This morning I received a text message from Em, who's become my best friend on the island. "When you coming home?" she asked.
I wasn't sure how to answer. I'm returning to the rock on Monday. But coming home? That's a very different question.
I'm not sure where home is anymore. I live in the Caribbean. If I ever considered it my home, it was because the island is where she lives. But the circumstances have changed. Now the island is where I earn a paycheck, and where I live—even though I've yet to work out what to do about housing, now that our experiment in cordial cohabitation has arrived at a decidedly nonoptimal conclusion.
Seeing my friends from Maryland a few days ago was a joy; in all honesty I hadn't expected to see most of them again in this lifetime. (Maybe this will be the last time.) But revisiting Silver Spring reminded me why I can't live there anymore.
It's funny. Maryland was chosen as the setting for All the Lonely People rather arbitrarily: it wasn't Jersey, for one thing, and I lived in Columbia until I was three years old. When I wrote the first draft, I was still living in Pennsylvania, and hadn't the faintest inkling I would be moving to Maryland for love, for the sake of keeping a good thing going. By the time I was working through the last round of revisions, I was living in Silver Spring by myself, and saw All the Lonely People as my farewell and don't bother writing to the Washington, DC metro area.
Good people, but a bummer of a place. This often isn't the case: most of the time the people of a particular locale bring more to bear than the environs themselves.
On the way back to Jersey I missed 295 and continued northward up 95 out of habit, passing through Philadelphia and coming within a rosary bead's throw of the Quaker center. I lived there for two years, and for that time that place was home to me, without question. I still count this as one of the greatest privileges I've ever enjoyed. The last time I visited was in August. Even then, it was difficult to be there. My close friends, the dozen or so people with whom I overlapped during my time there—including Jason, my college buddy who brought me there, and Hannah, who I followed to Maryland when my term was up—they were the place, counted for more than the buildings, the arboretum, the institution itself. (This is a theme of Doug's book about the place, to which I'm proud to have contributed as an editor.) When I visited last August, only three of my close acquaintances remained. They've all moved on since then. There's no point in visiting now.
I only visited my alma mater once after graduating. It was ten months after I'd thrown my diploma in the trunk and drove back to Jersey. For two and a half years my buddies and I strutted and staggered about campus and smoked spliffs on the steps of the library like we owned the place. And now I was there and they were gone. The passage of ten months was enough to reduce me to an interloper, an outsider who came to sleep on a couch and had no real purpose being there. It's why I've never gone back since, and why I won't return to the Quaker center today.
It's hard finding yourself a stranger in a place that was once your home. Is it harder than finding a place you once called home becoming strange? (Is there a difference?)
During a road trip I took several years ago (which, incidentally, was directly catalyzed by an experience during that final visit to the campus) I wound up in Maryland and visited my parents' old house in Columbia, where we lived until moving up to Jersey in 1987. It was underwhelming, it was—I'm not sure I can say it was sad, but I don't know the word for the feeling of feeling nothing about a place that was your earliest home.
At what point does a waystation become a home, I wonder?
Now I'm back in Jersey, and I feel like I'm back in my element—even though Jersey is a place I'd be reluctant to call home again, for reasons which The Zeroes made patently clear. But I have friends and family here, and it's been good seeing and spending time with them again.
Today I visited the Tourne Park swamp with Jeff. This is only the first week of warm weather (I've been told), so there isn't much surface activity yet. But it's coming alive again: though it's still too early in the seasons for barn swallows and damselflies, we met some red-winged blackbirds (vocal but very secretive creatures), nuthatches, a tortoise, and heard a chorus of frogs in the distance that sang so loudly that I mistook them for a siren at first.
Jeff and I sat on a rock and listened to the chirps and trills and caught up for a while. He's still teaching history, and lately he's become a permanent member of the ska band he used to play with now and then. They've been recording some new songs lately, and sometime next month they're playing with Catch 22—not the first time he's opened for them, but the first in over ten years.
I was glad to hear it.
I picked a fine week to visit, at any rate. It's not that I haven't been impressed by spring in the past, but I feel like I've taken it somewhat for granted until the last few days. Maybe it's because I'm seeing it in an unusual light: in January I left winter to go live in summer, and five days ago I caught a flight back to spring. The perpetual viridescence of the tropics is wonderful—but the magnolia and cherry trees in full blossom, pushing out their everything for two, three weeks out of fifty-two, is astonishing an event as any I've seen.
Spring never lasted long enough for me. And on Monday it's back to summer. Wish I could say it was back home.
Would that springtime itself could be my home. To live where life is always in a state of becoming, all potential and unspent possibility.
But I suppose that's what life is, as long as life is, however much less it may appear.