Jacksonville is not Seattle, as heat and humidity made obvious the first time I stepped out of Jacksonville’s two-concourse airport. I traveled the rest of the way to Joanna’s house by car, past sunlit swamps, palm trees, Spanish moss. To a Pacific Northwesterner, these natural features represented vacation and sightseeing, but here they encroached upon strip malls like weeds. Nothing to see here, Jacksonville says of its flora, Come inside where there’s air conditioning. In my corner of the country, we’ve pruned our trees into a brand: evergreens on our drivers’ licenses, evergreens on our birth certificates, evergreens uprooted and planted on top of apartment buildings. And back home, only one in three homes feels the need for A/C—although the flip side of that, and another part of our brand: the University of Washington’s counseling center warns its students (or boasts) that they’re five times as likely to develop Seasonal Affective Disorder as their Sunshine State relatives.
When Joanna and I bought groceries the next day from a store unironically named Winn-Dixie, the cashier chatted with us about our beer and asked, “So what are ya’ll doing later today?” in a way that made me feel rude for not including her.
“Oh, we’re going to Sarasota for the weekend,” Joanna answered, and the cashier asked what we were doing in Sarasota, and Joanna told her, and the cashier asked if we’d been there before, and Joanna told her, and I pined for a normal non-interaction where everyone pretended everyone else wasn’t there. I felt like I was back in England, where people asked “You alright?” as a greeting, which always made me do a quick spot-check. Do I look despondent? Are my eyes red? Am I bleeding? Even after I caught on that the question didn’t mean anything, it still threw me. No one asks things like that in Seattle. We’re polite and silent, which are the same.
Subsequent visits to Jacksonville widened the rift. Joanna, for instance, knows her neighbors. Terry and Linda live next door with a dog named Jasper. Terry mows Joanna’s lawn and once drove her to a doctor’s appointment, and Linda and Jasper the dog wish me Merry Christmas every time I open Joanna’s refrigerator (Terry opted out of the Christmas card photoshoot). My own neighbors filed a complaint with the city when my landlord replaced an overgrown, rat-infested hedge with a slim, cedar-slat fence because my landlord hadn’t submitted the proper paperwork. Before that, a neighbor complained about the smell when I grilled outside. A different neighbor liked to deliver lectures on proper grass-mowing techniques and his problems with Argentinian landscapers. I have known Terry and Linda for more than a year, albeit mostly by proxy, and I question their intentions. Are they in cahoots with the cashiers?
I visited Jacksonville once a month or so last year, and during that year I spent more Sundays in Southeastern churches than the Northwestern ones. All of Joanna’s Jacksonville friends go to church. I’ve taken communion with them and joined their after-church brunches. We talk about sermons and liturgies, and when they ask about my own church that I don’t frequent on weekends, I make sure to say I go to Vespers most Wednesday evenings so they don’t think less of me. When in Rome. Over in my unchurched corner of the country, Washington State ranks in the bottom ten for religiosity no matter how you measure it, and Seattle weighs down the state’s average like an anvil. If you admit you go to church, you caveat it. “But I’m Episcopalian,” I’ve said, and when that didn’t clear things up, “We’re down with the gays.” Not that the Episcopal Church looks the same in Jacksonville. The Diocese of Florida drags its heels on same-sex marriage, led by a rare bishop who opposes his denomination’s official stance on the matter. Jacksonville is not Seattle.
While hunting for ammunition for this piece, I asked Joanna what church Terry and Linda attend.
“I wonder,” she said, “if you’re searching for differences that might be there, but they have more nuance than you can really get the feel for without living here.”
It turned out she wasn’t sure if Terry or Linda go to any church. And I remembered that she has a neighbor across the street who yells about yards, and that my own neighborhood throws a block party each year (I’ve never attended). But these are exceptions. One-off anomalies, like the snowstorm that shut down Seattle and blew everyone into the streets with sleds and skis and shovels so they could build igloos together. Neighbors talked to each other, and they said they wished they always did this, and then the snow melted. Seattle is not a friendly city, except for the times when it is. Seattle is liberal and rainbowed, yet Mark Driscoll thrived here. And for the first eighteen years of my life, my western Washington friends and I spent all our Sundays at church, too.
Is it me? Am I stacking bricks like in an Edgar Allan Poe story, walling off Jacksonville and leaving it to die in the catacombs of my own confirmation bias? Every humid day, every chatty cashier, every Confederate flag—the stuff of Jacksonville. How much do I conveniently disregard?
Jacksonville is not Seattle. To put it more accurately, my experiences of Joanna’s Jacksonville community, punctuated now and then by my experiences of Jacksonville’s service industry, are not my experiences of Seattle. Of course. But in the same way, my experiences of Seattle are not Seattle. No one’s Seattle is Seattle.
