Josh Perkins 
Illustrations by Charlotte Muth
09 August 2019


No one was getting off the ground.

“We apologize for the delay, ladies and gentlemen, but all planes have been grounded in Austin and Houston,” they announced over the intercom, although the Corpus Christi airport was so small they could have raised their voices just above conversation-level and all the poor suckers grounded due to inclement weather would have heard.

“At least we aren’t stuck in a plane on the runway in Houston,” a man said to no one and everyone. It was the kind of random, unnecessary positive thinking exclusive to white men in their late 50s who wear black penny loafers and business-formal attire to the airport.

But I couldn’t think of anything worse than being stuck in Corpus Christi. From the outside the airport was so tan, blocky and non-descript it could’ve been a correctional facility. Inside, everyone looked as though they went to church every Sunday and prayed to Jesus every night except, of course, when it was duck hunting season or when their binge drinking got so bad they couldn’t remember anything except how much they hated their wives.

Come to think of it, I only saw white people except for the occasional person of color who like me, belonged to flight number 724 from San Francisco, diverted just 30 minutes before landing in Austin. We were the only plane in Corpus Christi and we wouldn’t be leaving until the thunder quieted.

I dragged my feet to the convenience store, The Caller Times, which sold books with titles like How to Lead Like Jesus and When Jesus speaks to a Girl’s Heart. There was an entire display dedicated to the phrase “Don’t Mess with Texas,” printed on shot glasses, trucker hats, tee-shirts and anything else you can print words onto. Along the back wall, there was a floor-to-ceiling rack of hunting magazines, in fact, they sold more varieties of hunting magazines than they did fashion magazines.

I bought an individually packaged string of pepper jack cheese and left to charge my iPhone. As I walked away, Kim Kardashian looked up at me from the May cover of the lonely VOGUE, all wet and glossy and tan, mocking me from her mansion in Calabasas. And really, I wasn’t mad at Corpus Christi, I was mad at air traffic control. But staring at all that non-ironic camo print, I began to question my decision to come to Texas in the first place. I longed to be back somewhere where the airport had more than 10 gates and international terminals and loads more fashion magazines.

Which didn’t take me long, because when the storm cleared over East Texas, the pilot informed us that we’d land in 35 minutes. I breathed a sigh of relief as I remembered the airport in Austin looked how airports should, that is, it looked like the ones I frequent in California.

I had flown two thousand miles to Austin to get away from California, giddy to escape, but my California-ness followed me, loomed over me as a constant reminder that you can never really escape your childhood. After loading my bags into the back of a white Toyota Corolla, I asked my Uber driver if he liked it here, his response: “I like Austin but maybe it’s because I’ve never been to California.”

“Oh yeah… it’s uh... nice over there” I said mechanically, awkwardly.

I also came for a concert and to visit my older sister but those were really just more appropriate-sounding excuses for my first reason. I couldn’t admit I was trading in California for Texas, albeit briefly, especially to Californians.

I’m not supposed to like Texas. I know. No liberal-minded, native Californian with New York aspirations is supposed to like Texas. But I do.

What is it about Texas? Cowboys, masculinity and free-wheeling independence? Cheap gas, cheap cigarettes, cheap cocktails, cheap Southern comforts? Or was it just that Texas was not California at a time when the state I was born in was beginning to feel suffocating. Actually, Texas is diametrically far from California—physically, politically, symbolically. 

The same day, I went to see a masked gay cowboy, who crooned a poetic country verse in a cramped room with concrete walls that matched the floors. He sang of lonely times and heartbreak, open ranges and riding horseback in the dead of the night. Now obviously I have no literal connection to the lyrics but there is some unplaceable and magnetic thing about cowboys.

