A few things that happened these past few weeks: it has been one degree (sometimes not even that), I’ve felt windchill enter my body through my eyeball, and a huge-ass bee that’s been just barely surviving in the air vent attacked me in my living room so I threw a pillow at it and now I’m afraid to pick up the pillow to see if it’s dead.
So, winter sucks.
But you know what doesn’t suck? Cowls. Huge, wooly, face-eating cowls that are unnecessarily large and feel like a blanket sitting on your neck. Hand-knit cowls made from a few skeins of Red Pepper Berroco Vintage DK that won’t actually keep you warm in single digit weather but will definitely look amazing and get a ton of compliments.Okay, so I guess winter has some good qualities, like fresh snowfall that makes all my photographs look crisp and Narnian. (also shorter lines at ice cream stores. and spontaneous snowball fights.)
update: just checked. bee’s not there. will probably die tonight. tell my parents i love them.A friend of mine asked me to knit her a cowl that she could wear also as a hood (she originally requested ears, but since recently overcoming my addiction to cats i am strictly off ears), and so I adapted this pattern from purlbee, adding about a hundred extra stitches and making it longer, wider, and face-eating-er. The pattern is absolutely fantastic in that it’s absurdly simple and easily adaptable. It also creates a laddered backside that’s just as interesting and intricate as the front. Perfect for scarves, cowls, and even baby blankets (spoiler for my next project)!
Here is my friend Rebecca being a trooper and wearing my cowl in ten degree weather. She’s a fellow Deb-ite who emails me challah recipes and David Foster Wallace essays. She also prints me a copy of the NYT crosswords whenever I see her because she’s an adult who buys subscriptions and stuff and I’m a child who forgot to buy dental insurance for the past two years in a row.A little bit of birth history: This cowl was knit at a variety of airports (MDW, SFO, OAK, ICE, LGA, BOS, PDW, DEN), as the past few months I’ve been busy with residency interviews and testing the limits of how badly I can treat my suit before absolutely needing to get it dry cleaned (#burnthe
dresssuit). Overall, the residency application process was tolerable, if not somewhat enjoyable (though if i have to eat one more miniature poppyseed muffin on a small white plastic plate i will literally murder someone), but the thing that was made most clear through it all has been just how much I’ve changed in the past four years.
I can remember back to when I thought Illinois was on the east coast and an AA zip-up hoodie was ‘outerwear’ and a pickle was a distinct vegetable from cucumber (that last one’s not necessarily related to moving to chicago but i’d argue still just as identity-defining), and it’s surprising to think that since then I’ve made a new city my home, and that I’m already about to leave it for another.
So you can imagine, with all of this going on, that when I visited Kansas for the holidays last month there was a lot running through my head. Some of it was fleeting (tiny flecks of anxiety and insecurity and OH MY GOD WHERE IS THE WATER WHY IS THERE NO WATER HERE) but much of it I was able to write down, because that’s something I’ve been trying to be better about. Here is what I wrote:
We left Garden City just before sunrise—we had a three hour drive ahead of us and were planning on getting lunch in Wichita before my flight home. The streets around your house, which I was just starting to become familiar with, looked different in the early morning, having shed their nighttime skin. Seasonal lightshows bordering on epileptic had been given a much-needed rest, windows hung darkened and empty, and inflatable reindeers pulling Santas on sleighs lay morbid across front lawns as ever-grinning, flaccid husks. As we approached your driveway your neighbor’s cat came out and rolled over on the grass, begging for one last belly rub. Everyone else was inside, sleeping behind drawn blinds and screen doors, in the backrooms of squat, single-story houses neatly arranged along spacious streets, all of them boxy and compact like loaves of bread.
We drove east, turning onto Kansas Avenue and leaving Finney County in a matter of minutes. And then we were on the interstate, listening to one of your Spotify playlists over the wheeze of your car’s heater coming to life. And while the sun hid just below the horizon’s edge, the entire sky glowed of colors and it was unlike anything I’d seen before. Shades of blue atop a purplish green atop a palette of oranges and reds and yellows. There was nothing for miles in all directions, so the sky arced around and above us, the different colors like rings on a snow globe, all-surrounding and closing in on us. It was about as claustrophobic as I’d ever felt in Kansas.
