A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.
-Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia
My brother and I are stuck in traffic on the I-75 with nothing to say. The sun beats hot rectangles onto our thighs. He turns up the stereo volume. Electronic music thumps through the speakers, a genre he lovingly dubs Jamaican dancehall with a twist of Japanese trance, which I secretly shorten to noise.
“I saw these guys at a show in London once,” he says. His fingers rap erratically against the steering wheel, trying to match the esoteric beat. He chuckles. “It was fucking crazy.” “Hmm,” I say. Although I’ve been living in his house in Cincinnati for almost a month now, this is the first time we’ve been alone together, and even so, his Rottweiler is panting in the backseat, her breath hot on my shoulder. Ostensibly, I’m back in Ohio to manage my depression. In reality, I’m eating my brother’s snacks, taking long baths, and using his wife’s power tools to build crooked flower boxes. Healing is a tricky thing.
I roll down the window. After a decade on the West Coast, I’ve forgotten about autumn in the Ohio River Valley, the dizzying array of hues across the glacial moraines: gold, orange, green. It’s like walking into a sunset—there’s pigment everywhere.
And then, suddenly, there’s Jesus. His white face looms on a billboard just up ahead. JESUS IS THE WAY! it reads in red Comic Sans, CALL 1-83-FORTRUTH. The author, it seems, only recently discovered the formatting power of a word-processor.
I point to the billboard. My brother shakes his head in disgust. There’s nothing novel to the sight—southwestern Ohio is littered with evangelical prophecies like this one, billboards plastered with the pixelated face of Jesus, his eyes either trained towards heaven or staring directly at you. But after years of being surrounded by unapologetic hipster atheists and spiritually “woke” agnostics, I’m unprepared for the billboard’s sincerity. It feels very Midwestern; there’s not a touch of irony or meta doublespeak. Granted, biblical billboards aren’t exactly renowned for their subtlety. Heaven is heaven, hell is hell, Jesus is savior, end-stop. These days, the simplicity comforts. The absurdity, too.
“I’ve looked into these billboards,” I offer.
My brother looks at me sideways, as if I’d suddenly grown a fifth limb. “Why?” The question hangs in the air between us. Although he tries to hide it, he’s worried about my brain, the strange chemical cocktail it creates.
I shrug. “Because they’re interesting.” Easier to chalk it up to a random internet rabbit hole than to admit that lately, I’ve started to suspect that I’m returning—slowly, unwittingly, reluctantly—to the faith.
Never one for probing questions, my brother lets it drop. He strokes his dark beard, rolls down the window and cranes his neck to get a better look at the hold-up. There’s been an accident—a crash, perhaps fatal, between two Hondas, silver and black. Stocky police officers shepherd oncoming traffic into one lane, their gestures efficient and fatigued.
“Jesus,” my brother mutters, preparing to merge. An ambulance siren keens in the distance, and as if on cue, I utter a silent, short prayer. Dear God, please let them be okay. It’s a hard habit to kick. Pavlovian, almost.
But within minutes, the traffic dissolves. We pass the crumpled Hondas, and then we’re gaining speed, the black highway yawning before us. In the backseat, the Rottweiler farts. I take one last look at the billboard, shrinking in the rearview mirror. 1-83-FORTRUTH.
By Cincinnati standards, our household was Catholic “lite.” We had a crucifix in each hallway and prayed before every meal, but my father was the only true believer among us. He was the son of first-generation Eastern European parents whose faith could be measured by the props in their home: colorful rosaries, creased prayer cards, divine platitudes etched into needlepoint squares.
But somewhere along the bloodline, the fervor diluted and by some twist of suburban boredom, my brother and I were largely indifferent to faith. Although we were baptized as infants and attended Catholic school from kindergarten to twelfth grade, we did not consider ourselves religious. We regarded God like an old drunk uncle—every family had one, so why the big fuss?
On Sunday mornings, we feigned stomach aches and migraines—anything to get out of going to Mass. I even tried hiding in the trunk of a car, but my father knew all of our tricks. “Saddle up,” he’d say, jangling the car keys. “And put something nice on.”
At church, we fidgeted in the pew, exhaling the heavy sighs of aggrieved children. “I’m bored,” I’d hiss to my brother, loud enough for my father to glare at me before returning his attention to the homily. We envied my mother, who spent her Sunday mornings at a strip mall doing Jazzercise, grapevining and shimmying to the beat.
“She’s an agnostic,” my father sighed.
