Dallas, Texas/Ann Arbor, Michigan
On April 12, my grandmother turned ninety-five. I have no scientific evidence to corroborate this theory, but I suspect her longevity is positively correlated to the distance she has traveled. She has visited all seven continents. She was the one who took me to Greece when I was thirteen. Granted, I spent most of the cruise through the Greek Isles plotting to throw her overboard; but my grandmother remains a major source of inspiration and encouragement for my globetrotting.
She is one of the most worldly, independent, and intelligent women I know; yet she insists on living in Dallas. A few weeks ago, my liberal, Yankee family descended upon my grandmother’s retirement home in Texas to celebrate the momentous occasion with an ice cream social. On our first day in Dallas, which also happened to be my first day back in the United States in over a year and a half, we went for lunch at a popular Tex-Mex restaurant.
As soon as we stepped inside, we were enveloped in a din as thick as the hot, humid Texan air. Cacti and lizards decorated the walls; a black and white, life-size, cardboard replica of the owners stood above the fireplace. Christmas lights twinkled while frenzied waiters served refills of salsa from oversized syrup jars. The stimuli so deadened my senses that I couldn’t read the menu, let alone order or eat anything. While my family ate chips and salsas, I had a giant helping of culture shock.
Of course, Michigan is quite different from Texas, and I assumed I would feel more at ease in Ann Arbor. However, all alone in the house, I am shocked by the silence. Birds chirping and the low rumble of a train in the distance are the only noises I hear. Occasionally, I clear my throat to confirm that I have not lost my hearing.
Like aspic, everything appears suspended in a transparent gelatin. The only thing that moves, other than me, is the sun. I drift from room to room, staring at objects as if they were artifacts in an American Suburbia Museum. I wonder if, when no one is home, the household objects come to life, make themselves a sandwich and have a smoke on the patio. Maybe that’s why I find them in such ungainly positions – they froze mid-movement to avoid being caught. They’re probably all waiting for me to leave.
When the phone rings, I am startled, as if the curator caught me mishandling a priceless relic or the homeowners walked in on me rifling through their medicine cabinet. I hear a woman’s voice, but I can’t discern where it’s coming from or what it’s saying. Fearing for my sanity, I run upstairs and search for flights to Malaysia.
I gave up the idea of moving abroad again, but not the idea of backpacking long-term. I could travel between October and May, escaping the winter and returning in time for my brother’s wedding. Perfect, right? Except for one nagging question: then what? In all likelihood, I would come back from traveling to and with absolutely nothing, other than a stack of notebooks full of anecdotes, and no one to publish or read them.
When I look at an atlas, I feel like a contestant on Temptation Island. I want to be loyal to my literary aspirations, but it’s hard with all those countries trying to seduce me. At this point, going abroad seems more like a diversion than a step in the right direction. That is why I’ve decided to return to the States, work on my portfolio, and apply to MFA programs. Unfortunately, this means renouncing one of the most valuable things to me: my identity as an expat.
I don’t know who I am without my passport. Now that I am just another American living in America, I am nobody special. Maybe I wasn’t anything special in Argentina or New Zealand, but in those places I belonged to something – the expat community. Fellow travelers are my true countrymen; can I achieve that same sense of belonging at home? Until I do, my mind and spirit will continue to roam the globe. With all my strength, I am resisting the urge to chase after them, because staying here is for the best.
Does this mean the odyssey is over? Not entirely. I’m not under house arrest or anything, and if I do become a student, I plan on writing lots of essays about “what I did on my summer vacation.” But effectively, the answer is yes. I’m back in the States indefinitely.
So, old friends, great opportunities and cute boys, please take note – I have a cell phone and a permanent address and expect to hear from you all very soon. Oh, and that voice I heard? It wasn’t coming from inside my head. It was the call waiting.