The novelist and Possumneck, Mississippi, native falls in love with—and in—Columbus

In May, I had my wisdom teeth removed. Because my bottom molar was impacted, the dental surgeon wanted to anesthetize me during the procedure, and this meant I needed to bring a person along with me on the day of the surgery, someone to hang out in the waiting room while my mouth was getting sliced and diced, then drive me home when it was all over and my brain was still (I hoped) blissed out from all the drugs.

My first choice was my longtime boyfriend, Josh—but he lives in Boston. And on the day of my surgery, he would be right in the middle of chairing several dissertation defenses.

So I called on my mother instead, who was only too happy to fly up from Mississippi for the weekend to nurse me back to health. She would come alone, without her sister or husband in tow, a first. The visit seemed to me a good time to share with her some important news: Josh would be on leave from his teaching position in Boston next year, and he was going to come to Columbus and move in with me. This step in our relationship was a long time coming; we had been living in separate cities for seven years. Columbus is where we met, back when we were both graduate students, at a mutual friend’s holiday party. It seemed somehow fitting that we would begin our cohabitation here as well.

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Five years earlier, I came out to my mother over the phone while she was driving home from work, and she nearly ran her car into a ditch. I don’t think she has ever forgiven me for sharing important information at such an inopportune moment.

Telling my parents about my sexuality did not, as I had feared it might, ruin my relationship with them—it did, however, take time for them to adjust. There were tears and awkward questions, but we managed. Still, at times, we found it difficult to speak to each other about the realities of me, their only child, being gay.

And so, when she arrived, I put the conversation off, and off, and off. Here I was, a writer who had published two books of fiction and regularly taught others how to use their own words to make art, struggling to find my voice, worrying about how my mother would respond to my big news. My life looked so very different from the one she had probably thought I would lead, and I feared that a part of her still grieved for that life—one that would have included a wife, some kids and a house within driving distance of where she lived.

Let me explain: I am not only from the South, but the Deep South. I grew up in the backwoods of Central Mississippi, in an area of land known as Possumneck. (Before you search for it on Google: yes, it really does exist.) I call Possumneck an “area” because it is too small to ever be mistaken for a town. More accurately, Possumneck is a tangle of county roads in between towns. Once upon a time, before it burned down, the only gas station in Possumneck sold drink koozies emblazoned with my home’s most interesting factoid: “East of a town called West, and west of a town called Weir.” Possumneck was—and still is—what most people would call “the middle of nowhere,” though for me, then and now, it certainly felt like somewhere and left such a deep impression on me that I am still reckoning with what it means to be from such a place.

In Possumneck, growing up surrounded by pine trees and pastures underneath a large swath of sky, I had a mostly happy childhood. My parents were high school sweethearts, marrying not long after graduation and eventually settling down not 500 yards from my maternal grandparents’ house. Though an only child, I was constantly surrounded by cousins. The men and boys in my family hunted deer, ran trotlines in the Big Black River and played football. I preferred the indoors, where there were books and air conditioning. My whole family attended the same Baptist church, making up a good portion of its congregation. Being gay was considered a sin, and still is. And for many years, I was a true believer: baptized at 12, prone to raising my hand during sermons to ask questions. Later, I would learn my parents thought I had been called to preach. Maybe this was how they explained (to themselves and the family) my being so different from the rest of them.

I did not become a preacher. I discovered writing instead, and it was my desire to be a “serious” writer that led me, eventually, to Columbus—not once, but twice. The first time was for graduate school when I was accepted into Ohio State’s creative writing MFA program. Though the 14th-largest city in the nation, Columbus turns out to be the perfect place for a closeted country boy from Possumneck to land. It was here that I experienced all the major firsts in my queer edification: my first gay club (Union in the Short North), my first drag performance (Latrice Royale, also at Union), the first time I kissed a man (a sweet boy from Xenia, in his car after our third date, while Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s duet “The Time of My Life” played on the radio) and the first time I truly, utterly, without reservation fell in love (with a nice Canadian, who will be moving in with me in the summer). Columbus not only made me feel safe to come out, but it also made me feel at home. I adored living in Possumneck, a quirk to my personality that not many people likely understand, and could still see myself living in the woods, away from the hustle-bustle of city life. With Columbus, I sort of had the best of both worlds: I had Pride parades and a community of queer folks, and once I drove outside the city limits, I was back in the country again, in a geography that—at least in summer months and if I squinted—looked an awful lot like the hilly terrain of my Mississippi.

During my time as a graduate student, my best friend in the program came out as trans, and both of us often remarked at how accepting, in general, we found Columbus. “It should be its motto,” he said one day as we shared a plate of pulled pork from Ray Ray’s Hog Pit, “right there on the city sign, before you enter: ‘Columbus, who knew?’” The truth is, I could have come out anywhere and at any time, with varying results, but I chose to come out in Columbus, and for this reason, the city will always hold a tender spot in my heart. When I graduated from the MFA program, I moved to Nebraska to pursue a doctorate in English, and through a series of coincidences and flukes and luck, after I earned that degree, I ended up back here in the city, teaching in the same program from which I’d graduated. And now I would be entering another phase of adulthood in Columbus, sharing a roof with my partner.

I think I waited to tell my mother until she arrived in Columbus because, in some ways, the city has always given me courage. A part of me wondered if my mother still harbored any hope that, despite it all, I would one day move back to Possumneck, and if my boyfriend moving in with me would be one more piece of evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, I waited until the surgery was over and we were back in my apartment in the Short North. She was standing over my stove, scrambling eggs, and I was slumped on a barstool, my mouth packed with several feet of gauze, and so, of course, it was a struggle for her to understand me.

“Josh is coming to live with me next year,” I tried.

“Do what?” she said, turning around to face me. “What’s wrong with him?”

I decided to write it down on a Post-it.

When she read it, her eyes widened, and she grabbed my pen and wrote something under it. She folded the Post-it and set it down in front of me. Only when she turned around to check on the eggs did I dare look at what she’d written.

“Good,” the note said. “I know you are happy. I am happy, too.”

The next day, when I was driving her back to the airport and we were crossing a busy intersection on High Street, she looked out her window and said, “This place suits you, son.”

“Columbus,” I said. “Who knew?”