I am sitting on the edge of my deluxe spa bathtub with a complete stranger. We’ve just met. I’ve left my husband, my friends, and my routine of thirty years behind on a hunch, a gamble, and a sentimental quest. But all I really want is a bath. My clothes are flight-rumpled and the back of my hair still pressed flat from twelve hours of airline seats. My back is aching from the fixed contortion of Economy. Stale cigarette smells permeate my skin like an unseen vapor, and I curse the chain-smoking taxi driver in Luxembourg and the Dutch businessmen on the shuttle bus to Amsterdam.
I try to smile across the tub at this hulking figure who is now a strangely intimate and essential element to my first bath in this North Carolina mountain house, with its obscene number of bathrooms. After living with one bathroom for decades, I can’t comprehend the excess of four. Any more than I can understand why not even one of them has water.
I self-consciously cover my smile with my fingers when I realize I haven’t brushed my teeth since leaving Helmdange, a small village in the Alzette valley—three thousand miles, twenty-two hours, and an ocean of separation from the fragments of what was once familiar. A fog of Luxembourg still clouds my head, which not even the bright October light or the feathery breeze from every open window can clear. I’m fighting my way out of the surreal, as if a dry cistern in my brain is in desperate need of being filled. I need an injection of black caffeine. I need a scrub cloth and its sweet wet release. I need to scour my way back to skin that feels and smells like me.
I need a bath.
I look across my waterless tap and into the smiling blue eyes of Ronnie-Lamar McMooney, Mars Hill Plumbing, “Service You Can Trust.” I had found his telephone number in a tattered Madison County Business directory that the renters had left behind, the only artifact of their two-year tenancy. Everything else—except a weathered welcome mat blown askew at the front door—has been removed, leaving a vacant, three-level, 3200-square-foot shell that echoes my unsettled state.
“We could keep renting it out, you know,” my husband had offered months before. “You don’t have to go back now. Wait ’til I retire next year.” For once, though, I wanted to be the pioneer. I had followed him from one foreign assignment to another for thirty years. I had become proficient at settling in, for someone who felt so consistently unsettled. In Europe, I had even written guides for expatriates (“expats” as we are called), with practical advice to “integrate, assimilate, and acclimate” when moving to a new country. How to find a house, improve a language skill, respect the local customs. How to fit in. In practice, a practical guide to gain control of a situation when you have none. That toothpaste in your shopping cart is not what you think it is. It’s hair gel. The cashier is not asking for your plastic credit card. She is asking if you want a plastic bag for your purchases. She is staring at you because she is waiting for you to bag your own groceries. They don’t do that for you. You need another bag, but are too embarrassed to ask for another because you’ve forgotten the phrase, so you overstuff the flimsy bag you have with the toothpaste that isn’t and the fruit that you forgot to weigh and the carton of milk that is really cream but you don't know that yet. The cashier is impatient and you feel stupid. She says something to the other cashier and they laugh.
I’d hoped that writing a guide would help a newcomer overcome smug cashiers and the other tiresome anxieties that would follow. We, long-term expats, had all been there—navigated the foreign turf, eased ourselves into unfamiliar routines, developed friendships in a language not our own. After a decade, then two, it no longer felt like assimilation or integration. It felt normal. We saw friends leave and we stayed. We missed birthdays and graduations of our family members back in our “home” countries that didn’t feel like home anymore. We stopped going back every year.
Buying the house in the Blue Ridge was, in a strange way, an antidote to our disconnection with our own country. It was large. Think of the family reunions! It was close enough to family without being too close. Four hours away and no time zones to cross! The timing was right. A good investment and we can rent it out while we’re in Europe! There was something else that had nothing to do with any of those reasons. I was a southerner, after all. And most of my summers growing up were spent in the rolling green expanse of the Great Smokies. Nostalgia is a powerful incentive. Ask any real estate agent.
“The world really is your oyster now.” My German friend Sabine prided herself on Shakespearian expressions. “Will you go back to Italy? Buy a Ligurian farmhouse with a small vineyard? Or maybe France, near Nice, where you lived before?”
“Actually I’d like to go back to the US for a while. The South. Where I’m from.”
“No!” Sabine dismissed my sentimental journey with a one-two punch. “That is a mistake.”
“Leaving here…for Texas?” Somehow the American South is often summed up as “Texas.” Dallas, the TV show, is still popular in Europe.
“No. Not Texas. North Carolina. In Asheville.”
“Nashville—country music? You like country music so much?”
“Not Nashville. Asheville. In the mountains.”
This conversation was repeated over and over, in softer tones but with the same incredulity by other friends. "Why go back? You’ve been in Europe thirty years now. Your home is here. Your friends. Your life. How can a little place that doesn’t even show up in our Baedeker Guide hold such an appeal for you?” I didn’t have the courage to offer the truth. I didn’t think they’d understand. I wasn’t even sure I did. Actually I just want to go back to the mountains I visited as a child and hope that I can be happy there and find something that I hope is still there even though I don't exactly know what that is but I have to go and find out anyway.
There’s no accurate translation for foolish journeys of the heart.
If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then explain it to a naked middle-aged woman turning the bath taps on and off, on and off, as she sits over a bathtub on a secluded ridge in the Pisgah mountains. You may hear—above the sounds of John Deere tractors, barking hounds and someone beheading a chicken—a howling moan like nothing heard from man or beast.
