by Maham Khan
Woke up today and Googled ‘sleet’. I was waiting for the bus when I looked down at my blue jacket and noticed–what can only be described as–crumbs of ice. As I tried to lift one with my finger, it melted immediately. When I came in from the cold, I felt my face warm up and then begin to ache. The cold wind had slapped me numb. Standing in line for coffee (if you must know: cappuccino, oatmilk, extra shot of espresso), I want to cry because my hands have the clammy, blue look of certain newborn babies. But then the barista remembers my name, my compact hum of a name (which unexpectedly, everyone here finds difficult to pronounce) and I smile. And then frown, because this means I buy coffee more often than I can afford to.
This city is small and always feels half-full, like an emptied-out auditorium. Come winter, the streets will be emptier still. The houses and buildings, rectangles of warm light, swallow people up. Walking to the bus stop after class in the evenings, I see them huddled in the classrooms and study halls, far away from me. My apartment complex, surrounded on three sides by deep, dark woods, seems like a lighthouse when I spot it in the distance. My breath rises like mist before my face as I wait for my bus. And the bus is always late.
Pablo Neruda describes her as “compact and planetary”. I read those lines several times to myself at night. My name means moon, in Farsi. Or rather, our moon. The meaning is like a lasso, anchoring me to myself, bestowing a sense of belonging.
Autumn leaves fall. I wind my way around the sidewalk, making sure to step on as many of them as possible, relishing every crunch. One afternoon, I was so preoccupied with my little leaf exercise, I didn’t realise a man was hesitantly walking my way, trying to figure out how to bypass me on the narrow path. I quickly stumbled to the side and walked on like nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. Often in the mornings, I’ll hear the mournful song of a bird I cannot name. Solitary, it calls out through the dense foliage from the woods I can see across the parking lot outside my window. Five times in a row, and then silence. I listen with bated breath.
My first day at the library, I wander about, getting a feel for the place. The clunky elevator makes mildly ominous sounds as it jets up the floors (the library is the tallest building in the entire county, or so I am told). Sometimes, I’ll make eye contact with other students, and we’ll smile nervously, as though saying, this is probably dangerous but what can you do? I like walking through the maze of bookshelves, feeling like I am the only person there, in this library, in this university, in this county, in this world. The fact that there are books I have never read, and will never get around to, will never hear about; the fact that some may have made me cry if I had read them, or have made me feel less alone–it never ceases to stun me. And when I round the corner, I see someone has taken over my usual study spot.
Here’s a secret: I love living alone. I can spend hours, barefoot in the kitchen, experimenting with recipes, singing to myself. There’s also a lot of crying involved, sitting at the kitchen counter with my head in my hands. I read voraciously (is there anything else that is done voraciously?) and retain most of it. For class, we are doing Bewilderment by Richard Powers. A widowed father, an astrobiologist, struggles with raising his autistic son. They look for life on planets eons of time and space away, and find a promising one. But it is inhospitable because it has no moon to keep it steady as it spins across the galaxy, cataclysmic and out of time. His son is devastated, but does his best to hide it.
Lake effect. I had never heard the term before, but it helps explain why the clouds here seem so much lower. They lurk overhead, a little closer than you would expect. Bright and luminous, more beautiful than usual, too. At times, it feels as though the sky itself is pressing down, or as though the earth has lifted me up to be closer to the sun. Strolling one afternoon in the library, I see the Poetry Center. I make a beeline for it. On the shelves, I spot Li-Young Lee. I settle down in the chairs nearby and flip greedily through the book. I love Lee–his words always slice through me like a gentle and loving knife. Under the table of contents, I see a poem titled “Lake Effect”. I am still for a moment, looking at the title of the poem, thinking about where I currently am. The opening lines:
She said, "The lake is like an open book, day like the steady gaze of a reader." I said, "The day is a book we open between us, the lake a sentence we read together over and over, our voices ghost, bread, and horizon."
I envy their sense of a shared moment, the ease of familiarity it will take me too long to cultivate here in my new ‘home’. Perhaps I never will, I remind myself. All my life, I have prepared for perpetual unrootedness. It makes everything easier, and it makes everything more difficult.
Through my east-facing bedroom window, I gather the weak morning light. I take my coffee and sit cross-legged on my pink prayer mat, close my eyes and let the sunlight dapple my face. I imagine my cat is curled up beside me, his fawn fur tickling my leg. There is a poster with jellyfish and siphonophores on my wall. I love siphonophores; each is a colony of single-cell organisms, a collection of working parts reliant on one another for survival. They can grow longer than a hundred feet, so they become pulsing, bioluminescent, alive ropes. Floating on the expanse of the ocean floor, they can snap in half easily. So each part works with the other, diligently, letting the soft currents guide it through the waters.
A floating community. I wonder if I will find one. I comfort myself with the idea that I, too, can be natural.
Homesickness is eternal. Once you move away, you can never return to the same place. Just like the terrain within you, the people and places you leave continue to change and shift. You remain stunted in some ways, made to fit a different, older place. Seeing the flooding back home in Pakistan in August made me feel like the world had changed drastically in a matter of moments, like it had tilted sideways. I went careening over the edge. It made no sense to me how life could still carry on; that I had classes to attend, dinner to eat, conversations to make. At the same time, I was completely removed from the scene, locked out, feeling guilty I was not there, and yet, eternally grateful for the life that has been afforded to me.
More lines from Lee:
A wind blows, the book is open to a voice at evening asking, Are we many or one?
I travelled so many miles so I could find myself outside of the parameters that had been laid down. Is it possible to escape something without running away? Beyond the binaries–of being home or away, being man or woman, free or trapped–there is only wilderness and bewilderment. When I look up at the night sky, it’s the same moon I would see back home. The air is cleaner, clearer. When I take a deep breath, it cuts through me, like glass. Homesickness is deferral. I will constantly lose my home, and I’ll never find it again.