As the plane dips a wing over Chicago a little after 3:00, Ellen glances across the aisle at me.
“Different landscape,” she says.
Definitely. The view out the window shows block upon block of low, flat buildings laid out in predictable squares. They stretch to the horizon, as does the dull beige sky. Gone are the mountains, the blocks of Leggo skyscraper apartments, the wide blue ocean filled with cargo ships and ferries.
It’s 11:45 PM on 16 July, the day we arrived back. Excluding the four or five hours of moderate dozing on the plane, I’ve been awake for something like 30 hours. Ellen is in bed, the kids are asleep, and I’m on the phone to Hong Kong. Specifically, I’m trying to explain to the clerk at the hotel we stayed at on Thursday night exactly what I mean when I say “stuffed killer whale.”
“It’s a toy,” I tell her. “A child’s toy. A-a-a plush toy.”
“Plastic?” she says.
“No, no. Soft. Like a pillow.”
“You left a pillow in you room?”
It doesn’t get any easier when I have to explain the concept of killer whale. I’ve only been in the US for 8 hours, and already I’ve forgotten the complexities of a bilingual conversation in a region where few people are actually bilingual and almost everyone in the service industry was kicked out of high school at the age of 15.
Finally, she gets a clear enough sense of what we’re discussing to put me on the most expensive hold of my life. I’m sweating. I know this is stupid, know I should go to bed, know I’ll be more clear headed after some sleep. I’ve already gone through all ten of our suitcases twice, unzipping the compartments, digging through the dirty clothes, the souvenirs, random toys and books, the detritus of 11+ months of living abroad. I can’t find Will’s killer whale anywhere—Will’s killer whale, his favorite stuffed animal, his constant bedtime companion, the receptor of all of his secrets, for all practical purposes his best friend, even now, on the verge of ten.
Even worse, it was my job, that morning—if you can call something 30 hours and twelve time zones ago “that” and “morning”—it was my job to gather all of the kids’ toys and blankets and stuff them into the various small spaces remaining in our ten suitcases. I had thought I’d placed dear old Killie in Will’s backpack so that he could have him on the 15-hour flight home, but when I’d searched there come bedtime in Wisconsin, all I’d found was a stuffed orang utan we’d bought in Borneo. Making all of this worse is the fact that Will has an earache and barely slept on the plane, is exhausted, and has seemed incredibly vulnerable as we’ve made the transition from Hong Kong back to the US.
Eventually the clerk in Hong Kong comes back on the line and tells me they hadn’t found any killer whales in our room, but if we wanted to reclaim the mud-covered duffle and half-eaten sack of Doritos we’d left there, she’d be happy to send them to me, C.O.D. I hang up and pace into the living room. My mom is there, reading a book. She’s still glowing from all the hugs and smooches and the sheer joy of having our three little rug rats back in her life.
“You should go to bed,” she says.
“I know.” My joints ache and I can feel a slick of sweat on my forehead. My clothes are so saturated with body oil and dirt and airline grease that they actually stick to me when I move.
“Get some rest. It’ll clear your head.”
“I know,” I say. “I just can’t stand the thought of our trip ending like this.”
We make it all the way to 4 A.M. before Lucy comes in to the room and says, “I can’t sleep anymore.”
“I got it,” I say to Ellen, who groans something in a dialect of Portuguese I hadn’t known she knew, rolls over, and begins to snore immediately.
I take Lucy in my arms, carry her downstairs into my parents’ basement. We click on the TV. I curl her up on a couch, and wrap her in a blanket.
“Cartoon network,” she says.
“Fox News,” I say back. “Close enough.”
I hope, of course, that we’ll both fall back to sleep, but neither of us does. Eventually I go upstairs and collect one of those plastic-wrapped packets of 10 different cereals, all in little boxes, all with bright labels, all packed with sugar.
“Take your pick,” I say to Lucy. “Anything but—“
“Fruit Loops,” she says.
“—Fruit Loops,” I finish. “We need to share those with Will and Jamie.”
She chooses Corn Pops and I swear under my breath—they’ve always been my favorite. As she eats, I crawl over to the suitcases, pull the first one flat, shocked again by its weight. Back in Hong Kong some—what? 36 hours ago?—we’d borrowed the hotel scale and weighed each of our bags: 24.6kg. 23.9 kg. 24.9 kg. On the advice of one of the previous HK Fulbrights, we hadn’t shipped anything coming over from the States in 2009. Instead, we’d stuffed 10 suitcases full of everything we’d need, from undershirts to kitchen knives, and lived off of that for the next 11 months.
Unfortunately—in a “No Duh” kind of way—living in Hong Kong for a year we’d accumulated a lot of additional stuff. Some of it we’d sent back with family who visited as they returned to the States. Others we’d shipped in postal boxes. The rest we’d thrown into the trash, given to friends, or stuffed into our ten bags, weighing and reweighing, making sure we were under the 25 kilogram max.