Ronnie-Lamar McMooney did not see me naked, but he was the only plumber who answered his phone. I was grateful that the slight insanity in my voice didn’t spook him. When I started to give him directions he said he knew right where I was.
If there is a heaven, then it will be filled with soft-spoken Southern men who know how to repair stuff. I literally swooned into my phone.
Just hours before, fighting fatigue from a nine-hour flight to Atlanta, sleepwalking through a maze of customs gates and barking women in ill-fitting uniforms—“If you have an American passport go to the RIGHT!”—I watched my fellow Americans. At the departure gate for Asheville, there were businessmen in shorts and running shoes. No suited European formality or heads quietly buried in the International Herald. Americans were loud, sharing their cellphone conversations so openly, one felt obliged to listen. Even on the small turboprop that carried us above the rolling quilt of mountains there were noisy exchanges. Strangers swapped stories. “You’re moving here? You’re gonna love it!”
Heading north to Barnardsville in a rental car, I stopped at a megastore. I repeated my short list silently like a mantra. Coffee. Soap. Tuna. Towel. But the cacophony of America overwhelmed me again in high-pitched hysteria. Booming megaphoned voices, Attention Shoppers! Country songs playing so loud it was difficult to focus. A tired cashier took my $100 US bill (the only bank note I could exchange with my Euros back at the Banque de Credit European), but she eyed me with suspicion, held the note up to the light and slashed through it with a pen. I started to put my purchases in a bag then realized I’d broken protocol again. I put each item back down and watched the cashier put them in a carousel of plastic bags, spinning them around like a roulette wheel. I tried to appear casual. Integrate. Assimilate. Acclimate. In the mega parking lot, my rented Chevy seemed small and vulnerable between two massive, muddy 4x4s—their dented front grills like the teeth of growling beasts. Welcome to your local shopping center.
By the time I found the big house on the ridge that I had seen only twice, I had reached an exhausted state of giddiness. I giggled my way through the echoing Great Room, tossing my clothes off as I went, singing the last song I’d heard in the megastore, which was now playing on an endless track through my overstimulated neurons: Make the world go away and get it off my shoulders. All I had to do was take a hot bath and all would be well.
I heard him before I saw him. Heavy workmen’s boots on my empty porch and a confident rap at the door. What? The doorbell is for sissies? Opening the door, I didn’t take in anything except Ronnie-Lamar's uniform and boots. It was enough. The posse had arrived. I was back in my smelly clothes and was nearing tearful hysteria. Blathering out a school girl’s take on hydraulic engineering, I tried to explain that “the little lever thingy holding the water back is in the ‘on’ position but there’s still no water.” Instead of taking him down to the basement, the logical place where the well pump was—I took him straight to my bathtub. As if he could work his magic in situ.
Maybe Ronnie-Lamar calculated that the wild-eyed, flat-haired woman and her broken pump could be the answer to his early Christmas bonus. Maybe there was a plumber code of ethics that guided his behavior when confronted with sobbing clients. Maybe he acted on that mysterious testosterone mix that triggers the John Wayne impulse in men. Maybe he just wanted to calm me down. What he did was to sit down on the edge of my bathtub and talk to me.
I studied him as he spoke. Ronnie-Lamar has tanned, Popeye-like forearms with a blood-red tattoo of a rose stamped on the right one. I tried to follow what he was saying but my eyes kept slipping over to the tattoo. A thorny stem started on the inside of his wrist, traveled up his veins and stopped just below the tight sleeve of his uniform shirt. There the rose burst open, the petals unfolding like undulating arteries, staining most of his upper tendons to reveal a heart. And inside the heart—a name.
At some point I realized that Ronnie-Lamar had stopped talking and that I should say something. Something related to blow bags and ballcocks. Augers and aerators. I did not speak his language. I bit my lower lip and raised my eyebrows, hoping I looked less befuddled than I felt.
I gave up.
“So who is Mary?” Sleeplessness had made me bold.
He glanced at the name inside the heart, inside the rose. His smile faded and his voice went flat.
I realized I may have stumbled onto turf posted, “No Trespassing.”
What if it’s Jesus’s Mary, I suddenly speculated and could’ve kicked myself. I’m in Evangelical Country. “Mars Hill Plumbing. Service You Can Trust. Free Sinner Service included.” Maybe that’s why he’s taking the time to sit with me on the tub. Good Lord, what if Ronnie-Lamar is going to feel obliged to save me? Baptize me right here? As soon as he gets the water running, of course…
He nudged his arm out slightly. “That there’s in honor of my grandmother. She raised me.”
I nodded and tried to match his respectful tone. Relief and curiosity, too.
“Your family is from Mars Hill?”
“Born and raised.” He slapped his knee and stood up. A full-stop period to my inquiry. He didn’t ask where I was from. It was enough that I’m from that place that is Not Here. A Comer, not a Fromer.
I glanced once more at the thorny stem of the rose tattoo, sighing from exhaustion and something else, too—I realized it was envy. There is no tattoo of allegiance on my arms. The stem of Ronnie-Lamar’s rose has thorns, but it runs deep. It travels right through to the red clay and finds the roots of his family there. It ties him to this place but he does not think of it as a stranglehold. It’s part of something almost sacred that he honors with the stamp of his own blood.
“Let’s go have a look at your well-water pressure.” He led the way down as if he knew the house better than I. He sensed the labyrinth of pipes and valves, and followed them as easily as if an architect’s schema was guiding the way, unseen to the eye, but as familiar and sure as the veins under his own skin.