During my first year of college, I avoided saying “ya’ll” — a piece of Southern slang that associated me with backwoods country bumpkins.
I was born in Charleston, South Carolina. My parents are both Southerners, one from Georgia, the other from Louisiana. Between the two of them, a fair chunk of speech wore off on me. Old home videos show me as a child in a cowboy hat saying the days of the week with that tilted, drawn-out “y” — “Wednesdee,” “Thursdee,” “Fridee.”
My accent was never heavy, not like my parents or sister — I credit some of that to genetics, since I’m adopted — but I knew when I went to art school that I would have to eradicate all traces of accent from my speech. My peers would be from New York, California, Ohio, and overseas.
I trained it out. It wasn’t easy, but today I no longer have an accent.
In the beginning, I mimicked the way a guy named Sam talked. Sam was from California. He said his vowels in a flat, nasal way. He held out his “a” sounds too long.
Another friend, Brady from Ohio, spoke very nasally. Brady said his words perfectly. His “i” sounded like “bite,” not the lazy “i” that Southerners make — a sleepy “y,” nodding on its shoulder.
I have so many feelings about the South and few of them are good. Some gay peers think there’s something to be gained from staying in the South, changing it, and making it better. These are gay men who want to stay in small towns and conservative hamlets for this or that reason — because they like single-traffic-light towns, because they hate Los Angeles, or because they’re from here and they don’t want to leave.
I know a handful of small-town gays. They are the butt of endless jokes among their straight neighbors and friends. Once they partner up, these couples go months without ever seeing another queer person.
Gay bars are foreign to them. Grindr is a dry riverbed. Sex outside the relationship rarely happens. When it does, it’s in the backseat of a truck on a deserted dirt road when a stranger rolls through town.
I can’t imagine living in that exile, and I don’t know why anyone would want to. I don’t think the South will ever change, so I suggest we let it rot in the trash of its racist, homophobic past. Queer folks should move to cities up North and on the West Coast where we belong.
Lately I’ve been driving out to country towns outside Savannah on the weekends. The guys I’m meeting here for sex feel like my old friends from high school. The way they say “Mondee,” “Tuesdee, “Deddy” sing of riverbeds and guns. Theirs is that thick, honeyed South Georgia drawl.
Last night I met up with a couple from Guyton, Georgia — thirty minutes outside Savannah. They live in the middle of nowhere with a chicken pen out back. They smoke pot and have large, corn-fed cocks. They listen to bluegrass and have outdoor dogs.
Even now, driving back, I have a hard time seeing myself as one of them, even though I am.
Driving back, I thought about the beach at Santa Monica. The photographs I’ve seen of the pier there with the roller coasters. I know about these things. My father does not.
It was a strange drive. I passed a cemetery, one of dozens randomly deposited next to a white church in the middle of what amounted to a cow pasture. I thought about how I’m going to die someday and I don’t want to be buried in the South, in the family plot in Greensboro where Southern women in pearls will fawn over me, then forget me. I want to be buried in San Francisco, Santa Monica, New York.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I’m to haunt anywhere, it won’t be here.
Let me tell you about a dream I had once. I was walking on a beach. It was late at night and the stars were out. The dream was in black and white. I remember it because I’ve never dreamed in black and white before. The beach was lined with fir trees and there was a campfire in a clearing up ahead. I saw it flickering white through the branches.
I got closer. I heard laughing and clinking bottles. When I got close, I saw Bill Burroughs sitting on a log. Jack Kerouac was ranting about something and waving a half-empty whiskey bottle. Ginsberg was playing the flute.
Someone slaps me on the back, Ginsberg kisses my cheek, and the rest of them walk in through the woods: Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, Carl Solomon, T. S. Eliot with his hair parted in the middle. Walt Whitman with a walking stick. Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Mary Shelley walks up from the lake, her head white and slick. Shakespeare is absent.
Anaïs Nin parts the bushes. Vladimir Nabokov is arguing with Bulgakov. Tennessee Williams is laughing at his own joke.
Where is Randy Shilts? Ferlinghetti? Voltaire? It doesn’t matter, we are running through the reeds. I see more of them coming in across the field. I see their flickering lanterns in the dark. Someone hollers, “Over here!”
Kerouac comes up behind me and jumps on my back and I stumble forward but catch myself. I smell whiskey on his breath. I think we’re going to the water. I realize we’re all ghosts.
My grandmother is there, ankle-deep in the water, looking over her shoulder at me. She is my dogwood, my Old South. One of my greatest loves. There’s so much I want to say to her, how much I miss her, how nobody believes in me like she did. But there’s no time to talk, Kerouac is on my back and we’re wading into the sea. I take her hand in mine. Her fingers are thin and frail, Kerouac’s breath is so warm, his weight is so heavy.
I remember that dream a lot and what it felt like, wading into the sea with my favorite author on my back. And my own voice, the true one, calling out, “This way, ya’ll.”