Homesickness is generally expressed as a one person, one place phenomenon, but I have experienced waves of homesickness for every place I’ve ever lived. I even yearn for Alabama from time to time, especially the late afternoon summer thunderstorms that shake the magnolia trees, all slick green and heavy cream. Does it make me feel fickle sometimes? Sure. Someone once excoriated my use of the word “favorite” because, in his words, “They can’t all be favorites.”
The heatwave dissipated quickly, leaving behind the merest hint of autumn in the air. A few rainy days in a row were enough to wrangle me into heartier outerwear, and as I attempted to shove a wee bag of blueberries into one of my jacket pockets, my fingers caught on a couple of pieces of paper.
I drew them out and smiled. Two tickets from Lothian Buses, dated last December.
In this endless and perhaps ill-conceived push to move ever forward, I had not allowed myself anything more than the briefest of glimpses in the rear-view mirror at the landscape — that stark, lush, unforgiving and breathtaking landscape — that had just been left behind.
This is home, and that was home too. The heart bounces between the two like a pinball made of feathers. Things fracture and spin off. That’s okay too.
The woman in line in front of me at the post office told me that she couldn’t put the Ray Charles stamps on her letters home to Tennessee. She told me to look out for the Jimi Hendrix stamps, and I was glad she did because I hadn’t seen them and they’re beautiful.
The woman in line in front of me at the post office kept chatting with me while she was buying stamps, and then thanked me for chatting with her before she left. I know this is normal behavior in this country but I am still slightly flummoxed by it. I may have been blushing.
Writing from: my makeshift study in the dining-room. Listening to: Maxine’s buzzing masking something on TV in the living-room.
I thought I had prepared myself for possible points of reverse culture shock. Then I wandered into the candy aisle of our local Walgreens, pictured bottom-right in today’s photo. All I wanted was a pack of mints. There were so many different mints to choose from, and they were right next to a million candy bars, some of which I hadn’t even heard of before. We’ve only been gone for four years! How can so much candy innovation occur in such a short period of time?
The other two photos are from Whole Foods, one from the yogurt case and the other from the nuts aisle. I wasn’t able to capture the scale of either section of the store. There were more things to choose from than I was capable of comprehending of eating, and I really enjoy eating.
Many times while living abroad I pondered what it would be like to walk into a supermarket and be able to choose from different types of food that I wanted to eat as opposed to just different types of food that I could eat. (There were plenty of gluten-free crackers and biscuits in Scotland, but I’ve never enjoyed eating either very much.) Back in America, I’ve been bombarded by so many options that I’ve quickly become overwhelmed. I’m sure it will even out soon, and when it does I hope that I’m able to retain some of this awe over just how many options there are for me here.
Writing from: a room with kale chips in it. Two different flavors, even. Listening to: Zen’s chainsaw purrs. (She likes kale chips almost as much as I do.)
“It’s getting real” is a phrase I unabashedly love. I love it because it’s fun to say and because it indicates a transition from unreality. This unreality is exactly what I have been experiencing in the beautiful enclave of Marin County, reinforced by the fact that I am dependent on others to get in and out of it.
It got real tonight when I took the bus over the bridge, then another bus, and ended up at 19th and Judah, waiting for the N. I snapped a pic on the wheelchair ramp and paused to admire the view. A passerby cheerfully reminded me that I was not in the right place to board the N.
True to form, three inbound Ns came in quick succession while I had to wait over twenty minutes for one outbound. When it arrived, it was packed, but I boarded anyway.
Nothing was different. Everything was different. My belly felt warm, like it was full of hot cocoa.
I took the N to my usual stop and walked to our former home. It was too dark to see if it had been painted a different color. The living-room was bathed in television glow, and different plants were crowded into the meager patch of dirt near the front sidewalk.
Without thinking, I walked to where I would meet my former coworkers for dinner. (The body remembers where it once was situated in physical space.) I sat down at a table set for twelve. (A week ago, I was laughing over lamps in an empty flat.) I am alone in a restaurant full of people. (Text messages ping inside my handbag.)
How has it been four years already? How has it only been four years?
Writing from: Zen’s room in this beautiful enclave. Listening to: laptop fans singing to each other.
First things first: Zen is safely with us.
When I posted yesterday’s photo, I was pretty worked up about Zen being stranded in Newark, but I knew that I wouldn’t be of any use if I didn’t try to get some sleep until the morning. I had barely drifted off when the landline rang. FunkyPlaid jumped up to answer it. The caller was someone asking if we were going to pick up our kennel (their word) or if they should send it via the delivery service.
In my half-awake state, two things ran through my head:
Someone at the Newark airport seems to think we’re local enough to pick Zen up or to send her via ground transportation. Huh?
Something has happened to Zen and all the airlines now has is her empty travel kennel. Which they now want me to pick up. We’re not even going there.
I mumbled something about not understanding what they were talking about and asking where they were calling from. The person identified themselves as a cargo attendant for the airline at SFO and repeated the query about the kennel, adding the fact that Zen had been there since just after eleven the night before and they usually only keep kennels for four hours.
I was so confused that I asked the person if there was a cat inside the kennel.
“Yep, a big one,” the cargo attendant said. (Hey. She’s not that big.)
I said we’d be right there. The cargo attendant confirmed that they had given Zen a bit of water so she wouldn’t get dehydrated, a small detail that buoyed me. At least someone in that whole transport process was thinking of Zen as a living being and not just some stray bit of cargo.
We quickly got dressed, set up Zen’s litter box, and drove to SFO. Sure enough, Zen was there, in fine fettle and waiting for us. There was some issue with the paperwork — what a surprise — but the excellent folks at the airline cargo place got us sorted quickly and we were on our way home.
