More than I can tell.
After a while, you come to terms with the things you took for granted that are no longer there. For instance, the particular brand of queso dip they sell at Harris Teeter, which is nowhere to be found in New York supermarkets. The way spring comes early in the South, the way flowers look against red brick. How easy it was when your friends all lived down the hall, up the stairs, across the courtyard. A time when the word “Künstlerroman” rolled off your tongue without a second thought. Weekends when you could dance all night, and then walk ten yards, barefoot, heels in your hand, costume coming undone, and roll into bed. And the next morning: brunch, scrambled eggs with cheese, yogurt parfaits with too many chocolate chips, the sun highlighting the shadows under everyone’s eyes, all of your friends in one spot. And how ordinary it was. How you never took pictures of the ordinary things because you never really realized how quickly they would go away.
We all knew Sangam would go away, and we didn’t take pictures anyway. Oh, there are plenty of photos of places–of markets and temples and old trees and streets. There are plenty of pretty, posed photos in saris; photos from trips away. But there are so few photos of real life. Chai time, reading the horoscopes, the stupid sex column in the Pune Mirror. All of us, hunched over that one computer in the corner that worked. 9 AM meeting. Reception. Dancing in the hall to 5 minute music.
Coming back to New York is like rediscovering the things I forgot I took for granted. The most important one, the best one, so far, is I know where I am going. All of the time. I understand the way the streets are laid out, I can read all of the signs–but I don’t need to! I can use the subway to get almost anywhere–at least, anywhere I usually want to be–without thinking. It’s the same sort of confidence I am rediscovering behind the wheel of the car: radio blasting, making wide turns, back to one-handed-driving and going a little too fast at night when there’s no one on the roads. I feel in charge, again, of the outcomes of my travels. It is nice not to rely on a rickshaw driver to know where he is going. It’s nice to know what your end destination looks like, and to know so well where you want to be, after months away. Certain subway stations are familiar, friendly, even at 2 o’clock in the morning, when the the trains are slow and the platform’s too full (I’m looking at you, West 4th).
In some ways, it is hard to be home. It’s hard to wake up and ride on a packed and sleepy commuter train every morning, to learn new faces and names and routines and responsibilities at my new job. It is hard to live with my parents again; somehow, telling them whether I plan to be home for dinner feels one hundred times more restrictive than signing out at the gate at Sangam. And being out on Long Island–even if I am only thirty, thirty-five minutes from midtown Manhattan–makes reconnecting with friends more challenging. When you leave a bar at 1:45 and don’t get home until 4 because the next train isn’t until 2:59 and you have to walk home from the station because nobody is coming to get you at 3:35 AM, you realize why the suburbs were made for married, settled people.
That’s the hardest part, maybe, about being home. I have my favorite lipstick back, I have tights and boots, I have Cherry Twizzler Pull ‘N Peel, I have the Strand bookstore and Clinton Street Bakery and short hair, again–but despite all those familiar, homebound things, despite their sudden and surprisingly surprising return to me, I feel loose, unmoored, distracted, unsettled. It feels weird and strange to be tied down, to be in one spot, to be back where I began. Not North Carolina (and what I wouldn’t do for a North Carolina spring, none of this wet, wild, gray weather); not India. Not even Cambridge or West Virginia, or, God forbid, Florida–all of those places life after Lynbrook took me to. Here I am, in New York, city of dreams, city of ambition, city of always building up and up–but I am ready to be scattered, still. Like Belle’s dandelion seeds, on the wind–give me adventure in the great wide somewhere, you know?
But I can’t decide where, or how, or why, or when. Well, the when is clearer–not yet, not now. This is good, for now. I am going to learn a lot, I am going to be a real adult with a real job at an organization doing amazing things. (How often do you get to copyedit a letter that mentions your company’s good deeds, and those good deeds include, oh, you know, lowering the maternal mortality rate in Bangladesh by 40%, and increasing family planning in Tanzania by 35%, and so on and so forth. I work somewhere amazing.) But I am a forward-thinking person, and, above all, a settled person, I like to feel organized and ready and planned. So I cast my mind over the questions again and again: do I want to go to grad school? If so, what kind, and when? Do I want to work in NGOs? So far, so good. But do I want to do it here, in New York, in the U.S.? For the next few years, sure–but then what? Do I want to write? I want to write. I always want to write. But do I want to write? Is a notepad on the LIRR going to cut it, these days? Do I want to teach? I am good at teaching. I get so much satisfaction out of teaching. But is that the kind of difference I want to make? Big or small, Jessica, big or small? How am I going to apply my skills, what kind of contribution am I going to make? And, regardless, where? Do I want to move to France, work for some international NGO in Paris, regain my full fluency, fix my grammatical errors, and pass the language down to my children, raise them up somewhere where they’ll eat endives and read Proust? (Yeah, right. But–I voted in the French presidential elections last weekend, at the International School of Brooklyn, down where Carroll Gardens becomes Red Hook, this adorable red school that was probably once a church and had hand-drawn flags of every country imaginable draped across the halls like bunting. I want my kids to go to a school like that, one day–) But I don’t want kids right now. For the first time since I took a drag of a milkshake at Cook Out and imbibed all that Southern culture: I do not want to be married, soon. Give me the white dress and Mason jars and Provencal-style wedding some other, other day. Before all of that, I want to go back to India, I want to go to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, I want to work in a tiny place where I am the only American for miles, and after a while it doesn’t matter anymore. Except, maybe I don’t. Maybe there’s something else I will discover I want to do.
I don’t know what the answers are, and I am beginning to understand that it’s okay not to have them. It is all right to just put one foot in front of the other and not know where exactly the path I am on will take me. Two years ago, I would never have dreamed I would have gone to India and come back. Life is full of unexpected opportunities. It’s also full of confusing transitional phases, which I am fully experiencing right now. But that’s okay. You have to cross bridges to get from island to island. Some of them are treacherous. But I know how to swim.