“Atheist,” my brother corrected.
In the house of God, no motion was wasted. Those Sundays in church illuminated a careful orchestration of movement: stand, kneel, sit. Sing, pray, bow. It really was a miraculous sight—like waves crashing and receding. But like so many things, the rarity of synchronicity is lost on a child, and so I spent those hours flipping through psalm books, tapping my fingers against the wooden pews, rolling my eyes, staring through the colorful haze of stained glass windows out to the velvety-black expanse of parking lot, waiting anxiously for something else, my real life, to begin.
For all its professed stoicism, Catholicism requires a sort of magical realism: a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be surprised. It does strange things to the mind of a child. Despite the tedium of Mass, I was enthralled by the Bible’s mythology: the lush orchards of Eden, the ghostly revival of Lazarus. In lieu of field trips, my grade school held assemblies where students performed biblical reenactments: Moses freeing the Egyptians, Mary and Joseph hightailing it to Jerusalem, the Stations of the Cross. The casting was comically haphazard—I was Mary Magdalene one year and Pontius Pilate the next—and the dialogue was tinny, delivered with as much feeling as a beleaguered cashier reporting a spill in aisle 10.
Although these reenactments were a crude sort of hermeneutics, they distilled a valuable lesson: faith was infinitely more intriguing with a dose of flamboyance. My relationship to God grew transactionary, predicated on a series of if/then statements. “God, if you exist, show me lightning!” I’d hiss, clutching my backpack as I stared out the bus window, waiting for the flat prairie lands to ignite. Alas, nothing ever happened.
Then again, nothing ever seemed to happen in Ohio—I could hardly fault God for it. Although fault lines threaded the state like varicose veins, the earthquakes here were almost imperceptible. Even the tectonic plates were seized by a thick, Midwestern stupor.
Our house, like all the others in our mega-suburb, was big and boxy and beige. Very beige. Beige walls, beige furniture, beige people. For a period of time, my father owned a beige sedan, and he drove it carefully through our neighborhood, winding slowly through streets that twisted and turned, as labyrinthine as if built by Daedalus himself.
Half a mile behind our house was a small highway. In the winter, semi-trucks howled down the interstate, their headlights flashing brilliantly through the ashen limbs of alder trees before receding into darkness. From the kitchen window, I watched them, wondering where they were going and if I could hitch a ride.
But a stubborn Midwestern pride hung over our family. My father liked to remind me of Ohio’s glory days, especially during the Pleistocene age, when the whole state was carved out by a glacier. “There used to be mammoths here,” he said, “mastodons too.” Then he leaned in close and dropped his voice, as if revealing a government secret. “This whole place used to be underwater.”
I perked up. “Like Atlantis?”
He considered the question. “That might be a stretch,” he admitted.
My uncles lived out in California, and the few times we visited them, I never wanted to leave. There were beaches and mountains and palm trees, just like in the movies. My favorite activity was walking along Pier 39 in San Francisco, where I could watch the sea lions bellow on the dock, sunlight dappling their slick grey skin.
“Why can’t we move to California?” I asked my mother once. We’d just returned home from a particularly memorable vacation, including a triumphant Chuck E. Cheese adventure where my brother vomited only once.
My mother pursed her lips. “Because it’s not where we’re from,” she said.
I fled to the West Coast for college, abandoning both the Midwest and Catholicism. I fell in love with one woman, then another. I ditched driving and took up biking. I wore recycled fleece jackets and bought fresh produce from the farmer’s market. Each transformation seemed to carry me further from the suburban ennui of my childhood.
My friends were casual atheists, hailing from Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boise. They were shocked to discover that I attended parochial school for twelve years. Upon learning about Confession—sitting in a dark booth, spilling your sins to a priest—my roommate said, “That’s messed up.” She shook her head. “Like, really messed up.” By their calculus, believers were one precarious step away from fanatics; the notion of a casual faith seemed suspicious, evidence of a defective character. I quickly learned it was infinitely cooler not to mention Jesus.
They didn’t understand the Midwest, either. People were often surprised upon learning that I was from Ohio. “Really?” they said. “You don’t seem like it.” I never had the courage to ask what I seemed like. Or what I didn’t.
During my ten years of living on the West Coast, I went to church only once, during an autumn when I mistook homesickness for godlessness. My friend invited me to a Pentecostal service held in a strip mall on the edge of town, wedged between a laundromat and a dojo. Folding chairs calved the room into crooked rows. I ducked into the back row, taking the seat closest to the door.
