Chapter Four – Homeless As Fcuk, Rooted In Myself

I was raised in a small southern suburb of Dallas, TX. I grew up in a home with my two parents, my younger brother, and my puppy Cocoa. We were as close to The Cosby Show as a family could get – both parents were educated professionals, we lived in nice homes in nice neighborhoods, my dad golfed, and my mom was a member of various organizations and never missed a school activity. As for myself personally, I got good grades, was student council president, an honor student, danced with the drill team, had a lot of friends, and never got into ANY trouble. I traveled, attended charm school, loved to read and write, and was about as sheltered as any child could possibly be growing up. I never saw real poverty, was protected from death and illness until I was older, was never physically abused, had my own phone line in my own room, and I was happy. I had a very, very happy childhood. Not perfect – but happy. And through all of my happiness growing up in a small city in Texas, I had always dreamed of going to college in Los Angeles to be near my father’s side of the family and where I was always super happy. My father assured me that he had the power to bestow upon me dual citizenship as an official Angeleno since he, himself, was from the City of Angels, and that was what I always wanted. I was a Texan, but had always been in love with LA. I was going to attend UCLA where my aunt was a professor, spend time with my cousins, go to the beach all of the time, hug a palm tree, and just live the Golden Life. I was on a path. It made sense. It was safe with just a dash of daring, but nothing too crazy because my family in LA would make sure I was ok being so far from my safe little suburb and my parent’s protection. And then I walked through the doors of my high school the first day of my junior year and had a complete and total breakdown. There was no way in HELL I was leaving Dallas, never mind leaving Texas! I couldn’t move away! My entire life was in Texas. My family was there, all of my friends were applying to schools in-state, and I didn’t want to leave the only life I had ever known. Not even to fulfill my love affair with the West Coast. I just wasn’t having it. I immediately decided I was going to school in-state, and in my mind there was nothing else to think about. Texas has some great schools, and I would go to the best one I could and get a scholarship and be near my family and friends. Like high school part two. Duncanville continued. Nice and safe and familiar. My mind had been made up.

I made good grades, did well on my standardized and advanced placement exams, and then put together a list of the top schools I was going to apply to. There was Southern Methodist University at the top of the list since that’s where my best friend Genny was applying, The University of Houston because that’s where my *other* best friend Kellye was applying, and some other schools that have escaped my memory so far removed at this point. But I was accepted to all of them and I had never been happier in my life! I decided I would attend SMU, and my bestie and I started plotting on how to become roommates and daydreaming about all of the fun we would have together! I wore SMU t-shirts, SMU flip flops, would go to North Dallas to visit campus and daydream about what a charmed university experience I was about to have. I was over-the-moon excited! I was going to be a Mustang!! And then my father put the application for Howard University on my desk, said to fill it out because I had already missed the early application deadline, and I needed to make sure I could secure a spot for their Fall 2001 class with financial aid. I looked at him like he had lost his mind. Totally and completely lost his mind. There was no way I was going to Howard University. In Washington, DC?! I would rather have thrown myself onto a fire ant pile covered in honey than move to DC. Never mind the fact that I didn’t want to leave Texas, you wanted me to head in the opposite direction of my second love, Los Angeles? Nope. That wasn’t going to happen. So I threw the application in the garbage as soon as he left my room, and began to put the unpleasant memory out of my head as I started daydreaming about attending SMU the next year. My father, however, was hip to my shenanigans, and after three more failed attempts to get me to fill it out on my own I was made to fill it out under duress. I filled out my application to Howard University with him standing over my shoulders to make sure I didn’t toss it away again like I had the first few copies. When I asked him through tears why he was making me apply to a school that I was hands down not ever going to attend, he looked me dead in my face and said that I needed to leave Texas and experience the real world. That no daughter of his was getting stuck as a “Texan” if he could help it, and that as proud of me as he was for getting into the other schools the only option was Howard because that’s where his money was going to go. And I completely lost my shyt.

See, even though he lived in Texas for roughly thirty years, the state and people in it never quite grew on him. From what I have always been told, he and my mom only settled there after getting married because my mom’s dad was sick and she wanted to spend time with him before he died.  If that hadn’t been the case, my brother and I would have been raised in Southern California where my father was convinced everything made a lot more sense. He had good friends in Texas and a lucrative career, but something about the idea of Texas exceptionalism, Evangelicalism, and covert racism disguised through the smiles of neighbors and law enforcement really bothered him. He wanted me to live in another part of the country and attend an HBCU to learn that there was more to life than what was in the Lone Star State…and I hated him for it. And that hatred intensified when I was accepted to Howard University and given a full academic scholarship because I knew there was no going back. There was no denying my father as I didn’t come up in a family where you told your parents what you were or were not going to do, and the decision of what college I attended was no different. I was going where I was told to go, and that was the end of that. My fathers words kept bouncing around in my head about not wanting his daughter to be a “Texan” and how he wasn’t raising me to be one. I didn’t know what that meant or what the big deal was. Of COURSE I was a Texan! It was the only home I had ever known, and now I was being forced to leave and move to a big city far from my family and friends without any consideration of my wants or feelings. I had one cousin at Howard already, but it was of little comfort since he and I weren’t terribly close at that time. That last summer when I was at home, he and I barely spoke to each other and when we did speak it always devolved into a screaming match. I even opened my mouth and told my father that I hated him. And I meant it and he knew it. The morning that I we were leaving for DC, my father came into my bathroom while I was getting ready, pulled me into his arms, told me how he had cried like a bitch the night before thinking about how his daughter was growing up and leaving, and how proud he was of me. I stood there with my arms by my side and wouldn’t even hug him back. I wouldn’t even look at him. He told me one day I would understand why he was doing what he felt he had to do, and then he turned and left.

