I am almost eighteen when I return to the US after nearly a full year as an exchange student in France. My father picks me up at JFK airport, driving me around Queens and Long Island without specifying his intent. We visit Oyster Bay. But we do not leave the car, except when we look for the bookstore so that I can run in for something to read. On this same day, we drive back from the island up toward Vermont. He takes me through Montpelier, silently driving on our way to Canada. After crossing the northern border, my father insists I draw out my own cash from what is left of my grandmother's small inheritance. We stop at a bank, at a gas station and anywhere we can find. As usual, he stays in the car while I carry on my efforts at his whim. We rarely leave the car on our trips, only stopping for fast food or at gas stations. This is how my father travels through time. In perfect Parisian French, I ask a stranger for a distributeur de billets—an automatic teller machine, which no one seems to have in this land—or at least will not admit to understanding. Increasingly sweaty under a hot summer sun, a lady takes pity on me in my search, "Ah! Vous avez besoin d'un A-T-M." You need an ATM. Yes, in fact, I was looking in vain for an ATM.
My eyes appear in the dark, the jade encircling the noir. I maul an idea until I notice a rhythm, a pattern. My pupils focus; I see the downward motion—pushing, pulling, biting, I throw my head back, hands down, unleashing a compact bliss. My own depth darts to me, moving toward the French doors, looking for leaves that sway until the incapacitating winter. The wheat bristles wave and the leaves shake me. My mind runs to something banal as my hand runs down my body; my skin awakens. The twilight air flows in, and my mind, awake, turns toward my heart, inducing an anxious bliss that wakes me up and simultaneously kills me. To breathe at once into consciousness, an anxious flush makes way through nervous bundles and the axonal abyss, shooting stars into my heart. This rush is a shock that tumbles me into the darkness, into the woods and looking at myself while looking at everything else. The waking are startled in a hunt for green, seeking a letter that lost itself on its way to me. Like the purloined letter, I remain unaware of the message’s contents.
My mother drives us home after a meal at Duluth's Ground Round family restaurant in her dark orange Volkswagen Beetle, a quirky, tolerable pest still popular in its original form during the mid-1980s. I tightly hold my balloon, primary red like my favorite gum balls and with a long white plastic ribbon. The kind of ribbon I had always seen tied to the belly-button of balloons filled with the venerable lifting gas helium, noble in its lifting effects. This balloon is pumped full by a man in front of the table from a shiny aluminum, cylindrical tank. They tie the balloon to my high chair while my family eats.
“Hand me another tile, Jenny,” my father asks as he repairs an addition on our roof in Hermantown, Minnesota. I am getting ready for a trip to California with my mother and grandmother. I am five years old and my father pays me five dollars for several sessions of work handing him tiles when he needs to nail another one to the roof. A giant satellite dish imposes itself next to our brick and wood home. This is my parents’ second home although technically I lived at their first home in a residential neighborhood of Duluth, near to where my grandmother lives.
I turn seventeen on September 11, 2001 and ride to school with my good friend in her blue and white truck while listening to U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I walk to my computer class where the television is on and tuned to the news. The surreality of the day begins with a cloud of crashes, each of them more horrific to watch than the next, buildings falling before my eyes. Later that day, we attend dinner for my birthday at an upscale restaurant, completely somber in our celebration. No one can articulate the feeling within my family. Within my country. Missing my culture’s aftermath and the tectonic shift that results, I leave for my junior year in late September, barely able to find a map that shows the city I will soon inhabit. I am an exchange student in France as an escape from my family, an intention I announce at age twelve and somehow manifest.