Queen of the rodeo

You rode on in with nowhere else to go

You know the tune so the words don’t matter

I showed up alone which I rarely do, because of an annoying thing called social anxiety, which for me manifests as a feeling that my chest is slowly being encased in cement. Because when I’m alone, it makes me feel slightly better to arrive late, I circled the block a couple of times. My thinking goes: people can’t stare at you and wonder why you’re alone if they’re watching the thing that’s supposed to happen, happen. But I miscalculated and was actually two and a half hours early. Wide-eyed, I stared at the setlist, taped to the wall and sloppily written on a piece of plain white printer paper, while my bronchioles felt like they were filling with molasses.

Sipping on a too-strong gin and tonic, I called some friends in California. I need to pass some time without looking like a total friendless loser, I said, but before I could even finish the thought, I was approached by a very cordial gay couple and without realizing what was happening I had a host of new friends. That’s the thing about Texas, everyone is so damn friendly, without hardly asking they’ll share their cigarettes, their life stories and their bar tabs.

There was Nick, who, though balding and 30, still had some of the best skin I’ve ever seen. “Where’d you get your shirt?” he asked in an East Texas accent, pointing at my barn-red silk with fringe across the front. It was New York cosplaying as country and it pained me to admit I bought it for way more than it was worth at a luxury vintage seller in SoHo, the mecca of cosmopolitan pretentiousness.

Then there was Kevin, 9 years his younger, who almost without prompting told me his greatest fantasy was to watch his boyfriend (Nick) get fucked by another man. I nodded my head in approval.

They were both wearing shorts. To a concert? I thought. Then I found it disgustingly metropolitan of me to even notice or care about a thing like that. But I couldn’t help it. You’d be turned away from the clubs I used to frequent in New York for wearing shorts and you could only wear sneakers if you were a model or looked good enough that strangers mistook you for one. I’m sure I would get over my guilt as soon as the plane touched down at SFO, but in Texas there is no social capital in being a bitch so I made a conscious effort to be less of one.

There was Candace and Brandon and other people who I will never forget except for their names.

We sat outside, nearly emptying a pack of yellow American Spirits, talking about nothing, about the humidity, about why Texas is so great (the people), about the relative virtues of Houston vs. Dallas. Maybe it doesn’t matter to say this, maybe saying this makes me sound like a phony, which I’ve never claimed not to be. But: I don’t smoke. Typically. But I think it’s better to have friends than spotless lungs.

We all headed inside and fought for a spot towards the front. It was hot, packed and the floor immediately below me was sticky with spilled beer but I didn’t care because my anxiety was gone and my lungs were functioning normally.

There was a palpable air of competition in the room as if we were all fighting for the attention of the masked cowboy like if we stared hard enough and burned his image into our retinas, he'd swoop us out of the crowd. Each person convinced they would be the one to fuck him at the end of the night. Including myself, which I hate to admit even in writing. I refuse to play that game unless the roles are reversed, so I decided to carry a demure, uninterested look on my face which was getting increasingly difficult the more drinks people handed me. Besides, Nick practically radiated Southern charm and was so filled to the brim with natural charisma and unfounded confidence that if our singing gay cowboy was gonna fuck anyone it would probably have been him. Kevin could watch and everyone would be happy.

Kevin and Nick drove me to the after party, but only after Nick took a dose of Adderall he found on the street. He thought it was his, fallen out of his pocket earlier in the night. We half-heartedly tried to convince him otherwise but the words couldn’t come out of our mouths fast enough and we watched as he crushed it up and rubbed the mystery powder into his front gums.

At Kitty Cohen’s the tables had beach umbrellas stuck in the middle and there was a small pool in the middle of a patio that was only three-feet at its deepest. It was no SoHo House but Austin’s version of the gay glitterati were out in force, or as much force as they could muster. Which really wasn’t much if you think about New York or San Francisco, but I was trying to stop using those places as definitive reference points.
There I met Kale (yes Kale, with a K) who made a point of being the only straight guy in the group. He made such a point of it, that I decided he must be a little bit gay. What he was doing there and where he came from was unclear. Was he at the concert? Unclear. Did he know this was the afterparty? Unclear.