Fast-forwarding through my Howard years (saving for future posts) and arriving at the summer after graduation, I remember sitting down with my dad and telling him that I finally understood why I needed to leave.  The skills acquired and life lessons learned while at Howard prepared me to take on absolutely anything that came my way, and I cannot say that I would be so well-rounded or resilient if I had gone to school an hour away from home in a city that was still very homogenous in its beliefs and culture. I had agreed to move home for a year before starting either law school or grad school, and I was already itching to leave. Nothing shows you just how different Texas is from the rest of the world like living somewhere else for four years and then coming home. I was home, but not really. Everything was familiar but so very different. I was different. Nothing felt like it used to anymore and I could not wait to make my next moves. I owed my father a debt of gratitude for forcing me out of my comfort zone, and I remember sitting with my daddy that summer and telling him so. I thanked him and told him that as much as I hated to admit it, he was right. He usually was about most things, and I told him how much I loved him and how grateful I was for him forcing his hand all those years ago.

I said goodbye to my father – my hero and biggest champion of my excellence – the August after graduation. His death completely devastated me. I would never be whole again, but he trusted me to hold it together and keep the family moving forward so that was what I tried to do. But I also had a promise to keep to him, so by the next Fall I was sitting in a law school classroom in Los Angeles trying to fulfill my end of the last bargain we struck with each other. I was in my favorite city, the birthplace of my father, getting the law degree he always wanted me to have, and spending time with the Left Coast part of my family. I had finally arrived! I was sad he wasn’t there to see it, but I was convinced I was finally walking in my purpose and I wasn’t going to let my father down. But the funny thing about keeping promises to other people that aren’t what you actually want for yourself is that at some point everything all comes crashing down. I had a near nervous breakdown and withdrew from school just a few days before I had to register for my 2L year courses. Took a sabbatical to be more accurate. I had never wanted to go to law school (another ‘Father Knows Best’ mandate), and I absolutely had not given myself the chance to mourn or heal after my father died, so I was in an emotional tailspin. I was heading down hard and fast with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a Long Island Iced Tea in the other, and if I hit the bottom I wasn’t sure if I would recover. I knew I couldn’t stay in school and I knew I couldn’t afford to stay in LA, but the idea of moving back to Texas caused me to come completely undone. I couldn’t go back. I wouldn’t go back! My father fought to get me out after resigning himself to the fact that he was destined to live and die in the place he hated the most, and if I was going to leave law school then the LEAST I could do was to not go back to Dallas.

I ended up in New Jersey for the next six years. Not sure if that was what he would have wanted, but living in NJ and working in NYC provided me with invaluable experiences and memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. And at the time it felt like I was honoring my father by not coming back to Texas, no matter how many obstacles I faced over the years. I stuck through it, overcame more than my fair share of shyt and economic hardships, and then BAM!! I landed in Miami, FL after being relocated for work! I had finally arrived!! I loved Miami and had wanted to live there for years, so finally getting to move to where I really wanted to live made me feel like I was making real gains in my life – both personally and professionally. If I couldn’t live in LA, then Miami was a close second and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be here!

I rarely went to Texas to see friends or family over the years, and I always said it was because I was busy working or didn’t want to leave my dog, Dallas. (And yes. My dog’s name is Dallas. I totally get the irony that I named him after the one place I swore I would never return to, but that is neither here nor there). Going home always gave me an uneasy feeling. Everything was familiar and easy when I went home, but I was always ready to leave after a week and get back to my spicy latinos and cultured Caribbeans and away from what I still felt was a truly homogenous and conservative environment. Whenever I WOULD go home, I would walk around with a head full of naturally kinky/curly hair, my militancy and Black Nationalist ideas coming out of my pores and glistening on the surface of my skin like the blessings of my ancestors, and I would not tone myself down to make people comfortable just because I was outnumbered and most assuredly outgunned. I wanted to shake people up and make them uncomfortable – to show them that there are those of us who leave Texas and have the veil lifted off of our eyes. We knew that even though everyone is nice and polite to your face, that Texas has a severe cultural rot festering beneath the gleaming facade of the state motto “Be Friendly,” and those of us who knew it was there would call it out and expose it at any cost. This mentality still terrifies my mother to this day, as she is always telling me to be careful so I don’t offend the ‘wrong person’ and end up hurt. To which I reply to her that “they” can’t kill us all, and I won’t be silent just to allow certain people’s false ideals of superiority to be perpetuated just so I don’t end up hurt. This back-and-forth always drove home the point that I could never live there again. Ever. I was just too different now. I was too awake. Too educated. Too true to myself to allow Texas to “Texas-fy” me into the submissive state in which I had been raised. I was just not a “Texan” anymore, and every time that plane took off heading back East, I was comforted that I was in the right place for me culturally and socially because I didn’t have to be less of myself to be safe and accepted and celebrated. I missed my family, but had found myself and that was worth so much more.

