After a tiring but drama-free 26-hour odyssey from Bangkok via Kuwait City and London, my Kuwait Airlines flight arced over Long Island on its approach to JFK. From my aisle seat I struggled to peer out the window, struck by the familiar and orderly rows of houses lit pink by the pastel and silver sunset. “That’s it,” I thought to myself.
Unlike my previous reentries after long absences, there was no wave of delight or fear or comforting familiarity to greet me on arrival. I simply noted the details that indicate a different country from the one I had just left. There are more skin colors, for instance. The directional signs no longer indicate the way to “Immigration” – they have been edited to indicate the way to “US Customs and Border Control.” Welcome, no more. Now it’s law & order.
As I stood in line to be border controlled, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Bill Clinton on CNN. “Has Obama lost his mojo?” he asked the perpetually smirking former president. I didn’t bother listening for the answer.
“Business or pleasure?” asked my border control agent. This flustered me. “Uh…both?” I answered. He looked up from my bevisa’d passport. “How long have you been away?” I looked sheepish. “Seventeen months.” He smiled, unfazed. “Welcome back!”
I bounced down the stairs to baggage claim, praying that the cheap zip-up bag I had bought to carry my enormous fins had made it in one piece. As it turns out, it hadn’t. The thing had been torn apart and was now held together by plastic straps attached by some airline baggage handler. Miraculously, nothing was missing, but the bag was now rather difficult to carry. Baggage carts at JFK cost $5. Five dollars! Ridiculous. On principle I ignored the carts, threw one pack on my back, the other on my front, and carried the remains of my cheap plastic bag through customs like a giant, unwieldy baby.
I have to admit, I was 80 percent sure – or maybe just hoping – that some of my friends would be waiting for me in the arrivals hall, with balloons and babies and hugs. It was, after all, Saturday evening – not a school night. I had been away for so long, and had dreamed of the tears that would flood my face when, for the first time in a year and a half, I would see someone who knows me. I stepped through the customs doors, where a throng of New Yorkers were laden with balloons and babies and hugs…though none for me.
Since my bag was in pieces, I quickly abandoned my plan to take the subway to Andrea’s apartment and decided to spring for a cab. As we sped through Brooklyn, Queens, and over the bridge into Manhattan, I kept waiting for that homecoming wave of delight and nostalgia. I’m still waiting. Any such delight in being home has instead come in spurts.
Of course, there was a mini wave of exaltation the morning after my return, when the ever-gracious and thoughtful Andrea threw me a New York style brunch, complete with bagels, cream cheese, lox and bloody marys. Many of my closest friends were there, and while I didn’t burst into tears it was wonderful to see them.
Indeed, now that I’m no longer imagining my homecoming but participating in it, it feels like I never left at all. Yes, the children (and Sammy dog!) are all 18 months bigger and more mature, but neither the adults nor the places seem to have changed much. Just ask Andrea – when I first struggled into her building, dragging the unwieldy child of my worldly possessions, my first reaction was not to give her a giant hug but to express shock at what a giant, muscular dog her puppy had become.
It’s been nearly a month since that first bagel, and the biggest surprise has been the question I’ve been asked most often. It’s not “How was your trip?” or even the dreaded “What’s your plan?”, but “How does it feel to be back?” There is no simple answer to any of these questions, but for some reason the last one freaks me out the most. Maybe that’s because its answer must include the answer to the other two: how I feel now depends on how I felt in the recent past and how I feel about the future.
Less philosophically, the past month has been a bit of a blur. I’ve met friends for coffee, lunch, drinks and dinners that cost the same as a three days in Laos. I’ve discovered that I have completely forgotten how to calculate a tip. I’ve been to the last Red Sox game of the season (thanks Sue & Chris!) and the first NY Rangers game of the season (thanks Drea & M2!). I’ve watched Monday Night Football over Buffalo wings and booze, and spent one glorious day on the couch watching football and baseball from noon to midnight. I’ve played catch, Wii, “name that flag” and “tickle worm” with my two oldest nephews. I’ve been farted on numerous times by both my youngest nephew and my friends’ Boston terrier. I’ve even been puked on while riding the NYC subway on a Saturday night. I have not eaten any noodle soup, instead binging on a near-pornographic stream of cheese, red wine, whole wheat bread, gin martinis, olives, burgers, steaks, cheese, hummus, steamed veggies, giant salads with crispy lettuce, nectarines, whiskey, cheese, salami, roast beef sandwiches, Greek yogurt, strawberries, and cheese. I’ve gained like 3 kilos, mostly in (you guessed it) cheese.
Oh yeah – and I’ve had two job interviews.