August 2, 2014—Flagstaff, AZ—Miles from home: unknown
The key clicks in the worn-out lock. I push the door open, put a little weight behind it, and step into the empty apartment. Daylight streams through the doorway and onto the floor, intermittently illuminating the raised edges of the laminate wood panels that, some time before my arrival two days ago, suffered water damage.
I close the door. Then I feel it.
A wave of unnameable emotion, something like homesickness, wielding the sharp edge of grief. It starts in the pit of my stomach and blossoms like the petals of a red carnation covering my shoulders, my arms — an ache that pries at my bones and rubs everything, everything, raw.
My body folds in, crumples to the floor.
I see it all in slow motion, but I know that gravity moves quickly when it’s offered no resistance. My knees hit the floor, then my hands. My arms buckle. I rest my forehead on the floor and let myself cry, let the violent tremors sob through my shoulders and down my back.
An hour passes.
Still in tears, I pull myself off the floor to sit upright in my chair. My only chair, the one I’d picked up at Goodwill when all I really wanted was a bookshelf.
One breath, then another. I relax my shoulders.
One breath, then another. It comes again — the ache.
I shove my face into a pillow and scream all the breath out of my lungs. The split moment between breaths — it normally passes unnoticed — holds my body in stasis, a moment between moments. Time suspended.
My breath returns. I gasp for air before another wave of grief washes over me.
I want to go home, but I don’t know where home is.
* * *
The first time I left New Mexico, I spent a year moving from one friend’s house to another. I ate what I could afford on a meager savings — minus monthly payments, insurance, and gas for my almost-paid-off PT Cruiser. Slept nights on various couches and in a smattering of spare bedrooms.
Bloomington, Indiana, for about a month. Home became a portable reality. Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was there for two days, woke up in the morning and gasped. Where am I? It took a minute to get my bearings. Battle Creek, Michigan. About a month. I couldn’t get used to waking up there — always those moments of panic as I struggled to orient myself to my own life. Grand Rapids again. Eventually, I kind of knew where I was when I woke up. Fremont, Michigan. I was there for two fall seasons — trees ablaze, wind laden with tidings of winter. I was there for two snow-packed Christmases. It was another world from the one I’d grown up in, with frozen drives to work and cozy evenings at home — six months renting a spare bedroom, the rest of the time renting a basement apartment.
Three years after I left New Mexico, I went back.
For the better part of a year, I taught GED classes and worked at a coffee shop and wrote until I thought I’d run out of anything to write. I stayed in my mom’s art studio until the heater conked out, then moved into my dad’s office — my old bedroom. It took time, but I finally started waking up in peace.
Just in time to move again.
* * *
October 1, 2014—Flagstaff, AZ—Miles from home: unknown
I’ve been here for three months. To the day. I have my favorite places for coffee. For internet. For cheap happy hour eats. For beer. For quiet. Familiarity has come more quickly than I’d hoped. I walk out of my office and north on Beaver, wait at the light on Butler.
NiMarcos. Halfway decent, college-budget pizza.
Macy’s. Decent coffee, too noisy, shitty wi-fi.
Beaver Street Brewery. Better pizza, okay beer — nothing like my New Mexican favorites.
There are other places. A bagel joint, a thrift store, and a bar. I haven’t tried them out yet. Maybe I should, but I keep walking. I reach the tracks and look both ways, like the sign says, just in case, though it’s difficult to imagine a train without a decent amount of noise to warn its approach.
I take my time crossing the tracks.
I look down the east line and imagine what’s beyond the horizon, imagine myself on the Amtrak, one station away from the New Mexico border. Red lights flash, the bell ding ding dings, and my pace quickens.
* * *
The Wizard of Oz was my eight-year-old niece’s favorite movie for over a year. The first few times she watched it, her face froze in terror as she watched Miss Gulch ride her bike away with Toto bouncing helplessly along in the basket. My heart melted with her adorableness.
“Jump, Toto, jump!! What are you waiting for!?”
For more than a year, Dorothy and Toto, Lion and Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Wicked Witch of the West took up residence in our VCR player and refused to leave. It wasn’t my favorite movie, but I liked it enough and I liked to watch her watch it. I liked it a lot more before it was the only movie she would watch. Before I had every word of the script memorized. Before I watched it with her for the bajillionth time and her Toto-adoring panic lost some of its delight. She watched it over and over and over and over and over again. Sick and tired of the movie as I was — still am, all these years later — even I have to admit that the movie is not entirely without merit.
* * *
October 28, 1994—NM-380 East—Miles from home: unknown
From the backseat of the van, I watch the world through tinted windows. Dad’s driving. Mom’s next to him, napping. Sam is sitting in the middle seat, directly in front of me. His head drops to one side and he sits up abruptly, nods off again. Sunlight pours onto my lap and I can feel the heat of the desert autumn warming the frozen ache in my tummy — the ache that makes even my back hurt and feels a lot like when I spent the night at Grandma Lane’s in Roswell and snuck a call to Mom and Dad to beg them to take me home.
I pull my legs to my chest and wonder why I feel homesick.
