everyone else, Friday nights being a kind of family dinner at this place for the whole area. P___ ordered a chicken fried steak, his eyes bugging out of his head when they brought him a dinner plate-sized cut. It was such a great night, light and full of laughter, reminding me of something way back in my memory but which I couldn’t call up to name exactly.
When we arrived home, the night was darker than dark. My parents went inside, my dad already gearing up for an eight o’clock bedtime in order to get up at three and drive truck the next morning. P___ and I stayed outside, drawn by the stars, both of our heads craned up out of habit to see something both of us hadn’t seen in far too long, even if only one of us was wowed by it. I had grown up with these stars, this dark night. I couldn’t see what he saw until he saw it, and then I saw it too. A sky big enough to induce vertigo. Same stars, different view. Same girl with different dreams—same intimate, guarded place.
My father would go soft in his old age, though he would still vex me to the ends of the earth and vice versa. The unverbalized truce still holds. I am shedding my armor limb by limb and I can see my father doing the same, though we do it slowly, waiting for the moment either of us might break each other’s heart again. Over time, P___’s East coast home would feel less like a secret society with locked gates and more like any other home, arguing families, farts, and all. I would love his home and he would love mine. And when we got married, we would do it in my tucked away corner of Central Texas, east of Austin. We would eat barbecue and dance the Grand March. I would wear my grandmother’s pearls. He would wear a yellow rose.
Lisa Bubert is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Puerto del Sol, Washington Square Review, Carolina Quarterly, and more. Her story, “Kitten,” which appeared in Pidgeonholes, was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2020. Her story, “The Coma,” which appeared in the final issue of Natural Bridge journal, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.