Joanna and I visited Key West last month, which was new for both of us. We wandered through the narrow streets, turned down a brick alley, and found ourselves in the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden. Thirty-six busts fill the garden, and the plaques beneath them say things like The richest man in Key West, The greatest philanthropist to live in Key West, Florida’s first millionaire, and so on. Key West’s memorialized residents were picked for being rich—historic not for power or brilliance or social legacy, like Lincoln or Franklin or MLK, but for their money. I made fun of it. But the biggest sculpture in the garden commemorated the wreckers who used to salvage goods and people from the ships that crashed on the reef, and Lena Johnson’s plaque said she baked cookies and pulled candy for a living when she wasn’t serving as the county’s first female elected official, and Joanna and I completely missed the busts of Ernest Hemingway and President Truman. Was I entombing Key West alive, too? Henri Poincaré might defend my bricklaying: “to draw the rule from experience, one must generalize; this is a necessity that imposes itself on the most circumspect observer.” Poincaré’s own trowel established the field of topology and kicked off the idea of gravitational waves. See? #NotAllGeneralizations. But let’s forget about bricks and nuance for a moment. Even if I was right enough about the garden, am I a princess who can’t sleep on a pea? On a five-day vacation in Key West with perfect weather and more than enough money of my own, I complained about dead rich people.
Joanna and I switched off driving the eight hours back to Jacksonville, and we split two types of fish at a roadside diner along the way. We usually share two entrees or a smattering of appetizers, so we plan our order together and it doesn’t matter which plates go where. Sometimes I’ll order everything. Sometimes she will. When Joanna does it in the Southeast, though, the server sometimes checks with me: a glance or “Sounds good?” or “Anything else?” I don’t appreciate it or not appreciate it; it just is. But it hasn’t happened when I order for us, and it hasn’t happened in Seattle. That could be luck of the draw, but it’s been frequent enough that I’m confident there’s a pea under the mattress. Does it matter?
When Joanna’s sink broke, a plumber entered my experience of Jacksonville (I was back in Washington and heard the story by phone). The plumber asked if she had a boyfriend or a husband —“Not in a creepy way,” Joanna clarified, “he didn’t mean it like that.” The plumber seemed concerned, and when Joanna said she did have a boyfriend, the concern turned to relief.
“Good,” he said. “Okay, you’re gonna want to tell your boyfriend to go to Home Depot”—he over-enunciated the store’s name—“and get a meter key. That’ll make it super easy for him to shut off the water main if anything ever floods.”
Another time, when Joanna was housebound with mono and I flew to Jacksonville to play caretaker for a weekend, two of her coworkers (a man and a woman) stopped by for a surprise visit bearing bottles of supplements, a juicer, and bags of organic produce.
“I really felt for you,” the man said. “I don’t know if you know this, but I had mono a few years ago, and it wiped me out. Just wiped me out. Now Josh, I’m going to show you how to use this juicer, because this thing will do miracles for Joanna.”
He led me through his juicing recipe book and showed me how to load the hopper. He told me when to give Joanna supplements—every day, and some twice a day—and although Joanna sat at the counter opposite us, housebound but not helpless, he addressed all the instructions to me.
“I know you’re flying back to Seattle in couple of days,” he said, “so when you’re gone, do you mind—is it all right with you if I stop by and make juice for Joanna?” He motioned to his co-worker. “She’ll come too, of course; we’re a package deal. Would you mind if we do that?”
“Not at all,” I said, and then regretted not passing the question to Joanna, who was still at the counter.
Which peas can I bitch about? If they have good intentions and deliver good results, can I complain about their style? Does using “bitch” as a verb annul my indignation about gender inequality? And what about the others, the ones who are wrong: Jacksonville’s bishop, my racist neighbor, Florida’s damn humidity. There’s nuance there, Joanna’s right. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, but I don’t. I can sometimes follow John Steinbeck’s version of the command: “Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” Steinbeck’s “almost” makes it palatable, and the gendered language doesn’t bother me unless I have to quote it (I can sleep on that pea). But I only have so much energy, and trying to understand takes it out of me. I didn’t use my finite time and effort to talk to my neighbor about why I should or shouldn’t mow every week at a medium-high height in paths oriented the same direction as his. I sheared my lawn short and was done with it. I can counter Steinbeck with G.K. Chesterton: “Perhaps we are both doing what we think right. But what we think right is so damned different that there can be nothing possible between us but honour and death.”
Joanna and I took a personality test last month, and our results more or less paralleled each other, with the exception of one category called “pleasing.” She and I face off from opposite ends of that spectrum, although Joanna wouldn’t phrase it that way. Her score means she is “trusting, friendly, and cooperative. She values getting along with others, is considerate, and helpful.” My score means I’m assertive.
I am not Joanna. But I am not myself, either. Joanna is not Joanna. We are understanding ourselves through each other, through our experiences of each other. We are discovering something new. We’ll talk about peas when I fly to Jacksonville later this month, as we always do. And in May, she’ll fly to Seattle.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. After hitchhiking, he found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He now helps authors introduce their books to the world as the marketing manager for HarperCollins Leadership, builds websites as the owner of Branded Look LLC, and makes trail maps as the owner of Where We’ve Been Trail Maps. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.