Two and a half weeks is long enough for everything to go strange. When I returned home last night, our apartment smelled like a hotel room: crisply musty in a way that says no one has stayed there for long. There were no cooking smells or the lingering odor of sandalwood incense. I set down my bags and scanned the furnishings that seemed familiar. It was clean, everything put away. A place in waiting. It smelled like the hotels and motor courts that we had been staying in, the aroma of humanity atomized and intermingled into a bland ozone by industrial vacuums, and so, for a second, I had to reassure myself that I was really home.
Yes, my green sofa was as soft as I left it, and the refrigerator as bare. I picked through the monolithic stack of mail to find new issues of The New Yorker and The Paris Review; so much for catching up on back issues during my trip. A rejection letter from Jentel assured me that, though they were sorry to disappoint a serious writer like me, their Panel of Reviewers rated my work favorably. I smiled and wondered how many other writers received the same message.
I noticed then that the clocks were wrong. Daylight savings had happened while I was away; my apartment was an overlooked pocket of the past. Days and time made little sense to my tired mind anyway. I left Queenstown on a 2:40 pm flight on Saturday, March 14, transiting through Sydney on a 5:30 pm flight and landing in Los Angeles at 12:55 pm on March 14 again. I arrived in Seattle later that evening, still March 14, around 7 pm. I had traveled thousands of miles only to have gone backwards in time.
It was summer in Oceania, so I hadn’t brought a coat, but it was only crisp, not cold or rainy, so I took light rail rather than a taxi. Maybe I wanted to savor the idea of the stack of mail that awaited. Maybe I was too cheap for the $55 cab ride. As we pulled away from SeaTac, a group of four teenagers began to blast rap from their phones. They paused the music at each stop to see if transit security might be waiting to board, then proceeded to fill our car with a battering cloud of fuck, nigger and bitch all the way to Westlake Station.
Compared to this, my strange-smelling apartment was eerily quiet, too quiet to sleep. I put on a movie and rifled through catalogues and bills. I logged in the literary rejections that waited in my inbox. And the letter. Past eleven, I finished the final pages of The Boys in the Boat and read a chapter of How to See Yourself As You Really Are. In it, the Dalai Lama suggests that we should let go of our belief in inherent existence. In my current state, detached and overstimulated, I tended to agree, so I turned off the light and finally drifted off to sleep.
I was surprised to wake past nine. I had been dreaming of work, of running around trying to complete an impossible task that no one was able to assist me with. My scattered attempts seemed to take forever and I kept remarking my surprise that the owner had not yet emerged from the conference room demanding results. The dream melted into the blurry shapes of my bedroom. I roused in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager, a heavy wakefulness that aimed to pull me back down under the current of a thick, dark, black-green sleep. You can’t spend the whole day in bed, a voice murmured from somewhere. Sluggishly, I rose.
The Sunday New York Times, the main reason for rising, wasn’t waiting outside. Maybe this really wasn’t my apartment. Maybe I wasn’t really here. Maybe my soul was still working its way across the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean. They say that it takes three days for your soul to re-inhabit your body after air travel. Today, this feels true.
Back upstairs, I walked to the window only to notice flowering trees in the courtyard that I’ve not seen before. Dogwoods, or maybe flowering cherry trees. We moved in during the middle of summer, so I had yet to see them blossom. What a strange thing not to recognize the plants outside of one’s home, another measure in my theory that I am only a passing visitor.
There was no cream for tea or coffee. What was left in the container, hardly anything, was chunky. There was no breakfast food or milk for cereal, but I wan’t hungry anyway. I retired to the sofa to read the paper online, but only the juiciest bits: the book review, Sunday review, travel, style sections. I missed the grit of pulp and ink between my fingers.
