For Michigan

Memoir by Dina L. Relles


How do you write toward a place you don’t know?

Perhaps you start with the sound of your grandfather’s voice, his Polish accent, the smell of his aftershave mixed with cologne. How he’d wear argyle sweater vests under sport coats, a chain-linked pocket watch tucked into his pants. How he’d hum These Are a Few of My Favorite Things and sit in the corner chair when his knees ached. How he always seemed displaced. From another world.

Like you.

How do you write toward a place you don’t know?

Perhaps you think of how sometimes you say orange with an unfamiliar twang. How you share a Midwestern sensibility without knowing why. On gritty city streets, you door-hold and please-and-thank-you and wave when a stranger lets you in his lane.

You drifted right on the map, hugged the coast the rest of your life — New Jersey, New York, never went back. You save and study the creased photograph from the day you turned one. You, your mother, your father at a roadside restaurant en route eastward. There was dim lighting and diner cake and a paper party hat. And parked outside, an old brown Chevy on an open road stretching out to sea.

When you arrive, there’s beach and ocean, hurricanes and storm. A small split-level on a dead-end street along the shore. You bury your legs in cold sand, burn the bottoms of your feet on asphalt. You ride rear-facing in the back of your friend’s station wagon, kiss in the shade of the boardwalk, sleep to the sound of waves rolling through window screens.

But you never forget where you came from, though you have nothing to remember it by.

You were born to a flat middle ground. Is it flat? You picture it that way. The country’s beating heart. It stays your center. You take comfort in compromise, the color gray, a highway’s middle lane — feeling flanked on either side as you travel forward. Some part of us always belongs where we begin.

You know there’s shoreline there, too. Lakes jutting into land. An intrusion, a reminder. Of distance and distinction — here is one thing; there is another. Of edges and endings. Of all we cannot see.

You’ve always lived along water. Like a lesson you try to learn all your life. Still you wrestle with what’s hidden, with currents and tides, with leaving. You don’t swim. You dream about drowning.

And you? You are an inlet. Small and open, with arms spread wide. Like the place of your birth. Like the U-shaped shore. You leak love like water, embrace all that passes through, then let it all slip back out to sea.

How do you write toward a place you don’t know? The same way you live into a day you’ve never been. We do this all the time, love, you say to yourself. We do this all the time.

DINA L. RELLES lives in rural Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, Barrelhouse Online, Matchbook, MonkeyBicycle, Paper Darts, Cheap Pop, and Wigleaf, among others. She is an Assistant Prose Poetry Editor at Pithead Chapel. Find her on Twitter or at her website.

Made in Michigan is an ongoing curated series of writers born and / or raised in Michigan talking about connections to Michigan. The series is edited by Leah Angstman; inquiries to Lisa Favicchia at editor@thecoilmag.com.