I rest my head on the window, let the movement of the road chatter my teeth while I try to move my thoughts to what I want to be for Hallelujah Night. We don’t celebrate Halloween, so I won’t be a witch or anything scary like that. I’ll be something really cool from a Bible story. Maybe Sam and I can dress up the same. We can’t be Adam and Eve because we have to wear clothes. What if we could dress up like the Ten Commandments?
In the distance, a train is chuffing toward the road, mounted on tracks that will pass underneath the road at the junction — I don’t know the names of the roads, just what they look like and what direction they go.
The road we’re on, if you go backwards, meets up with the freeway that goes to Albuquerque, where we spent the weekend — Dad preached at a friend’s church and we got to stay in a hotel with a swimming pool and cable TV. In the other direction, in front of us, it leads to the road that goes by Bonito Lake and then to the road that will take us home, to Ruidoso. I’m not really sure about the other road, the one that cross this one. I think it’s the main street in Carrizozo, the one that goes to Aunt Maggie and Aunt Alma’s house. We visit them sometimes, but not today. The aunts are a little crazy. Maggie runs around naked sometimes — at least that’s what my cousin Bubba told me. Alma re-uses ice cubes — takes our glasses from us once they’re drained of liquid, and rinses the ice cubes and sticks them back in the freezer. I think that’s gross, but I don’t mind visiting them when they have candy corn and lemon drops in the dish on the kitchen counter.
The junction is closer now and I sit up. The ache in my stomach is mostly gone.
The train moves underneath the road just as we cross. My gaze follows the mud-spattered cars — orange and gray and brown — to where the tracks disappear behind a bend. I wonder where the train has come from and where it’s going, then turn my thoughts back to my costume. Maybe Mom can help us turn cardboard boxes into giant, wearable tablets of stone. I will be the first tablet, Sam will be the second, and we’ll win first prize in the costume contest.
* * *
When I was fifteen, I rebelled.
Our church’s autumn celebration was a conspiratorial attempt to subvert that cultural malfeasance known as Halloween. We held a party we called Hallalujah Night, which always featured a movie specifically chosen to frighten unsaved guests into accepting Jesus and shedding their ghoulish costumes. There were games and prizes, candy, and a costume contest — Bible character costumes encouraged. When I was ten and Sam was eight, we dressed up like the Ten Commandments and won second prize. First prize went to the brothers who dressed up like Joshua and Caleb, carrying gargantuan grapes — or in this case, partially blown up purple balloons tied in bunches to a walking stick — out of the Promised Land. I’d already dressed up as every female character I could find in the Bible, several of the male characters, and a few inanimate — but holy — objects. I was tired of the whole Bible costume thing.
So I dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
I bought a pair of Keds at the thrift shop and covered them in Elmer’s glue, sprinkled them with red glitter then dumped the whole bottle on them for good measure. The dress was denim. I parted my hair down the middle — it was long then, a year before I’d chop it all off, spike it, and don baggy pants and black shirts and spiked metal jewelry — and tied it with blue ribbons, one behind each ear. I didn’t go trick-or-treating. Just dressed up and clicked my heels around the house like Dorothy for a day.
There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.
* * *
October 8, 2014—Flagstaff, AZ—Miles from home: unknown
The sky is cloudy, promising rain. I’m sitting at the coffee shop, my coffee shop — the best coffee shop I’ve found in Flag, hands down — reading a book about a man’s travels on the world’s seven major railways (Tom Zoellner’s Train — an excellent read.)
. . . through the darkened fields at the speed of 110 miles an hour. I found a seat near an older man in a green sweater nodding off in front of a book of crossword puzzles. Across the aisle a beautiful young woman in a stylish coat and high boots was texting a message: . . . AND THEN I WILL BE HOOOOOOME. A light rain had begun to fall. At York the floors were slick with it, and the staff had put out signs warning people not to slip.
I’m sitting near the front door, which is propped open to let in a cool autumn breeze. I look around for somewhere else to sit. It’s too chilly here, feels like the Halloween night I took my niece trick-or-treating in midtown Ruidoso. I tried to get her to dress up as Dorothy, but she was eleven years old and much cooler than I was at fifteen.
There are no other solitary seats or open tables, so I decide to stay put. I try to go back to my reading, but with the door open, the sound of the bell is distracting.
Another train approaching on the tracks across the street.
Traffic makes a last-ditch surge to avoid getting stuck for all of three excruciating minutes.
The crossing gates lower.
Red lights flash.
This train moves east to west and I wonder where it’s come from and where it’s going. Surely it’s seen the New Mexico border, passed through Gallup and Albuquerque before that. I wonder how close it’s come to all those places I’ve slept.
I close my book, give up my noble attempt at productivity, and shoulder my backpack, begin the walk back to my apartment south of campus. Across Route 66, I pass the train station and approach the tracks, look both ways, cross.
I take my time, look down the east line and feel the distance.
My heel scuffs metal, then concrete, then asphalt.
Home is just down the tracks, I tell myself.
Home is just down the tracks. Home is just down the tracks.
Barbara Lane is an editorial intern for the Art House America Blog, and an MFA student at Northern Arizona University, where she also teaches first-year English. She has lived in various places across New Mexico and Michigan and occupies herself with explorations in writing, bread-baking, and beer-brewing wherever she happens to find herself.