The sky had opened into a dark, starry expanse and I breathed in the unfamiliar, Southern air, and thought it too good to be true that I had already struck oil in Texas, liquid black gold. I must’ve beaten the astrological odds that seemed to be stacked against me for so long. Or maybe there was just something about Texas.  

Angeliska Polacheck, a writer, soothsayer, silversmith and witch, handed me her card and offered to read my tarot. She had fabric flowers in her hair and wore a red flamenco-style dress with a low neckline. When she grabbed my hand, and held it tightly in hers and told me something about my spirit, somehow my cynicism drifted off, completely dissolved into the humid air. I could feel her witchy magic flow from her skin to mine like soft, comforting electricity.

“You smoke weed?” she asked.

“Where do you get weed in Texas?” I responded, nodding my head. It was, after all, a much more criminal act this far south.

“In California,” she responded and then she got me high right when my buzz was wearing off. The night ended with the hot, still night air and the smell of weed and the buzzing of mosquitoes and me fantasizing about cowboys.
When I woke up, hungover and wearing last night's jeans, it was too hot to even think about eating breakfast. For context: When it’s too hot or humid I completely lose my appetite, it’s as if my stomach can’t spare the room for all the water I have to constantly replenish. Which I shouldn’t be complaining about, I’ve never felt skinnier or looked better than in Texas. I thought that maybe if I could adopt the practice of not eating, I’d have a real boyfriend waiting for me back in California.

Hangovers are god’s punishment for having too much fun. My new friends and I must have broken into the gates of heaven and spat at God's feet because I had a headache that I couldn’t get rid of no matter how much water and coffee I poured down my throat. That’s how I found myself on the East Side of Austin, slowly turning my bloodstream into the color and consistency of iced coffee, making notes about trees in a tiny black notebook while reading about Los Angeles.

In East Austin, the sidewalks are uneven and weeds grow out of the cracks, the driveways are often dirt and the rotting clapboard houses are encircled with overgrown lawns lined with metal chain link fences. Here the oak trees grow wider than they are tall and have the look of unadulterated natural wisdom. They spread out into a shady canopy of green that casts speckled light into the street. The air is eerily still. As you walk, you’re serenaded by the innocent songs of birds.

There is something to be said about the way time passes in this environment. To simply say it passes slowly wouldn’t do it justice. It’s more as if time is not an element at all. The trees grow and the wood rots and dead frogs float in the puddles as if they always have because there is nothing to remind you that time marches on.

Reminders aren’t far, of course: modern freeways and modern parking lots and modern luxury condominiums. But where the land is flat and shrouded in Texas red oak you can forget because you can’t see past the block.

Southern Californian doesn’t have trees, no native ones at least, the palm trees that line the boardwalks are imposters. The Eucalyptus that used to grow around my house and shed their slender fragrant leaves were planted by white settlers to use as lumber. It was only after they grew into tall, top-heavy, clumsy beasts that have a destructive tendency to fall whenever the wind blows too hard, that those white settlers realized that eucalyptus lumber was too soft to be useful. 

Even the natural things in Southern California are fake.

Right when I thought trees could explain everything, could explain the South and could explain California (by extension, me), I grew tired of thinking in grandiose terms with an ear-splitting hangover. So I drove across the city with the windows rolled down and black sunglasses on, took more than the recommended dose of Advil, washed them down with a Diet Coke and ate a couple of salted almonds to keep myself from passing out. Then, I passed out on my sister’s couch.

One night — because I had previously been emboldened to do things alone — I paid to learn how to dance the Texas two-step at one of “the last true Texas dance halls.” A place where the men are called gentlemen and the women are called ladies and those are your only two options. There were old neon Budweiser signs mounted on the walls and rows of wobbly tables covered in red gingham tablecloths on either side of a rectangular dance floor.

