I’m still home when the telephone rings
I’m impartial and a martyr
What is this? I ask. It’s really good. Good things feel noteworthy lately. Three years ago, I moved us here—my husband, me, the cat, and all our stuff—thinking the degree I came to pursue was my next step forward. But earning this degree was so much harder than I expected, and not for any of the reasons I’d expected. Although it feels like we’ve been here a hundred years already, Minneapolis still doesn’t feel like home. Our neighbors are mostly kids, ten years younger than us, and we don’t know them, though the noises they make coming and going seep under our door at all hours.
Competing with the rattling heater because it’s mid-winter and ten degrees out, I hold my phone up to the car speaker. The song is “Wishing Well,” by the Screaming Females.
One of my former fiction teachers used to say that setting a story in a moving car creates forward momentum. Make your characters go somewhere, he suggested. But in practice, what actually happens in cars is just waiting to get somewhere else.
= = =
About a million years ago, a boy I’ll call M drove me to the airport so I could leave him. He was a kind, raggedy boy whose gentle sarcasm masked a loneliness I recognized, and the smell of his skin made my blood race. I was leaving him incidentally. I was mostly trying to escape a disastrous series of choices: quitting a job I liked, leaving an apartment I really liked, relocating and then relocating again, to finally end up back at my parents’ house, the last place I wanted to be in my early twenties. M had walked out on college, literally walked off his out-of-state campus one day, and then just kept walking. All the way home. With him I felt, for snatches of minutes and hours, okay again.
We went to parties, coffee shops, friends’ apartments. We lay on couches sharing cigarettes. Standing, my head fit under his chin. I thought about him for a long time after I left him, wondering if I should have stayed where I was to be with him, or if I should have or even could have convinced him to leave with me if I’d tried harder. I wanted to be with him, except that I couldn’t see how I was fit to be with anyone, because everything in my life was unsettled: Where was I going to live? Where was I going to work? What was I going to do?
So I asked him to bring me to the airport, where I flew off to meet my best friend and take a road trip that would, I hoped, buy me the time to figure things out. Or just more time to waste, until eventually, I could suture the holes I’d torn and continue where I’d left off.
= = =
In The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami’s main character Toru Okada crawls down a well to try to make sense of his life’s confusions, and of the traumas those around him have suffered. The well is his safe, secret space, free of overstimulating complications, but it’s also a punishment he imposes upon himself. This is what I do, I sometimes think: I crawl down into wells, and then I’m never sure how—or if—I’ll be able to get out of them again.
Right now, I live with my husband deep within a well. The water is frozen solid, and I just earned a prestigious degree that’s apparently worthless on the job market, and all of our furniture has scuffs from the moving truck, and no one remembers me when I was eighteen, when I was young.
Here, it’s as if I never was eighteen, nineteen, twenty. I have always been an adult, always married. Never a girl who could knock back tequila and dance all night, or talk friends into last minute trips to New York, to Canada, for long, crazy weekends on a whim, why not. I was this person once, and I wish there was a way for people here to know that she still lives in me somewhere, but when I try to explain this, I know all they hear is I wish I was home.
It feels like coming here was a mistake: I might be stuck.
A poetry teacher I occasionally keep in touch with asked me in an email, “What is home?” I haven’t answered yet, though the months have been slipping by. It was the friendliest email I’ve gotten from him yet, and I want very much to reciprocate, but I’m not sure there is an answer to his question. Maybe this is why he asked it.
= = =
The vaguely Fleetwood Mac opening hook in “Wishing Well” intensifies quickly, but there’s also something faintly Claudia-Gonson-circa-early-Magnetic-Fields running through the melody. Which is just a way of saying I like it because it reminds me of other things I like, while keeping its own essential singularity, too.
Marissa Paternoster, sings:
On the next try I’ll be much sweeter
Yeah, in the next life I’ll be better.
= = =
Shortly after M took me to the airport, I met up with my best friend and we drove back across the country together. Over the slow build of weeks and months that came after, the choices I’d made would lead to better things, but in the car, I didn’t know it yet. I only knew that I’d made things hard for myself. My life seemed like a series of bad haircuts and tantrums, events that leave you emotionally ash-canned, bruised but not maimed, my self-worth in serious question. I believed I couldn’t follow my vocation, couldn’t dedicate the thrust of my life to writing, because people had been telling me I couldn’t.
So: my best friend and I went on the road, and in strange cities we obliterated ourselves, assumed our bodies were plasticine enough to do it again and again. He had said, “you should fly out here and take a road trip across the country with me,” and doing that had made a kind of imperfect sense. In the car, nothing happened. Nothing was decided or fixed, but we joked around and ate beef jerky and pickles and corn nuts and listened to music and sometimes we just went along together in silence. Maybe home is where you are truly known and loved anyway.
= = =
The reasons for moving to Minneapolis never fully justified the reality of our tiny apartment, a dump on the ground floor of a building half-choked by ivy in the front and dumpsters overflowing in the back, the difficulties of my writing program, the fact that this place isn’t home. (What is home? What, not where, calling into question even the form of the thing.)
So, now we are on our way to the liquor store, and my thirties still aren’t when I have things figured out and my shit together; instead I’m just sitting in a ten-year-old car, hoping somehow my best days are still to come, and worrying about this hope: how willfully and with such care I preserve it. Is it a sign I’ll make it—self-preserve by virtue of hopeful attitude—or just a sign that I’m oblivious to my impending doom?
Over the heater’s noise, the song goes:
In the next life I’ll be better!
We turn into the parking lot and my husband shuts the engine off, and we zip our coats and step out of the car. The night is an icy gasp lit red and yellow-white by the store’s neon signs, and the sky overhead is close, and very, very black.
= = =
Sometimes, the next song will be new. It will travel on the air and find you, even if you happen to be deep below ground. It will echo your familiar, imperfect confessions, your failures and faithlessness. But it will also be new. And maybe you will feel capable of climbing again, up, out to everything possible still.