“And you think of all of the things you’ve seen,
And you wish that you could live in-between
And you’re back again only different than before… After the sky.”
-Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
I can’t stop time traveling, its involuntary. I am going about my daily business and all of a sudden my mind is ripped from my body and the space-time continuum is turned in on itself and I am sometime else entirely. One second I am sitting on my Dad’s couch, with my suitcase packed about the leave for Paris. The next moment I am sitting on the same couch with the same suitcase open and spilling about as I unpack, having just arrived home. One moment I am walking past enormous buildings glowing blue and pink in the sunset, the next I am marveling at how gold and purple the Luxembourg looks at the same time of day. I hug a family member hello while simultaneously hugging a friend goodbye. It’s all happening at once.
It started a few weeks before I left. I was a clock, walking around Paris feeling it tick away. All the dreams I had for my year abroad, the hopes and the plans were distilled down to a finite number of days and limited amount of dollars. I go to the Art Institute of Chicago. I see Robert Delaunay’s “Champs de Mars: The Red Tower” and suddenly I am standing in Centre Pompidou looking at another Delaunay from the same series. I cry in both places. I hear Flume play both on a rooftop in Chicago and in a warehouse outside Paris. My mind is a computer with too many browser windows open, simultaneously yearning for and dreading my return to the states. I flash-forward to a future visit to Paris, but I am no longer an Au Pair on Rue de Sèvres where I am standing now. I am trying to soak it all up to create memories that I am already looking back at as they fade.
At home, I find myself gravitating towards the river. In France I missed the lake. I wanted to go to the beach or run along the lake path. The Seine seemed trite compared to the overwhelming space and darkness of Lake Michigan. Since I’ve returned home, I spend my nights sitting on the newly built Chicago Riverwalk, thinking about my friends sitting by a river in a different city at a different time.
I wake up and the moment before I open my eyes I travel back to my flat in Paris. In Paris I can feel my friends around me. They’ve all spent the night, Mari curled up at the foot of my bed and Karissa and Molli on the trundle-bed. Our covers and hearts are tangled up in each other. I don’t want to extract myself from it yet. I want to stay here with my friends, just moments away from coffee and laughter and rehashing the events from the night before. I open my eyes and I’m on the air mattress in my Dad’s spare room. My heart sinks.
It’s a scary prospect, rebuilding a life from scratch. I dedicate most of my time to the search for a new job, new apartment, and renewing old friendships. It helps with the transition, focusing on the here and now. A few times a day though, with an accompanying pinprick to my heart I feel myself transported to a different time. I’m looking at the lovely faces of my friends or zooming along the canal on the back of my friend’s scooter. (It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman in Paris will wind up on the back of some Frenchman’s scooter.) I feel enormous relief when I travel from my tiny studio on a lonely night to a crowded family party where I am embraced by those who love me unconditionally.
Things feel both strange and familiar here. English is too harsh and loud, but my brain no longer automatically thinks in French. The clothes are too bright and mismatched. Food that I used to love repulses me. Friends have moved, married, changed jobs or become parents. I’ve changed too. I am more confident, I am able to be comfortably alone. I am not afraid that I’ll fail, just eager to begin again.
Soon the time traveling will stop, and my experiences will be confined to my journals and memories. The violently vivid flashbacks will become less common and fade. Maybe I’ll be triggered by the smell of fresh bread or catch a bit of conversation in French and it will all come back, but it will be a surprise instead of the norm. The pain of coming home makes me sad, but when it fades, I will be sad in a different way. So I let it happen. I acknowledge it and honor it and watch as it passes by. Maybe heaven is a place where everyone and everything we love exists all at once, instead of spread out over a lifetime?
The love that keeps us aloft doesn’t fade or change, we just experience it from different angels. While I was away I learned how to tap into it, how to let it give me strength and energy. I learned how to be away from the familiar and find comfort. I learned how to be away from family and friends but let their support get me through lonely or difficult times. The important things remain constant.