Wine-Warmth by Neema Avashia

We are driving in David’s indigo-blue Chevy truck, nicknamed Indy, on a warm summer night in 1997. The West Virginia air is heavy with moisture, and the sky is a velvety black. Indy’s high beams light up the unmarked pavement in front of us just enough to ensure that David has time to hit the brakes in the likely case that a deer crosses in front of the truck. For city people, this might seem like the opening to a horror movie. For us, it is a regular Saturday night.

The three of us—David, me, and Dave—always sit in the same order in the front of the truck. David drives, because Indy is his, and he’s the only one of us who knows how to drive stick. Dave gets the passenger seat, because his legs are long. And I am left “riding the hump,” as the boys like to tease me, legs crammed into the narrow space between the gearshift and the seat.

On this night, like most every other night we have spent in our small town, we have nothing to do. The usual entertainment options—bowling, watching a movie, getting drunk by the lake at Ridenour Park—do not appeal to us.

Instead, we choose to drive.

We begin at David’s house in St. Albans after the sun goes down, then head out Coal River Road. Ease the truck along the curves of the river. Sometimes we listen to the flow of the water over rocks, the cicadas’ constant chirp, sometimes we blast the Indigo Girls loud enough to generate a noise complaint. We drive for hours, until we tire. Head home, make a plan to drive again the next weekend.

We have driven like this for four years of high school, since freshman year when David got his license, and truck, at age 15. I joke that Dr. Seuss wrote the book, Too Many Daves, about our friendship. David is pure melodrama, full of terrible jokes, and has loving parents who have adopted me as one of their own. Dave exudes calmness and constancy, laughs at all the bad jokes we can muster. They are each other’s foils, and I reap the benefit. They make going to a school where Confederate flags threaten, and gobs of saliva get hawked onto my head by cowardly racists, something I can bear. 

This drive will be our last. We leave for college soon. But it does not occur to any of us to say something meaningful, something evocative on this last drive. Instead, we alternately sing and sit in silence.

These friendships will not last. At least, not at this depth of feeling. But this sensation of quiet comfort, of being so known that there is no need to talk, is one I will chase throughout my life.

The Welsh word for nostalgia is hiraeth, though the Welsh argue that nostalgia is too simple a term to describe the complexity of their feelings. Hiraeth is more than missing home, they say. It is missing a sensation, and being unable to replicate it.

From Wales, the word and associated feeling traveled to West Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Welsh settled in the hills and hollers of West Virginia, and so, too, did the feeling of hiraeth. Talk to any ex-pat West Virginian, and in the wistful way they describe home, you will hear echoes of hiraeth. A wish to return to a moment, a feeling, that none of us have been able to replicate since. 


For our last meeting of the year, my undergraduate thesis advisor at Carnegie Mellon suggests something fairly shocking to me, an Indian girl raised in a dry household deep in the Bible Belt. 

“Bring a bottle of wine with you. We deserve to celebrate.”

This thesis has been what many creative non-fiction undergraduate theses tend to be—an  excavation of my family’s dirty laundry in an attempt to understand all of it. And Janey has been a willing learner of a different culture, a tireless giver of feedback on hundreds of drafts. Weekly, we hole up in her office for hours talking about the ideas behind the writing. I leave saddled with books each time: more to read, more to learn, more ways to build my writing.

Thirteen years later, the thesis will be placed in an online archive without my knowledge or permission, then discovered by a young cousin in India who is Googling me. My extended family will tear into me for sharing their secrets, and I will no longer be welcome in their homes in India. But in this moment in 2001, sitting in Janey’s corner office in Baker Hall with a green glass bottle of Shiraz and clear plastic cups, I feel no anxiety. Only some mixture of relief that I am done, and sadness that this relationship, which has grown so deep over the four years of college, will end.

            I stagger down the smooth concrete slope of Baker Hall, swig the final dregs from the bottle, and head to my next class. After class, still somewhat tipsy, I take the empty wine bottle, place it in front of Janey’s office door with a scribbled note of thanks.

Janey, after all, is the person who came in on her Spring Break to work with me one on one during freshman year. This after she gave me a round of feedback in my first writing class where she said, “You need to make this section into a scene,” and my response was, “What’s a scene?” She is the person who turned me on to Jonathan Kozol in a literary journalism class, which helped me see the connection between my growing love of educating young people, and my growing love of the written word. She is the first person who gave me permission to ask questions about gender and Indian culture, and made space for me to speculate about the answers to those questions.

We toast and celebrate the end of our work, and then, without warning, Janey looks at the clock, realizes she has another meeting, and kicks me, and the wine bottle, out of her office.

I stagger down the smooth concrete slope of Baker Hall, swig the final dregs from the bottle, and head to my next class. After class, still somewhat tipsy, I take the empty wine bottle, place it in front of Janey’s office door with a scribbled note of thanks. 