The ceilings were low and cavernous but the drinks were cheap. I knew the more alcohol I drank, the smoother everything would go, but I also knew that I drove there in my dad’s (now my sister’s) 1996 Toyota Camry and intended on driving it home. I had one drink in my stomach and felt none of the mind-numbing, nerve-calming, humor-inducing benefits. So, imagine the look of abject horror on my face when our instructor, a petite blonde woman with hair so luminous, long and synthetic-looking it must’ve been a wig or at the very least extensions, told the men (gentlemen) to line up on the right and the women (ladies) on the left. I had confused the two-step with the line dance and all the traumatic gay memories of middle school dances and PE classes came flooding into my head like Noah’s deluge.

“Welcome to the best honky-tonk in all of Texas, and that means the world!” she said, her breasts taut and three letters too large from Texas’ best silicone implants. She was crudely funny and said other things like, “You have good teeth. I’m a real bitch about good teeth” or “believe me, I’ve been divorced four times.” She also had a lot to say about the implicit nature of the genders, men love to lead, women love to be lead, etcetera. I guess after four failed marriages you learn a thing or two about men.

In walked a group of middle-aged women in mid-wash skinny jeans, wearing the entire inventory of Santa Monica’s Anthropologie.

“Where are y’all from?” our instructor asked. “Santa Barbara,” one of them said, they went “woo woo” like drunk bachelorettes and then back to loudly gabbing amongst themselves. They each had about 12 vials of Botox, Juvederm and Restylane pumped into their faces. I’m only guessing here and maybe being meaner than I have to be but, Santa Barbara? C’mon. It’s exactly what I was trying to escape: health-conscious, happiness-obsessed, hypocritical bullshitters who despite their wellness coaches and their yoga instructors and their pristine diets still had a twinkle of sadness and regret in the very back of their blue eyes.

“Well if the broads from Santa Barbara could shut the fuck up we can move on,” our blonde Texas savant said, but they were all suffering from wine-induced deafness and continued to talk.

When the real dancing started and it was time to find a partner, everyone was already taken, and just like that, molasses and cement started clogging my lungs. I resigned myself to sitting on the metal folding chairs at the red gingham tables beneath the flickering neon signs and watching the heterosexual game play out. A man, probably in a tan cowboy hat and western-style belt, with a pocket knife clipped to his jeans, would simply extend his hand and some shy, homely woman would take it. They would spin around the dance floor, gracefully or awkwardly but never very sexually.

The men in Texas are so hot-blooded and American and wore so much denim that I couldn’t help but be attracted to them. They were like blank white canvases (minus the tattoos) and the last remaining brain cells from my suburban upbringing were screaming at me to find one and co-sign a 30-year mortgage with him. But not these men, with bellies protruding like sacks of cellulite. And yet they still had dance partners.

The house band played “I’m praying for rain in California” and I decided that if anyone in my life was ever gonna ask me to dance, it wouldn’t be in the best honky-tonk in all of Texas (excuse me, the world). Especially with me looking all mean and faggy, a complete phony wearing the black cowboy boots I bought at a hipster vintage store in one of those quickly gentrifying neighborhoods in Oakland. Really, I was no better than the women from Santa Barbara in their foam neon-tie-dye cowboy hats.

No one has ever asked me to dance, and this whole Texas dance hall thing was serving as too visceral a reminder that no one ever will. So, I got the hell out. Outside there was a lonely ATM, and on either side of the bar, brand new glass apartment buildings advertising their units. Views of the river! Onsite laundry! Seeing it all together, it was actually the funky, country bar that seemed out of place.

See, that’s the problem with Texas: fantasy and reality, and the gap between them.  You can think you’re in a bygone American pastoral fantasy, that just outside the walls of the bar are cotton fields and steamboats, horses, saloons, debutante balls, lonesome cowboys, outlaws and sheriffs. But no one inside wearing boots and a cowboy hat actually herded cattle. You could easily crop out those other buildings, you could frame it in such a way that the bar really did look like a well-hidden dive on some lonely, dusty country road. But simple Instagram tricks don’t work in real life. Reality hits, and it hits hard, with unread work emails and unresponded to DMs. 2,000 miles and a plane ticket doesn’t change that.

