I was always running: the Burke-Gilman Trail, the quiet side streets of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Incense led a quiet trail to Bruce Lee’s grave and his occasional pilgrims. I blurred the Sunday morning tai chi in Volunteer Park, pushing my body harder when any thoughts entered my mind. I ran to escape myself.
As I leaned over to stretch and untie my shoes, my muscles started to tense, like taut rope, bringing me back to the constriction of reality.
It’s over, I thought. He’s not coming back. The reminder was always waiting, always making a home inside my body. I could feel everything inside me tightening. A shock of red lightning radiated from my lower back down my right leg, settling in my calf, and it was only getting worse.
In my too-small studio apartment, I sat on the twin bed that fit in the closet and wished for something, anything, to remove me from this life. I wrote poems about words and what they meant, trying to make sense of what was happening.
Unknowingly, I ran a half-marathon with a bulging disc in my back, and a 5k, too. I carried it with me everywhere I went, knowing the ache but not the diagnosis. Finally, after physical therapy pressed the pain even further into my body, there was nothing more they could do. An orthopedist poked pins in my calves. You’ve lost feeling, she said, which seemed so far from the truth. While the technicians injected my lower spine and S-I joint with ineffective cortisone, I let the tears fall onto the sanitized linoleum squares. Afterward, I walked the few blocks from the clinic to the studio apartment, finally accepting the prognosis: I had to stop running.
Three thousand miles from my tiny world in Seattle, a poet picked up a phone and called me, offering a spot in a graduate writing program. I was going to write poems in Boston. I started to pack my belongings with what felt like abandon but was something more akin to a slow purge, disposing of things I regret throwing out now, things that tied me to Seattle but also to the depression. Photos, small trinkets, and mementos went into the trash. I ended up shipping only a few boxes across the country and getting rid of everything else. Then, I left.
Now, I desire to be everywhere and nowhere, homeless but with many homes. I take with me a hometown and a city I loved to places that are always temporary. I think of no place with any kind of desire. Even Seattle, the city I once longed to return home to, has changed in the years I’ve been gone.
So, I rarely go west. Instead, I teach in Baltimore, where I spontaneously buy tickets for a bus to NYC or a train to DC. I write the essays I was always too afraid to write. I like Baltimore. I like Baltimore so much that it scares me. I even look at realty listings for rowhouses in my neighborhood and fawn over the brick facades and large ceramic pots of geraniums, verbenas, and various grasses that line the front stoops like bouncers, and I begin to wonder if there is something or someone here that will finally make me stay. I attend poetry and fiction readings with colleagues who are really friends. I accept a promotion at my university job. My poems are accepted for publication, as are my new essays. They unfurl and blossom, these tender reflections on what has become a new life. My writing group meets at old, dimly lit dive bars, and we drink beer and eat pizza or burgers until my ass hurts from the ancient wooden benches.
But the chair of my department says she’s very sorry, but and I almost begin to believe her, that calculated frown, that look of it isn’t personal. Low enrollment, she says. My decision is instantaneous, finalized before I can cross the threshold of her office.
“There are other jobs in Baltimore,” everyone says, but I drive to a warehouse in Pigtown, where rowhouses are boarded in every direction. We load twenty collapsed boxes into the hatch of my car. My apartment becomes a staging area: piles for donations, stacks of items to sell, trash. I sell my couch, my bed frame. I sleep on a mattress on the floor. Students ask questions in class, but I’ve already checked out—even though the semester has nine more weeks—because I’m already gone. Besides, I think, Baltimore wasn’t really forever. A little voice asks if maybe I’ve made a mistake. But it’s so easy to leave, I think. Do I even know how to stay?
I ship the boxes, numbered one to sixteen, and pack my car because I bought it in Alexandria. Centered, in the front window, is the Virginia inspection sticker that I refuse to remove. I’m headed back to my hometown in Washington because I don’t know what else to do—just two hundred eighty-three miles from my old home in Seattle. Four months from now, I will not be able to remove by hand the screws that hold my front license plate, and for an hour, I will drive with a Maryland tag on the front and a Washington plate on the back.
Over the years, each tiny visit west chipped at the walls I built that kept me away. The break-up is as long gone now as the depression, and I’m ready for a coast-to-coast adventure, watching the lime green ground-cover reach toward the leafy foliage, its competing shades of fuchsia, and know I can make it in five days, even with stopping in Mitchell, South Dakota. There, I will call a friend and tell her it smells like baskets and buy a beaded corncob keychain that will commemorate my visit to The World’s Only Corn Palace. I will hang it in my car and finish in four days.
When I return to Spokane, I will immediately join a gym, trying to find something that feels normal. After Baltimore, nothing here will feel normal, just familiar, landmarks of what will seem like a past life. It will feel too white, too suburban. My family will be so close I’ll feel uneasy simply being in the same time zone, and I’ll run into people who call me by names I haven’t gone by in decades. I’ll send holiday cards back east, with a hope to see the new baby, born just after I left. I won’t love it in my hometown, but I’ll get another teaching job I’ll like, so I’ll tell myself hold on. Ten years will have passed since I was running through Seattle, but I’ll begin walking the treadmill, imagining what it could feel like to walk through that grayness and misty rain again, and I’ll stroll along the cobblestones in Baltimore, wiping my salty brow, looking out over the harbor toward the Domino Sugar sign, as I did on my last balmy night in Fells Point, before coming back to the step, step, step along the belt.
But I’ll start making excuses to drive the four few hours across the state to Seattle, where friends host me for weekends. My favorite Thai restaurant will have closed, but small bastions of curry and slick rice noodles remain tucked behind faded signs and chipping paint. We’ll drive toward Alki Beach and gaze across Elliott Bay at the city that wants to welcome me home. I won’t mind the silver cranes that line the skyline, those stark contrasts to the port’s orange unloaders, can after can from incoming cargo ships. It’s not even close to balmy, but I’ll feel the salty air skim along my cheek, and I’ll close my eyes. Is this what it feels like to be home? I’ll sleep on couches and in foreign beds for these glimpses of what it could be like, and I’ll think yes. And I’ll mean it.
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