Having previously worked as a university lecturer in Albuquerque, Jonatha Kottler now lives and writes primarily in Europe. Jonatha teaches at ECAS and was one of Edinburgh’s 2016 Story Shop writers; she has also contributed to the Dangerous Women Project and to Edinburgh’s Write Like a Grrrl community. Her work has also been published by The Guardian and by 404 Ink in their hit collection, Nasty Women. She is presently writing her first novel, and one of her essays is slated to appear in an upcoming collection entitled No Filter.
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.
It’s three flights home. Edinburgh to London, London to Dallas, Dallas to Albuquerque. It takes almost twenty-four hours. Multiple trips through security. What country am I in? Do I take off my shoes? IPad out? Obligatory millimeter wave examination, my socks fitting into the foot shapes that thousands of people have stood upon, my arms raised, like a hostage in a video game, while someone examines an image of me. A view of myself I will never see, more intimate than most doctor’s appointments. I feel that they should inform me if everything is okay in there. Any tumors? I mean, besides the ones that this barely-tested technology is probably causing? I bristle at the short line of people who have paid extra money to not be subjected to this. I bristle at the latex-gloved woman whose job it is to give me a public breast exam in the name of airport security. I see out of the corner of my eye a man lifting my son’s long hair to look beneath it. My mind shouts, “Yes, of course! We are terrorists who have cleverly hidden a two-part doomsday device—half in his hair, half in my tits!” But my mouth is silent; I believe I may actually have thanked the women at the end of her perusal, before setting off to pick up my iPad, phone, backpack, coat, holding up the end of the conveyor belt because my trip to second base with this stranger has slowed everything down.
When I land in America after a short flight to London and a hot bus to the terminal in Heathrow, and more security, and the flight to Texas, I have already endured: humiliation; heat; other people’s coughing in recirculated air; a chicken and mashed potato dinner and a breakfast item that was for some reason half chorizo pie and half lemon drizzle cake; a perpetually in-use bathroom; four feature films; six apple juices; and a trip through the first-class accommodation that has me contemplating revolution. I have to collect my bags and walk through customs with them into the USA, where, overtired and anxious, I prepare myself to answer questions about why I have been away so long. How dare I live outside the country? Don’t I love America? How did I vote in the election? I haven’t been home for a while.
I stepped on an airplane on 21 December 2012, leaving America just one week after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I left a stunned nation in the hands of a president I admired and had just voted for, on the day the Mayan calendar said the world would end. And in many ways the world did end for me—I left my large house, two cars, a job as a university lecturer, and moved to Europe in my forties because I wanted my teenage son to see how people in different places lived and saw the world. So many things have happened since then, in our lives and in the world. A new president, one I definitely didn’t vote for. Now, almost five years later, I am afraid of returning home on almost every level I can imagine.
But the US Customs Agent just says, “Welcome home,” and jokes that he really likes shortbread. I am disarmed by how friendly he is, how chatty. He puts me at ease, checking our passports and telling us that unless we have $800 worth of shortbread in there we are good to go. The airport in Dallas is wide, expansive. Our departing gate is two away from where we’d landed. The bathrooms are huge and there are paper towels to dry your hands on (I know, I’m sorry Planet Earth, but I have used exclusively public transport for the last five years, so give me a break and let me have dry hands for once!) We order burgers while we wait for our final flight and a tension I was barely aware of, but I always carry with me, disappears. I am where I don’t have to explain Trump, apologize, disavow (I happily do those things on a daily basis in the UK). Where I don’t announce where I am from upon speaking my first words. Burgers are great, mustard is yellow, and there is no brown sauce in sight. Fries are fries and chips come in a bag. A frisson of otherness ceased.
A short hour flight and then the lights of Albuquerque come into view–well-known lights in grids that I recognize as the different parts of town, the West Side, the University, and then the blackness of the mountains. As soon as we are off the plane and walking (our airport is tiny, the gate I used to think of as so far away is near) there’s gorgeous Native American art all around me and the air feels right. Picked up, hugs, luggage into the car–the summer air smells like the heat going slowly out of the day, the cement wet from sprinklers watering the grass, clean mountain breeze.
Being home. It’s hard to articulate. A cloak of strangeness has been lifted off my shoulders. I can drive to any place you name here without consulting Waze. I know these streets, irrespective of a new store here and a leveled restaurant there. I know them from being in the passenger seat my whole childhood, and learning to drive here in my teens. I belong here in a way I haven’t felt in such a long time.
Still, I’m afraid. What if I have changed too much? What if living in Holland, in Scotland, has made me too other? What if they hate me here? What if I hate it?
Gradually, one meal at a time, I find my balance again. My friends are still my friends. I am happy to see them and they are happy to see me. The gulf existed only inside of me, and it closes.
