Memoir

You Can’t Go Home Again

Family tragedy brings a newly minted Texan back to New York, where he finds a city moving on without him, even as it stays the same.

You Can’t Go Home Again

I moved to Austin, Texas, about nine months ago. I’d lived in the Tri-State area my entire life, worked in Manhattan the last six of those years, and decided I was ready for something new. I never knew it before I moved, but Texas turns out to be a great social litmus test. You can gauge a person’s overall lean—on anything from income tax to land conservation—based on their reaction to the fact that yes, I moved from New York City to Texas. The conversation usually goes one of two ways:

Scenario 1:

Person: What are you up to now?

Me: I moved to Austin, Texas.

Person: Oh, Texas? That must be a big adjustment, huh?

Scenario 2:

Person: What are you up to now?

Me: I moved to Austin, Texas.

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Person: Oh, Texas! I’ve been to Dallas on business, I loved it.

(Note, in both cases there’s a good chance the weather will come up, but it almost never has anything to do with the overall sentiment.)

The difference is subtle, but the two variations have wildly different implications. In the first, the person will typically go on to reveal themselves as liberal, left, blue. The second: conservative, right, red. In either case their initial reaction provides enough information to gauge where the conversation will likely go and how I should tailor my response. This is also exactly how every conversation at my grandmother’s wake started.

The wake was on a Saturday, a week and a day after my father called to tell me she passed away. She was my mother’s mother, but he was the one who made the call.

“Hello?”

“Hi Jon, it’s Dad..”

There was a silence then and I knew what he was going to say.

He told me everyone was OK, he and my mom had been with her when she died. He asked if I was OK and I told him I was. We agreed to talk logistics in the morning. I was in Texas and the three of them were in Florida but we would all need to make our way to New York for the funeral.

In the intervening days we converged on Long Island, the place we’d all called home for portions of our lives. The funeral home was in Lindenhurst, a few minutes from Babylon, where I lived until I was five. I thought the scenery on the way might awaken some reminiscence, but only postcard memories came through. The flash of white stonework at Argyle Lake; the tucked away marinas posing as side streets; the rise and fall of uprooted sidewalks. I’d been so little when I was there, most of my memories went no deeper than a few feet off the ground.

Not many people showed for the wake, but my mother and my aunt had feared no one would, so I was relieved. I smiled and shook hands with familiar strangers and estranged family, steadying myself through the stream of uncomfortable conversations with the reliable ‘Texas introduction.’ I spoke with everyone who came, maintained good eye contact and injected light humor when appropriate. Between conversations my eyes and mind drifted. To the floor, to the past, sweeping past the casket to check for movement in her fingertips. Then quickly back up to greet the approaching eyes of the next person.

“Oh, Texas?…”

Family and close friends went to a nearby restaurant for lunch after the funeral. I got to the door first and held it open as everyone walked in. There were fourteen of us, but the procession was abrupt and unfulfilling, like an express train at a local platform. As the last person passed I swung myself around the door and followed them in.

The place looked like a cross between a bar and a banquet hall, and as I approached the table I felt like I was attending an awards ceremony for a high school sports team. I walked to one of the long sides of the table and sat between a close friend on my right and more distant family friends to my left. Conversations floated somewhere between deep and shallow. No one talked too long or too loudly, and there were frequent lulls as people brought forks and glasses to their mouths.

Everyone worked hard to comfort and be comforted. Volleys of “she’s in a better place,” and “I’m just glad it’s over,” bled together in a blurry watercolor haze. At some point, though, tomorrow crept in and people raised their fallen guards. Comments grew softer and less frequent. Laughter became polite. The meal would end soon and we’d all have to leave that place and go somewhere else.

After lunch I took the LIRR back to Penn Station, walked a few blocks outside, then went subterranean again to catch the PATH to Jersey City. I wanted to see Ella while I was back–I hadn’t since I moved away. Since then she’d separated from her husband and moved into her own apartment. I wasn’t sure what that meant for us, but I knew what I wanted and was anxious to see her.

