The sky was grey when we landed. The buildings were grey. And like visiting your kindergarten long after you’ve left, the world outside of the portal window seemed smaller and less shiny than I had remembered or hoped. I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I considered asking the pilot to turn right back around. But I had no idea what wonders waited for me in the airport. As soon as I deplaned I was overcome with sheer joy. Photos of lean-to houses and ripe, fuzzy peaches smiled at me glossily from the walls of the terminal. The portly attendants with gravity defying hair sculptures called me 'bay-bah' and chattered about drinking ‘Co-co-lah.’ The border patrol was a regiment made solely of sweet Southern boys, with chiseled jaws and gentle questions, who wished me all the best. And oh the bathrooms! Toilet paper as thick and supple as the world’s biggest cotton ball. Sparkling clean seats to really and truly sit on. What a brave new world I had landed in! I even drank from the faucet just because I could, thankyouverymuch. And how sweet that lukewarm water tasted.
But then again I plunged. Waiting for my baggage to be pooped out onto the conveyor belt was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I could feel the grey hairs squeezing their way onto my head and my chances of having a massive stroke skyrocket. The women in my family have many a blessed virtue, patients is not one of them. I had planned on surprising my parents 12 hours early but how in the world could I when faceless gremlins were keeping my backpack prisoner for crimes unknown? But finally, like a ray of hope, it sprang from the bowels of the airport and trundled its way onto the conveyor belt. I snatched it up, raced the rest of the way through the labyrinth of customs and security cleanings then popped out into the world and onto the MARTA, Atlanta’s metro system.
It’s comforting to know that some things will never change. For instance, MARTA will always smell like chicken wings and cocoa butter and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I plopped down onto a plastic orange seat, breathed deep the smells of my youth and chatted with a good ole American businessman about his work in costume jewelry and my adventures around the world. The voice coming out of my mouth sounded detached and foreign as I talked lightly about living in Mongolia and Cambodia for two and a half years. The businessman, kind and interested albeit a little confused, had never been abroad before. Of all my fears in coming home, I dread being someone people can’t relate to or sounding too big for my britches. I don’t want to be that guy in the hostel bar, chain smoking and telling everyone about how rad homestays in Afghanistan were before the Russians invaded or that if you haven’t seen the sunrise from K2 you haven’t actually lived at all. Everyone’s impressed but no one actually likes that guy.
At any rate, after defending myself in the face of a very persistent homeless man, I plodded off the train and into Midtown Atlanta, from jungle to jungle. I was quite the spectacle, brightly colored boots, greasy hair and toting a massive olive backpack, like Atlas back from his gap year. I even got some amused grins and cheerful thumbs-up from businessmen on their lunch breaks. And finally, after a total of 27 hours, I spilled into the door of my Dad’s office, much to his surprise. I was home.
It’s been good being back, although it’s been less than a day. I had a hefty nap, split two bottles of wine with my elated parents over whole wheat (!!) pasta and smoked salmon then slept like a baby. It had been three days since I’d slept horizontally and for more than four hours in a row. But hometown glory aside, I know it will be hard. My grandmother just got released from the hospital; the first of what will be a continuous dance as we, her concerned and loving family, follow her between nursing homes and hospital beds. My parents are hosting a memorial service for a dear friend’s father at our house today. My hunt for a good job, which will predictably be exasperating, has officially begun. And somehow, in the midst of all this, I feel like I’m still not here for good. Impulsively, I was reluctant to unpack my make-up bag, thinking ‘why bother? I’m just going to leave soon anyway.’ Perhaps it’s an old habit. Maybe it’s true. We’ll see.
But I remain optimistic; so far so good. Right now happiness is an avocado turkey bagel for breakfast while fitting into my old skinny jeans. And being home again.