But just as I become whole again, I find I must split into two selves, because while one of me is eating chicken tacos, sopapillas smothered in green chile sauce, drinking The Red Stuff at my favorite local hang Flying Star, embracing the people that I love, seeing how children have grown, laughing at old jokes and catching up on how much we hated Batman v. Superman, the other one of me is aware of the news of day-to-day America. Every day the President causes a year’s worth of scandal. What would once have been a season’s worth of legislative surprises happen in a week, and all of it erodes what I believe my country is about. So Jona A had a wonderful trip home, and Jona B tried to keep up with the news. Here are three weeks in two lives in America:
|Date||Jona A’s Fun Vacation||Jona B’s Crushing Reality|
|July 23||Jetlag, American breakfast, shopping at Target!||Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci’s first day|
|July 24||Fun times with my husband’s family||Trump makes his speech to the Boy Scouts, mocks Obama and news media|
|July 25||More family fun times–breakfast with green chile cream gravy||US Senate votes to open heathcare debate|
|July 26||Fancy tea with my beautiful friend Jennifer at St. James Tearoom||Trump vows to ban transgender soldiers from the military|
|July 27||Lunch with my favorite college teacher where I gave him a book I was published in
Red Stuff at Flying Star
Dinner with cherished gaming friends
|Boy Scout Chief apologizes for Trump’s speech
|July 28||Shopping at REI
Green chile lunch with friends
Plane to California
|Trump replaces Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff|
|July 29||Starbucks, Wendy’s, American hotel!
Spending time with my mom
|Trump attacks Republicans for failed vote on Obamacare repeal|
|July 30||More time with my mom and sister; bringing home my father’s flag from his military burial||New White House Chief of Staff encouraged to “reign in the chaos”|
|July 31||Reunion of kids I taught for ten years||Anthony Scaramucci is fired from position as Communications Director|
|August 1||Flying Star (again!)||Trump asserts, “We will handle North Korea”|
|August 2||Lunch with a writer friend, Dinner with our former comic book artists. (More green chile, more Flying Star. Hmmm… I’m seeing a trend here)||Trump endorses a “merit based system” that would cut legal immigration|
|August 3||Lunch with an amazing former colleague
Fancy tea with former students–all grown up and paying for stuff!
|Trump tweets: “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress.”
|August 4||Visiting the Meow Wolf art installation in Santa Fe with a dear friend, a night of roleplaying with the best group in the world!||North Korea threatens to send “unexpected gift packages” to USA|
|August 5||Breakfast with our fabulous French teacher, lunch with lots of old friends||US Air Force General Silva warns that America cannot let its nuclear arsenal slip|
|August 6||All-day board game day with Trader Joe’s snack fest. Lots of tears when saying goodbye||Three marines lost after a US military aircraft crashed off Queensland coast|
|August 7||Lunch with our high school English and Drama teachers–these women are amazing and taught me so much||Trump tweets: “How much longer will the failing nytimes, with its big losses and massive unfunded liability (and non-existent sources), remain in business?”|
|August 8||A sunny goodbye to two dear friends (at Flying Star)
Last-minute shopping at Target
|Trump threatens “fire and fury” against North Korea|
|August 9||Flying home, so many goodbyes, so many tears||FBI raided Trump’s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort’s home as part of the Russia investigation|
|August 10||Mostly in the air, the plane’s movies are broken but Logan and I watch eight episodes of Jane the Virgin||New Orleans declares emergency as threat of flood looms
Trump declares the opioid crisis a national emergency
My holiday back home is longer than an entire “the Mooch” White House career. Some of this I followed while I was there, or rather it followed me, relentless CNN on screens in restaurants, newspaper, and social media headlines. And some of it I willfully ignored, catching up only so that I could understand Stephen Colbert’s monologues back on my own couch.
It makes me shake my head as I write it. What has happened? How did my home become the Biff Tannen dystopia from Back to the Future II? And how to go on from here? How to protect my “column A” self and yet be a participating part of my democracy? Going forward, I actually just end up casting my mind back. Back before Trump, before moving, before even being an adult. Sitting cross-legged in kindergarten, singing “This land is my land, this land is your land, from California to the New York Islands, from the Redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.” (Already, now-time me is butting in–the land in question didn’t originally belong to the people singing the song. Set it aside for now. I’m setting aside, too, the knowledge that the songwriter, Woody Guthrie, lived in a slum owned by Trump’s father.) I’m thinking of myself, with red, white, and blue ribbons braided into my hair, singing past baby teeth and celebrating the USA’s bicentennial. There are things that I believe in, down deep, that are still there. My giant, beautiful country filled with natural splendor, that welcomes the tired, and poor, and huddled masses. That we are entitled to speak freely, and have a free and independent press, and not be expected to share a national representation of God. That there are opportunities for people who have dreams, and that it is our responsibility to help each other, to provide opportunities for others when we see that we ourselves have them. That I should be able to have non-crêpe pancakes at any time of day or night.
Going home was beautiful, complicated, and powerful, and having lived in other countries I returned very much aware of how others see us in America. There was something essential to it, too. I don’t know how long I would have to live here before being here feels like wearing the most comfortable pair of jeans. Of being the most me.