In America 5/2: Returning

Strange, how memory works, how you can walk into a place you haven’t seen in a decade and know where the bathrooms are without really thinking about it, note with some amusement that they haven’t moved the furniture one inch. How the light on the street in the morning is the same.

Usually, when you come back to the first place you ever truly felt was home, you mourn what has changed: this favorite bookstore closed, that restaurant replaced by something cheesy and asian-fusion faddish. Today, though, you marvel at what has not changed: the karaoke bar, the dirty slick liquor store over a Chinese place, how do they stay open? You never saw anybody in there, that is the same. The tiny shop that sells nothing but profane bumper stickers and incense, the bagel place where no one eats. These places are here, the bookstores are gone and going.

I am sick for home, for the red roofs and the olives. Eight years, and still, it feels like exile. You catch sight of yourself in the shop window and see — blue-black hair and ridiculous shoes. At home you often feel too young for a place where everyone has done more than you have. Here, nearly 30, you feel ancient. You left e-mails unanswered. Letters wait. You miss the rush of the train, here, and the way the sunlight hits, there. When you first came to this place you fell into it with such relief: here it is. Now it is spring, and only in a college town are the seasons reversed: autumn begins. Spring ends.

You’re not sentimental, most days. You know why you came and why you left (jobmoneyhousingmarriagegrowupalreadydammit). And when you try to recall what you loved you have only flashes: Red peppers piled up on a table at the market. You see in the paper that your old apartment is for rent. The neighbor had a huge cat named Tigger who used to visit you unasked, hide under your couch, yowl at you and sneak out the window. You ponder calling. You paid $450 per month eight years ago. How much more could it be now? You could run away, get a retail job again. No insurance, you rode a bike every day downtown without a helmet.

It’s not just nostalgia, you see the way things change, know someone else will find the studio with the broken window and half-finished kitchen more useful than you did. Half the reason you want to see it is to find out if somebody could get the mold to stop growing in the closet.

Still: Usually when you come here you never want to leave. This time you want to go home. Maybe it’s four days of listening to preppies bullshitting about your new occupation and how it’s the end of the world. The managing editor of the New York Times, John Geddes, speaks at a dinner and offers some perspective: The talkies. The Wireless. The world, as your friend August wrote, is ever ending. Beyond selfish, to think we are the first to witness the crash and burn. Beyond narcissistic, to think we are the end.

Today you want nothing more than to go home. Pets, books, familiar streets. Friends. You know most of the anger is fatigue, that you have too much work to do to be here. Revisions are due. You have been drinking and gladhanding for days, drinking too much coffee, never really sobering up as you go from one arm-twisting dinner to the next. It was like this when you lived here, too: summer of one thousand parties and not enough work, selling books and plasma and once, a pair of earrings you used to love, to pay rent. The answer then, as now, was to get out of this caf and walk, up the road and around the square and back, not-admitted aches in your knees and a splint in your right shin. And to feel again what you felt when you first saw the light hit the dome from the top of the tallest hill, like a song in your head, filling your lungs and lifting you up: yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.

A.