Sasha no longer took anything from stores—their cold, inert goods didn’t tempt her. Only from people. — Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad
My sophomore year of college, I went to a friend’s house in New Hampshire for Thanksgiving break. I stood in the kitchen, watching her father knead dough, the purple streaks in his hair glowing. On Thanksgiving Day, we enjoyed a vegan dinner of bread, squash salad, sweet potatoes and tahini. My friend’s mom told stories about her co-workers at the local high school. My friend’s dad nodded, chuckling every now and then. I searched for my mom in her mom’s eyes, my dad in her dad’s laugh.
Two months earlier, my father’s job transfer required my parents to pack up our belongings, rent out our house to a family from Oklahoma, and leave for Perth, Australia. The thirteen hour time difference quickly solidified between us, and I kept forgetting to call. When I did, the WiFi wasn’t good—my mom’s face a constellation of dots. I ached to go home but didn’t know where that was.
At my friend’s house, I slept in the guest room attached to the house. The room was cold, and I didn’t know how to turn on the heater. I lay under a thick, white fleece blanket and glanced at the titles on the shelves: Anna Karenina, a book on ornithology, a New World Encyclopedia thesaurus. I stared at the painting on the wall: A long drop of water on a black canvas, a drooping face like a tear. The heater cackled on, lulling me to sleep.
Sometimes, I wake up to a message from my thatha: Why u never call anyMore, want to hear ur Voice. Thatha’s little circular image in the Messenger app causes something to break inside of me. But I don’t call him, instead, I linger in my friend’s room in New Haven, looking at the pictures on her wall. In one photo, she stands with her parents and sisters under a bridge in St. Louis. All of them wear beanies.
I like seeing other people’s homes. It makes me feel like I’m stealing into their lives for a moment—this is all I want, a glimpse.
At my friend’s house, I sit with her sister at the table. My friend has gone out for a walk with her parents and their dog. “Want some tea?” her sister asks. I nod. She brings out an entire box of Bengal Spice and turns on the kettle. When the tea is ready, she pours it into two Philz mugs, and we sip in silence. My friend’s sister takes out a notebook and begins to write. Mist clings to the windows, and in the distance, I see my friend with her parents and their dog, whose fluffy white body is almost camouflaged in the snow. My friend looks at her parents and laughs, a language between them I can’t discern. I want to know what they’re saying, want to be part of the closeness. I wonder about my own parents in Australia, where it’s the middle of the night. I wonder if my dad is still awake—I know he has trouble sleeping—if he’s staring at the ceiling or out the window at the streetlights and cars below.
Sometimes, listening to them, he look in each face, and he feel a great compassion for every one of them, as if he live each of their lives, and all the strain and stress come to rest on his own shoulders. — Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
It’s midnight during October break, and I’m on the upper bunk in my suitemate’s apartment in New York. It used to be her brother’s room. Before I turn the lights off, I look at his trophies from science competitions, the stretched-out poster of Bob Dylan on the wall, hands covering his eyes and a cigar held tight between his lips. I set my alarm for four; I’m taking a train to D.C. tomorrow, the cheapest I could find, at an ungodly hour. In the dark, I text my mom: Happy Birthday. The tacky glow of my iPhone lights up my face. I wait for her typing bubble to appear, then the little hearts.
In the morning, I walk to Penn Station, listening to the thumping of my feet on the ground. The darkness hangs heavy over me. In the station, mostly everyone is sleeping or trying to sleep. A man sits in the waiting area, holding an open cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. It begins to spill, but he’s sleeping and he can’t see. I sit on the floor in the center of the station next to the screens that tell you when the trains are coming and which track to go to. Track 7. I follow the shuffle of people and find a seat near the front. Around me, there’s a man, alone, headphones in, leaning his head on the front seat; a little girl tapping her mother’s knee. I want to feel the fullness of each of their lives on my chest—feel their anger and pain and joy.
In others’ rooms, I stare at the walls—at books and posters and pictures—searching for home. I think of the painting, the face like a tear, the poster of Bob Dylan, cigar smoke appearing to waft out of the paper into my eyes. I drift back to my room in Portland. I’m fifteen, and my mother is sitting on the edge of my bed. She tells me that when she was younger, she read Enid Blyton novels voraciously, escaping to faraway worlds. I imagine her as a girl, sleeping in her living room in Delhi, the summer wind lapping onto her skirt. I want to ask her to read me a children’s story, but I feel too old for that. So I close my eyes and listen to her voice like static in my ears.
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