I am in Kansas, I reminded myself again. It was hard to not forget, for some reason, even as I was on the cusp of leaving. I had the urge to apologize, the same way you sometimes do when stuffing a turkey or deboning a chicken. Much like the predawn sky that was in the process of being washed away by broad strokes of blue, you had been eviscerated and inventoried before me, white light spun down to a neat a stack of colors. And like light, with every color between its white and black, your component parts far outnumbered you. You were magnified by the eight square mile town that had vanished behind us, with your family and friends and your cozy home on Ridgewood. You were more than I thought, I thought, which was surprising, but also humbling and frightening and reassuring at the same time. It was a sensation as infinite as this quickly passing sky, and as crowded and incalculable as every one of my five days in Kansas.
I landed in Wichita the previous Friday, arriving at a clean, new airport that was chromic and white, decorated with honeybee decals branded with ‘WSU’ along their striped bellies. A TSA officer slouched low in his chair waved a sparse line of recent flyers out of the terminal, and I followed, making my way curbside where I stood next to a young man smoking a cigarette against the breezy thirty-five degrees. You pulled up to the terminal with your older sister, who was visibly pregnant. You were driving her car, and I noted the cereal-stained toddler’s car seat set up in the back occupied by a gym bag of medical equipment and nursing scrubs.
A wave of relief. Because she was who you said she was, so maybe—probably—you were who you said you were, too.
Wichita is the largest city in Kansas, you said as we pulled away from the airport, which was a neutral statement of fact but somehow still made me nervous. Because of my newfound landlockedness or Midwest ignorance or unshakable coastal elitism. I thought for a moment and then said, yeah, even though you hadn’t asked me a question.
400-W to Garden City was eternally straight, interrupted only by puddles of aberrant light that filled the gentle dips in the road. Dry brush surrounded us on both sides, and chicken wire fencing suspended by wooden stakes lined our path like bumpers in a bowling lane. People had told me that Kansas was flat, but, now that I was here, with an unobstructed view of the horizon in all directions, it struck me as elevated more than anything else. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had told me I had landed on some undiscovered height on top of the world, higher than mountains and cliffs and cities of skyscrapers, looking out across absolutely nothing—above absolutely everything—pressed up against a low and heavy sky.
I stared out my window and named all the things I was seeing because I didn’t want my wonder to be mistaken for boredom. At one point you turned to me and said, so, this is Kansas. You left a pause afterward, which I took to mean …well? But before I could respond, a strong flavor hit the back of my throat and my nose instinctively crinkled. You and your sister laughed as feed farms appeared on either side of us—hundreds of cows, distant and identical like someone overzealously hole-punched their shape out from the sprawling, faraway fields. Black, brown, and white, they were slow and statuesque, munching on the short grass, manure falling freely behind them.
You get used to it, your sister and her olfactory bulb reassured me. That’s when I noticed the air freshener in the shape of Santa Claus dangling from the rear view mirror, which reminded me of the salmon pink slab of scented wax you have in your car and, as I would later see, the Christmas tree hanging in your mother’s car and the variety of scented soaps and washes available at your family’s kitchen and bathroom sinks. I thought back to the time we were at Target and how insistent you were that we smell every brand of laundry detergent and fabric softener before buying one. This explains so much, I thought. So many cows, I said. I inhaled deeply with my forehead against the cold window.
More feed farms cycled into view like the turning beam of a lighthouse. Just beyond Pratt I saw a lone trailer on top of a hill and a tall wooden sign that read ‘King’s Taxidermy’. We reached Greensburg, which you told me had been razed overnight by a tornado in ’07, and as we passed through the six-block town your sister pointed out how nothing was older than a decade except for the trees, which stood naked and traumatized among fresh coats of paint and smoothly paved roads. After Greensburg, we passed through Ford and Dodge City, and then Cimarron and Ingalls, each one heralded by towering, cement grain elevators. They looked funny and out of place to me, resembling abandoned chess pieces, lost rooks that were separated and hundreds of miles away from their larger than life chessboard.
