I spent the winter before I graduated with my master’s degree alone in the Pennsylvania apartment my husband and I shared with another couple and their baby daughter. My husband had already found a job back in California and had left to start it. Our housemates were Canadian and were spending the semester doing research back home in Calgary.
I missed my husband and our friends but there was an achy beauty to the emptiness of our apartment, the stark black trees outside the windows covered with snow. All during February, March, April, when my classes were over for the day and I was back at home I sat in the big rocker our housemates had brought, gazing at the white landscape outside and feeling deeply identified with it. I was also bare on the outside but on the inside there was this new thing growing, my life after grad school.
That winter and spring of 1997 I carried around a deep, effervescent feeling in my gut – the sensation of having served a sentence and that the date of my release was fast approaching. I’d only vaguely registered the beauty of central Pennsylvania during the three years we’d spent there, immersed as I’d been in getting through the program. Sure, there were things I enjoyed, especially for their contrast to California – the thick yellow sprays of forsythia that lined the back fence behind our apartment complex in the spring, the electric red of the sumac leaves in the fall, and the almost tropical lushness of the surrounding fields in summer. But the place didn’t feel like home.
My husband and I had entertained the idea of staying in Pennsylvania, or moving to some other East Coast city, like Boston or New York or Washington, D.C. But we just couldn’t muster much enthusiasm. I remember one cold night in December, before that spring I graduated, talking through our options in bed in the dark. “Let’s just go back,” I said, and we both laughed. Of course that’s what we would do.
I graduated in May; my husband came out to celebrate with me. We packed our things and sent them back to California on the moving van and he flew back to the Bay Area to work. But it didn’t seem right to me to just hop on a plane and, five hours later, be in California — my time in Pennsylvania, however foreign, just over.
So I took the train back. The journey lasted three days, during which I wrote and read and drank gin-and-tonics to help me sleep. All those miles, the train clicking away — carrying me farther and farther from Pennsylvania and closer and closer to California — I had the same sort of feeling I’d had that winter, sitting alone in the apartment: an almost-there excitement that grew the deeper west we traveled.
By the time the train reached Seattle I was stiff and dirty and ready for the trip to end. I flew down to San Francisco and into my husband’s arms. We’d had an adventure. I was different. I was glad to be different, and to be home.