We drove to Alabama. We drove to Alabama in my favorite mini cooper, stopped for McDonalds, stopped for Starbucks, stopped outside of Cincy so I would have enough cell service to use my phone to buy pre-sale Nine Inch Nails tickets. We drove through Kentucky and through Tennessee. We drove to Alabama, crossed the state line at dusk when the fireflies came out, when the sun was tracing patterns in the sky, welcoming us to the home state of someone we lost six months ago.
The house we arrived at in Tuscaloosa was big, with a front porch and a back yard. JP had tried to build a fire in 95 degree weather. She had my favorite Korean food waiting for us, a backyard full of other writers, and a living room for us to live in for a few days.
Alabama is hot and sticky. Mosquitos tried to murder me. They lost that battle, though I still find traces of their bites on my exposed skin. Alabama serves fried food, bourbon at $2.50 per shot. In Tuscaloosa, we drank sweet tea and played board games on the porch, went to Target and ended up trying on half a dozen swim suits.
In Tuscaloosa, there is a bar where JP sometimes DJs and everyone warned me that any clothes I might wear to that bar would return home saturated with a particular smell specific to that bar. I still can't get the smell out of the tutu I've washed three times. After the bar, people usually break into an apartment complex pool to swim at 3am when it is still 80 degrees out. By 2am I was a dancing mess, full of bourbon, craving water, which is when E and E led me to the pool where the three of us spent the next hour playing in chlorine, trying to wash the bar from our hair.
In Tuscaloosa, I was woken up softly one morning, discovered the smell of breakfast in the air, found a plate of homemade biscuits & gravy and eggs waiting for me and JDR in the kitchen. Ate breakfast on the front porch. More board games. More sweet tea.
Sometimes the sky did epic things. Sometimes we ate dinner at southern restaurants. One night we drove to the river. Traced the stars.
One morning, two of my three best friends from college and I woke up in that big house in Tuscaloosa after a night of dancing and swimming, ate Bojangles, and followed a very particular set of instructions to the house of our late mentor's parents in Gadsden, Alabama. We refused a map. Drove according to Jake's memory only, an old email he'd sent JP the year before when she visited him there. We drove across the bridge he jumped off of as a kid, past the places he cites in his poems, to the hill where his parents and grandparents still live. Followed every road according to his instructions, how they ease left, ease right.
In the morning, we went to church as a family. The church Jake grew up in. Heard stories of his time there, met people who knew him, loved him like we do. His mother showed us the garden they planted in his honor. The bottle tree that, instead of warding off evils spirits, attracts angels instead. A garden growing in the place where an old abandoned house once stood. A house Jake probably knew. A garden he'll never see.
We went to lunch. Ate sea food along the river. Drove around Gadsden and Glencoe in the backseat of L & D's truck, the truck D insisted we take to church so we could have a true Alabama experience. They showed us the houses Jake lived in, the places he played, told us stories of the hills he biked down, the things he used to say, swim practice, food choices. There are photos I won't post here because they're meant for personal memories. There are things I won't write because I'm saving them for an essay, something better than this overly sentimental public recounting of yet another aspect of my grief process.
We climbed the tree you used to climb as a boy, Jake. We met your grandparents. We will love everything you left behind for us to explore. We will love everyone who ever loved you and we will look for you everywhere for as long as we are able.