Hidden somewhere deep, I have a memory of my family’s first house in Flower Mound, Texas, in the early 2000’s. It was before I had or even knew how to use a cell phone; I held our cordless home phone receiver in my hand, which had raised buttons producing a satisfying punch under my thumb each time I pressed a number, something that has been widely missing from handheld phones and computer keyboards since 2009.
It was always hot; the slatted blinds that covered each window in our two-story house angled down, tightly shut; the drapes were pulled back in elegant sweeps, the bands looped around the metal hooks affixed to the wall. The times I remember most are when I roamed around while home alone...my parents still working or at a church function; my sister, at soccer practice, friend's houses, or mysteriously absent from my memory; in fact, I hardly even remember our little dog, Buster, who definitely lived with us in that house and the one after. When I was by myself, even in this time, it was a chance for me to roam, and think in the stillness. No excessive noise, just the hazy frequencies natural to a settled house, never still nor at rest, just manageable.
This was also one of the first houses erected in our subdivision, Stone Hill Farms. Everything was so sparsely populated at the time that ours was one of the first homes completed in the neighborhood; it sat on a hill. You could see the train tracks from our front lawn a mile away, which was the barrier between my new hometown, a dry county, and the next town over. A Goody Goody Liquor sat on the opposite side of the tracks, its glowing red, tractor beam sign facing away from us.
Like a blueprint in my mind, I can remap every single aspect of that two-story house in my head down to specific details. There was a dining room on the southeastern end, a more sultry shade coloring the walls with a large dark wood dining table to match. A high-ceilinged (at least to my shorter body at the time) sitting room was stood directly across the entryway; my first piano, an upright bought in and moved from Oklahoma, adorned the western wall.
Our backyard underwent the most reconstruction of any other section of the property; I recall my tomato plants in the far northwestern corner of the barren lot; then, when they withered, this plot was filled in with landscaping more befitting of the climate; the patio was extended, the cemented pebbles like dancing on hot coals in the summertime; then came the trampoline; and that was later moved to make room for the pool.
I don't remember who it was, or how I got her phone number. I just remember that I wanted to be her friend. She lived in Canada. I had the receiver in my hand, and I punched in the numbers, knowing full well I would get into trouble if someone was to find out; this was real long distance, after all. My minutes would be excesses; my words gilded in gold, showing up on next month’s phone bill. I dialed, number by number, and sat there. I waited, but nothing happened.
I tried again and again, checking and rechecking the slip of paper, until I finally accepted the reality that nothing would come to pass. I simply couldn't connect; some piece was missing. I would never be friends with the girl in Canada. The northern border of the US now looked like a thick metal barrier inside of my head. People outside of the USA...well, I supposed I was resigned to finding friends inside of my own country. Even calling out of the state of Texas, at that time, had its overages. I felt I was on an island, dreaming of another, possibly inhabited, like some who dream of life on distant planets.
-20 Years Later-
I'm seated in a molded white plastic chair, probably from IKEA, at a government office in Lausanne. Lausanne is a city in the canton (a term similar to state, or province) of Vaud, which is one of a collection of cantons in Switzerland. I keep rescanning a letter delivered to mine and C’s apartment the previous evening, along with a filled out application bearing mine and C's signature. I’ve also brought with me a birth certificate stamped with the seal of Texas, a passport photo, and my navy blue American passport.
The bell chimes above and the screen flashes my number, with the letter of a corresponding stall, which I approach once the opaque glass doors slide open with a breathy swish. I approach desk K with all of my documents; I immediately ask the clerk if he speaks English, to which he replies “only a little”. He then proceeds to speak virtually fluently with me from there. After at most only five minutes, he boasts a proud smile, and offers me the paper he retrieves from the printer. “If anyone gives you trouble,” he says to me, “Show zem that paper. In two weeks you will receive ze official one in ze mail.”
“So, it's totally okay? I can stay?” I ask, for perhaps the fifteenth time in five minutes.
He nods at me. “Have a nice day.”