You said, sometimes they call them Kansas mountains because—and I said, they’re the tallest things in the state? You nodded and I laughed. Your sister hadn’t said anything since Dodge City, so I hoped she was asleep as I slipped my hand in yours.
We crossed into Garden City (‘Garden’, as you all affectionately called it) without much warning, and after driving by Walmart, Sam’s Club, Ross, two gargantuan four-way stoplights, and a dialysis center sandwiched between a State Farm car insurance pop-up and Family Dollar, we parked and I met your family.
I met your mother, who was bubbly and infectious, and your father, who was in many ways the opposite. Your younger sister was twelve and dramatic, and your niece was two but insisted she was four.
Watching you with your sisters reminded me so much of me with my sisters—the petty swipes and harsh sarcasm, alliances as sure as blood pacts with the half-life of a housefly, the brutish meanness that only siblings perverted by a childhood of teasing and harassment can interpret as compassionate. I remember you told me one time you got so mad at your younger sister that you threw a shoe at her head. We laughed more than we should have and reveled in the warmth of memories and infuriating nature of younger siblings, with the shared but unspoken understanding that she in all likelihood deserved it.
I was worried that seeing you with your family would make me homesick—it being the holidays and all—but I found it did almost the opposite. I cherished it, holding the scene in front of me close, as if watching my own family only with different actors. Here I was, landlocked in a strange new world, where cow was the next most populous thing in the air after nitrogen and oxygen, but you felt so familiar without even a hint of jealousy that I momentarily forgot. I loved you for all the ways we were exactly the same as to be almost interchangeable. It was as selfish as it was selfless to think, but you were home, so, in a sense, I was home, too.
The next morning you drove me around town and showed me all the places that raised you—the Catholic school you went to until the fourth grade and the open field by your church where you used to play cops and robbers. You took me to Sonic to order an Ocean Water and the zoo, which you noted had added a bird exhibit since you were there last. You showed me where your family celebrates Easter and the one IHOP in town where you drink coffee with your parents and just sit and talk about everything. You took me downtown, a locale you would insist I write with quotation marks but I won’t, because even though it was quiet it was also cobblestoned and charming and lined with streetlights ornamented with Christmas trees made of tinsel, and I loved it.
At your home I was accosted by your dogs and, to a lesser degree, your eccentric aunts. I offered handshakes to an assortment of cousins, all of whom laughed and came in for a hug. I sank into your couch for the first time and your house swallowed me whole—a paper plate of Papa Johns in your living room tucked between your labradoodle and morbidly obese beagle watching floundering hopefuls on Shark Tank with your family.
Your niece called me ‘Dan-woh’, which turned out to be the magic word, because all of a sudden I belonged and it was like that seat in the couch was mine and always had been. Max nuzzled into my side a little bit more and I felt a little bit warmer and the silver lights of the Christmas tree in the corner shined a little bit brighter. I rested my head on your shoulder and you raised your arm to make a nook for me, and the only thing your father had to say was just you wait Barbara’s going to be the first one out because they don’t make their product in the color she likes. I nuzzled into your armpit the same way Max was nuzzling into me and thought so this is why dogs do this, because it felt wonderful and safe to be surrounded by you and this home, in the middle of middle America with sideways glances and random strangers asking us how we’re ‘related’. It was the kind of safe that wasn’t so much hidden as protected—strengthened, maybe—against all of everything that was so much bigger and louder and taller and stronger than me. Me and you, you and this home.
That’s how we spent most of our time in Garden City: during the day we would drive around and you would bring me to a new corner of town and, subsequently, a new corner of you (like the running track where you got that scar over your left eye and the playground where you used to kiss girls under the tire bridge at recess), and in the evening we would spend time with your family, watching television over dinner and talking to your dogs. I cooked for your family because despite being twenty-seven I was still my mother’s son, and I needed everyone not only to like me but also find me exceptional. We ran errands together and read together between Netflix shows and made desserts for your niece’s birthday party. When you weren’t looking, I purposefully let my arm hang low by my side so Max or Sophie or Bella could climb up my leg and lick the frosting from my fingers. After all, I needed their approval, too.
