The Right Kind of Smoke

I never had a thing for bad boys. I never liked disobeying my parents or speaking out of turn in class. However, come autumn, I feel nostalgic for the dangerous and the heartbreaking and the sharp.  In the fall is when I most miss Michigan and I feel like I am betraying something, somebody, maybe myself.

Michigan leaves and all the metaphors they inspire.

I am not a farm girl or a Yooper. When I think of home I have no pastoral memories of apple picking or hiking or swimming in clear water. The Michigan of my childhood is full of cities like Ypsilanti and Utica and Flint and Detroit. The never-ending destruction of I-94, its asphalt torn up against the sky like crooked teeth. I think of racial tension and rustbelt ancestry leaving us with chemicals in the air and estrogen in the water.  I think of feeling like a street urchin, running around my neighborhood barefoot and stealing candy while the cornerstore clerk was busy harassing the drunks sprawled out on the sidewalk outside.

I will try not to romanticize, but it’s hard. Michigan is the underdog you root for. Your childhood best friend you always thought you’d end up with. The lover who left you and now you think, maybe, you didn’t treat her quite right enough to make her stay.

My father used to say that his goal was to get the family out of the state. He succeeded. My older sister moved to Los Angeles first, my parents and younger sister to Texas. I lived in Michigan for three years without my family. I was the one left to turn off the lights.

I wonder how it’s doing. I get reports, but it’s hard to suss out fact from rosy fiction without the hard concrete under my feet and the clouds forever hanging low overhead. I don’t know what would worry me more: that my state has gotten worse since I’ve left, or better. When you run into an ex-lover, do you want to see him prosperous and glowing, secure in the knowledge that you leaving was the best thing for him? Or do you want her beat down, broken, bags under the eyes, begging you back?

Fall is when Michigan is perfect. It is wet and cool and the air takes on a flavor you can feel with your teeth. Of course, the weather here in Washington right now is beautiful. Clear mornings and 80 degree days. But I want fall. I want rejection under the football bleachers and never-ending rain. I want to be driven back to bed every day I wake up. To yearn for imperfection is to romanticize, to look back not with 20/20 but rather colorblind, whitewashing away the bad. From my perch in pretty privileged Washington, I can no longer see the smudged handprints and dirty words smeared on the empty glass storefronts of Ypsilanti, broken bricks scattered around like cigarette butts. Or I can, but it’s less of a fresh wound and more of a bruise, one you want to press over and over, for the feel of the pain and the reminder that it’s still there.

My parents would say I’m foolish to long for the land of unemployment, terrible education, dying cities, constant rain. When I lived there I joined the exodus of all those who felt, even in the smallest way, upwardly mobile. I bit every hand that fed me and now I’m here. I’m out. I’m gone. Now I miss it, because it’s fall and the weather here is too nice and it feels undeserved, like I haven’t quite earned it, like I shouldn’t be going to bed in this cool night air, so full and content with the arms of a good man around me. Like I should have been unhappier, just for a little longer.

The trope that the best artists are discontented and crazy and drunk is bullshit. I know that. But when I close my eyes and conjure up those Michigan autumns, I think of dirty jeans and I can feel smoke burning at the tip of my nose, not so much the fading smell of family barbeques but the sweet musk of Black and Milds, burning trash, damp leaves rotting and noxious exhaust from rattling, souped-up cars.

Last week Washington was in flames. The fires never touched us here in the city, but outside we couldn’t see through the haze and the smell of smoke, the burning that drove us inside. The sky is turning yellow gray and we are getting sick and worried, but it doesn’t yet feel like the same kind of smoke.

5 Comments

  • Fitz says:

    You never forget / how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.

    Which is to say, I’m not from Michigan but I sure do love this post and all your beautiful descriptions. “I was the one left to turn off the lights.” Bam.

  • Geoff says:

    Well done!

  • Emily says:

    Even though I’m still in Ypsi, the thing you write about I had long forgotten. Like walking to the Congress St store and knowing that because the clerk was drunk, Laffy Taffys would be free. The smell of Black and Milds always get me too, it’s strange that so many memories are triggered by those cheap cigarillos.

  • Drew says:

    “Michigan is [..] the lover who left you and now you think, maybe, you didn’t treat her quite right enough to make her stay.”

    Living in Boston for two years felt like such a betrayal. I never fully forgave myself.

    Oh, and the bags under the eyes are the worst. I’ve never been so self-conscious of my image ^^

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