The next time I visit Pittsburgh, nearly a year after moving to Wisconsin, I notice that the empty bottle sits on a shelf in her office, with a wall hanging I brought her from India as the backdrop. I am filled with a warmth not unlike the wine-drunk warmth of that day back in May.  I take it as a sign, an artifact. Proof that our relationship didn’t just change me. 

Seventeen subsequent years of back and forths about essays, emails about the death of the guinea pig her children named after me, texts about authors we love and don’t love, conversations about what it means to forgive ourselves for our transgressions, have only served to bear that out.

Just today, thinking about this story, this feeling that I long to recapture, I sent Janey a text. “Do you still have the wine bottle?”

Her response is immediate, fills me with wine-warmth yet again. “Of course I do!”

There is no word for nostalgia in Gujarati. The closest concept I can find is that of vatan, or homeland. As in: many of the Gujarati immigrants of my parents’ generation operated under a narrative that someday, they would return to their vatan. They embraced the desi theory of relativity, as it were: A desi at rest dreams of her vatan; a desi in motion is always moving towards her vatan. Rarely did they acknowledge that globalization had rendered their vatan unrecognizable. Instead, they filled their children with envy. What did it mean to have such a deep connection to a place? What would it take for us to have a similar connection?

For thirty years after their immigration from India, my parents reside in a small town in southern West Virginia. But in the mid 90s, my father’s initial employer, Union Carbide, sells their chemical local plant off to a French company called Rhone-Poulenc, which then sells the plant off to Bayer Crop Science, which then sells it off to Dow Chemical. With each sale, the plant shrinks. With each sale, more employees receive pink slips. 

In 2003, as part of the Bayer-Dow sale, my father receives an ultimatum: Retire or move.

A workaholic aged only fifty-eight, he isn’t ready to retire. So they opt to move. 

I am twenty-four years old, full of righteous indignation, when my mother announces that they are moving.

We are sitting in our backyard, on the large wooden swing that replaced the smaller swings of my childhood. After dinner each evening during the summer, we retire to the swing, a family custom that has traveled across generations and oceans. The swing is painted the same reddish-maroon as the back porch. The metal frame it hangs on is painted a forest green, though chipping corners reveal a history of spray painting, first a chalky light 70s green, then bright yellow, then layer upon layer of forest green. This swing has entertained my childhood friends, hosted lengthy visits from ocean-crossing relatives, even taken part in my sister’s wedding rituals. When I close my eyes and envision home, I do not see my childhood bedroom, or the living room sofa where I napped on Sundays, or the dining room table where I worked on homework each night. Instead, it is this swing, this patch of grass with its wide-angle view of my father’s garden, that comes to mind first.

“How can you do this?” I ask. “How can you leave this place where we’ve lived our entire lives? Why can’t dad just take a package and retire?”

“Home isn’t a place, Neema. It’s the people,” my mom says. “Your home is where we, your family, are.”

This is my mother’s definition of home, because for her, it is the truth. India is home because India is where her family lives.

For me, the definition of home is more complicated: a messy combination of people and place. My nuclear family alone doesn’t comprise my home. Home is also David and Dave, their parents, our neighbors on Pamela Circle, the aunties and uncles of the local Indian community. People more rooted to place than my wanderlust parents. People who I will lose once my parents leave this place. 

The depth of feeling in these relationships will last, but the opportunity to experience it will dwindle over time. Split between cities—Austin, where my parents and sister now live, New York, where my partner’s family is, Boston where we live, West Virginia takes the last number on the list of places to visit. I am lucky if I get there once a year. Feel lucky if I get to experience that wine-warmth of hiraeth, that sensation of being in my vatan, even once a year.

When I purchase my own house in Boston, my first act, before even buying a kitchen table, is to acquire a porch swing. I order it from a carpenter in Tennessee, assemble it, stain it, and install it on my back porch. I inaugurate it during a late summer thunderstorm. Close my eyes. Inhale the ozone formed when lightning tears through oxygen and nitrogen molecules. Pump my legs forward, then back, try to imagine I am back on Pamela Circle once again. 


The Portuguese word for nostalgia is saudade, a sentiment best expressed in the melancholic longing of fado songs. In Portugal last summer, I went to a fado concert and picked up the words to a song about the town of Coimbra. The verse I find myself singing most often goes, “Coimbra, tem mais encanto na hora de despedida.” Translated, it means, Coimbra, I love you more the closer I get to saying goodbye.

Saudade. A sense of missingness, of lost lovers or homes. The love that remains, even after the objects of that love are gone.

Neema Avashia is a veteran middle school teacher in the city of Boston, where she has lived for the last fifteen years, but she was born and raised in Cross Lanes, West Virginia. Her experiences as an Indian-American growing up in the Chemical Valley in West Virginia form the basis of much of her writing.  Her work is forthcoming in the Hong Kong Review and Fourth River.

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