It was repetitive, and yet each iteration felt fuller than the last. I had spent so much time identifying all the ways you resembled your family, but now I was finding all the ways you resembled your home—the easy smile, the slight preference for ‘seen’ over ‘saw’, how you can drive for hours on end with supernatural patience.
On my last day you took me to the Talley Trail, a walking path that runs east and west through town alongside a narrow ditch and between backyard doghouses and an elementary school playground. We walked hand in hand and you told me how you used to bike up and down this trail as a kid, and how you used to hop the fences and run through the ditch in the pitch dark half scared to death. I listened and couldn’t help but notice how you sometimes referred to Garden City in the first person: You told me about your penchant for natural disasters, and the Great Freeze of 2010 when you lost power for over a week. You shook your head as you told me about the time you made national news when someone called in a bomb threat to the local mosque, but then your very next sentence was sweet and longing—how you were trying to reopen an old hotel that had closed decades ago and how you have one dollar taco Tuesdays (though it’s still only one twenty-five every other day of the week). You said you were flat and boring, and then you said you were homey and lovely. You talked and I let you ramble, because there was something soothing about it, the way you went on about something so flawed yet so undeniably and inseparably yours.
When I first met your mother, she asked me what I thought of Kansas, and I had tripped over my tongue trying to explain my competing feelings of fear and curiosity and a longing to be home—and not uppercase H Home but lowercase h home, because I wasn’t necessarily referring to San Francisco. Quite graciously, she asked me that question only once, allowing the days to slip by with smiles and polite conversation. But as we said our goodbyes, standing in the kitchen in the early morning while you brought my bags out to the car, part of me wished she would have asked me again, pinned me for an answer in that space between our brief hug and cheek-on-cheek kiss.
My father had a heart attack at sixty and his father had a heart attack at sixty, so I consider every fast food meal a reminder of my steady march towards coronary artery disease, but I would have told her pizza in her living room with the dogs was just about perfect, and salt is not the same as cyanide, and perhaps moderation is as much of a choice as indulgence. I would have said the zoo was unremarkable but pleasant and I was disappointed there wasn’t a bookstore and, at times, Patrick Dugan’s Café felt like an oasis in an inescapable desert. I would have told her Tacos La Carreta was the best Mexican food I’ve ever had and Ninja Sushi was the worst Japanese food I’ve ever had, but, honestly, I wasn’t bothered by the plasticky taste of packaged carrots because there’s more to food than carrots and more to pleasure than comfort and more to a town than town-eating tornados and thinly veiled homophobia.
I’m torn, I would have told her, shifting between home and Home, which isn’t nearly as instantaneous or absolute as a keyboard would have you believe.
I fell asleep on our way to Wichita, which I was trying not to do, but following an empty, endless road was hypnotizing, and also I felt like I had just run a marathon. When I woke, it was late in the morning and the sun felt warm in my lap. We passed the feed farms and I took a deep breath. Your sister was right—you do get used to it. With my camera I took a picture of the road ahead of us, not because I saw anything in particular but because this was beautiful in a way I had never considered before, and I needed to do something before it disappeared.
We stopped at a gas station just outside Wichita and I went inside to buy snacks for my flight, which was approaching faster the closer we got to it. As I roamed the aisles, I thought back to all the trips my family used to take and all the gas stations we would stop at where my sisters and I would beg for candy and my mother, consulting no one, would buy a single Rocky Road candy bar to be split between her and her younger self when she took over for my father and the rest of us slept noisily in the backseats. I thought about all the years that had passed between then and now and wondered, with all that driving—the thousands of miles in that poor, battered Honda Odyssey—how was it that I still felt like such a stranger wherever I went.
I began my goodbyes at the register. We still had a few miles to go, and there was also lunch at the strip mall with the Chipotle and McAlister’s and that vaguely Christian coffee shop, but my heart was being dramatic and all of a sudden leaving felt real and sure. I told you it was sad, but in my head I also felt relieved—like stretching a muscle for a long time and then finally letting it flex—and by the time we arrived at the airport terminal, I was just about ready. You helped me get my things from the trunk, and I hugged you tight.
In more than a few words, I told you goodbye. And as I turned and walked away, through the sliding doors, I thought goodbye—at least for now—to Garden.