Which brings me to today. As I sit here on my sofa in Miami with the sun shining, palm trees swaying, and my dog resting by me feet, I am giving serious consideration to moving home. Back to Texas. Turns out my dream city has over time turned itself into a nightmare, and I find myself longing for the simplistic nature of North Texas. The overall cost of living is a LOT cheaper, the jobs are plentiful, and even though you’re sure your neighbors vote against your best interests in every election as least they’re friendly and polite. A place where I assume everyone is racist until proven otherwise, but where a thick accent, well-timed “Yes ma’am”, and a ‘bless your heart’ will legitimately solve 90% of the issues you face on a daily basis. A place with queso and cowboy hats. The best BBQ in the country and where Whataburger is king. The only problem is that the idea of moving back makes me physically ill. I feel like if I move back, or even worse if I end up staying there permanently, that I would have let my father down. Like I would have failed him. After breaking my promise to become a lawyer, the promise that I would never become a “Texan” seemed like one that I could keep because home isn’t home anymore. It stopped feeling like home while I was away at college, and Texas became Public Enemy #1 to me as soon as my father left this plane of existence. Texas just isn’t home without him there to complain about it. Leaving Texas was the last great battle that he had, and it took him dying to win it…well actually his fight endures because he was cremated and my mom still has his ashes. So even in death he hasn’t been able to physically escape the place he hated, but at least his soul is free. So what does that say if I willingly choose to go back, especially after I have fought so damn hard to stay as far away as possible for as long as possible?

It says that I am my father’s daughter after all, and I have been instilled with the ability to make the difficult decisions to achieve a desired outcome further down the road. The foundation of making me the type of woman I am meant to become has already been poured and set, and the framework for the house that holds my most basic and fundamental personality traits and belief systems has been raised. The hard work began in Duncanville, TX while growing up, was refined on the campus of Howard University from 2001-2005, and the work will never actually be completed because every major life event or transition will add a brick or apply a layer of paint to the exterior as the House of Ashley continues to grow upward, outward, and inward. I am now strong enough to be an “Ashley” in a sea of “Texans” and thrive. I thrive everywhere I go, and Texas will be no different if I decide to make the sojourn back up north. In Miami all major roads lead north, and from the way I have been feeling lately I have gone about as far south as a person can go before they end up upside down. Home will never be home again, but maybe I can create Home 2.0 or Home The Rexim and figure out the next steps in my life with my family and childhood friends by my side. Maybe I can move back to Dallas to regroup and refocus without it being seen as a failure or like I am spitting on my father’s wishes. Surely my father, who only wanted the best for me, would not judge me harshly if I make my way home for a better standard of living and to spend quality time with the only parent I have left? Doubtless he would trust that any children I might have will possess that same fiery rebellious spirit in them that I have now, and that they won’t be raised as “sheeple” and perpetuating a lot of the negative stereotypes associated with my home state? These are thoughts that have kept me awake at night. But if I am being honest, at this point I am no longer keeping promises to ghosts. They’re not here to clean up from the fallout, and as much as his opinion has always meant to me, from now on I do what is best for me alone.

I grew up in Texas, have lived in California, New Jersey, and Florida, and am thinking about going back to where it all started. But it still doesn’t feel like home. Still doesn’t feel like it fits. I am a woman in search of stability in a sea of uncertainty – of a future that isn’t bleak and exhausting. I yearn for simplicity and it might be possible that Texas is my route along the road to my next stop. To my forever home. It is said that you can never go home again, and I find that to be true. Texas is not my home any longer, but it may very well be a necessary stop along my path to the next great opportunity. I don’t care which ZIP code is attached to that endeavor as long as I am successful. I have a lot to prove to myself and to my father, but no matter what I chose and no matter where my journey takes me, my father can rest easy knowing that he did his job making sure I came out as well-rounded and multi-faceted as possible. He made sure to raise a citizen of the world, so no matter where I next plant my feet and raise my flag a part of him lives on. The woman I am now will not be easily influences or swayed back to the girl she was when she first left home. My home is inside of my spirit, so whenever I go I will always be home and my father will always be with me. One fist in the air, making the status quo uncomfortable, and being a voice of rebellion and sedition so that the veil of friendliness and Evangelical Christianity and unfounded exceptionalism comes tumbling down and people have to face their hypocrisy. That was his gift to me, and no matter what state I live in that gift will always be with me. That gift is my home.

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