Homesickness is a curious thing. Sometimes it hits you all at once, like acute heartburn after too many chili cheese fries. It is likely you will anticipate the symptoms and keep a stash of Pepcid AC. Other times, homesickness is more unobtrusive, like mild indigestion. There is only a small gnawing feeling in your gut, too slight to warrant medication. But whether expected or a sneak attack, homesickness is the same unmistakable yearning for home. Up until a few months ago, everything I knew about homesickness I had learned from the Wizard of Oz, which translated simply into warm, fuzzy feelings about the familiar and families and farms in Kansas. I never wondered if it was possible to be heartsick for a place that isn't home.
St. Louis was never my home, at least not in the traditional Auntie Em and Uncle Henry sense. I didn't grow up in the city and I don't have any family there either. I was born and raised in the California Bay Area, where I've lived for most of my life. I never even thought of St. Louis until my friend, a native, decided to move from Oakland back to home in the winter of 2000. I was, at the time, extremely disillusioned with everything about my life my job, my ex-boyfriend, my hair. I went to UC Berkeley, so I knew there were typical responses for disenchantment of such magnitude: join a nude dairy-production commune or pierce my nose septum and start panhandling Telegraph Ave.
My decision to quit my job and my move to a city where I had never been and knew no one was, by contrast, reasonable. St. Louis was simply as good a place as any to make a fresh start. So I bubble-wrapped my life in cardboard boxes and left for a new time zone. My friend and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment, for which we were grossly overcharged, at the knee-joint of Savoy Ct. and Delmar. I cut 10 inches off my hair. I fell by sheer luck into a dream job and was deliriously happy. I met a bunch of interesting and wonderful people. I bought my first car, a 1993 mint green Mazda.
But things changed. The friendship, which brought me there in the first place, fizzled. The job got shaky. My Mazda leaked. There were more things pulling me away from St. Louis than holding me there. Although I felt content enough to put down roots during the 10 months I lived in St. Louis, they never ran deep. I always reminded myself that living in Missouri was temporary, whenever I felt lonely. Still, my decision to leave was an agonizing one, the final outcome after a few weeks of distracted days and sleepless nights.
I suppose it's natural to develop a certain attachment for a place, after newness dissolves into comfortable familiarity. I'm not sure when I attached to St. Louis. Maybe it happened somewhere after my first spoonful of Ted Drewes and before the crushed visions of a Super Bowl win.
I knew something had happened to me when I had an overwhelming urge to take pictures the day before I left. I bought two throwaway cameras and drove around the city leaning out of my car window, jeopardizing the safety of fellow drivers, to snap pictures. I was acting possessed. Like if I didn't capture St. Louis on film, my entire experience and possibly the city itself might evaporate. I felt like my dad. He is a compulsive shutterbug, which has always irked me. He probably owns half a dozen cameras and takes pictures of everything, including electronics he plans to buy. "A picture freezes a moment in time," he says, coaxing me to smile for his camera. He knows I don't do pictures. I don't take them, I don't pose for them and I generally run from cameras like the bubonic plague.
I've been back in the Bay Area for about three and a half months now. In some ways, settling back into my pre-St. Louis life has been remarkably and disappointingly easy. There are times it seems as if I never left Oakland.
I finally got my photos developed last week. It had occurred to me that I might feel a slight bittersweet pang for the past, which is probably the biggest reason I waited so long to drop the film off at Longs Drugs. In a rush St. Louis came back to me: Soulard Market. City Hall. Union Station. The Tivoli. The Arch. Eads Bridge. The Anheuser Busch plant. The Casino Queen. The Mississippi River. Random brick houses. My old apartment building. Even Bi-State, White Castle and that huge Arby's Hat on Lindell.
I looked at the pictures of St. Louis the landscape, the buildings, the streets and felt a hungry emptiness in the pit of my stomach. There are no photographs of my experiences. No photos of the first time I looked out my apartment window and saw a summer thunderstorm lumber across a late afternoon sky. I sat for nearly an hour on my stoop outside tasting the rain on my tongue, letting my jeans stretch wet against my thighs. No photos of the first time I saw snowflakes fall. I stared out the window for the longest time not believing it was snow. No photos of the Friday night before Super Bowl, eight of us squeezed in a 1975 cherry coke convertible, whizzing down Washington Street with the top down. The air was so cold it felt wet against my skin. I looked up. The sky was immaculately clear. The stars and the streetlights made dizzy shapes as we laughed.
As I remembered that night and a hundred and one other moments, I thought about all the possibilities left untapped. The places left unseen. The things left undone. Even the words left unsaid. I thought of all the things about St. Louis that I would never know. I thought about the likelihood that I would never return. No antacid could soothe the feeling.
My dad was right. Pictures do freeze time. But I don't need a photograph to make time portable or permanent. Sometimes, when I least expect it, I close my eyes and see that crisp February night sky, the stars and streetlights flashing past my head. When this happens, I smile and think of home.