Back in New York City after an absence of more than 20 years, I am besieged by Rip Van Winkle moments. Emerging, a bit short of breath, from the subway -- didn't I bound up those stairs last time? -- I turn instinctively to the right, on my way to meet an old friend for lunch.
I'd laughed when, on the phone, she began to give me directions. Please! This is my neighborhood! I didn't know the restaurant she'd suggested, but I did know that it was south of the subway stop, on that block just past the shoe store where I'd found those green suede pumps that perfected the outfit I wore to that 35th birthday party. But wait, the shop is gone...in its place a cupcake store? Or am I mistaken? Perhaps it's the next block. But wait, what's that huge building? Isn't that where the little jewelry shop was, the one where my friend Jossie bought opening night gifts for all her fellow cast members?
I am riveted to the sidewalk, a wedged stump impeding the flow of pedestrian traffic, disoriented and clueless as a tourist. My eyes fall gratefully on a familiar sight: the pharmacy, still on its corner. Where, as a newly married denizen of the neighborhood, I was deferred to as Mrs. M___, assured in hushed tones that my purchases would certainly be delivered to the pre-war building I lived in with my new husband.
That husband and I left when our son was born, following the old migration; eschewing the joys of city life for a backyard with a play set. I vividly recall the night I drove out of the city, through a muffling blizzard. "I'll be back," I promised, the lights winking in my rearview mirror. But I lied. The road I'd taken jutted into a twisted path, each skidding turn taking me farther from my city. My visits grew awkward, like those of my now-ex with our son. With the evermores severed, the Now is fraught with insecurities. Once you leave a place you're no longer of it. You're not a New Yorker when you can't raise your arm and flag a cab to take you home.
I have always been preoccupied with the notion of home. Growing up in a distinctly undomestic household, I made little nests of every space available. A passionate animist, I fervently nurtured relationships with the insidious and fickle landscape of my small life: the slope of a hill, the weight of the snow-laden holly branches, the honeyed light of certain winter afternoons, bending through an old window pane onto a chestnut floorboard.
Each time we left a house, as we did frequently, I bid tearful farewells and promises to return to my friends: the towering hemlock, whose fragrant needles cushioned me in my reading nest; the screen door whose easy slap announced our comings and goings; the curve of the dormer ceiling in what had been my bedroom. I never returned, never, to any of them. They visit me in my dreams, those shapes and presences, they wake me and hold me in nostalgia and wonder at the passage of time.
But tempis do fugit, as my mother says, and here I am, home at last, muttering sorry to the passersby whose path I am blocking. No man stands in the same river twice, nor woman on Lexington Avenue. "Get over it," my friend says, when I finally sink into the seat across from her in this painfully hip restaurant that used to be a butcher shop. "Blink and the corner restaurant changes hands. Go on vacation and just try finding your favorite nail place when you get back. That's life. That's New York." It's one of the things I always loved about this city, that ever-churning motor. It's what spurred on this great renaissance after 9/11. Get on the horse and ride, or move to back to the suburbs; your choice. This is my first stab at going back. I'm filled with trepidation, to be honest. You have to wonder, can you go home again? Or must you move on, in the ceaseless quest of finding home?
Teresa Link's new novel is "Denting The Bosch: A Novel Of Marriage, Friendship, And Expensive Household Appliances." You can visit her website or follow her on Twitter.
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