Except that, um, when we got to the airport and I put the bag on the scale, grinning broadly as it posted 25.0, the ticket agent frowned and said, “But the maximum is 23 kilograms.”
I must have looked about to cry, because in a very un-Hong Kong moment, she waved all of our bags through—all of them, and didn’t charge us a penny.
Now, down in my parents’ basement at 4:36 am, Ben-10 on the TV, I zip open the first of the bags, running my fingers frantically through the loose clothing, the plastic toys, the zip-loc bags of shampoo, searching for one soft, cuddly, much-loved football-sized killer whale.
It’s a nightmare, I have to admit. Or more accurately, I’m moving in a nightmare-like daze. I’ve had maybe 8 hours sleep since what was Friday in Hong Kong but Thursday in Wisconsin. I’ve also had more sugar, more bad food, more caffeine, fewer showers, and less exercise in that time span than I’m used to, making me feel slimy, exhausted, mildly buzzed, and thoroughly depressed. Making all of this worse, some stupid show about spinning tops—the kid’s toy, that kind of top—is now flashing across the TV screen. Tops? Are you kidding me?
And then, in the fifth bag, half-asleep, I tug on what I think is an old towel and pull out a small, black-and-white killer whale.
Will comes down at 5. I give him a huge hug and hand him Killie, grinning ear to ear. He takes it from me, grins, and says to Lucy, “Is this Cartoon Network?”
The tops cartoon is over now and it’s something else, something weird with super-heroes, only they’re all really short with big faces, like they’re little kid super-heroes or something. It’s a cartoon I recognize as something the kids watched when we were in Cambodia and Bali, and maybe as far back as Vietnam, and the thought of those places and their white beaches and the smell of lemon grass just drives my head into the ground, it’s so depressing.
Will’s tugging on his ear.
“Still hurt?” I say.
He nods. The ear in question is cherry red.
Jamie makes it to 7, wakes up his mother (who will owe me those three additional hours of sleep until the day she dies), and comes downstairs. By this time, the grandparents are up and Lucy and Will are running around half-buzzed on sugar cereal, half-drunk on lack of sleep. I hand Jamie his share of the Fruit Loops and leave for the bathroom. When I return, Ellen is sorting through a pile of souvenirs I’d set aside during my search for the illusive baby whale.
“Some of these are gifts, right?”
“Better be,” I say. “We don’t have room for that stuff back in Virginia.”
I go upstairs, get a glass of water, say a few things to the kids, and return to the basement. Jamie is crying.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Probably tired,” Ellen says.
“Jamie,” I say, “are you okay?”
He just sobs.
“What’s a matter, honey?” Ellen asks.
“Does your tummy hurt?” I say.
Jamie sobs some more, stammering out, “Y-y-yes.” And then he opens his mouth and green vomit flies everywhere.
It’s 3:20 in the afternoon, and Ellen has come in to the room where I am stretched out on the bed. “Paulie,” she says, “you need to get up.”
“%#$&,” I say, albeit in a very loving way.
At 3:41 she returns. “Paulie,” she says, “you need to get up. You won’t be able to sleep if you don’t.”
She’s right, I know, but I don’t care. Right now, my brain feels like someone has wrapped it in a warm wool blanket and dragged it down a very very deep hole. I’m not so much on the bed, as of it.
We laid down at 2, swearing we were each going to take a one hour nap—just enough to clear our heads after our pre-dawn cartoon-watching.
Really really really bad idea.
Fortunately, I have to go to the bathroom, so I literally must drag myself up—though, I admit, I do spend a good ten minutes of half-sleep trying to convince myself that there’s no shame in wet underwear.
Will and Lucy are still asleep as well. “Kids,” I say, leaning in the door to their room. “Time to get up.”
Silence. It’s like there’s a black hole of sound in that room.
I nudge Will with my toe. “Will,” I say, “you really have to get up.”
I expect a moan, but get nothing. I look at the clock: 4:00. Which means, what, 5 am in Hong Kong? Or 3 am? It’s an hour off, one way or the other, but my head is so stuffed with dried seaweed and turkey sausage, I can’t even do a simple calculation, much less come up with a reasonable metaphor.
“Will,” I say, and get down on my knees. I poke his knee. His leg shifts some, but falls back into place. I rub his back, give his buttock a pinch. Nothing. I lift one ankle by the pant cuff, let it go. It drops, limp.
“Ellen,” I call into the living room, “they’ve gone boneless.”
It takes us 20 minutes to get them up and into the living room. Propping them on the sofa, I run into the kitchen to get a drink of water. When I return, they’ve slid on the floor, their eyes shut.
