Dora Guo

I have not been home to Nashville in the spring for many years, not since I left for school three years ago, not since before the pandemic. Everything is green now. The three large windows in my bedroom reflect bright emerald patterns onto the floor and the walls in the morning. I wake up, and in those first blurry, green-streaked moments, wonder if I have ever been to Connecticut, to college, if I’ve ever met and loved my boyfriend, if he even exists at all. I remember less of what it is like to be anywhere but here. I move into the bathroom and as I trip over the doorframe my body has forgotten in my years away, I become myself. I pin up my hair, now much shorter than it was before I left, and I dress myself in a closet rid of skinny jeans and Vans and everything else I might have loved when I was just 16. 

To all of us who grew up here together, to me, my brothers, our neighbors, to the friends we made 15 years ago, the city is marked by patterned brick sidewalks and flat, straight roads in the humid summer sun. We think of the long-grass parks, the cement-decked public pools, and of the bright green, hanging from everywhere, reminding us that things are alive outside of ourselves. We settle down at night, with an acre of land in all directions, and hear croaking frogs, see fireflies outside open windows.

My days at home are spent in the backyard and on the living room floor alongside my brothers, watching old videotapes on the VCR player my dad brought down from the attic. I look very much like myself, but the videos are set in places I don’t remember: the driveways of old neighbors, the house where I was born, the first place I ever went to school. My parents cry when we watch the videos, at where the time could have gone, and sometimes I do, too, longing for my voice to sound so light, to be so careless, unworried, so contained, with no one to miss, to hope I will see again. My parents cry because they remember it, because they can’t have it anymore. In these moments, whirring through grainy recordings, the five of us cinch together, involuntarily, violently, and we are reminded that we have grown up. My parents cry for a life back, for our childhoods, and I feel traitorous, forgetful, having left them, deserted and deprived, completely alone to remember these best, most needed moments in all their lives. I spend those hours scratching my elbows into the striped carpet, pleading silently to remember all the places, all the substance, the nights in the bath with my brother, my third birthday party, my old friend Michelle with red hair.

I wanted, obsessively, to remind myself of these dried young memories, and so I got in my car last week and drove towards the city, marked on the far side by the wide Cumberland River. The drive was aimless, mostly, but tinged with a kind of panic which comes only from gradual loss. I crossed the train tracks which separated my suburb from the others nearby. My ankle, stiff from weeks indoors, quickly warmed to the wavering of the pedal that marked my path away from home. I opened the windows and the breeze came in, mixing with the music I only discovered since leaving. I blinked and was halfway there.

I drove past Elmington Park, where two wives played tennis on the otherwise empty, cracked courts, where a dog played freely and a son threw a baseball. Elmington’s parking lot, usually lined on the weekends with bright-colored food trucks squeezed together to make room for the sweaty lines of young couples, was empty. I waited at the light by the park for a long time. I remembered the summer movies, where an inflatable screen attracted high school first dates and snow cone carts, and bugs feasted in the evening on sunburnt flesh and round cheeks. The grass, browned on those nights, was invisible under quilts and lawn chairs and splayed little bodies. On this April day, each blade of green glinted in the sun and off my windshield. The playground was a carcass.

From the park, I veered to avoid the highway, up the street that stretched to my best friend’s house. I went up there, to her house, and I saw her window, covered by gauzy white curtains. I thought of all the nights I have spent in that second-floor room, curled in bed with her, awake together until the light began to filter in. Now I spend my nights quietly, under the patterned blankets from when I grew up, under the skylights, the rain, the pink walls, under my parents’ roof, under the stars, visible here, if not clouded by bugs and warm fog and silence. The last time Nashville was still like this was before all the construction.

I curved around Dragon Park as I got to Hillsboro Village. The park is named for the towering greened mosaic dragon, finally restored now after many months. It’s where we spent our countable snow days sledding in the coldest air we had ever felt. It was our un-secret spot for everything thought to be daring. It’s where I met friends after work scooping ice cream, with a stolen pint and three spoons, when the sun was closer to coming up than going down, when our parents were too worried about us to sleep.

My ice cream store is now closed, with DELIVERY ONLY pasted across the two front doors. It sits across from Fido, whose new, colored string lights have been off for many weeks. Fido was a pet store, back before Nashville was somewhere to be visited, before my parents moved from New York in 1998, before anyone had moved here from anywhere. It closed without celebration many years ago, vacating a neighborhood that had not yet come together. And then somewhere in the middle of the construction and rearranging that came with a city that had never known so many people, Fido reopened. This time, it was a restaurant, it was a coffee shop, and it was filled with all the people who wanted Nashville to always stay the same.

Fido burned down last summer. The dark, dirty tiles finally cracked, the old coffee makers blew up, the kitchen caught fire. I don’t actually know how it happened. I was away for a summer job and my parents, at once heartbroken and preoccupied, never told me, and then, before I knew what had happened at all, everyone I had grown up with was back there, in Hillsboro Village, sweeping Fido out, cleaning it up, rebuilding. They made murals and tiles to line the new shop. They painted RESCUE FIDO. They painted FIDO IS THE VILLAGE. THE VILLAGE IS FIDO.

The outside tables on the wide sidewalk have now been chained together and tucked away. The street was cleared of its scraps and shouts, and everything was vacant and dark. Three storefronts were under construction on the main strip of the Village. Wooden planks were hammered over the worn-in bakery that had served us lunch at small tables after high school exams, over the window ledges full of dusty books, over the tapestry-cloaked door frames where we bought birthday gifts and flower pots and postcards and incense. That store was called Pangea, and it is now closed, turned into an expensive vintage arcade. The new apartment building, which now shades Fido and the few other shops that remain wholly original, makes into nothing everything which to us has meant something serious.

We ache for something other than what we are left with. In weeks or in months, we will hug and kiss and learn how to be together again, but we will not be relieved of the persistent longings which now mark our dragging days. We are faced now with a kind of unsettling destruction, indistinct, vague, lost and buried until we can’t recall, not through pictures, not on long drives, not with old friends, if it was ever there at all. It is disorienting, dizzying to lose, with physical demolition, the elusive feelings which once we could store in those old, sustaining places. Amorphous loss is confusing, suspending, untreatable, even with all the ways we know how to manage and to reminisce. Our childhoods will soon be groundless, contained only within us, warped each time we choose to remember. We will spend our reunions in other living rooms, in newer houses, watching the videos we take now with the people we will love then, yearning for this, confused at what was real. The only way to remember will be to remember.

We lap up these last moments of our real Nashville, gifted to us now amid boundless uncertainty. The city is skeletal, reduced to an appearance otherwise covered up and perpetually obscured by the crowds and the music and all the bright, slow traffic. We reconcile now with the things themselves, and we see that we have not been lucky. Function does not mean anything now, nor does purpose or utility or any of the other reasons buildings are made. Our city, with landscapes and soundscapes typically marked only by the grit of construction, of remaking, feels cavernous and blank in its desolation. As we teeter now on the verge of expansive newness, we breathe in, stagnant and alone, the things which remind us of here. The city is ours again, in our loneliness, our misery, in its last moments of authenticity, faced now with tired, gracious eyes. Time is suspended, and so we turn to the landscape, the architecture, and we wonder what it has meant and what it will mean.

I continued downtown, past my red-brick, columned high school, past the hospital, past the blocks of demolished buildings, breathing in the vacancy before the drills and cranes will surely surge again. I start down the hill, over the bridge, and onto the streets recognizable only by their clogged, reflective hysteria. Now they are empty, with pedal taverns and party buses parked somewhere far away from here. Three-tiered bars and rows of honky-tonks are silent. I finally reach the river.