When it came time to clean up, I forgot which way our shower handle went. Nearly every day for the past few weeks was a different shower, a different handle. Ah, yes, hot is up. Afterwards, my fingers fidgeted to locate the little on/off switch above the outlet so that I could power my hair dryer, but there wasn’t one. My American outlet with American voltage won’t give you a serious shock, and my American hair dryer will dry hair in under ten minutes. After applying my American flat iron, I began to look something like myself again.
Three flights in twenty-four hours sucked the moisture from my skin, so I slathered on eye cream and moisturizer, but left the make up off. While visiting Angela in Melbourne, I was still in polite society, and with that comes foundation, concealer, powder, bronzer, blush, eye shadow and mascara. In New Zealand, we were mainly in motor camps, the beach, the mountains, the car. I was the only one who even needed a bathroom outlet, the only one who had more than a single toiletry bag, the only one who had makeup to not put on. One morning, Michael whispered, “Are you okay? What happened to your eyes?” We realized it was the dark circles that I normally cover up.
No makeup, no polite society. I’m still on vacation, if only the final hours. In my drawers, I find clothing that is appropriate for the rain outside. Soft things, black things, things that cover whole arms and legs. I look inside my closet and feel the heaviness of my suitcase; all those clothes I don’t wear, I want to bag them up and give them away. They feel ponderous and unnecessary. What I need to live is less than I brought with me, far less than what I have here.
I am confused at the traffic circle on the way to the store. For the past few weeks, I cringed against drivers turning into what would be oncoming traffic only to find that my instincts were incorrect. Today, I start to turn my wheels left at the traffic circle until I see the driver on the opposite side turn to the right, and so I mirror him with a shudder. Right, turn right, I remind myself. I panic then, wondering what side of the street I had been driving on when coming down 15th. I can’t remember.
Trader Joe’s doesn’t have sultanas, they have raisins. They have mounds of robust Pink Ladies compared to the gnarled crab apples in New Zealand. I can’t remember if I get the raisin bread with pecans at this store or QFC, but I can’t find it on the shelves, so I assume that it must be QFC. Everything looks strange. A few items have been through rebranding while I was away, and so the contents of my cart appears different than I expected it to; I wonder, yet again, if I am really home. The checker is nice and chatty, comments on the rain. Says that my vacation is her dream trip.
Back at the apartment, I unpack groceries and my suitcase. Start the wash. I can’t recall which things were or weren’t cleaned again after they hung on Angela’s line in Australia, so I throw it all in. I should be hungry, but I’m not. In place of hunger, I find parts of myself that have expanded from the excesses of travel, namely drinking beer each night of our road trip through the South Island. Funny, I didn’t even consider buying beer at the store, though I am thirsty for one at the thought of it. I pat down the new lumpy parts of myself and remember the Times article from this morning that said how damaging “fat talk” is, so I say nothing out loud.
A foreigner abroad, at home, in my body, a stranger to this silent apartment that I’m not sure is mine. No beer, no lamb, no people saying heaps when they mean lots or dear when they mean expensive. No one will ask what we’ll have for tea tonight because informal evening meals are not dinner or supper in New Zealand, rather they are tea. Dinner means a meal in a nice restaurant, but I will have neither because I am in America. Maybe I will fix a big salad, something that New Zealand seems not to have discovered yet. I unpack the rest of my things, the Panadol I bought in Australia because they don’t have Advil, the Strepcil cough lozenges I bought in New Zealand to fight my hacking cough. I pour a glass of cold, fizzy water to drink, which our Kiwi friends avoided in favor of tap, as the cost of bottled water, like all foodstuffs there, is very dear.
For now, it’s back to the sofa to finish the thick book I picked up at the Queenstown airport. Normally, I’d avoid such a bulky thing (who has the time?), but the luxury of reading genre fiction is too delicious to resist. The voice from this morning suggests that there are lists to be made, neglected stories and essays to return to, tasks to be accomplished before the work week begins. On second thought, if I really am a guest here, a traveler still on holiday, perhaps I’ll wait. Maybe I’ll wake up somewhere else tomorrow.