I’m lying on a sofa bed on a high floor of the Burj Khalifa, staring out the windows at the sprawling metropolis at my feet. Here in Dubai, as everywhere else in my month away from Afghanistan, I am haunted by the same question: “What would it be like to live here?”
I was tempted in Philly, as I have never been before, when a friend told me that he used to rent a downtown 1 bedroom for about $750/mo. It was unheard of in any other major city on the East Coast, and since all I really need for my home base is the hustle and bustle of a large city, I momentarily wondered if Philly could be it.
I asked myself this also in Cambridge, MA when I met another friend at 1369 Coffee House, an old favorite of mine during college. What if I had stayed in the area after graduation? What if coffee with this friend could have been a weekly, rather than annual, thing? But it was an idle thought, since staying in Boston had neither been a real possibility nor a real desire for me.
I looked forward to it in Manhattan, which I had decided was the only U.S. city that could keep up with me. Manhattan was home to some of my oldest and best friends, and as we wandered the streets, stopping in at any coffee shop that caught our eye, enjoyed evenings at the Met and late nights in Meatpacking, I felt like I fit in the city. It was as if Manhattan and I were kindred spirits and our energies matched, or something.
And yet, no place invoked that line of questioning more strongly than DC, where “What would it like to live here?” became “What would it be like had I stayed?” And so it is – nostalgia for the past trumps nostalgia for futures imagined, no matter how bright those futures seem.
DC caused such a strong reaction that I literally cried about it. Luckily, it wasn’t the snot-filled, red-faced, bawling type of cry, but rather the silent kind characterized only by a few fat drops that roll so slowly down one’s cheeks as to make you wonder if even the tears are too sad, too lethargic, to make any real effort.
It had been building for a while.
As our plane descended into Northern Virginia, we flew over lush green fields of farmland hedged by thin, winding slivers of interstate, nearly empty at this early morning hour. I thought of other early mornings on the Interstate after weekends away from the Beltway, listening to NPR, coffee in hand, feeling just as care-free as those car ads always promise. How long ago it all seemed now! I felt my breath catch and a knot form deep in my chest; in that moment, I could not remember why I had ever wanted to leave the United States.
But the tears didn’t come then.
No, they waited for a more public space to make an appearance: the baggage claim. Carousel number 4 at Dulles’ International Arrivals Hall, to be exact. As the carousel hummed to life, I could feel that tightness dislodging from my chest – slowly, slowly, slowly – until finally one tear and then another spilled out of the corners of my eyes.
I was thinking of something my mother had once told me. Before I went to Afghanistan for the first time, she said, “You know that you can’t go back to a normal life after an experience like this.” At the time, her prediction was premature, and I brushed it off. I didn’t want to “go back” anyway. I didn’t want the normal life. In fact, much the opposite; many my life decisions have been driven largely by a deep desire to avoid normalcy.
But in that moment, in front of baggage claim, I no longer knew what I wanted, and the thought that I could not go back scared me. As was recently written in a blog post widely shared by expats…
“…you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two.”
I was hit by a deep nostalgia – for the life that I had lived before I left; for the life that part of me still hoped to return to; and for the lives that I would be missing, now, no matter what country I was in.