When we got here, Zen ate all of the food we gave her, drank a lot of the water, and happily received all the snuggles we could give her.
As she dozed off I wrote yet another strongly-worded letter to the pet transport company. I still have not heard back.
After a few hours of relieved sleep, our first official act was to pick up our new car. During this process I decided that taking a selfie behind the wheel was an awesome idea or maybe just an idea and in my jet-lagged state ideas are in short supply. I didn’t intend for it to be today’s photo but I failed at that so it wins by default.
My one request of the day was a smoothie from Jamba Juice, an indulgence I have dearly missed, so we went there next … via P.F. Chang’s where I ate all of their gluten-free Mongolian beef with quinoa instead of rice. There is so much right in that sentence.
On the way home, we picked up some basic supplies for Zen. And that brings me to the five-hour nap and the present moment.
After an initial bit of turbulence, today has been a soft landing.
Everything is so big and so shiny and so new that it’s no wonder when Americans go abroad the first adjective we trot out is “quaint”. America is short on “quaint”.
I was stymied by the number of choices of cat food. Grain-free cat food with salmon flakes is a thing that exists.
I almost cried when the P.F. Chang’s server had a non-food-related conversation with us. I know more about him than I did about the people in the building we lived in for the past two years.
Not sleeping before a long international flight seems like a great idea until jet-lag happens. Now I’m wide awake at midnight PST, which makes total sense in GMT where it is eight in the morning. d’oh.
Writing from: a guest bedroom in balmy Marin. Listening to: Zen’s purrs.
I’m not going to bury the lede: Zen is stuck in Newark due to Storm Jonas. I’m distraught both by the circumstances out of our control and by the lack of appropriate action taken by our pet transport company. But with any luck she will be with us in less than twelve hours, so I am resolved to stay positive.
The past twenty-four hours has contained nearly all of the standard range of emotions and some of the limited-edition ones I collected by saving cereal box tops. It started with the lack of sleep: FunkyPlaid did not sleep at all on Sunday night, and I slept for about an hour. Then we gathered up our dear wee calico creature and took her to the airport cargo ‘village’, the sheer preciousness of that phrase making me want to slap something in the face right about now.
This is where all the fun started. Initially, the cargo attendant refused to accept Zen because he said our pet transport company did not file the proper customs paperwork. Attempting to reach the company at 04:30 in the morning was ineffective, even on their emergency line, but the cargo attendant finally relented and said he’d accept Zen and go through all the usual pre-flight procedure with her in hopes the customs paperwork would get sorted before she needed to be on the plane.
I wish I could describe the feeling of white-hot rage at the situation paired with deep despair over leaving my beloved Zen with disdainful, skeptical strangers. But we had to push through it because in the few short hours between dropping Zen off and catching our own flight we had to turn over our flat and sell our car. You know, standard international relocation stuff. A little over an hour later — and still with no word from our pet transport company — the cargo attendant rang us back and said the airline had approved Zen for travel, so not to worry about the customs paperwork. All was well. Or so we thought.
We knew Jonas was on the way, and would likely interfere with Zen’s flights as she had to fly into the country through Newark. I had prompted our pet transport company for contingency plans. (Again, they failed to come through.) I’ve been tracking flights in and out of Newark just to know what to expect. I had hoped her four-hour mandatory layover — a requirement for pets entering the country — would offer some cushion against the inevitable delays. So I was not surprised when we got word from the airline that her flight would be delayed, and we could pick her up five hours after our own flight arrived.
What I did not see coming is the flight being canceled altogether, stranding Zen in Newark overnight. Even better: we didn’t know it had been canceled until I called the airline to find out the exact time of her arrival tonight. If I hadn’t been so persnickety about it we would have driven all the way back to the airport only to come home empty-handed.
The worst part of all of this is that Zen is alone in an unfamiliar place, thousands of miles away, and I can do nothing about it. I’m trying not to manifest that old adage, “Worrying is praying for something you don’t want to happen,” but all of this drama did put such a damper on what was shaping up to be an excellent welcome home. My in-laws are categorically awesome, and we saw the loveliest glimpse of a massive golden moon shining over the city as we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. Now all we need is Zen with us, safe and sound, and we can get on with the next big adventure.
Writing from: my in-laws’ home in Marin County. Listening to: FunkyPlaid’s breathing as he gets some well-deserved rest.
A couple of years later, befuddled tourists started asking me how to get to the castle. Me! I could hardly believe it. I must have looked like I knew where I was going, but the truth is that the only place I knew how to get to without thinking and without checking on the blue dot on my phone was home.
This is home to me. This has been my home for four years. This will not be my home tomorrow. All of these facts take their turns flitting into and out of the “inconceivable” box in my brain.
I am ready to leave, and I am not ready too. That’s the best time to go.
Writing from: a home, my home, in Edinburgh. Listening to: all of the subtle noises that I won’t hear again.
The bed is a borrowed raft, adrift in the empty flat. FunkyPlaid and Zen and I are left, cosy and drowsy in each other’s company. Strange how it even smells emptier. I am thinking of the other leave-taking in this matched set, and how melancholy I felt. This way feels bittersweet as well, for all we are leaving behind, but there is undeniable relief woven through it: we accomplished what we set out to do. (And more. And less. And so we’ll return.)
Zen has already moved on. The raft was always just a bed to her, and her fireplace is waiting.
Writing from: a still-furnished bedroom in Edinburgh. Listening to: the slow ping of the radiator.
Halsted M. Bernard is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short stories have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Map Literary, and Bewildering Stories, and she has performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, both as a Story Shop participant and with the literary writing and spoken-word performance group Writers' Bloc. For more about Halsted's publications and performances, please see her "Fiction" page.