Ruby Slippers Should Come With a Roadmap
It was in the seventh grade, in Mr. Balou's homeroom science class, that Alicia met John.
As soon as we walked in together, I noticed him notice her. Fates contented, I recently got a call
informing me that after twelve years together, they were getting married. A week later I had
booked a flight back to the 757.
Visiting one's hometown is always a unique experience. 757 is the telephone area code
for Hampton Roads, Virginia. Hampton Roads, a.k.a. Tidewater, is made up of several cities:
Hampton, Newport News, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Norfolk, and my town, Virginia
Beach. I wasn't born there, but three of my five brothers were. My family lived there for a
couple years before my dad was stationed in North Carolina, but we returned the summer before I
went into the second grade. We stuck around until after my sophomore year of college.
Barring one haphazardly orchestrated incident at an IHOP whilst on my way to the Outer
Banks, I had not been back to Virginia since moving out to California over three years ago. I was
jubilant at the prospect of seeing so many of my close friends again. I also anticipated an equally
strong emotional reconnaissance with the city itself.
I was wrong. And it was surprising. Adjusting to California had been hard. I hated that
there were no clouds in the sky, and the sun was too bright. There wasn't enough grass, and it
wasn't the right color. The neighborhood wasn't as ethnically mixed as it should have been, and
no one knew how to make biscuits right. I sneered at the wiry trees and brown hillsides,
exclaiming to my mother that I hadn't wanted to move to Jerusalem. I was truly a hobbit out of
After the first year, I accompanied my roommate Emily on a trip back to North Carolina.
I drank in the humidity like a sacrament, and dug my fingers in the grass as if it were my long
lost lover's hair. It was very intense, and very significant.
I must have supposed it would also be that way, coming home. Some things, like Alicia
and John, get stronger with time. Other connections disintegrate while our backs our turned,
attentions focused on the present. At some point when I wasn't looking, California became my
home. Now I was driving a rental around Virginia, trying to remember which freeway took me
to the beach. And when did I stop calling it the interstate? I was suddenly a tourist in my own
Even though everything looked almost exactly the same, the whole city seemed
abandoned. There were plenty of people around, but I no longer had any active connection to the
places. I passed the gas station that always let me pay with my mom's checks, and the 7-11 that
my brothers and I walked to several times a day in the summertime. My high school, even my
old neighborhood. All steeped in metaphysical dust.
Thankfully where landscapes fail, my friends succeed in extraordinary fashion. At its
core, home consists of who, not where. And there is no place like it. My friends function within
a rather communist economy of generosity. Everyone gives their all, and no one is excluded.
This is how a number of us survived college. Often we would all go to dinner regardless of
current funds, and whoever could pay, would. Someone was always broke, but they were paid
for out of love and in the good faith that the hospitality would be returned somewhere down the
I do not do casual friendships. I typically only have "best" friends. I am overwhelmingly
blessed to have around a dozen or so people in my life that I could call on in any sort of trouble,
and vice versa. This was articulated for me one night when my friend Carl had driven out into
the Outer Rim of civilization for the second time in one night when I was having an asthma
attack. When I was apologizing profusely for asking him to come back and take me to the
emergency room, Carl eased me worries. "My friends are important to me, Sara. If I did not
take care of them, and they were no longer there, where would I be?"
John (of Alicia and John) was waiting for me when my flight finally arrived so he could
put my rental car on his credit card, since I only had cash. From there I drove to Carl's house,
where I was going to spend the first night back. I could not remember which exact house was
his, and had to reference my sketchbook that was serving as a sort of Cro-Magnon cell phone.
Despite my vague feelings of being a stranger in a strange land, once Carl greeted me in the
kitchen I was awash with instant familiarity.
After swimming in Carl's awesome pool and eating at IHOP (I can't get away from it,
unfortunately.), Carl and I had a friendship nap where we alternately pestered each other,
embraced, and talked about who we wanted to marry, and what on earth we are going to do with
ourselves. We all seem to remind each other where we really want to be, and how we can get
The following day I woke up early to try and find my friend Eugene. I am five feet tall,
very white, and have short red hair. Eugene is over six feet tall, very black, and hadn't shaved in
weeks. Physically, we make just about the most dynamic duo ever. But that's nothing compared
to our tag-team personalities.
Gene pretty much lives in the hood, down in Norfolk. His building is the sort of two
story brick number that you assume is abandoned, and your eyes just kinda pass right over it
when you're driving by. After a mysterious old man appeared to tell me I was knocking on the
wrong door, I was startled by Gene's little brother suddenly being taller than me. When he called
out to tell Gene that I was over, Gene called back to say that of course he knew I was over,
because that was "the lightest voice he'd heard around here in a while!"
I spent most of my time in Virginia with Gene. Hanging out with him, I saw places in
Norfolk I hadn't even seen when I lived there. Having spent the past two years faking it
alongside the bourgeoisie in West L.A., the poverty struck me hard. I had always been aware of
it, and a part of it, but my outsider eyes brought new clarity. I was deeply upset to see people
with almost nothing living between people that, honestly, have way too much.
I found beauty, but also bitterness. I eased up on the gas to watch a mother cut her son's
hair out on one porch, and to watch a small mob of children from all different ethnicities play
together on another. They get it, so why can't the rest of the world? I watched a lone little boy
with no shoes walk his dog along the gravel behind an industrial park. I don't have a soapbox
about that, it was just a beautiful thing.
Speaking of beautiful, so was the wedding. I cried. Now I get why people do. The
reception was overflowing with awesome Filipino food. I don't mind admitting that I broke the
Veg-Pledge for it. I hadn't eaten meat in forever, and my digestive system punished me later, but
it was soooo worth it. If you've ever had lumpia or pancit you understand.
I also stayed with my best friend Sophia and her gorgeous mother, Delores. I got to hold
both of Sophia's babies, and sate my itching maternal instincts. I slept in Sophia's room, and
remembered how we use to sleep with our heads touching to see if we could be in each other's
I visited with my friend Ezra. Ezra and I don't really have to go anywhere or do anything,
we pretty much function in an alternate plane that Ezra deemed "the Ellis Universe" back when
he used to visit my chaotic, laundry-choked home in high school. During our all too short visit
we managed to complete the connection between my dad and Teddy Roosevelt. There may in
fact be time travel involved.
Some things, no matter how long absent, will always be familiar. I took my long time
teacher and friend, Elbert Watson's modern class before flying back home. It was as if I had
been in a foreign country for three years and just then found someone else that spoke my native
While I may no longer be a cell in the physical being of Virginia, I am still very much a
part of its soul. My house is not my own anymore, but I still remember being comforted by our
overgrown maple tree when my parents got divorced. I still remember what the sidewalks smell
like when it rains.. As I helped Eugene do an epic four months worth of laundry at the Coin
Wash, he looked over at me and declared, "Dag, Liz, you don't even look like you belong here
Maybe I don't; but "here" still belongs in me. I see Virginia almost like an old boyfriend.
We ended things amiably enough, despite the problems, and promised to keep in touch. And
while the intimacy has faded, I'm sure I'll still get an invitation to the wedding.