On August 31, 2019, Kaitlin and my mom and dad and I drove from Wilmington, North Carolina to Westville, New Jersey. It took 16 hours total. With loading the moving truck and breakfast at Bojangles only 45 minutes out of Wilmington and gas station stops and unloading the moving truck and arguing about where to put all the boxes.
Bambi rode in the back of Kaitlin’s car with a portable litter box and a few blankets that smelled like us. She sat in the litter box for most of the drive. Not using it. Not eating food. Just crouching in the clay pebbles for more than half a day. Angry and scared and not sure why she had to be where she was.
We got separated a few times. Kaitlin and I stopped outside DC to use a 7-Eleven bathroom. To argue in the parking lot about which state highway to take. To answer phone calls from my parents about how they couldn’t see us anymore. Were we okay. How close were we to 95. Then thirty miles from Westville my mom and dad took a business highway and Kaitlin didn’t understand the exit and I stopped at a Sunoco and didn’t understand the gas pump policies.
So we arrived in waves. At around 7pm. Then 7:15. Then 7:30. To Kaitlin’s aunt’s house. And Kaitlin was in the last wave.
Debbie, Kaitlin’s aunt, was happy to see us. And even seemed to know that we would be there that day. She gave us a tour and stood outside in the driveway with us while we waited for Kaitlin to arrive. She told us what she had done that week. Where she worked. What she liked about her job and what she hated.
My dad said something like, “I have got to eat,” and looked at nearby restaurants on his phone. Then said, “There’s a place called ‘Sopranos Pizza’ less than half a mile from here.”
I asked Debbie, “Is Sopranos any good?”
“Oh, yea.” Debbie said. “I watched every season.”
“Oh, sorry. No, I meant the pizza place in town.” I said. Feeling very alone in the world because I had no one to make eye contact with.
“No, it’s not good.” Debbie said. “The sauce is bad.”
And then she didn’t offer any other suggestions. I told my dad the news about the sauce. Then I asked Debbie what she liked to eat.
“Wawa,” she said.
I let it go. It was Debbie’s house and she was letting us stay and this was the first time I had met her and already we were talking about prestige television. And yea, ?The Sopranos ?was a very good show.
So my dad drove to the pizza place with the bad sauce and picked up a large pizza that wasn’t very good and Debbie asked if she could have two slices before she left to spend the night at her friend’s house.
Then we unloaded the moving van.
My mom wanted us to take a photo together by the U-Haul. Before we took it back. It was after 11. Kaitlin and I were sweating and angry. The photo was blurry. We were wet and thin in our stretched out shirts.
Then we all fell asleep faster than ever before. My parents left the next morning before the sun came up.
Then it was just Kaitlin and I all alone for the first time in the Big Ol’ North.
The North freaked me out. All my life people told me it was a bad place. Yankees were bad. They were mean. They were rude. They talked funny. They didn’t know how to barbecue. And all of that happened more and more in the weeks leading up to our move.
The same thing always happened. To both Kaitlin and I.
US: We’re moving!
THEM: Where to?
US: Well, Philadelphia eventually. But first, South Jersey. THEM: Why?
US: Because it seems like a great place.
THEM: They’re going to yell at you.
THEM: They’re going to treat you bad.
THEM: You’re going to hate it.
But they were so wrong. Nothing anyone ever said about the Big Ol’ North or South Jersey or Philadelphia has ever been true.
I was surprised every day. Every time someone held the door at Wawa. Or asked how I was. Or said, “Excuse me,” as they walked past. Anytime someone talked to me at Wegmans. Or helped me with directions. Or gave food recommendations.
The surprises didn’t stop. Everyone was nice. Everyone was the same everywhere we went. Everyone was here on earth to spread some kind of love.
The land in South Jersey reminded me of home too. Everything was North Carolina. The estuaries on 295 reminded me of Wrightsville beach, and the Deptford mall reminded me of the Carolina Mall in Concord, and that one backyard with the goats and the hay was Purlear, and Philly was Charlotte, and Woodbury was Salisbury.
Everything was always North Carolina.
