It can be anything, really. Today, it was the way the sunlight filtered through the nascent cottonwood leaves and the whirring, rustling sound as they shuffle in the breeze. Yesterday, it was the sharp pang of a small piece of gravel in a sandal, which poked and prodded memories of granite handholds and scraped knuckles.
The heartache of longing for a place is much like the healing of a particularly deep and particularly painful gash. At first, the rawness and sting of the wound seizes your breath in a sharp gasp, much the way you find yourself breathless, diaphragm constricted as your frozen body cannonballs into a pond not yet warmed by the long rays of summer sun. Any bump, any jostle, or even the wrong pressure at the wrong moment reopens the wound.
You lie in your bed. It is the same bed you slept in many states away, in a town by a butte, which smelled like juniper smoke on chilly fall nights. But this bed is no longer at altitude, and the room is lit by neither the luminous moon nor the streamers of stars the seemed flung across the black of the sky. Instead, your window gazes at the back of the taco drive-through, and your ears fill with requests for red sauce and extra-large sodas. There are no coyotes yipping and laughing in the stillness, and the hiss of the brakes of the city bus, the sighing of doors as they swing open, and the groan as the bus is brought to its knees permitting easy departure grates against the cut of a move westward and northward. A wound so new that it thrums with the beat of your heart.
You rub salve on the laceration and it begins the seemingly interminable healing process. You learn the location of the grocery store and the library. You ascertain the pattern of the great blue heron, who nightly wings his way from the river towards the wetlands, as the sun fades into Venus’ belt. And that very sunset interrupts the healing process, for you are heaved back to the pullout overlooking the former copper mine, wind whistling through ponderosas, feet dangling as you open a slightly sticky thermos of cinnamon and cayenne spiked hot chocolate and squint at the intensity of the last light. The rocks surrounding you exude an otherworldly glow as the heat of the day emanates out into the quickly cooling air. You apply more salve.
And soon, or not really soon, but soon enough, you have a scab. It may be one you notice only when your ankle bumps the cranks of your bike just so, or when you stumble, night-blind towards the bathroom, fingertips searching for unfamiliar moldings and doorways and find instead the sharp corner of a linen closet. You meet your neighbor over a fence enshrouded in blackberry vines, and talk story as she shows you how to gently weight your hand’s pull so that a truly ripe blackberry will leave its thorny home, while an as-yet-unripe one will remain. And this neighborhood is not your former neighborhood in that white-heat dry-grass parched town that stood on tiptoes to reach for the monsoon clouds as they lumbered closer. This neighborhood smells of barbeque and linden blossoms and mown lawns, the viridity of which was unimaginable in your other former life, unless of course, you ventured beyond the no trespassing signs and whitewashed rocks bordering the golf course by your home.
Healing continues as you lie on grand lawns listening to outdoor symphonies and sneak ripe figs from unsuspecting branches. The ease with which you can grow food in this place shoves your toes back, southwestward, into the dry dirt and goathead-ridden side yard garden you planted only a year ago. You’d stood, befuddled by the sunflowers that disappeared each night, consumed by hungry gophers. You gazed at the flickering rainbow in the arch of the hose and then watched each drop of water disappear in the same way, sucked inwards by desperate earth.
Weeks and months and then years start to whirl by, unmarked, as the sameness and drudgery of days spent in cubicles steals time as quickly as your now unused whitewater kayak was spirited out of your backyard in the middle of the night. You begin to lock your door. You change houses, and neighborhoods, and even quadrants of the city, and the voiceless scream for less people and more space fades and is replaced by foreign films and Thai food, and sword ferns. The expanse of the space and the sky that you’d taken for granted is replaced by the infill of city blocks and trees. So many trees. You forget the feeling of panicked suffocation that you’d felt intermittently upon arriving and realizing just how hard you needed to work to get away from all of this.
You are left with a scar, keloidal and pink, dulled to sensation, but functional. A friend asks about it and you relay the story of the injury, adding details and emphasizing what suits you. But in the movie theater, as you listen to the curious clatter of smuggled 22s rolling down the sloped floor of a theater that smells like pizza, your fingertip traces the line of the scar over and over again.
A weekend camping trip eastwards arrives in a sea of sagebrush and you tumble from the car, shins scraping on sharp twigs, hands searching and grasping for silver-green leaves. You shove them under your nose, under your partner’s nose, under your dog’s nose, begging them each to inhale, to smell, to truly breathe the scent of your ambling walks in a world so unlike that in which you now exist. You loop string around your treasure and leave it to dry on the dashboard, which it does, and then proceeds to shed its crisply crumpling leaflets into the crevices of a car which will still cough up dirt if you smack the cushion just right.
Your time in the desert, your time in the mountains and in the canyons, your time next to the seep willow listening to the canyon wren fades. It takes on the tone of a cyanotype and smells of nostalgia, which in this case is likely the smell of dry dust on empty roads and the bark of ponderosa trees after a morning of sunshine. You begin to forget street names. You pause in the middle of a story to determine whether it occurred in this town or perhaps in another locale in this grand expanse of a country. You begin to luxuriate in foggy rainy days and cringe under the weight of the heat when faced with dry summer weather. You are permanently paler than you have been in years, but are left with the sun spots and freckles and crinkly eyes of your past.
But once in a while, with the change of the weather, your old scar sears hot once again. The sight of a deserted small town in the dusk. The strains of mariachi music trailing behind a car. The cool scent of dew-laden grass in a meadow in the grey of the morning. You breathe deep and push forward, head down, eyes closed, red dust on the tip of your tongue.