I learned my new city of Raleigh, North Carolina, by driving my baby on car naps. In a green Toyota 4Runner that once belonged to my dad, I’d drive off with Noah from an apartment near NC State’s campus, setting my GPS to avoid highways, stopping to nurse whenever he woke up. I nursed while parked under golden-leafed trees at Lake Johnson, in front of pumpkins heaped in orange piles at the State Farmers Market, staring at the squat institutional brick of the Wake County WIC office, the outline of the city still not coalesced in my head. Noah nestled in the bend of my arm, the steering wheel’s faded Toyota logo behind his soft head. The 4Runner was my last daily physical reminder of my dad, who’d been dead for nine years. Its bumpers had rusted off and its muffler rattled noisily, traits that looked and sounded typical on Hatteras Island, where I’d lived for the previous year; they did not fit in Raleigh. Neither did I.
Hatteras was the home of my heart, the magical family vacation spot of my youth. The site where I was married, where my father’s ashes were scattered, where my baby was born. At 38, I’d been married for a little over a month, when my husband was offered a chef position at an inn on Hatteras Island. Abandoning all pragmatism, we packed up our things, broke the contract on a house we were set to buy elsewhere, and moved to the beach.
But the delicate magic of living on the Outer Banks, that impossible ribbon of land arched between sea and sound, was eventually eclipsed by the practical realities of seasonal employment and washed out roads. Noah was four months old when my husband got a job in Raleigh, and we loaded up the 4Runner and moved inland, away from the soft, salt air and shushing breezes, away from slick, leaping dolphins and the golden sweep of the lighthouse beam.
One month into the year we lived on Hatteras, an evening in early October, I walked my Yorkshire Terrier in the parking lot at the old lighthouse beach. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse had towered over the ocean for more than a hundred years. On every family vacation, I knew just where to look to spot its black and white spirals; I knew from which campsite I could see the beam at night. But the land shifted beneath the lighthouse, until, facing collapse from erosion, it was moved inland in 1999. That fall evening, in the spot where the spiral-painted tower had overlooked the ocean for so many years, the salt breeze blew cool on my bare legs, tiny spits of rain dotting the empty lot’s faded parking lines.
I walked my little dog in the lighthouse’s ghost shadow, in the shadow of all those beautiful summers with my family, trying to work up the nerve to take the pregnancy test I’d just bought. I wanted a baby. My doctor had recently assured me that, at my age, it would likely take a minimum of six months to get pregnant, probably longer, so we’d stopped being careful. I imagined a year of trying, of settling into life on Hatteras; I imagined fertility tests and needles, bruises and yearning. Instead, my period a week late. Instead, a strange wave of nausea as I ate breakfast while working at the desk of the inn. Instead, walking the ghost lighthouse parking lot before taking a test I knew would be positive.
Like the death of my father, Noah’s birth unmoored me. The shock of him, this human who had never before existed in the whole of the universe, suddenly and traumatically (his birth a cascade of things gone wrong), here, alive in the Outer Banks Hospital, a thrust of new existence as shocking as the cavernous absence that happened when my father died. Noah’s tiny chin was shaped exactly like my dad’s. I don’t even know how long I’d been awake when he was born. Thirty-six hours? I do know that that’s when my perception of the world began to warp, as though I was looking through a thick pane of twisted glass.
Pacing the floors of our apartment, weeks later, my abdomen still a sear of pain, the thoughts swam past me, undulating as if underwater.
If he died, I could sleep.
If I died, I could sleep.
The small square of our apartment looked unfamiliar in the dim middle of the night, a faint grit of sand under my bare feet.
When I surfaced, months later, it was autumn, with a winter of unemployment looming. Just as I was starting to settle into motherhood, the ground shifted beneath my feet again. We had to move.
We decided on a city. Somewhere I’d have a writing community, and my husband could pursue a technology career, and our baby would eventually have magnet schools and science museums and summer camps taught by chessmasters. The idea of Raleigh took hold. Within a week, three job interviews, three job offers. My husband, sitting on a graceful wrought iron bench under a canopy of leaves in downtown Raleigh, balanced Noah on his lap as we picked out our new life.
Our apartment in Raleigh was minutes away from NC State’s Centennial campus, dangling tantalizing access to a writing community. My plan, which seemed so simple before the baby was a real, live, actual baby, had been to stay home as his primary caretaker while I wrote. Maybe it wouldn’t always be easy, but I thought it would be at least manageable, and maybe even fun, to do both of the things I wanted most.
I imagined placing the baby in his crib and writing while he napped for hours. I imagined attending readings while he played quietly at my feet.
The reality: breastfeeding every two hours, all day and all night long. Reflux. An alert, intense baby who didn’t easily drift off to sleep.
And this: my husband working long hours, and when he wasn’t working, studying.
And this: no community. No money for babysitters. No energy. No mental space for language, for anything other than me and Noah, alone in our one-bedroom apartment in Raleigh.
Across the street from our apartment, a trail wound through the woods of NC State’s campus. My mom, who’d come to visit, took Noah for a walk in his little blue stroller while I worked under a freelance deadline. There’s the prettiest lake over there, she said, but I never made it over to see. Instead, when Noah had trouble napping, I’d put him in his car seat and we’d take the 4Runner around the city.
