I’m lying in bed. It’s one in the morning, and I can hear the distant horn of a freight train rolling across the railroad tracks two miles from my apartment. Trains pass through here every night on their way to wherever they are going, presumably so the long tail of the cargo they’re dragging doesn’t clog the small suburban streets and keep normal, hardworking citizens from going to or from their homes and jobs. I am not a freight train conductor, but I feel as though I know what it must be like, alone for much of your time on a dark stretch of track, always going somewhere and never really arriving at your destination, because the destination is always changing.
My things are here in my apartment. My bed, my clothes, my cats. There’s a Thai restaurant three miles down the road, and another one twenty minutes away in St. Louis, both of which I love. I tell everyone I know that the only reason I live here is because St. Louis has the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten. There’s a lovely park, and a zoo, and a botanical garden we picnic in every spring. We always take special care to select a new bottle of wine for the picnic. When the bottle is empty, we walk (unsteadily) to the Koi pond to feed the massive goldfish swimming in the water. Their food comes in little brown pellets, and costs .25 cents for a mound the size of your palm, more than any sane Koi fish should want to eat. (Most Koi fish are not sane, by the way.)
But I don’t belong here. My heart is traveling down an endless road, in the middle of the night, in the mid-morning, in the late afternoon, flying to a destination that I’ve visited many times before, that I’ve visited once, that I’ve never seen.
2126 miles. I am in Los Angeles. It’s cool this summer, which is a relief – last year we sweltered in miserable heat. There’s graffiti everywhere, trash everywhere, traffic everywhere. The streets are clogged arteries of people trying to get to the heart of things and making it much too late. I’m late, too, and it makes me irritable. Driving in big cities always makes me irritable. But we make it, finally, and we eat in a small sushi restaurant downtown, with a tiny upper room where the tables are large and the seats are long, low, padded benches against the wall. Here are my friends, laughing as we drink sake flavored like ginger and eat nigiri with raw quail eggs for the first time. It’s slimy in my mouth and tastes strange; I have to work to swallow it, but feel proud once I do, like I’ve accomplished something. Outside, the towers of the Staples center rise, tall and full of flashing light, a steel and electric construction of purple, silver, and green. We stay out much too late, taking pictures, trying to catch the lights just right. The security guard allows us to stay, even though we’re trespassing.
I don’t belong here, but a part of me resides forever, in a footprint buried somewhere along the beach.
1620 miles. I am in Las Vegas. It’s late evening and we’ve had too much to drink. If there’s one thing that’s easy to come by on the Strip, it’s liquor. And food, but we’ve already eaten, and now we’re wandering a sidewalk still heated too-hot from the rays of the midday sun. The lights are dazzling, overpowering, intoxicating, more so than any drink we could find. Ahead of us we see performers taking photographs with tourists – Elvis, Spiderman, Mario, Iron Man. We laugh, because the Spiderman has a costume from Wal-Mart, and the Iron Man’s armor is made from duct tape. Still, it doesn’t stop the magic; everyone wants to believe, everyone wants to have a story to tell their friends when they return home. We stop in front of the Bellagio and climb onto the stone parapet; we hold hands while watching the fountains spurt high into the sky, higher than anything, higher than imagination, in perfect time with the music. They played the theme from Titanic, ten years too late.
I don’t belong here, but part of me resides forever, in fingerprints pressed against the glassy surface of the Luxor.
871 miles. I am in New York City. The potholes in the street rattle my teeth whenever we go over them, and I pay repeatedly for tolls going to places I’m convinced I’ve already been to, and paid. Our friend lives here, just outside the city, and when we arrive I take refuge from the stress of the street. We ride the train into downtown – I’ve been on better subways, but it certainly beats driving. I don’t know much of New York City, but when we get off near 38th I know this area by heart. We spend hours prowling up and down the streets, buying bolts of fabric, things we’ve looked for everywhere else and can’t find. One of the buildings has an old-fashioned elevator with large, round, black push-buttons; an elderly doorman in a round burgundy cap and jacket opens and closes the doors on each floor, repeatedly asking everyone who enters where they would like to go. Everyone’s always going to the same floor, but still he asks, each time, each person, taking his job seriously. After we’re done we walk, heavily laden with bags of fabric, to a nearby borough; here there is a restaurant serving ramen, and a shop serving frozen yogurt, and a bar serving floats with Guinness and ice cream. We want try them all, but our stomachs fail us. Late that night we drag ourselves home, tired and sore, and I watch a family gathering cans from the garbage along my friend’s street. “It’s just another part of the city,” she says, writing off something I find sad, disturbing. “It’s like that. It’s always alive.”
I don’t belong here, but a part of me resides forever, in the small round 100 yen coin I hand to a mini-mart owner who keeps a collection of money from all around the world, taped on the wall behind her counter.
