I’ve been driving around town — specifically my town, my home town, this town of Iowa City that I so recently moved back to after seven years away. I’ve been driving around town, and I’ve been thinking of how to answer the question posed to me by a friend recently — posed by a lot of people, actually — about what it’s like to be back, and how it’s different from Wyoming. I haven’t had much of an answer for them. I drive more places here. Things are more available and yet strangely more trouble to get, perhaps because the possibility of getting them is easier, and so it seems harder to do without. It is not nearly as sunny. But these didn’t seem like answers. Then yesterday, while not driving, I heard — that is really heard — this Dresden Dolls song [bonus: excellent live version on YouTube].
i’ve been driving around town
with my head spinning around
everywhere i look i see
your ’96 jeep cherokee. . . .
the number of them is insane
every exit’s an
ex-boyfriend memory lane
every major street’s
a minor heart attack. . . .
The singer is talking about being haunted by an old relationship in the form of a Jeep. Coming back to your home town is just like that, except that instead of a single relationship, it’s almost everything that happened in the first twenty-seven years of your life, and instead of a Jeep, it’s every fucking house and building and alley and tree you pass.
It’s not all bad. I’ve had many good times in this town — more good than bad, on the whole. But it’s all so there. It’s like having an Advent calendar where every day you open a door, but instead of an unknown surprise you get the surprise of recognition, the thing you’ve known but not thought about, or the thing you used to know but don’t quite any more because the color has changed, or the thing that you keep trying to forget. Everyone drives the same truck, but of course it’s not the same truck, because though they all remind you of the truck, none of them is it. Even the truck itself is no longer the truck it once was. And yet they all have an emotional impact like being hit by a truck. There’s philosophy in all of this, of course — the pleasure of recognition and the same river twice and something about reality and illusion and the idea of objects and memory and maybe even mechanical reproduction and other things that I don’t really understand because I never actually studied philosophy or literary theory and all I got out of reading Foucault is people have come up with some pretty appalling ways to treat other human beings.
But I’m a primary text kind of girl, and this city seems to be my primary text, for all that it changes.
When she was pregnant with me, my mother spent a lot of time in this city trying to pin down a text about a river. (That the irony and the symbolism of this is only now striking me is perhaps as good an argument as any for why we must come back over and over to these texts before they exhaust what they have to teach us.) The river was the Mississippi; the text was Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Her job was to find every version of the text she could and figure out whether Twain meant to use a semi colon or a comma, whether he preferred school house or school-house or schoolhouse, whether he meant blackness or darkness. The result was this three volume behemoth that you can get from the University of Iowa library (it was supposed to be published as part of a big project, but the big project ran out of money). She found out — or decided — what Twain meant to write in all those instances, and now that text is fixed, very much unlike the river he wrote about, which, as he acknowledged, was changing even as he wrote.
My town has a river that feeds into the Mississippi, and like the Mississippi, it has changed. And it has changed my town, flooding badly twice in my life, once in the summer of 1993, when I lived here, and once just a few years ago, when I was in Wyoming. That second flood in particular changed things. The whole music and art complex at the University was flooded, and many of those departments are still in temporary quarters, some of which have become semi-permanent. The buildings are still there, but they may never again be the buildings I used to run around in as a kid, pounding on pianos and reading the graffiti in open practice rooms and writing melodies on the chalkboards pre-printed with musical staffs.
The old houses around downtown that have been divided up into apartments are still there, but I can no longer aspire to be a twentysomething graduate student living in one of them, because I’ve done that, and I am older now, and changed.
So I just drive around, looking at the houses where I once knew people and the buildings I once ran around in and the things that ought to be there that aren’t there any more and the things that never were there that have now appeared. And I run into people whom I knew, or who knew me, or know my mother, whose lives intersected with mine back when both our lives were different. And people say to me, “Oh, small world!” or sometimes, “Small town,” and those are true, of course, but the feeling is not that. It’s that I’m continually surprised that the past is not prologue, as someone in Shakespeare said, or not just prologue. It is also present.
When I was seventeen, I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, and I was floored by it. Floored for a lot of reasons, but floored mostly that there was Mrs. Dalloway, fifty years old, with a husband and a daughter and a house and a party to throw, and she spends a big chunk of the book thinking about the summer she was eighteen. Grown ups were so dismissive of teenagers when I was one that I assumed they must be dismissive of their own teenage years as well. And yet here was proof — proof at least that in fiction, at least in this case, those years were still there. You can go home again. You do go home again, like it or not, or home comes back to you, willy-nilly.
A lot of people move away from their home towns for just this reason. It keeps you, at least, from seeing the Jeep. But I can’t seem to do that. I keep looking — looking at those houses and alleys and buildings and trees. So yeah. Don’t tell me if you get another girl, baby. Just tell me if you get another car. I’ll be looking.