He hands me a brochure, written in English, titled “Living In Switzerland”.
Eight months ago, while still in Nashville and packing up mine and C's things into tubs, throwing handfuls of silica packets inside before taping them shut, I thought a lot about what everyday life would be like on the other side of the Atlantic. I felt there was no viable point of view (other than the reminiscent cooings of Julia Child, retelling stories of her Parisian years on “The French Chef”) that I could turn to for guidance. Since that ill-fated attempt to call north when I was a child, I had visited Hawaii with my family for a few luxurious, English-speaking, coconut-imbued vacations; I had bunked with girls from diverse locales spanning the globe at a summer music camp called Interlochen; I had befriended a girl in 9th grade who spoke Swedish fluently with her Swedish parents, who showed me the sweet, milk chocolatey, crunchy glory of Daim bars, and who for some reason could eat whole globs of wasabi without batting an eyelid; and I had spent a few nights in Toronto for a folk festival and had a Québécoise roommate at Berklee who spoke to her mother on the phone in French Canadian. This concluded my list of “international experiences”, until I met C.
I emerge from the government building slightly dazed, numbly holding the piece of paper that the man gave me, my hand closed a bit too tightly around it, crimping its edges. In front of a few adults outside on their break, smoking in the jagged mid-morning light pinballing between the hard edges of the surrounding structures, I unapologetically slap the paper against the cold stone wall and snap a picture of it, sending it to my family and, thanks to this single page of writing, my very soon-to-be husband.
As I plod the pavement of the Vegan District, students have begun to trickle out of their classrooms, searching for lunch. Other adults in business attire have congregated to have afternoon meetings over a glass of wine and a plate of tartare; they are waiting to be shown to their table at a glass-walled Italian cafe on the corner called Cipriano Bar.
Something has changed. I make my way to Globus, to pick up a few fresh chicken breasts for our dinner this evening, and I ask the woman clearly, but not quickly, for my order at the counter. This time, it's in her language. I watch her turn her back to me as she collects the pieces I asked for; she weighs them. I realize then that I have all the time in the world.
It was always so simple, and yet it took me 20 years to see it. I never counted that phone call so long ago as a true loss, because I never knew what was out there. The sprawling ecosystem of Dallas was all I could handle for my first 15 years, until I took a road trip to Austin with my band. Then I drove to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to teach at a jazz school for a few days. Before senior year, I saw the northern coast of Michigan, riding with my window down and taking in the smells of the fruit stands and the sound of the waves on the Great Lake; then it was six months in chilly Boston, at Berklee. 8 years in Nashville followed. My experiences grew and grew, until Nashville offered me a seat in someone's tour van, and then my own car; until the landscapes of the United States were laid out before me like photos in my mind, bent memories through the glass of my windshield.
My sister has now twice told me, thanks to my tendency to ask the same questions over and over again, that she always knew that my current home town in the middle of Europe is where things would eventually lead for me. She says that it's just the kind of person I am, to look out past the train tracks to the other side of the county. But for eight months, I feared the connection would never be made. That there would be some user error that would return me to where I started; my future in the land of mountains, of grass, and of sky would be lost, forgotten like the name of an ill-fated friendship.
Life doesn't always go the way one plans, but the things in one's head shape what ends up materializing, right in front of their eyes. I say now, with confidence, that if anyone wants to see the world, he or she should start by trying to call Canada. And not be deterred by an endless dial tone. It all really does just go from there.
The clerk is typing, and in the lull I ask him once again if I really don't need to leave Switzerland and reenter, as I had previously been told I had to do. He furrows his brow exaggeratedly as he holds my birth certificate up to the light.
“So, where were you born? Fort Worth?”
“Hmm…” he says, setting down the document and pivoting his gaze to me. He leans in, closer to the partition, and says huskily, under his breath: “You don't look like a terrorist.”
“I-I...I'm not!” I exhale; I'm halfway to a laugh.
“Of course. With this, you can stay ten years if you like!
Well, then maybe I will, pardner. Maybe I will.