I walked into The Double U on my own. I’d been home for a few days but hadn’t told anyone I was coming to Madison. The bouncer eyed my ID with some misplaced sense of authority and I rolled my eyes, I hadn’t been carded in months. The college bar was as I remembered it, but it seemed less fun now. The floor was wet and the music was loud. The beat switched in SICKO MODE and I smiled, I saw my friends in a circle as they were when I left.
Sam lifted me up when he hugged me and I looked down over the crowd, struck by how normal and similar everyone looked, holding a drink to finish it to buy another. But mostly I was happy to be back with my crew. They were hard to hear over the music, but it felt like I’d never left. I saw a girl I knew from high school, but she was too busy taking pictures of herself having fun to seem like much fun at all. The lights came on and the bouncers herded the crowd to the door. Surprised, I checked the time. It wasn’t even two.
We buried Grandpa in the rain a few days after Christmas. His plot was to the right of my father’s, in the hills near Paoli. It was gray and the rain fell in pieces of ice, the fog frozen in the trees. I lowered his remains into the hole and we took turns filling the grave with the mud. Everyone I need was there. I wiped the rain from my father’s gravestone and walked away.
The sun reflected bright off the snow when I pulled into the family farm. Not my family, but close enough. I returned after many months like the Prodigal Son, having spent all the money they gave me for walking corn fields all summer, now looking for work. My boss, Dan, was just finishing lunch with his wife and sons, pulling on his overalls that warm the work of the Wisconsin winter. I sat at the table and told them of my travels through Europe, feeling grown and experienced. On the farm life is slow and only the seasons change, but still they know more about the world that I could realize in all my time abroad. They had no work for me but they wished me well. I left, like always, feeling wiser and connected to the land from which I came.
I was lying under a pine tree in my backyard, watching patiently through the thick snowflakes that fell silently from the night sky. In the half-light from the street I saw my twelve-year-old sister come cautiously around the side of the house, a snowball in her hand. I waited for the right moment then sprang out from the tree, charging at her with my snowballs. I aimed low but she ducked and I heard the snow smack into the side of her head. I ran up to her apologetically but she was already on the ground making another snowball. She rose with anger in her eyes; I was scared so I ran.
After a few weeks at home, I had seen almost everyone on my list and it felt normal to be back driving south down Park Street to Oregon with my oldest friend Ben, bumping Kanye and Lana del Rey like we were still in high school driving destinationless. He came back from Lacrosse to see me before I left again and he brought his girlfriend, who he says he plans to marry. Forever the rouge third-wheel of friends tied-down, I took the back seat and was sitting in a memory when a black pickup with a jacked suspension swerved from behind to ride alongside us.
At first I thought it was just another jack with his foot on the diesel but in the driver seat of the truck was a man with a veteran’s hat sticking his white beard out the window into the cold wind of the night. He gestured and I rolled down my window, “your tail lights are off!”, he shouted over to me. I told Ben and he flicked them on; the truck gave me a thumbs up and sped off. When my window closed it was just the music again and I sat back appreciating the moments that only exist in America.
It was past 4am and it had been a long day but still I was wide awake in Milwaukee, the most American of American cities I know. I had come to see my grandma but she dropped me off downtown near Shannon’s, who had graduated from Madison since I’d been away. We made some friends by the low light over the pool table in the back of a dive bar and after it closed I went with them to the a-party. There was a man with white hair who didn’t drink and two dudes speaking Spanish playing beer pong but I just sat on the futon talking about privilege and the feasibility of true selflessness with Tear, who had tattoos on her face and arms. My brain was on but my eyes were dry from the wee hour and the cigarette smoke that hung heavy in the air. But after five months in Europe my nose was numb to the stench of cigarettes.
I saw you only twice, I was on the come and go. And when we meet again I don’t even know.
I went this way and you went in that, but to the sun in your hair in your eyes I looked back.
I would’ve came that last night, instead I packed for my flight.
And when this plane finally lands, the future’s out of my hands.
This is why I hate making plans.
Apparently it was morning in London but at home it was just past midnight and I couldn’t sleep much on the flight over the Atlantic. The plane descended into a cloud and suddenly there was the ground. The plane slowed to the gate at Heathrow and I looked out into the heavy fog, tired, dazed but excited. I took the Underground from the airport to the city center to meet Louie; the train was packed with the shuffle of Londoners going to work with bags in their hands and under their eyes. A woman sat down next to me and immediately began to snore. I was worried she’d oversleep her stop but soon the train slowed and she woke on instinct and got off.
Once again I was on my own, a foreigner in a place I’d never been. I looked at the tired eyes of the commuting Brits, who did not meet my gaze like Americans do, missing already the company of my compatriots. I should’ve been tired but I was too excited. I was back in Europe where I didn’t have time to sleep.