Raleigh’s circles of inner and outer highways and connecting crossroads made sense to me. As I drove them, I decided I had to be different. In Hatteras, I’d still been myself, introverted and uneasy around new people, and I’d found it difficult to make friends quickly. In Raleigh, I’d be brave. I braced myself and joined Meetup groups and went to events, crisscrossing from story time in the suburbs to nursing mothers’ meetings in a church basement downtown, arcing my way up to the northern edges of the city to pick up a baby chair I’d found on Craigslist then falling back south to push the baby in a swing at Pullen Park. I drove Noah east to swim with my Hatteras friend’s daughter and her baby, then west to take him to a bounce house with moms I’d met at the library. Our babies were too small for the facility, but we paid anyway and followed them around as they batted at inflatable balls and kicked their legs on the brightly colored thick plastic.
Everything in my new city connected to an experience shared by Noah and me. As the scattered puzzle pieces of Raleigh began merging into place, I tried to take the baby to readings and literary events, the things that were important to me before. But when I did, I spent the entire time tending to the baby. The only time I ventured onto Centennial campus was for a literary festival. I found the parking deck, took Noah down the elevator, walked into the sleek swoop of a library crowded with people and stacks of books, and sat down for a reading of North Carolina authors I admired. For the first ten minutes, Noah pulled toys and creams and wet wipes out of the diaper bag, occupied.
And then: a delighted, high-pitched shriek he’d just discovered.
Over and over and over.
Heads turned, eyebrows raised. I picked him up and dashed out of the room, mortified, forgetting my diaper bag on the floor in the process. I couldn’t go back in while the authors read, so I took Noah to an empty room across the hall, praying he didn’t poop. He crawled around, still shrieking, and I looked out narrow glass windows to the stretch of campus beyond, green expanses of grass and red brick buildings, all right there, all so far away.
That winter, the 4Runner died. Driving to a baby consignment sale, it started making louder than usual rumbles. I took it to a mechanic, who said the repair would cost more than the car was worth. I kept driving, willing it to survive until spring, when I’d get paid for my freelancing work, but my dad’s 4Runner died at a stoplight on a cold, gray, rainspitting day. Three college boys jumped out of their car and pushed us to the berm, where we waited for my husband and a tow truck. We left the 4Runner in a car graveyard just south of Raleigh. The interior still smelled like my dad, like leather and sunscreen and books.
Barrier islands are fluid places, not meant to stay fixed in one position. Hurricanes slice inlets into land. Shoaling causes new sand to rise. Humans build roads and bridges and lighthouses and expect those structures to remain, but on a barrier island like Hatteras nothing stays the same. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse has lived in its new location among the scrub pine, 1,600 feet from the ocean, for twenty-one years now, as the island changes around it.
My father is gone. His 4Runner is gone. Noah is here. In the years that followed our move away from Hatteras, his siblings were born, Emma, and then Neil. By the time Neil arrived, I was driving a tan Honda that had belonged to my mom, and I no longer needed a GPS to navigate Raleigh.
Myself, though? I still don’t know that I’ve learned how to navigate myself.
One of my freelance jobs involved writing about Hatteras businesses, and once a year I’d call to make sure they were still there, to check that a storm hadn’t ruined their shop or that a poor tourist season hadn’t forced them to close. Raleigh, in comparison, felt stable and sure, a circle of constancy. But I’ve lived here long enough to see the city change: to recognize the construction downtown that caught fire, to take the kids to story time at a remodeled library, to see a fountain and courtyard spring up in a spot that had once been plain grass. I’ve lived here long enough, now, to cry when the little blue sno-ball shop around the corner from our neighborhood was torn down to make way for a Popeyes.
I’ve grown into Raleigh as a mother, and in traversing what felt at first like a big, busy, anonymous, open place, I’ve woven myself a soft web of support. In every direction I travel, I encounter a memory made with my children and our friends, a compass of community. All of it connected, none of it belonging only to me.
One warm morning recently, the boys and I drove Neil on a car nap. Glancing behind me was like glimpsing a visible progression of time, Neil’s reflection in his car seat baby mirror with Noah beside him, two versions of the same little face, both with my dad’s chin. I drove them south through downtown Raleigh toward the State Farmers Market, and Neil fell asleep on the way. I showed Noah our first apartment and then, unthinking, needing to stay in motion, I crossed over to the Centennial campus.
It was a magical North Carolina morning, with sheer blue skies, full-leafed trees, and the crape myrtles blooming white, pink, magenta. Against this backdrop I slowly drove through the red brick and green lawn of campus, a familiar quickening in my chest at the proximity to academics, books, language, learning. One of the buildings carried my maiden name, spelled with one more “e,” but close enough to my dad’s name to bring a spark of happiness.
And then: an almost-hidden flash of dark blue water. A lake.
I drove past it and explored some more, Noah reading in the backseat, Neil asleep.
The next time I spotted the water I stopped, turned around, and went closer. There’s the prettiest little lake, my mom had said all those years ago. And here it was, the little lake across the street from our first apartment.
The water rushed in the morning breeze, buoys bobbed, and birds circled overhead. Noah, look at the water. Look what I found. Noah glanced up, said, Oh, and smiled, then looked back down at his book. It wasn’t Hatteras, exactly, but something about the lake, the surprise of water where I only expected land, took me there.
A heart of water in the center of my city.
A puzzle piece I hadn’t realized was missing, slipping resonantly into place.