297 miles. I am in Chicago. I spend the most time here next to St. Louis. My partner’s family lives here and we stay with them often. On this occasion we make the trek downtown to find parking – we’re meeting our friends in Millennium Park. On the way we stop at the Field Museum; there’s an exhibit on pirates, and I can’t resist the opportunity. It’s a free day, and we spend too much time inside, walking through the purposefully darkened hallways, staring at clothing and treasures and relics dredged up from the belly of a ship, sunken and forgotten long ago on the sea floor. I’m fascinated by the story of the cabin boy, an undocumented stowaway, the only record of his passage in the form of a few small vestiges of clothing. When we leave we walk through a field of tulips on the way into the park, stopping to view the fountains and ourselves in the large silver sculpture we affectionately call “The Giant Bean.” Chicago is filled with buildings, with architecture as old and as important as the city itself. We walk across the riverfront, and I stop to help a struggling fish back into the water; it must have been pulled out and left by a gull. I don’t know why it was left, but I hate to see it lying there, struggling to breathe.
I don’t belong here, but a part of me resides forever, in the reflection of my friends smiling in the polished mirrored surface where we stopped to take a photo, and laughed like children in a fun house mirror.
4196 miles. I am in London. I’m mentally exhausted when I arrive, the product of too much work and too much worry in too short a span of time. At first, I have difficulty adjusting, but we walk, and we walk, and we walk, and slowly I fall in love. The air is thick and polluted and soon I’m rough with a cold and a sore throat, but that doesn’t keep us from walking. In the gardens of Queen Mary I find roses, as round as my face, fat and heavy and smelling so strongly I can’t help but bury my face in them. I watch a man taking a picture of the fountain in the middle of the park, and I wonder what his photo will look like – better than anything I could take, I’m sure. In the East End we follow the paths of poets and artists and murderers; I fall in love with the facades of buildings I wish I could afford to buy and live in forever. In the West End we walk through streets filled with sex shops and movie theatres and tiny, relic-filled bookstores, and along the sides of every walkway there are resin elephants, purchased and hand-painted in wonderful colors and themes. We find a pub selling vegetarian fish and chips, and afterward we feed the ducks in St. James’s Park. Only after I leave do I realize how alive I felt while I was there, and the memory brings me to tears.
I do not belong here, though I desperately wish I did. But a part of me resides forever, in the coin I threw into the hat of a man playing jazz in a distant corner of the underground.
7186 miles. I am in Saga. As far as cities in Japan go, it’s not large, secluded in the middle of Kyushu and largely untouched. My second family lives here, in a house with two stories and a separate garage surrounded by rice fields. There are six people in the house altogether, and only one of their daughters, Mai, speaks any English at all. It doesn’t matter. Somehow we understand each other anyway, in broken English and badly pronounced Japanese, and it makes the communication even more precious for its sparseness and importance. My host father teaches us to play karuta on the floor of the living room; I understand him clearly, though he doesn’t speak a word of English, when I repeatedly beat my cousin and he teases her for her slowness. “She’s beating you all the time, and she doesn’t even speak Japanese!” They take us to the one noteworthy landmark in Saga: a castle, reconstructed and empty, sprawling and filled with sliding doors and tatami mats. The youngest boy, my host brother Ryuuji, is eight – he's afraid to stand on the sections of the floor made of glass meant to show the structure beneath. Afterward they take me to a bakery specializing in mochi and I earn only laughter for my expression when I put it in my mouth – it’s gummy, and gluey, and I hate it intensely. They continue to tease me about my reaction long afterward.
I do not belong here. But a part of me resides forever, in the tears left on the shoulder of my host mother’s shirt as I said goodbye to her at the airport.
412 miles. I am in Broken Arrow. I wasn’t born here, but it’s where I grew up; I spent over 20 years here, just outside of Tulsa, before deciding I needed to break away before I became stuck here forever. My parents still live here, and I still visit, and though I’ve been gone for almost four years now, sometimes I still catch myself thinking like I still live here, like I still drive the same street home after school every day. I don’t regret leaving and I don’t regret the choices I’ve made, the efforts to broaden my horizons and see the world, but I can still feel a part of myself here, left behind for me to find whenever I return. My mother misses me. We go to the same restaurants and shops as we did when I live here. My father misses me. We go have drinks at the pub he likes, even though I still think it disturbs him to realize I’m old enough to drink. My sister misses me. I take her shopping and try to encourage her and talk to her about things in her life, though we’re over seven years apart and I’ve never been very good at talking about feelings. I see old friends, married with children, who’ve not left and never will. I marvel at their lives, and how they can live them. Still. They must be happy, just as I am.
I do not belong here. But a part of me resides forever, in the family I still think about every day, in the room that’s still kept with a bed whenever I visit.
I am back in St. Louis. It’s cold in my apartment and my cat is next to me, snoring loudly in his sleep. It’s almost midnight and I’m tired, weary from writing and remembering the events of the past year. And yet, strangely, I am not saddened. The radiator clicks on. I’ll go in search of my blanket.
I’ll belong here. For now.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
unless you have cats
and expensive furniture.
God helps them who help themselves.
So I'm formally asking God to serve cake.
The first day he came to a shop.