I had been so stupid before. There was no reason to fear the North. Every ground was the same ground. It all touched in some way.
All of this was so great to learn. It gave me hope. My heart swelled at the thought of us thriving here. It did not feel impossible. It felt less impossible every day.
So yes, every person was nice and every ground was the same ground and everywhere was North Carolina, but our new North Carolina was 500 miles away in a tiny wood-paneled red-carpeted bedroom, and every person was me and Kaitlin and Bambi.
We were cramped. The room smelled like cat litter and deli meat. There were wooden Angels hanging on the wall behind our bed. One of the angels held a sign that said, “We Believe in Angels.” Another three were sharing the weight of a sign that said, “Angels Gather Here.”
All the heat in the house rose up cooked us there.
Boiled in the presence of angels.
It was Kaitlin’s grandmother’s house. Our room used to be Debbie’s room.
Debbie lived in the upstairs of her mother’s house for most of her 50 years. Then one day her mother moved to Maryland to be with Debbie’s older sister, and that same day Debbie moved to the master bedroom downstairs, and the next day Kaitlin and I moved in with Debbie.
During our first week in Westville, Debbie’s old room was our entire world. We left only to get food. To use the bathroom. To shower every few days.
We wanted Bambi to feel comfortable, to know it was a safe place. Get used to the smell. If we let her out immediately she would hide somewhere strange. Get stuck inside a wall. Disappear into the basement.
But Kaitlin and I needed that room too. We needed a base where nothing could get us. And everything in front of us was familiar. We needed that room like a hug to hold us down. We needed a safe place too.
Every day we woke up and stared at the wooden ceiling for as long as we could stand it. Then one of us made coffee. Brought up two cups. Said, “I’ll be right back. I miss you already.” Then one of us stayed in bed while the other read by the window. Then we switched sides.
We downloaded games on our phones to pass the time. Games like Bejeweled and Zombie Hunter. Subway Skater. Candy Crush and Candy Crush Soda Shoppe. When we opened a treasure chest, when we beat a difficult level, when we came in first on the local boards we shouted, “That’s Jersey, baby!” and Bambi stopped in her tracks. And we said “Don’t worry baby, you’re all good.”
When we lost we didn’t say anything. We just kept playing. Because that was also Jersey, baby.
Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Sometimes you have to settle down for a bit. Open your nostrils. Take stock of your surroundings.
We got used to the smell. Cat litter. Deli meat. Home.
All that closeness made us do strange things. Made us talk in a language only we understood. In reference to the small world around us. We talked to each other through Bambi. She helped us express our feelings about the Big Ol’ North.
We focused everything on her. We heard her sounds. We smelled her breath. We watched her use the bathroom.
When she was nervous and walking around the room, we said, “What ya scared of?”
When she laid on the window seal and stared into the unknown South Jersey abyss, we said, “Are you comfortable here?”
We called her every name except her own.
Long Legs. Queen. Little Skinny. Gorgeous.
And combinations too. It was our most creative endeavour yet. We went wild with it.
Our Little Long Leg Queen. Little Skinny Little Legs.
Or sometimes just Puh-Puh. The sound of a tired kiss. The sound of escaping air. The sound of giving up halfway through.
We were restless. Despite everything that had changed we still wanted more. Something solid. A big sign that said, “YOU’RE HERE, YOU’RE WELCOME, WE LOVE YOU NOW AND FOREVER.”
We hadn’t seen the sign yet.
Our second Wednesday in Westville, Kaitlin’s friend Haley called her up. She said she wanted to show us around the area. Take us to a place she liked best to celebrate our new home. Give us a reason to get out of the bedroom.
Haley was raised in Maple Shade, New Jersey and moved back in with her parents a few months earlier. She was Kaitlin’s neighbor back in Wilmington. She wrote pretty songs and we used to listen to her singing them in the morning. Sometimes Kaitlin would sing along to them. Sometimes she would just say, “I like this one.”
We met Haley for wings and curly fries and shots at a bar called Jay’s Elbow Room. We sat at a table in the back of the bar listening to the music people put on the jukebox.
