This whole trip we’ve been asked where we’re from. We’ve heard the question so many times, we don’t know what it means anymore.
But there is an answer, and as we get closer to it my body buzzes and I start being unable to stop talking. It’s recognition. It’s the rolling, lined-paper fields, the big sky, the periodic smell of chemical pesticides and manure as you skim across I-80. It’s knowing this place isn’t beautiful to everyone, or toward everyone, but knowing a place is always more complicated than it looks driving through.
So no, I can’t write about Iowa. It’s easier to summarize when your archive of memory and observation is limited. Instead, I walk the streets of a town I’ve known my whole life and I share the historical details as I lived them. It’s annoying and not illuminating, and I can’t stop doing it anyway. I know no one wants to tour the walk I took from my high school boyfriend’s house to mine as a teen, or hear about the corner where my childhood best friends and I were convinced there was a portal to Fairyland, or what used to be where the Jimmy John’s is now. It’s not interesting, but it feels vitally important, like these details hold the key to something essential about me that maybe I don’t even know, and so I share and share.
Iowa is not my home. But I am shown the intricate details of a childhood and adolescence where an entire town was home. A relationship with place and people that I don’t think I’ve ever had. I am brought into it, into the carpeted kitchen, into the street that was walked nearly every day in an early romance, into the college campus that has entirely new buildings, into the flat expansive paths that were followed during cross country, into the ice cream hut that was (and is) the spot, into altered childhood bedrooms, into the street where that cat was found, into the bank where a first credit card was opened. I ask repeatedly “Do you know that person? Do you know that person? Do you know that person?” It’s obnoxious, I know, and the answer is mostly no. People move. Time changes things. What a concept.
Suddenly, we are outside of our journey completely. We are in my parents’ house. I am cleaning leaves from the gutters and I know where all the flatware goes. I know how the showers and washing machine work. I’m eating homemade food, sitting on the couch, snuggling the two cats that I have loved since I was 10. How did we get here? Am I a child again, but bigger, more self-assured? I fall through the mirror and am reliving moments simultaneous with experiencing the present. They are not all happy. We pass places full of anger and sadness and confusion and guilt and I do not tell those stories. I see people I haven’t seen in years and can’t stop talking; I haven’t stopped talking this whole time.
We sit by a tractor and eat fried everything. The smell of home is on everything. I hug my parents and can’t stop touching my friends, as if to say, “Are you real? Are you here? Do you see me?”
We go to the college campus I constantly ask myself – do I look like a student? Do I fit in? Do I want to? I suddenly feel an intimidation and self-consciousness in the gym that I haven’t felt in years. Will people think my form is bad? Will they come up to me and tell me as much? Is this what being on a college campus does to me?
The nights are quiet but for the insects and the baritone of the trains going by a block away on (here I go again) the tracks where we used to place pennies and find them later, warped, unridged, smoothed from the impact. It occurs to me that the same thing happens to memories. They are undefined and unusable. And so we pack the car with gluten-free and dietarily appropriate food, and I hug my parents and feel how much smaller they are, and I can’t even look my cats in the eye because I don’t know when I’ll be back and we have so much farther to go. It’s beautiful out, and I keep talking until we are out of town, and then I stop.