I left rural Iowa at 18 — never intending to go back. For the most part I haven’t. Even at my worst, down, out, unemployed broke self, I used Iowa only as a staging ground. A place to store my bags while I booked tickets to either coast, looking for that place where I could most be myself. While the leaving was easy, the staying away has been hard. I miss my family. I miss reliable people. I fear waking one day and realizing that my parents are gone and I missed out on so many years of having them in my life.
And sometimes…I simply miss me. I miss the genuine midwestern friendliness I had. The curiosity. The excitement at being in a new place — even if that place was hell. I miss trusting other people — but I have since learned that you can only trust others if you trust yourself. I admire the people I know who have left similar spots and have held onto that integral core of goodness. For I have not.
These thoughts are not from nowhere. On May 10th, in celebration of the Ukrainian’s birthday, we rented a car, loaded it up with the dogs, and headed for a daytrip to Lake Tahoe. For the most part, the day was full of great fun and I will post the pics in a future post. But towards the end of the day, as we were trying to complete our sunset drive around the entirety of Lake Tahoe, we took a wrong turn and eventually found ourselves in Carson City — the state capital of Nevada.
I have driven across the U.S. a couple of times now. I’ve visited Latin America, Asia and have lived in Europe and other parts of the States. And while there are certainly worse places to live (a garbage dump in S. America comes to mind), I’ve yet to encounter a place more wretched than Nevada (and here, by writing this, I realize I will never, ever be able to run for politics. I’m ok with that). Once you get away from the casinos and shopping malls of Reno and Las Vegas, there is very little left in Nevada other than some federal prisons and a few nuclear test sites.
“I don’t really think that Nevada is the most exciting place to write home about,” replied my jaded, bored no-longer-from-the-midwest self. Where is my sunset over Lake Tahoe, I wondered.
“Oh, but it is. It’s the site of the U.S. nuclear experiments during the Cold War. I grew up hearing about this place.”
And there you have it folks, the matter of perspective that makes cross-cultural marriages so refreshing (if challenging at times). What was a minor mention in some history class of mine at some point in my education — “Yeah, the U.S. performed nuclear tests somewhere. Nevada. And some atoll in the S. Pacific” — was the stuff of legend in my Ukrainian’s Soviet education. I’m sure my Ukrainian and his Soviet classmates got a map with the exact location of each test performed while midwestern schoolchildren got “Nevada. It’s out west. Nobody lives there — well, except some Elvis impersonators who will marry those rich, immoral, and impatient enough to forgo God, a blood test, and a 3 day waiting period”.
But outside of Las Vegas (and possibly Reno) there aren’t any Elvis impersonators. There isn’t really much of anybody really — as my history class proclaimed. And for the people who are there — how and why did they end up there? You can’t really set up a farm in Nevada. I suppose the Federal penitentiaries provide some employment, but who says “Hey Ma! Let’s pack up the family and move to Nevada. I am going to work security detail at a a federal prison!” (Hmmm…maybe they do actually).
Regardless, the people I have encountered in rural Nevada bear the face and carriage of ones who struggle to eke out a basic living. Their faces seem prematurely old — their skin tough as are their souls. The toughness frightens me. And each time I’ve pulled over at a gas station in Nevada, it has always been with the attitude of get in, fill up, and get out. Most of the people are probably quite nice, but they are much tougher than me. And I don’t want trouble.
But not my Ukrainian. He is so kind-hearted, so un-jaded, that he doesn’t see or chooses to ignore what I view to be the imminent dangers in the world. As we head out of the northern outskirts of Carson City, we realize that we may have missed the road back to California. Not one to be afraid of asking for directions, the Ukrainian does a u-turn and pulls over at a 7-11.
Great! I think. We’ll get pointed back to Interstate 80 and soon be on our way to San Francisco.
Great! the Ukrainian thinks. I’ll get some directions…some food…some Red Bull…stretch my legs…use the toilet…relax a bit. And then we’ll go back home.
While the Ukrainian is enjoying our time in Carson City, Nevada and I’m sitting inside the car with the doors locked fearing for my life and virtue, one of the tough local Nevadans approaches my Ukrainian.
“Are you the one who scratched my car?” the local asks. He is young man in his early 20s, looking like someone who is used to looking for trouble. He is accompanied by 2 young women, and driving a silver sports car with doors that open up rather than out. It’s not a Lamborghini.
My Ukrainian smiles. “No man. We are just sitting here having a rest and some dinner.”
The man and my Ukrainian exchange some more words. The man is trying to raise a ruckus. He wants to blame someone, anyone, for the scratch on his car. But my Ukrainian is oblivious. He keeps talking, smiling, laughing in the most kind-hearted, genteel away. As much as the Nevadan tries to find fault with my Ukrainian, he can’t. My Ukrainian has simply put him too much at ease. They exchange a few friendly last words, shake hands, and the Nevadan departs.
I am relieved, of course. My fear of finding trouble in Nevada has been ameliorated — for now. But more than that, I am jealous. I long for that innocent, good-heartedness that most people find hard to resist. I once had it — back when I was fresh from Iowa and not yet jaded with the world.
I do know that we look for in our lovers what we are missing in ourselves. And I’m glad that my Ukrainian possesses the good that I miss from what used to be me.