Never

You can go home again and again.

Lane Near Singapore (1870) by Marianne North

Sue leaves seeds for the birds but the squirrels eat most of them. She leaves early in the morning to walk with Nancy, golden light hitting the tops of the tall trees. Emma used to walk with them but then she moved to a home in New Jersey and a year later she died. In the middle of a dinner party Emma used to say, “I feel a song coming on,” like a song was a fever. Then she’d stand and sing.

The woman next door had a birthday party yesterday. Someone taped up a sign that said Happy 80th! on the side of her house. Sue’s 80th is next spring but I’ll still be 3000 miles away, 30 years after I left. I thought I’d move back after a year when I broke up with my boyfriend, after three years when my dad died, after five years when I moved from San Francisco to LA instead, after ten years when I figured I was done with LA. The light hits the tall trees and I think, Why not live here instead? Why has it taken so long?

The problem is the smell of the air in the morning, like rain-covered leaves, the smell of loneliness and empty hours, the smell of mud pies and pine needles and trips to the lake. The problem is the sound of wind through the trees, rustling leaves reminding you to run outside and get the clothes off the line before it rains, the sound of knowing that you’re on your own again. Thunder rumbles far away and the birds repeat themselves, wondering who is on their side.

You can forgive a person once you decide they’re just another animal waiting for their turn, feeling hungry, never getting enough, watching someone else take everything. You can forgive a person once you understand that they felt a song coming on. How do you deny a song? You can forgive a person for moving 3000 miles away for 30 years. A fever is a fever.

But you can’t forgive a place. The air smells like tears, the wind sounds like sighs: I will take whatever this world brings me, the baby says. What other choice is there?

***

This spot on the map feels like surrender. The light hits the trees in scattered clusters, here but not here. The giant clouds form out of nowhere, then disappear without a drop of rain. The birds sing “Drink your tea!” over and over again, even after you’ve had your tea. The wet summer air loves you and misunderstands you in the same breath.

At this latitude, time slows down and also moves too quickly. At this longitude, the ice in your glass melts in five minutes but your tea stays hot forever. In this town, the past and the future never leave you alone. The train rolls through at 6:30 am. Mrs. Byerly lived there. My friend Meredith lived there. My dog is buried here.

I’m not that old yet, I tell the trees, but every decision feels permanent now. Every friendly neighbor talks too loudly. Everyone is on your side but they wonder why you care so much, why you can’t make up your mind, what the big deal is. Everyone loves you and tells you that you want too much in the same breath. I’m not a baby anymore, I tell the birds. “Drink your tea!” the birds answer.

I don’t want one spot on the map. Let me appear out of nowhere then disappear before it rains again. Give me real friends to leave behind. I’ll be back soon, don’t worry, get the dogs in the car, my flowers are blooming on the other coast. Nothing is permanent, they’ll be gone by August, I’ll be back in December, don’t say from now on, don’t say forever. You put out seeds and they disappear and you put them out again. A fever is a fever.

Some day, we won’t have the luxury of wanting too much. We’ll have to take whatever this world brings us. Before she moved away, Emma went on a walk and lay down under a tall tree and said, “I will never be here again.”