Everything looks familiar, but I feel like an alien. Like I’ve been turned inside out, so my lungs and nerves and liver and intestines are on the outside, and my skin on the inside is rendered a useless organ–sheltering nothing and sweating and goosebumping all over itself.
I sit in a cafe in the health food store in my hometown, that I have been frequenting with my mother since I was three years old. Before I could read, I used to walk around and smell the whole grains and fresh produce and no-sugar-added juices and spritzers. My favorite treats of all time with carob-covered rice cakes, because I didn’t even know chocolate existed. Then came honey sticks– little straw-like tubes full of flavored honey, and black and red “Panda” brand licorice. Later when I discovered chocolate, there were Tiger’s Milk Bars: a light chocolate coating over a nutritious, protein-filled peanut butter interior.
Now I sit at a booth, a recent addition to the cafe of 5 to 10 years ago, with a cup of coffee and a carob-covered rice cake. I used to have Proustian flashbacks of nostalgic childhood memories when I bit into these; today, it tastes slightly stale and waxy. The coffee is lukewarm.
Why does nothing measure up to my memory of it? The menu is in English, not Chinese, Japanese, Malay, or Vietnamese, but I don’t comprehend it. How is a small cup of soup $8.25 USD??
On the left side of the wall, even the First Aid for Choking sign has been re-vamped, refurbished. Now the people choking and saving one another are rendered in full color, and the instructions for how to save lives are more detailed. But it is illegible from more than 10 feet away, whereas the old CPR signs that were required in restaurants in the 1990s were full of huge line drawings of the intricacies of the Heimlich maneuver. I used to study them as a child, preparing myself for the inevitable moment when I would be called upon to save a life. As a 10-year-old. Of course this was perfectly logical to me back then.
Being back in America, from a year living in Asia, is weird. But being back in my small and beautiful but cloyingly intimate seaside resort hometown is unimaginably stifling. I had no idea it would be like this. I feel smothered by the 25 years of memories tucked into every crevice of this place, by the heartache and resentment and despair and fear and desperation I used to feel here as a teenager. My mantra from ages 13-18 was “Get Me Out of Here.” So to be back, with only sketchy plans to go to NYC, only flimsy job leads, little to no savings to speak of and no immediate employment prospects (in the middle of a recession) is TERRIFYING.
But then I think: it was all worth it for the amazing year I’ve just had. Continue reading