When I got out at Exchange Place it was already dark, but I knew the way and started heading south. As I walked along the water I felt the city’s giants towering over me, taking little notice as they carried on their grown-up conversations. I’d lived in Jersey City for four years before Texas and had always felt an intimacy with Manhattan when admiring it from that perspective. But standing there that night, with the waters of the Hudson pushing hard against both shores, I was reminded of just how far away the island was.

I texted Ella and suggested a bar halfway between the PATH and her apartment. I got there first and went to the bathroom to change out of my suit. It was a few years old and didn’t fit well–I didn’t want her to see me in it. As I was putting on my jeans I felt the ground shift beneath me and looked down to see one of the ancient tiles out of place. I used my big toe to slide it back but could only hope it would hold. When I left the bathroom I saw Ella at the front door looking for me. I walked up and closed my eyes as I gave her a kiss on the cheek.

The next morning I woke up early to get ready for my trip back to Texas. I had an afternoon flight but I’d made lunch plans with old co-workers. When I was showered and packed I said my goodbyes to Ella, then her cat, and forced a smile as she closed the door all the way shut. I walked downstairs and out of the building and pictured her watching me from her window.

Back at Penn, I walked up the escalator and out onto Seventh Avenue. I had time before the group would meet for lunch so I turned and walked uptown, heading nowhere in particular. I walked a few blocks in the cold air of a stubborn winter and felt the city creep in close, holding a vigil with me. The sky began to mist and I slowly assumed my New York City posture: body bent slightly forward at the waist, hands stuffed into front pockets, chin down and cradled by up-and-rolled-forward shoulders.

We walked together for many blocks, the city and I, road-weary but hopeful, sharing the comfortable silence of two strangers at a bar. I felt a kinship with the tired pugilism of the dented wire wastebaskets guarding each intersection. The permanent impermanence of blue scaffolding lent credibility to anonymous requests that I ‘post no bills.’ A peppering of trampled-smooth gum spots upholstered the sidewalk in an irregular pattern of polka dots. Everything ebbed and flowed around me caught in the breathy sighs of a worn city.

I walked, uptown and aimless, until almost noon. When the timing felt right I turned around and walked back. I ran into the group near Penn and hugged everyone. It was good to see them, and I smiled genuinely at their reactions to the changes in my appearance. I had longer hair now, and a beard, and at the very least their comments helped us transition back from strangers to friends.

We formed a circle and bantered haphazardly across the void. After a few minutes someone suggested we get going so we broke formation and moved west. I dropped to the back and listened as they took turns tossing workplace anecdotes over their shoulders at me. I was familiar with all their references but the stories felt faded. I didn’t tell them the reason for my trip back.

The gray sidewalk flowed below me like a sandpaper treadmill. The neon sizzle of a Chinese restaurant’s Open sign caught my eye and reminded me of Grandma. I smiled at the thought of her always insisting on ordering two soups—eggdrop and wonton—and then mixing them at the table. I thought about her last few weeks, how quickly she had gotten sick and how I’d been unable to get to Florida before she passed away. I thought about talking to Mom and not knowing what to say as she held her cell phone next to Grandma’s unresponsive ear, her voice faint in the background: “OK Jon, go ahead.” I thought about Ella, and how I’d never had the chance to tell Grandma about her, and about our plan to get married once I moved back to New York and to her.

My thoughts dissolved as my eyes continued drifting. Up, past the first floor facades of the bodegas and flower stands, up to the second and third floors of the granite buildings streaming by. I took in all the intricate details, the large-scale minutiae that had loomed over me, unnoticed, for years. Delicate features chiseled and beaten into stone and metal. The beauty and softness in those cold materials. And as the light from the mild sun sprinkled its kisses on the raindrop-streaked windows, I thought about how I didn’t look up nearly as often as I should.

* * *

Sally Madden is an illustrator and member of the arts collective, Partyka. She lives and works in Philadelphia.