My friend looked at me. “Don’t you want to get closer?” she asked.
I shook my head. What I wanted was an emergency exit.
The lights dimmed as the pastor walked up onto the stage. She was a middle-aged Black woman in a purple robe. At the podium she paused, staring out at the crowd. After a moment, she started to read Scripture, her voice resonant, threaded with a divine confidence.
My Catholic childhood could not have prepared me for what happened next. There was no solemnity in the room: no kneeling, no incantations, no silent nodding. Instead, there was chaos. Congregants stood up and shouted out affirmations, fanning themselves with their thin prayer books. Children clapped their hands erratically, and no one moved to shush them. In the front row, a troglodytic man stuffed into a pale suit began to weep. Perfume and body odor laced the air.
“Amen!” the pastor cried, closing her eyes and holding up her dark hands wide above her head. “Amen!”
In the back row, I stiffened. This was nothing like Sunday Mass. I pitied these people with their religious ecstasy—their antics seemed questionable at best, mortifying at worst. Although it had been years since I stepped foot into a church and even more since I had given any serious thought to faith, I wanted to shout, Have some respect!
But respect for what? For whom? I couldn’t say. At the same time that I pitied these people, I envied them. To believe in something with such rapture, to submit yourself in dazzling wonder before your god—I had never experienced anything like it. Not really. For the first time in my life, it felt like a loss.
“I’m going to use the bathroom,” I whispered to my friend. She nodded, but her eyes were closed, her head bowed in prayer. I exited the building and sat on the parking lot curb. Whatever I was feeling—sadness, confusion, embarrassment, loneliness—was too opaque to discern. I lifted my face to the sky and focused on the warmth of sunshine on my cheeks, the sharp scent of detergent drifting from the laundromat, the soft patter of footsteps against the pavement as people walked to their cars. This was the world I lived in, not whatever was back there.
Years passed before I understood the feeling. It happened while reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay, “Upon This Rock.” In the essay, Sullivan befriends a group of God-fearing, gun-toting young men from West Virginia at a Christian rock festival. “They were crazy and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I was never capable of,” he writes. “Because knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe it if it were.”
Back at my brother’s house, I sit out on the porch stoop. Per my therapist’s suggestion, I’ve been practicing stillness. “Try to just be,” my therapist advises. “Don’t think.” The goal is to exist without an ulterior motive, to tap into the larger essence of your environment. It’s surprisingly difficult. A thick restlessness permeates the Midwest, a penchant for motion. As a teenager, I barreled downstate routes in the summer, catching the last shards of evening light rake against verdant fields, flying past rusted gas stations and bowling alleys, never stopping anywhere. Movement was the whole point.
But that was a long time ago. Now, I’m on the porch, willing my body into stillness. The light is gossamer across the evening sky, the golden warmth of the afternoon replaced by a chill. An old shirtless man hobbles across the street, smoking a cigarette. I wave; he waves. The smoke eddies in the cold air.
The billboard lingers in my mind. 1-83-FORTRUTH. Can a toll-free number revive a dormant faith? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter—I can’t tell whether my desire for spiritual conviction is just the flickering of nostalgia or something deeper, more divine.
The door opens. My brother walks out and sits next to me on the stoop. We watch as the squirrels wreak havoc on the neighbor’s lawn, burying acorns in flower beds. In the distance, a car backfires. From the window, the Rottweiler pants miserably.
My brother clears his throat. “Do you have any plans for the future?” he asks, lightly. A squirrel scrambles onto the lawn. I toss an acorn husk at it. I miss. “I want to become a carpenter,” I say.
He raises his eyebrows. “Seriously?” No doubt he’s thinking of the crooked flower boxes. “No.”
He laughs, but the question still lingers between us. I hug my knees to my chest. “I don’t know what’s next,” I say. About anything, really.
He nods. At the end of the block, the old shirtless man whoops at nothing in particular. “You can stay here as long as you want, you know,” my brother says. “It’s your home, too.” He pats my shoulder awkwardly and returns inside.
Along the street, the ginkgo trees glow yellow against the darkened sky. Cicadas trill thunderously. It’s your home, too. I roll the words on my tongue, savoring them like sour candy. I close my eyes and make my body perfectly still. Somewhere miles below, ancient tectonic plates shift and rumble, as if the thick tension of the earth, the sienna clay and yellow sandstone, might break loose too.