“Time is the longest distance between two places.” – Tennessee Williams
“It could mean that that point in time inherently contains some sort of cosmic significance. Almost as if it were the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.” – Back to the Future, Part II
“Where do you belong, Alison?” asked my friend in Green Bank via Facebook messenger.
I had been keeping it together until he posed that question. I had been strong and stoic, driving through the mountains by myself searching for a more permanent residence. Semi-dazed but alert enough to hit the breaks in the presence of street-crossing wild turkeys and Lyme-infected deer. For the most part, I’d been somewhat peacefully moving through solitude and transience.
My current dwelling is an upstate New York hippie town. I’m on the side of the Hudson River I never thought I’d cross. I’m two hours north of the city where I erstwhile imagined I’d spend my life… the city where I projected to eventually age into the gray-haired, wrinkled version of myself, strolling down Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, pushing my grocery cart, with a Irish-accented doorman who’d greet me “good evening, ma’am” as I briefly returned home in advance of an evening at the Philharmonic.
Essentially, I’m two hours above and west from where I always felt I belonged.
So, I spend a few hours each day, alone in a café, reading a book, or writing notes in a red moleskin journal that outwardly projects me as some form of pseudo-hipster intellectual creative type. My thoughts invariably are interrupted by curiously conversant strangers who may (or may not) still be high on mushrooms from 1969. The waitresses have started to learn my name, where I like to sit (away from the lights and the Wi-Fi router), when to urgently bring me caffeine, and on occasion they generously refuse my payment for the latte.
When I’m home, bored with my Facebook feed, or too distracted to research the physiological implications of 5G millimeter waves on human skin, or too tired to work out the biochemical relevance of voltage gated calcium channels, I comb through online real estate ads instead. I schizophrenically wade through Airbnb’s temporary monthly escapes from my altered reality, or Zillow’s unrealistic one-year commitments away from my current existence.
My search terms vary widely from “Hudson Valley” to “Shenandoah Valley” to “Boulder, Colorado,” to the extent that I’ve wondered if John Denver has a song for everywhere I’m meant to roam. But at least he knew those country roads could take him home to the place where he belonged.
The vacation rental website taglines elicit in me varying degrees of hope and hopelessness. “Get HomeAway From It All” inspires a glimmer of optimism. Airbnb’s “Where Do You Want To Go?” triggers existential anxiety.
Do I take it as a sign that I’m in the middle of the Catskills, and yet I drive by at least three cars per day with Virginia license plates? Or that six people from the greater Boulder/Denver area have recently entered my life. With one mountain time zone friend exclaiming, “You’re such a Boulder girl!” and somehow, I suspect he’s right, despite my anemic lack of fortitude at high elevation.
My days have a mysterious aura about them, an inexplicable blend of The Twilight Zone and a Hallmark holiday movie…. The Hollywood executives from LA who asked me to be an extra in their black-and-white ghost story film, because the director “loves my look.” (Does one wish to have a look that befits a rural horror movie?). The ethereally cool woman I met at the tea shop who is magically interconnected to everyone I know and have ever known. The type of character who winds up being your Christmas angel… The farmhouse rental I went to view with my realtor, thirty minutes out in the countryside, on an isolated windswept canvas. The rooms were wallpapered with pale yellow-and-orange flowers. An ancient radio was broadcasting a station emitting scratchy old French tunes. An old rotary phone sat mounted on the wall, still with a dial tone. I checked. My realtor had no idea who turned any of this on. It was the type of house only Hitchcock could have conjured. Maybe I should have sent the Hollywood folks in that direction.
As a child, I was sick a lot. This carried its own frustrating form of stagnation, a stark contrast to my current existence of energetically-imposed hyper-mobility. A string of bacterial infections and viruses kept me home from school, lying flat on my couch, feverish and hugging my pound puppies who thankfully never caught my wicked germs. Fifth grade saw me with both pneumonia and mono. I missed so many subsequent months of elementary school, such that my teacher Mr. Stein tutored me at home, so I could still graduate with my class.
A sick kid in the late-1980’s pretty much had two options: watch cartoons or watch movies on VHS tapes. I was home so frequently, I nearly wore out our VCR. My “sick movies” of choice were Back to the Future: Part One and Part Two. I thought the creators went off the rails a bit with their Wild West journey in Part Three, so I rarely flipped that tape in.
What I found fascinating about Part Two was the “Alternate 1985” concept. Future Biff takes a ride back to the past, and in doing so, creates a hellish version of the present. When Marty and Doc find themselves in a transformed 1985 Hill Valley, Doc realizes, something broke in the space-time continuum. Somewhere in the past, a tangent was made, and it skewed everything off course. Doc and Marty wind up in a temporal present, but it’s a dystopian version of the reality they once knew. And they spend the rest of the movie trying to fix this disastrous rip in the laws of quantum physics. Conveniently for them, they have a time machine to accomplish this goal. I, however, do not.
A continuum is defined as “a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct.” Yep. That sounds about right. As an exercise, let’s consider the following: We take the downtown Manhattan luxury doorman apartment where I last stood wearing my $700 suede over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots, black leather skirt and silk tank top that elicited a “honey, you look hot” from even the gay salesmen at Bergdorf’s… and you juxtapose that scene with the faded jeans and hoodies I now wear daily, my hair in a pony tail, my glasses on because why bother with my contacts, as I sit in an upstate cottage overlooking a stone tower that my neighbors built just for their goats (yes, there is a goat tower), and sure… those extremes sound quite distinct.
But, when you move in slow and steady sequence, minute by minute, from those posh Tribeca cafes where I always felt “less than” for not being a fashion model, to the Midtown Manhattan lawyer’s office where I sat stunned breaking my lease because of my health collapse and a wireless smart meter system, to the series of families who granted me shelter in their affluent suburban homes, to my travels through serene Virginia valleys and raw West Virginia forests, to seeking peace, love, and drum circles in this tiny upstate town … then surprisingly this drastic change seems almost imperceptible.
And yet, my friend asks me, “Where do you belong, Alison?” and I burst into tears before 9am. I told him his question made me cry. He answered, “Good.” I guess he knows I need to cry, even though I was unaware that any tears remained.
I’ve considered the following quagmire: Even if I could go back in time and “fix” a moment which skewed me down an alternate course, where exactly would I go? Would I accept NYU instead of Notre Dame for my college years? Would I take the PR job in Chicago instead of the publishing job in New York? Would I date the compassionate med student who lived in my city instead of unrequitedly idolizing the emotionally-unavailable law student who lived in the Windy City? Would I buy a different couch instead of the one that electrified my apartment?
Or would I look to the iconic symbol from the greatest Michael J. Fox movie ever, and return myself to the very last time I stood in a town square next to my misplaced friend in front of a courthouse clock tower…
If I could get back to any of these snippets in time, would a different choice or would different words move me to someplace better? Or would it all just move me to someplace different? By making any minor change in the past, my present reality would be altered, but I’d be none the wiser for it, simply following the continuum sequentially laid out in front of me, from each moment in time to the next.
So, if I were to accurately address my friend’s question, my answer would be, “I belong here. Wherever here is now.”
But just in case, I should probably never speed up to 88 miles per hour.