I can’t help myself—I fall in love with places. It must be a condition of some kind, like kleptomania or hoarding. On road trips, I savor every scene glimpsed through dirty windows: numbers hanging crookedly from a pink house; a spotted dog taking itself on a walk at dusk; an abandoned building swallowed by vines. At every gas station, I pause to breathe the air of this new place and let its grit settle on my scalp.
And like kleptomaniacs and hoarders, I must be trying to capture something that cannot be held. It’s true, I imagine being part of every place. It’s easy to dismiss a town when you know you’ll never be back. But picture yourself having your first kiss in that park, the boy tasting of grass stains. Picture your first job scooping ice cream at the corner shop, wearing that silly paper hat. Imagine who you could be if you were born in this place, if you died in this place, and I dare you not to fall in love. I’m that awful person who begins a hundred books without finishing one. Forgive me, it’s just that I want to linger in each.
In Dexter, Michigan, I could have been the owner of an antique shop. One day, I found a stack of love letters in a wooden box, and I read each one and cried. In Jefferson, Louisiana, I fell in love with the attic ghost and left her truffles on the window panes, though they only melted into dusty puddles. In Champaign, Illinois, I claimed to be a dog breeder, but I kept every puppy for myself, a furry retinue following along on my sunrise walks. In Tillamook, Oregon, I sewed myself an enormous pair of wings after watching an injured pelican get beaten by a riptide. Everywhere feels like home.
In Billings, Montana, I try to appear like I belong. Maybe if I look like a local, I’ll become one, rewrite my past to fit this landscape. It’s…interesting, my mom says during her visit. I know she sees the casinos and the steam from the refinery. I see them too. I also see the spindly sunflowers growing in alleys and along the highways, bowing to travelers from their gilded rows. I see the low shelf of rocks that engulf the town like the lip of a bowl. Sometimes I feel eyes on my neck, only to turn and see the tawny wall watching me, more animal than mineral. Any place can be beautiful if you let it claim you. Should we make this our forever home? I ask my husband, who laughs. Even as I say it, I am itching for more places to add to my collection.
Last night, I dreamt of all the homes I’ve loved, cobbled together into one Frankenstein-like structure. The backyard was that grassy lot from Oakland, half shaded by the oak. From the bedroom windows I could see the crepe myrtles of New Orleans, their white petals swirling in the rain. Though the Oakland backyard was endless sun, the windows facing New Orleans revealed constant thunderstorms, each flash of lightning a small revelation. In the living room stood the couch we sold, still white as it was before we got the cats, and on it sat my favorite Ann Arbor neighbor, who came to sip tea and stroke the drooping tentacles of my ferns. The rooms didn’t fit together neatly; the hallway was tucked into the bathroom, which collapsed into the basement. Some doors opened into empty rooms, waiting to be filled. I was disoriented, lost, still searching for the room I knew was at the heart of this monster, the core beneath the sweet pulp. When I finally found the kitchen, it was exactly as it always appears in my dreams: the walls were buttered-sourdough-yellow; the tiles a slippery orange glare; the oven still ticked, though it had been off for hours. Late morning sun slouched through the window panes of my childhood kitchen, illuminating the tiny handprints smeared on the glass. Why does every home I make remind me of my first? Bent before the counter was my husband, humming, slicing into a fat pineapple. Even in my dream I knew it made no sense—this kitchen was torn down and rebuilt when I was still a girl, long before I met him. And yet here he was, smiling and offering me a plate of fruit, the center of my tangled dream home.