“Crap,” I say. We poke and prod, nudge and elbow, promising them ice cream if they’ll just wake up. “Culvers,” I say. “We can go get frozen custard.”
Finally we have them in the Volkswagon. My head still feels like someone’s filled it with marshmallow fluff and lit it on fire, but I put the car in the gear and we lurch forward.
When we get to Culvers, we pile out and walk across the flat, black, hot asphalt under the flat, beige, hot sky, into this non-descript blue restaurant that looks like someone took an A&W, gutted it, then installed the dullest furniture they could find. We buy 5 ice cream cones. We go sit in a booth. We lick, silently. The kids are still blurry eyed. I still feel like my bones are made of wax that’s been sitting in the sun too long.
“I’m not hungry,” Lucy says after about five minutes.
“Really?” I say, even though I’m not either. “But it’s ice cream.”
She just shakes her head. Jamie, ever the lemming, says, “I’m not hungry either.” Will nods.
Will’s ear is still hurting. Walking to the car, Ellen points to a Walmart. It’s on the far side of a long, black parking lot the size of Conneticut.
“We should probably stop there and get some Tylenol.”
The thought of going into the big W a mere 24 hours after our return to the States depresses me almost to the point of—well, it’s hard to think of something to compare it to, because going to Walmart is in and of itself the most depressing thing in the world, but you get what I’m saying.
But Will’s ear is hurting, so we trudge across the mega-gigantic supersized parking lot. Inside, we’re greeted by a short woman with triceps the size and consistency of steamed buns that have been left in the rain. Both of her ears are studded with black posts, lobe to crest. I wonder, for a moment, why it never occurred to someone who spends that much time and money trying to look fashionable that maybe a few dips to shape the upper arms would be a useful thing.
We’re searching for three things: Kids’ Tylenol, sandals for Will, and books on tape for our long drive up to Minnesota. Stumbling through the aisles, we find none of them, though we do come across more of the sorts of people you only meet in America: a bespectacled woman so large she looks like she’s pushing one tractor in front of her and pulling another behind; a teenage boy with a pencil fuzz moustache holding hands with a little girl in a pink Packers jersey; a skinny African-American girl who appears to be wearing a girdle-corset thingy outside her clothes.
This last one particularly strikes me, and it takes a minute to figure out why. Is it because she’s only the 5th or 6th black person I’ve seen in the last 12 months? Is it because Manitowoc is such a whiter than white place, that she stands out?
But then it hits me: it’s because, for the first time in almost year, we’re not the minority.
We find no Tylenol, no sandals, no books on tape. Crossing the parking lot again, a rusty Chrysler K cruises by us, moving the wrong way down the parking aisle. Inside is a man in a grayed t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. Old papers—phone books, newsprint, envelopes with plastic windows—are shoulder high in the back and passenger seats, as though he’s swimming in a sea of paper.
We’ve decided to drive back to Virginia together—it seems only fitting after a year away that we all pull up to our home together—so we stop at the U-Haul store to reserve a trailer.
It’s a low, square building sided with beige tin. A row of orange and white trucks is lined up near the back door, so that’s where I go in. Inside, three rows of diagonal tables—the kind you find in church basements—are set up with piles of paper, bottles of glue, and scissors. Six or seven women rest on their elbows, cutting and pasting. It’s a scrapbook shop.
In front of me is a barrel-shaped man with close-cut gray hair. He’s wearing a black Harley Davidson t-shirt adorned with a huge American flag. This is an alliance, I’ll have to admit, that I’ve never really been able to figure out: Harleys, in my mind sheltered, academic mind, are driven by gangs like the Hell’s Angels. And Hell’s Angels, in my mind, like things that are decidedly un-American: marijuana, gang violence, and crepes suzette, just to name a few.
“Howdy,” the man says as I stroll in. “What can I do you for?”
“A million dollars,” I’m tempted to say, “though that still might not be enough,” but I keep my mouth shut, except to tell him that I need a trailer.
He asks me a few questions—where, when, how far, for how long, did I have a hitch—and eventually get to the point where he starts tapping into his computer.
We go through a few more details—do I want insurance (No), do I object to a trailer with Rush Limbaugh on the side (Yes). He types away, clearly filling in some on-line form. Eventually, though, he frowns and punches the return key. The frown deepens. He taps the key again.
I expect him to say, “Dag nammit”—I mean, what more could I ask for on our first day back in the States?—but instead he puts on a pair of half-moon glasses, scans the clipping and pasting women, and says, “Bev? A little help?”
A woman with short blondish gray hair comes over. Her T-shirt is white, bearing the words “Scrapping: Girls Gone Wild.”
“What’s up?” she says.