Haley asked how we were settling in. We laughed. Said everything was good. We talked about Bambi and how much we missed her already. How much we hoped she was happy. With the move and with the room she was stuck in now and with us as parents.
I stared at the meatless eaten chicken wings and felt angry at myself. For killing another thing. For not changing enough. I had wanted to be around anyone else but couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Kaitlin told Haley some things about Westville. I told Haley some things about Debbie. We should have purged every single thought we had the last week and a half but it was too much pressure.
We sat. We said, “Well.” We drank.
Then the music changed. “Rocket Man” by Elton John poured over the back of the bar.
Kaitlin and Haley looked at each other passionately and sang the first line together.
I faded into the background. Just watched as they held eye contact and leaned close to each other. Holding beer bottles for microphones. Then stood to dance in the middle of the crowded bar.
Kaitlin pulled Haley from our table and spun her around. They faced each other and bowed. Maybe they had planned it all through text. Laid out the choreography in advance.
Every step was perfect.
Kaitlin knelt down at the quiet end of the first verse then jumped as the chorus started. Her arms pointed straight up. Her fingers laced together. Exploding through the stratosphere.
Haley shielded her eyes from the debris breaking off into space. The sun glinting off Kaitlin’s fuselage. She leaned back and waved her arms. Knocked loose by the shock waves.
They grabbed hands and twirled twice. Close together for the first twirl and arms fully outstretched for the second. They switched hands and twirled the other way.
Haley became the rocket. She had learned from watching Kaitlin and wanted to modify the steps. She incorporated kicks and solo twirls. Her rocket veered off course, then came back into orbit just in time for her and Kaitlin to finish the song again, by the table, into the beer bottle microphones.
The other people at the bar were unfazed. They tightened the strings on their hoodies. They stared at the television screen above us all.
Kaitlin and Haley sat down. Laughing.
We finished our drinks and left before midnight.
On the drive back to Westville, Kaitlin sang “Rocket Man” to herself. Just the chorus. Then after a few rounds of that, she sang the name of the town we were leaving instead.
“Maple Shade! Maple Shade, New Jersey! Oh Maple Shade!”
Then because we knew Bambi was waiting for us, we sang “Bambi Cat! Bambi Cat’s waiting in Wuh-est-ville!”
The new song’s name was “Rocket Cat,” the final synthesis, the dialectic of love for our little sweetie and our new home and our new life together.
It went like this:
“Rocket Cat! Maple Bambi Jersey Rocket Cat!”
Word salad. Nonsense to pass the time until we were back upstairs with that little squirm worming in our arms.
It was a prayer. An aura pumped off us, off the car, into the wetlands that felt like the home we thought we had already left.
I wanted all land to be the same land and a song to be a song and I wanted Westville to feel like Wilmington to feel like Kannapolis to feel like the biggest city in the world.
And I wanted Bambi to know that we were headed back to her.
Then I sang a song to myself. A secret song. To Bambi. It was a message that only she could hear. In a cat’s only code.
“Home, Let me go home. Home is wherever I’m with Bams.”
Over the weekend I called my mom to tell her how things were going. She and my dad were celebrating their 20th anniversary in Blowing Rock. Spend a few nights there hiking and eating and watching tv. It was one of their favorite towns. They brought their Jack Russel Terrier Gibson. They took him hiking. They only ate at restaurants that let him sit under their table.
My mom and Gibson were sitting in the cabin resting when I called. Tired from the day’s hike. I asked how their drive up the mountains was.
“It was good,” she said. “Only two hours. It was nothing compared to driving y’all up there,” she said.
“That’s true,” I said. “After that we can do anything.”
I asked how Gibson did on the hike.
“He’s whooped,” she said. “He’s laid out next to me snoring.”
Before we got off the phone Mom said “Gibson just woke up. He looks so confused. He don’t know where he is. He looked around like, ‘Where am I? This isn’t my house. You’re not my Mama.’”
Then she laughed and started singing Talking Heads.
I knew if she had a free hand she was running it down her arm like David Byrne in the music video. And I knew Gibson didn’t know that song but he knew what it meant. So he went back to sleep easily.