it’s late afternoon in 1988 and we are in the car – my dad’s AMC eagle with faux wood panels down the sides. no air conditioning, and it’s hot in early july. a dry, still new mexico heat, the kind that makes your hair go all static-y and melts the plastic on the steering wheel if the car is parked too long in the sun. we pile out at santa fe downs – the racetrack my grandfather always took credit for building. as a girl, i imagined my larger-than-life ‘papa’ nailing up planks and dragging dirt, his face shaded by a huge stetson and his alligator-skin boots getting dusty driving a backhoe, though later i came to understand that his claim on the track was financial and, like a lot of my family history, complicated.
we pile out and walk for what feels like a year from the car to the entrance, where a giant concrete tunnel seems to pass underground and back up again, right out into the middle of the racetrack, over which looms a covered grandstand. for a horse-obsessed girl of almost eight, standing on the soft soil of an actual racetrack gave me the same feeling i’d later experience standing on the great wall of china and ascending the eiffel tower for the first time.
my sister is four and being pushed in a stroller by my mother while my dad points out the details.
back behind there are where the horses live.
can we go see them?
not today. he indicates toward a semi truck parked across the grass infield. look, see out there – that’s where the fireworks are going to come from.
the sun drifts downwards west behind the slate blue ortiz mountains, lighting the sky to their north above us in a crayola box of shades. a blanket is produced from the basket on the back of the stroller – an upright, spartan sling on wheels made of plastic piping and synthetic polka-dotted material and with a small pull-out sunshade that had done me no good as a baby and was currently not shading much of my sister.
we sit all evening and get hungry and cranky so that by the time the fireworks start going off, i am in an inexplicable rage and my sister, who’d been gazing upwards at the purple and blue blasts, gets a piece of ash in her eye and has to be bustled off to an ambulance waiting somewhere nearby. (she was fine but we were all traumatised and i wonder now what this experience was like for my parents who, i presume even at that point, didn’t really care for each other very much).
there were other fourths of july. the hour-long drive to albuquerque, past small juniper trees at the turn off for la cienega and down la bajada hill, beyond the pueblos and then bernalillo, where a ribbon of the rio grande could be glimpsed between rows of cottonwoods in years when there was rain, to the airport. my dad said this was the best place to watch the fireworks, which were set off somewhere from adjacent kirtland air force base, and i suppose the 1980s were a time when knowing you could use the open-air top level of a parking lot for a free family fireworks outing (hopefully one where no one got ash in their eye) was the essence of cool.
july 4th is the only holiday i remember us celebrating as a foursome; hell, one of the only things i remember us doing as a foursome full stop.
when you’re a kid, people ask you dumb questions like ‘what’s your favorite holiday’ and my answer always was the fourth of july. at fifteen, this was highly idealised: it’s not a commercial holiday. i wasn’t wrong, but then time goes on and your family turns out to be messy and then so does your country and you move away to another state and then another country, and start to wonder how you could possibly have loved such nationalistic nonsense.
it was the shitty hot dogs. being smushed onto a blanket covered in pet hair, fingers smelling of ketchup and potato-chip salt. the wonder of fireworks cracking off against an indigo sky. sucking the last juice droplets out of a deflated capri sun bag through a strangely sharp straw that might slice your tongue. making cut-offs out of your old jeans with a pair of scissors and hoping you might get your first kiss under the cover of all that magic. swirling sparklers into fairy shapes that lingered on the thick air for an extra moment.
i loved that the fourth of july made me feel like, for one night a year, perfect life was possible. maybe my parents could be happy together. maybe i would be a normal kid who would meet an amazing crushable boy who liked her just as she was. that i lived in a great state in a great country where things were safe and happy. realities, of course, are different: my parents were so much better off apart, and as a result so were my sister and i. being a normal kid is overrated and turns out to be boring, and yes there have been several boys and there will be others, and so much the richer life is when you allow people to pass in and out of it in their natural time. there is no such thing as a great state or a great country – these are imagined things, it turns out – but the people that collectively make them up can be great and so can their cultures.
the fourth of july represents the unbridled optimism of childhood and a memorialised version of america – my version. it is nostalgia. but then maybe nostalgia is merely a yearning for things you think you remember having but that never really existed.
it’s late afternoon in 2018 and i set a pitcher of sun tea out to brew in the unusually sunny warmth of this year’s british july and think of my grandmother, who taught me this skill. she loved me but openly hated my cousin and it turns out people are really incredibly complex, and we never see all of their sides, even the ones we believe to be soul mates, or family, parents or anyone else.
it’s hot. i stick on a fan and some ani difranco, and sit down to write.