He points to the screen. “I just put the number here, and then press enter, right?”
She tilts her head back, peering through her spectacles. Her glasses, like everything else about her, are wonderfully practical. Over the years, I’ve known maybe a thousand women like her, aunts, and neighbors, teachers and friends—they’re a particular brand of Midwestern women, sturdy and smart and quick of wit and judgment. They won’t hesitate to squeeze you in a bear-hug or slap your hand, depending on just how stupid you’re acting at any given moment. Watching her, I actually find myself choking up, salt misting my eyes.
“Here,” she says, “what’s the number?”
He tells her. She hammers a couple keys with one finger, then presses enter. The machine beeps.
“There you are,” she says.
Back in the car, we drive toward Lake Michigan, heading to Osco in search of the illusive Childrens’ Tylenol. We drive along curving neighborhood streets, past houses I’ve known my entire life. Even after a full year in Hong Kong, none of it feels weird—indeed, if anything is weird, it’s how absolutely normal all of this feels. It’s like we never left.
Along the way, Lucy notices the moon, pale in the afternoon sky. We talk about this, how the moon and earth and sun are on a three dimensional plane, how that impacts what you can and can’t see and when. I mention that among my hometown’s other claims to fame—a real-life WWII submarine in the harbor, a sadistic murderer featured on 20/20—there’s the story of meteorite that fell to earth right in the middle of 8th street, one sunny morning in the 1960s.
“What’s a meteorite?” says Lucy.
“It’s like a meteor,” I tell her, “only lighter.”
She doesn’t get the joke, and neither does her older brother who goes on to explain to her the difference between meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites—the first it turns, out, is just an object traveling through space, while the second is the same object entering the earth’s atmosphere. The third is what actually hits the ground—if anything at all actually makes it through the friction of re-entry.
By 5:00 we’re in the parking lot of the pharmacy down by Memorial Drive. It’s not an Osco anymore, apparently having been bought out by CVS. This is significant, because one of my most horrible moments before returning to the States involved having a sudden mental flash of myself sitting in the parking lot of the CVS in Lexington Virginia, digging desperately through my glove compartment for a gun, a knife, a tire gauge, anything I could use to end my miserable life in a miserable town in and miserable country dominated by a chain of miserable pharmacies known only for their innocuous ability to be stunningly the same no matter where you are.
I don’t know where this sudden hatred of CVS came from: I’d never been particularly bothered by the chain before our trip to Hong Kong. That day, though, sitting in our flat in Tai Po, the tall green mountains outside our window, the hustle and bustle of one of the most fascinating, stimulating, constantly surprising cities in the world not 30 minutes away by train—sitting in that world and having this sudden vision of the dull, flat, predictable sameness of the CVS in Lexington, I’d felt utter despair.
And now, barely 25 hours into our return to the States, here I am sitting in the parking lot of a CVS, the air conditioning cranked as we wait for Ellen to search yet another store for some medicine to cure my son’s ear-ache. Stretching out in the front seat, I slide one of my favorite CDs into the player, turn the volume up just a little as Will and Lucy and Jamie chatter away in the back seat.
I listen for a while, idly hoping Ellen will remember how much she loves me and grab a two-pound bag of Twizzlers before purchasing the medicine. Eventually a song comes on that I like, and I sing the first few lines:
I think the kids are in trouble,
Do not know what all the troubles are for
Give them ice for their fevers
You’re the only thing I ever want anymore . . .
“Daddy,” says Lucy from the backseat, “how do you know the words to that song?”
“Because,” I say, turning so I can see her, “Daddy’s magic, remember?”
They laugh, and Will gives me what I’ll claim here is a loving tap on the back of the head with the heel of his shoe.
“Really,” she says when they’ve helped me wipe up the blood, “how do you know?”
“Because I listened to this CD every night for a month.”
“In Hong Kong?”
“Where did you get it?”
“At the HMS,” I say. “Remember? Down in Central?”
And then it happens: my body is in my car in a small town in eastern Wisconsin, the flat Midwestern sky stretching out above me, but my mind is flashing suddenly on a particular corner of Queens Road Central, just outside the MTR near Peddar Street. Two doors down from the record shop is the mosaic-tiled restaurant Ellen’s friend Michael brought us to. West leads to my tailor, the best noodle shop in Hong Kong, Shueng Wan and the Market and Hong Kong University. To the East lies St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong Park, the trams and the tastiest Macau restaurants in the world, where the pork chops are tender and the rolls have a thin crust, like the best French baguette you’ve ever had.
And then there’s another flash, and I’m back outside CVS, the Wisconsin sun beating down on the car, the parking lots stretching out for miles all around, the radio loud and trailer tractor trucks rattling by.
And all I can think is, “Damn. It’s gone.”
And it is. It’s over.