Or maybe you’re playing a round of bingo behind a dirty dive bar where the numbers are decided by where a chicken shits as it struts around a makeshift cage and you think how thoroughly country I’m being. Then you look up and see a billboard for Geico car insurance with that damned gecko and you know nothing is really all that different.

Of course, my own lofty fantasies and disappointing realities are a problem everywhere. When I think of Los Angeles, I imagine when Joan Didion rented a house in Malibu and Harrison Ford built her deck. I’m disappointed every time I go. LA is not the old LA of Eve Babitz seducing Jim Morrison and posing naked with Marcel Duchamp. It’s not the seductively dark LA of Sharon Tate, Charles Manson, and Rock’n Roll. Berkeley is not the Berkeley of free-love and student protests and Joan Baez and Alan Ginsburg.

Even San Diego is not the San Diego of my childhood. They rebuilt my high school and dumped sand over some of the tidepools to make the beaches more attractive. They even modernized our little stretch of highway 101 and now it seems constantly overrun with tourists. 

I want it to be. I want fantasy to seamlessly align with reality, but it won’t and I can’t kick the feeling that all that fantasy and mysticism are gone forever.

But that night, when Texas was starting to lose its charm by being too Texas, I met some fast friends at a drag show across town and danced through the night until my phony black cowboy boots gave my feet blisters. I came close to bridging the gap, not the gap that I imagined but the one that brought me closer to happiness.

One day, when the sun was bright and high in the sky, about 30 miles outside the city, I found a secluded section of a river to swim in, it was a little bit of magic, of mysticism. There, I called my mother. I told her that I was happy, that I spend my days writing, driving aimlessly and drinking coffee. She isn’t used to me saying things as simple and evocative as “I’m happy.” It must’ve shocked her a little, I’ll admit.

“Would you ever move to Texas?” she asked. By that time, I already knew I was about to graduate and move to New York City with a job offer at a corporate branding firm. Three months ago, it pained me to accept that offer because it wasn’t a writing position and by any measure, I was selling out for a steady paycheck.

“I always figured I should use my energy somewhere energy is required while I am still young and have energy to spare,” I said. “But I don’t know.”

Here is another one of my fantasies: I am a high-power New York something-or-rather (the something-or-rather to be determined later). I wear vintage Dior and have an apartment in the West Village and absolutely no time for romance. But my reality is that I may be better suited to a simple life in Texas. My disposition might favor a husband, a dog and a rotting clapboard house on the East Side of Austin shaded by an oak tree.

I don’t know.

Maybe I only like New York because of Sex and The City and Studio 54 and Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. Even if some of those were real things that happened to real people, they’ve been over-glamorized and over-romanticized in my head. Besides I am moving to Brooklyn, which, sure is New York and also isn’t New York. Because when I think of New York, I imagine Carrie Bradshaw screaming out of her window on the Upper East Side, or Bianca Jagger riding a white horse into Studio 54, or Truman Capote assembling the most fabulous group of people ever assembled at the Plaza Hotel. Which all took place in Manhattan because all good, glamorous things happen in that narrow strip of land between the Hudson and the East River; Brooklyn is just something you settle for in the meantime.

Would I ever match up to them? Would I ever even afford to move west of the East River? Would I be happy if one day I woke up in an apartment in Williamsburg, with a somewhat satisfying career and time for romance but no boyfriend because I am too much in my head and ask annoying questions like these?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that I was happy in Texas, the kind of happy that gently nudges you, makes you come to your senses and admit that you were actually unhappy before. Maybe if I moved to Austin and gave up on the rat race, I could finally be satisfied and smile more often and stop judging people for wearing shorts to concerts. Then I could stop boring my friends and worrying my mother with constant talk like, “I should really get a therapist.”

Then the plane touched down at San Francisco International and I saw those glossy fashion magazines in neat rows and I thought of New York and I knew that I had to try, I had to fight to merge the gap in my life between my reality and my fantasy.