Since the AC went out last August, there’s nothing quite as comforting as feeling the whirr of the unit beneath me, forcing cold air into the vents as I sit in my bathroom, feet pressed against the tile floor. The laborious pumping of the AC reminds me, everyday, that the wet heat is just a few feet away. That’s comforting too, in its own way.
The swamp feels different than my West Coast city. The swamp feels alive, in a menacing way. Like, if you’re not looking, a creature or vine will wrap itself around your ankle and you’ll be subsumed into the greenery. It manifests the way I feel about the world all the time. Very beautiful and very dangerous, all tangled together. In my West Coast city the air cools and masks danger, hiding it in layers of fog. In the swamp, everyone is forced to grapple with the cautious balance of beauty and danger.
It’s odd, because my not-distant ancestors were enslaved not far from where I live now. I was fastidiously kept out of the South as a child. I’m not quite sure if it’s because my family down here doesn’t know that my Black mom married my white dad, or if it’s because my mom had lived just about everywhere in the South but found her world in the West and didn’t feel the need to go back.
I look pretty good on paper. (Somehow) graduated high school on time and went on to college. Took leadership roles in college and graduated in four years. Got accepted to a competitive program and moved to a new city to start work two weeks after college graduation. These are all technically truths about my life; facts inoffensively shared on Sunday mornings by people who are proud of me.
These facts exclude the girlfriend I moved in with and the furniture we share. They exclude the grief that, like sticky sap, hardened on unexpected parts of my heart. They exclude getting kicked out of the Christian organization I devoted the first half of college to because I came out. They exclude how heartbreaking it is to live thousands of miles away from my baby sister as she makes sense of her place in the world. They exclude losing the community that I thought I’d always have and losing friendships I believed were stronger than any one aspect of my identity. They exclude the way the “justice” system treats the people I love the most.
The AC isn’t personal. It establishes and reestablishes the internal temperature of my house according to what I determine is most comfortable. It comes on when sensors are alerted that my house is breathing in too much heat and humidity. It makes it bearable to spend time in my house during the part of the year (read: basically all of it) that the swamp tries to boil its residents like we boil crawfish in the spring.
Sometimes I wake up and the air around me is damp and warm. I’m not sure if this is due to how the sun hits my window in the morning or my AC struggling to wake up. My ancestors didn’t have AC but that probably wasn’t their primary concern. I wonder what kind of plantation they were enslaved on. I wonder what commodity their commodified bodies produced. I feel the AC pushing cold air into my bedroom and get up. In those warm, damp moments I think about calling my grandmother. The closest I’ve gotten is texting my mom. She usually tells me to call my grandmother. She knows the most about the blood ties I feel in the air and hear in the voices of my neighbors.
My queerness has taught me time and again that blood isn’t everything, that chosen family can be primary family. That loyalty doesn’t have to share a name. My Blackness has forever and always told me that blood comes first, that my family survived this long because we take care of each other. Blood overcomes the people that seek to divide us. This Black skin is the proof of survival for hundreds of years of Black excellence in the face of deep oppression. My grandmother and I haven’t acknowledged my queerness but she gave my girlfriend a Christmas present. I should call my grandmother.
I ran away from my people and my world and semi-inadvertently went home. With the exception of my mom, everyone on her side of the family has gone back south for a stint of a few years since the family moved west in the 1970s. We all seem drawn to this place of deep pain and deep history for us. I’m certain this place is in our veins somehow, either indistinguishable from our blood or floating on top like streams of oil on vinegar. I wasn’t thinking about that when I accepted the job. I didn’t think my skin and bones and hair would connect so immediately to the air—air that teems with a beautiful threat of wildlife barely restrained.
Most of us go back west after a few years in the South, uncertain if we’re running away or running to our closest family. We don’t talk about our roots as they relate to the heaviness of humid air recycled through our generations on swampy plantations. My family has never talked about it with me, at least. It feels like a small betrayal, choosing to go south when we were given a new chance in the West. We keep the South contained to the food we eat and the way slow accents slide out of my mom and grandmother when weariness and full bellies coincide.
There are gaps around the doors in my house and a leak under one of the windows. Bugs walk in with clearance above them. The AC goes on more frequently than it should because the house can’t maintain its temperature when the heat leaks in with the bugs. This is reflected in my energy bill. I should contact my landlord about sealing the gaps.
The on-paper parts of my life that my parents are proud of (the college, the job) don’t begin to touch the history and context that will never be properly recorded. The centuries my family spent enslaved and punished for the melanin in our skin, the exact origin points and journeys of the people I’m descended from. The records of enslaved people that include only first names, often intended to erase heritage. There will always be gaps. I try to push cold air over the open wounds of our mysterious past. Cold, distanced thoughts wash over my lineage.
I think about my family’s endurance everyday and yet I cannot let myself feel it everyday. I make faces when white people tell me about how far back they can trace their family with full names and faces; I glare, amazed at their audacity to be descended from people who thought they owned mine. I burn Black and proud even though there are gaps around the edges. I burn and I burn and I try to fill the gaps with ferocious pride for our resilience and love for my people.
There are gaps in my queerness that I only recognized when I filled a gaping hole by quietly recognizing that I was gay. The gaps that remain are the queer people I feel in my blood and cannot identify. I feel them around the edges of my own queerness and know that they were hidden from the stories that were passed down to me. Something under my skin burns like fire when people invalidate my queerness, urging me to try again, with a man this time. There’s not a homeland for this kind of gap, but that’s alright.
The gaps under my door let in air that I’m not sure of, air tainted with other people’s beliefs about people like me. The gaps also let in air full of hot, urgent information about my family. Information I breathe through my Black nose, handed down by my people, on plantations not far from where I live now. The AC tries to combat the weight of the air. It cools and adjusts. The information slides in slower, landing on me like my mom’s accent when she’s tired and full.
The swamp feels different. My people have been here a long time; I hope they know we made it. The swamp is a home I didn’t know I was missing. It is very dangerous and very beautiful and it manifests what has been contained inside me. The swamp feels different, better. I wonder if it recognizes me.