There are few places left in the United States that feel really like home to me. Whether by bizarre coincidence (San Francisco) or compatibility (Seattle), or memories (Iowa City), I don't tend to accumulate homes in the usual kinds of places. My family doesn't tend towards home ownership or ancestral property, and my adopted family lives in places I've never lived, save for the one I've recently moved out of in Virginia.
It's strange being homeless, as I have been since leaving Virginia. I drifted west, met and hung out with friends, and felt lighter than air. It's weird living without a home base. Hotel rooms don't quite count: they're not terra firma, not territory of your own, just something you've rented for the day or night, something you pass on to whoever sleeps there next. Home is not a negotiable virtue: hotel rooms are, and like relationships as opposed to one night stands or individuals of negotiable virtue, hotel rooms ring hollow and empty, no matter how nice.
But Iowa City? I've lived there. It's a college town, a microcosm which is small enough to know just about all the locals, but large enough to have an odd sort of diversity. Even as my friends have moved on and out through the years, there's enough connection left of experience and memory to feel a strong attachment to the place.
My friend Tris is long gone, as is Rob, who I've recently left back in DC. But my first boyfriend (still one of my close friends), remains, as does his sister. The coffee shop where we all so often convened, met, hung out, and joked at, is gone. The Java House, however, another staple, remains. Vortex, a store full of giant wooden Buddhas and Sigmund Freud action figures, has passed on, but the gallery of the University of Iowa's art program remains.
All of my friends have left the nest of Iowa by now. My connection to Iowa City is tenuous now - a fond memory from childhood. In time, these galleries, these coffee shops, these streets, all will change.
I was looking for my memories to jump back into being while I was there, but they didn't. Life had moved on. I had moved on.
It's a city, a small one, one large enough to feel like home, a reality bubble in which you forget that three or four miles out, the city stops and cornfields and cows resume. Time moves slower, the weather seems warmer, and the people are friendly, if vague, almost impressions of themselves in the Iowan spring. The residents find the concept of moving out to be a curiosity, the outside world being a sort of mythological location which one moves to after grad school.
I got in late, very late. Late enough that I didn't call Caroline to redeem her offer of a couch. I crashed out in Coralville after an abortive attempt at renting a room in downtown Iowa City. In the morning, I was woken up by a call from Stephen, the ex, rambling about sleep, lack thereof, and breakfast plans. This was entirely normal, and so, I dressed, drove into the city, and met Caroline (the aforementioned sister) at the Leaf Kitchen for breakfast. A short time later, Stephen arrived.
Stephen is an excitable sort, one heavily slanted towards the hardline Democratic party lines, and he tends to rant on over other people. His sister earnestly tries to divert and find middle ground with him. I, on the other hand, am more prone to simply diverting and then cutting his legs out from under him, a tactic that Midwestern manners hasn't prepared him for. About half an hour later, as food and a second pot of rose oolong tea arrived, we agreed to move on to other subjects.
Stephen demurred on the oolong, ordering the mint instead. "So you're moving to Oregon?", he stated, more than asked.
Ah, yes. Yes I am.
The day passed, and I missed my friends. Not Stephen and Caroline so much: we had dinner later, and I hung out with Caroline in the evening. But I miss Tristan, with his tousled halo of brown curls and his sly sense of humor, I miss Rob, with his sharp, incisive commentary and cynical demeanor. I miss shooting in Cedar Rapids, and the days of wine and movies and talking into the early morning hours.
Tris is now somewhere in Minnesota, living with his husband. We haven't talked in a while. I miss him. I miss my high school summers and the stopovers, and the small town that used to be a sort of home.
Later, in the evening, leaving Caroline's apartment and several games of Guitar Hero behind me, I took a wrong turn, and found myself beyond the reaches of the city, running a highway between cornfields and city under a massive, silvery moon. Just as simple as that, the bubble popped, and reality reasserted itself. It was time to move on, time to head west again
They say it's true, and I suppose I have to admit to the truth now: you can never go home again.
I began to think a lot about home. What is it, where is it, how do I find it and create it? Stuck in the perceived middle of the country, I was starting to feel lonely despite all these friends around me, despite this big adventure and the excitement of the road trip and a new beginning. Hotel rooms aren't home - neither are cornfields, and neither is the truck.
It was a week and a half before I'd be in California, and I was feeling adrift. Whatever I was searching for on the road wasn't there.
The next day would be one of the longest and hardest drives I've ever taken.