The thing is, I want to like Nashville, but my time here has been hard.
I feel like I should begin by waxing romantic about my first trip to Music City, but none of my experiences—either before or since yesterday afternoon—can eclipse Rachel’s words:
“Gabriela, I just saw that you hit my car in the driveway. I want to put it out there so that we can deal with it when you get back tonight.”
I blame the silver hair.
I think it turned during the twenty-four hours prior to that intractable crunch, a once-ginger strand woven into the brown. My friends began to discover their grays long ago at premature ages. To me, the coarse, spidery strands earned in their twenties were anomalies rather than signs of aging.
Approaching forty, my first gray had yet to appear. I’ve taken it as a sign that old age remains far off and I have plenty of time ahead. It was an implicit confirmation that I might outlive my mother, who died at forty-five. After all, gray hair isn’t about vanity for me, but acknowledging irrefutable proof of my mortality.
Other signs of aging happen so gradually that they’re easy to ignore, like the crepe paper lines under my eyes, which have been there since my late teens. Each morning and night, I spackle them with avocado eye cream.
Light injuries sustained from yoga and weightlifting seem like part of being athletic, not old. My carpal tunnel aches can be explained by a poorly situated desk. Even my hands, whose veins and creases are now more prominent on my fair skin, look comfortingly like those of my favorite aunt.
But a gray hair (or, in my case, silver)—when it appears out of nowhere, it can’t be denied—not even by me.
I remember snuggling back against Aunt Ellen on her leather sofa in Redondo Beach, California, when I was a teenager. My whole life, I worshipped her. She doesn’t plays by the rules, but is always sweet about it. Her face lights up under her long brown bangs when she laughs, which is often. She smokes Marlboro Lights 100s on the hour, but the smell never clings to her.
Even today, she calls me Little Bean.
She would let me lean into her and entwine my hands through hers as we sat under a lap blanket to fight the ocean chill as we watched television. I wanted to be like her so much; I even wished my hands were like hers: long, knobby and elegant. Even today, her skin thinned by age and cigarette smoke, I think her fingers are lovely and exotic—even her thumb, which I’ve never seen whole, thanks to a treacherous boat window in her youth.
Unlike my mother, she kept her nails ultra-short and painted in daring shades of aubergine and onyx. I recall looking down at the youthful plumpness of my sixteen-year-old fingers, wondering eagerly when mine would look like hers.
Why is it that we grow up desiring the patina of age, not knowing to appreciate being unmarked for those precious few years?
The flight to Nashville—both of them—may have been my Rubicon. Before that, I basked in pool of much-needed sunshine in the Atlanta airport between flights, then found myself next to Phil, a delightful Virginian transplant to Nashville. We Seattleites are often too shy-snobby to chit-chat on planes, but Southerners can coax us out of our stoic silence.
Phil and I fell into conversation before the plane began to taxi; soft and warm, his accent comforted me, though I didn’t know yet that I needed it. Why are Southern notes are so dulcet? I wondered as he spoke. After my first day in Nashville, I suspect that sweet tea is one reason. Here, they imbibe simple syrup and release it as honeyed words.
Forty minutes into our turbulent flight, Phil and I exchanged concerned glances as the pilot began to descend. We had been circling for some time due to bad weather, and it didn’t feel as if things were improving.
“Humph,” he said, “Look at that.”
We peered out of the oval window to see a wall of dark clouds striding towards us with intention. Our plane suddenly felt tiny—a wobbling cigar tossed from an open window. My breath caught when the pilot pulled back on the throttle, my heart thudding to a pause. A moment later, a thick gulp of blood pulsed forward… then another….then another… then another, like pigs in a python as we bobbed in mid-air.
We touched down in Chattanooga twenty minutes later after a bumpy descent, relieved to be alive. I reminded myself: This is what it’s like to be in the South. They have tornadoes and devastating floods here. They have baseball-sized hail. People actually die from these storms.
When we made it safely to Nashville on our second attempt, two hours after our scheduled arrival, Phil bade me goodbye at the rental car counter. It seemed a good omen to meet a friend early in the adventure; little did I know that much of my trip would be spent obsessing over impending insurance claims, waves of guilt and a gulf of inner castigation for hastily reversing my Dodge Caliber up a grassy slope.
One choice—a single move—would have made all the difference.
When I finally arrived at Rachel and Bill’s in East Nashville, it was eleven at night and I was starving and disoriented. If not for GPS, I would never have made it. The freeways were a writhing ball of snakes: a single thoroughfare is the 1, the 41 and 70 South, all of which co-mingle to become the 24, the 65, the 155 and the 440.
It’s amazing that anyone can find their way home considering how much they drink and drive here.
Upon receiving a tour of their home, I realized that I might not be comfortable renting a room from strangers, though it was $200 too late to change my mind. After 10 years in Seattle, I’ve come to cultivate my alone time to a wicked extent, an unforeseen side-effect of living in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a reason that people like me are drawn to its introspective charm—the solitude feels familiar, comforting—but it grows out of control like ivy. We desire more light even as we create our own unquenchable inner solitude.
Like the allure of sad country songs in Nashville, when loneliness is familiar, gray skies feel good.
I contrasted shared Seattle seclusion with the boisterous scene at the Village Pub down the street on Riverside Drive. As I devoured my sausage-stuffed pretzel with sauerkraut and mustard—the first of many carb-heavy meals—I considered the differences between Nashville culture and that which has become my own:
…They drink beer with whiskey back like it’s water
…If there’s a screen nearby, they’re watching a sports show—guaranteed
…When they call you ma’am, it doesn’t mean “you’re old”
…When they call you darlin’ it doesn’t sound sexist
…When people greet you, they meet your eyes and smile like they mean it
…Men always say, “ladies first” even when we weren’t
The next afternoon, hours before my car struck Rachel’s, I entered a new world: Hatch Show Print posters set on toothy paper, the humid press of downtown Nashville, the classic red bricks of Ryman Auditorium and live music blaring onto sidewalks crowded with tourists and buskers.
Underneath it all, I was distracted by a tiny tug on my heart that would later pull me off course.
That morning, when my first silver hair appeared, it altered my perception of the future. At that moment, I knew that there was little time and no turning back.