Sitting outside at the bar of a hotel we could never afford to stay in I crack a joke of a smile and deeply inhale the last drag of my cigarette. A tear flips salty over my lip, a single escapee from the wells of my glossy eyes. My flight from Christchurch to Sydney to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. is leaving at five a.m., a mere seventeen hours away. Kirra and I order a second round of boozy coffees. Everything I have loved for the last four months exists here. Everything I have come to learn about myself in the past year was fostered here as well. And now I am heading back to a place with which I feel distantly disconnected. A biological parent I have never met. It is a part of me and always will be. But the home I now know lies elsewhere. It lies in the tiny traveler’s town of Wanaka nestled on the southern shore of the lake that shares its name. It lies in the yellowed, tomato-toned hair of the best friend I have made here. It lies in the torn, ratty clothes filling the backpack in the back of our beat-up van.
But there is nothing to be done. For all my spontaneity, all my reckless whims, this flight is leaving and I have to be on it. My working visa is expired. My attempts at a student visa failed with a swift certainty that assured me I was not meant to stay in New Zealand. I have less than $1000NZ and much of that has been promised to my mother, who has been dutifully paying the student loans on which she unfortunately co-signed all those years ago. I have to go back. Kirra and I spend the night getting drunk with one of our favorite couchsurfers with whom we happened to cross paths again. We pretend it is not my last night. I am a terrible liar. When two a.m rolls around the jig is up. We make our way back to the hostel to finish packing everything I can ever remember owning.
At four thirty in the morning I stumble bourbon drunk through Kiwi customs with a moldy passport, a backpack stuffed tighter than a Vietnamese bus, and my trusty messenger bag, still caked in the dried clay from slippery, scarring Cambodian roads. Shaking his head at a sight he probably too often sees, the customs officer puts up a sham of an objection to my taped-together state and lets me through to the gate. I used every shred of energy I had to hold the pieces together, to get stamped and get to the other side. And now, sitting outside the gate in the unquestionable pre-dawn dark, I turn up my music to drown out the water-logged heaves of my own heavy heart. There is no running now.
Coming home is like going back in time. Nothing has changed, save for a new CVS there, a different bar on the corner. I return to the mess I left strewn up and down the eastern seaboard in the wake of my sudden departure. Four years of clothes and furniture and books and movies and art and crap are waiting to be collected, to be sold, to be thrown away. And for the first time in my life, I don’t want them. Sorting through the bags of four hundred dollar shoes and thousand dollar dresses, it all seems so silly to me. I see twenty thousand dollars of debt sewn imperceptibly into each delicate thread. You don’t realize how little you can live on until you leave it behind. The things I coveted, the life and apartment I spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars building is nothing but dust. The worst part is, it always was, I am only now just seeing it. Suddenly I am drowning in these over-washed masses.
There was bound to be culture shock coming home to the land of the overworked, of fast food and gratuitous shoes. But I have a plan. Sell as much of my stuff as I can. Give away the rest. Get a job teaching English in South Korea. They will pay for my flight. Home in February, gone by June. I will not get stuck here. I will not buy a pair of shoes. I will not let this place take it from me twice.
But what to me is a life changing revelation is nothing but crazed words from a dirty hippie to the rest of the workaday world. After all, who in metropolitan America takes advice from a greasy-haired barefooted girl? Something in me expects the universe to react to my changed soul. As if I were the first to discover it and the sheer energy of what I have unlocked inside me would alert the population, “Wake up! The time has come, this is no longer the life you have to lead!” But life is always only routine and most people cower at the threat of change. Shake the world and they will cling to whatever is nailed to the ground. I make less sense here than I ever did before.
I am on American soil no more than three hours before I get on Kayak and start looking up flights to South America. $200 to Bogota in October. I should buy it, I should buy it now, I have no money, I cannot live, what am I doing? Don’t buy it. I don’t. By May my visa to South Korea is rejected because of some ancient charges on my criminal record, a stupid college mistake. Once again, all my plans are shattered. I am stuck in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m not going anywhere.
Four months later, I have the same daily fare alert. It’s now $600 to Bogota in January. I bought a pair of shoes. I need an exit strategy.