The lawn is cut short and bright green, shaded by two protective trees like it’s the interior of someplace. Sometimes I hear, at the edges of it, the voices of what I’ve left behind, music in a passing car. I tried getting out of the city once before so I know how to do it. I know how to reject what it stood for, and the things that it was not even trying to be. Things I blamed it for. Here, there is a ritual of getting out of the city, too. But I don’t know what parts of this city signify city to people except that it is the place where they do work.
I’m walking around rooms in me that I didn’t know were there, like annexes of somewhere familiar in a dream. Like I might find something new in a place I think I already know intimately. That’s what it feels like waking up in the five hour every morning, to the demands of someone who is alive but not born, who floats like an astronaut in the dark, who is as far away from anything familiar, who is tied to me only in how I feel and what I eat, who clicks and pops like a fish underwater, who seems to be an early riser.
The girl greets the dog as if they’ve been apart for months. The boy has not grown into his mouth yet, and it makes him seem harmless. The stylistic choices they make this summer, heading into university, have not grown in to the bodies they occupy either. They sit on top of who they are adorning. They have not taken root. It is easy to feel invisible here, not only because my own choices are not bright or shiny, but because noticing is not something people do unless they are engaged in conversation with you. Unless they have an immediate reason to—permission. Just looking is not reason enough. But I haven’t learned not to look yet.
In the car we pass by several of the places he used to live when he was in university, and I see glimpses, which I have invented, of what he was like then. They unsettle me. The women he may have coaxed home, unsteady on his feet. Smiling for them. The long mornings in bed together or alone, unable to sleep, or to get up. They unsettle me because I know what I, what any of us, was like then. And because in those years, I tucked away whatever he had meant, slipped it between two books on a cramped shelf. A lot of time can be wasted if you convince yourself the thing you wanted is wrong, or that, for whatever reason, you just can’t have it.
The time wasted was a series of interesting mistakes, only interesting now. But there is also, now, that lightning-quick feeling known to sufferers of post-traumatic stress: the certainty that something bad is about to occur, even though there is no evidence to suggest it will. It’s just that the body houses that possibility forever, once it’s known it. We cling to simple tools like gratitude to remind us that a better outcome is the one we get to live out, even if it’s both we have to live with. I got back to him because the alternative started to seem too terrible to bear. Because rejection was better than never knowing. Because of these words from Joyce Carol Oates: To overestimate how someone feels about us is merely farcical; to underestimate is tragic. Which is to say: sometimes I forget we have made it real. All around me are sights and smells of times when things between were needlessly complicated, formalized, petrified.
After a few days in this new, old place, I was finally given the news of what (if not who) our child is. The results weren’t ready until days after I’d crossed the border, as if he was saying to me: The most important thing is that I’m from here. I heard the news in the parking lot of the DMV. I had been busy rescinding my rights as an American, existing in a no-man’s-land where my good deeds there meant nothing, and I had none here yet to offer up to the authorities as proof that I am a citizen who can pay her bills. But I am used to waiting. Waiting to get back here after a year or, if I was lucky, a few months, away. Waiting to be ready for it, ready to never leave.
I have learned many things in not drinking. But the biggest is how to be startlingly awake at all times, and then, because of that, to not waste time. What do I do when I am not burrowing fears or dreams inside of a drink, or suffocating them with a hangover? I’m saying how I feel. I’m doing something I meant to do a long time ago. I’m retrieving the parts of me that are young, foolish and full of energy and enjoying them as a person who is now older, wiser and more hardworking.
Love thy neighbor is taken seriously here, as it is amongst the sober. There is more accountability in small places, though that’s not to say small places can’t be found inside big ones. But there is less of an urge to disappear here. You get conversation and silence both. You do not have to run for the hills to find silence. There is silence all around. And when it gets too silent, there is a neighbor willing to break it with you.
I have been thinking about how my grandmother never wanted to leave here, at least not for long, and how that became a kind of faith for the rest of us. She believed—even though this place wiped out most of her family in a car accident. A scar you can only feel now: the asphalt covers up her stand-in memorial, the railroad crossing down the line from the actual site of the tragedy. She had always made do with that spot, something she could hold her breath driving over a few times a day. Now it is smooth and gray, just a road. I would tell her now that I have come back to the conclusion we made together long ago: Why be anywhere else? A perk of our searching for something that didn’t exist was that my immediate family got to see the world. It is not such a terrible thing to have runaway parents, whose ideas about “coming home again” were only ever cute—fleeting—and which I learned not to trust from a young age. When they brought me here, the questions, the discomfort, seemed to fall away. The bracing for change seemed to settle, like shoulders pressed down by a helping hand in a yoga class.
“Certainty is home,” says the novelist Téa Obreht. Or at least at some point, you must come to rest in the place you feel most certain. I don’t think it’s possible to get anywhere inwardly when you are constantly in motion. Globetrotters and ultramarathoners (sometimes I even call myself one) might disagree, but motion has only ever allowed me to process the past. It has not equipped me to handle the present, except that I feel lighter in having let the past go, and except that I am happy to play the role of mediator in most situations. That’s from decades of sitting in groups of people from all over the world and feeling that I had the least to say of any of them.
And anyway, “all places are essentially the same,” my grandfather liked to say, perhaps bargaining with himself over his chosen home, since my grandmother wouldn’t have it any other way. But he had painted Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war, loved Japan and California, made one valley his muse, and never much cared for New York City, so he must have known what he was talking about. I respected his opinion, even if I didn’t believe it at the time. First I had to see all those places, and more.
Now there is so much news to share, all of it happening right here, and I don’t think they would believe it all at first. My life is a series of fantastical events that they set in motion for me. I am in constant disbelief that this could be my place, that my family’s circumstances dropped us here, rather than anywhere else. To be in a constant state of mystification makes their absence slightly easier to bear.
—Grand Pré, Nova Scotia, August 23, 2019