A friend has a theory about Cracker Barrels. There can’t possibly be that many, so immaculately alike, Room-of-Requirement-esque in their ability to appear at the precise moment of need for sustenance on long stretches of green and gray nothing, providing exactly what every American didn’t know they were craving until they step in the door—butter and biscuits—anyway, I’ll stop here, because point made, this is impossible. The far more likely scenario is that these are all portals to the one true Cracker Barrel. We pull off the highway and drop slightly off the space-time continuum. We are fed, and then we go back on the road.
It is the kind of theory you come up with in expansive countries like ours. I have been reading Emily St. John Mandel, a Canadian author who lives in New York and writes mostly about winding journeys across the United States (never let them tell you road narratives are male territory). Her characters are desperate as often as drifting, motivated sometimes by crime thriller, sometimes by dystopia, usually by fear, occasionally by addiction to running. She conjures Stillspell, New Mexico with the false everytown conviction of a Cracker Barrel. North Americans can write like this because North America lives in my imagination not so much as a united continent but as a series of movements. I don’t think of New York, Chicago, Montréal, Austin, Medicine Hat, Sacramento. I think of the highway. And I don’t even drive.
That road culture’s in me all the same. You know this. I loved giving foreign names at cafés in Catalonia, the ambiguity of worn-in jerseys and faded hoodies in England, the colorful life stories I invented for taxi drivers in Argentina, the phenomenal anonymity of New York. I think sometimes I might like the trains better than the places they take me. Or perhaps I just like the excuse to read.
One of Mandel’s protagonists, Lilia from Last Night in Montréal, has a compulsive need to travel. She starts out the book needing to run away from someone, but even after she’s lost them, she keeps going. It’s more than a habit. It’s her particular cowardice. At one point, she confesses that the cities have all started to look the same to her. There was a time when I would have found this ludicrous. Blending implies forgetting. The industrial roasted Pacific Northwest is not the dirty glamorous Río de la Plata is not the brilliant colonial DMV.
Yet I find myself mapping every city I’ve ever known onto the others. Wherever I am, I see where I’ve been. It may be that my memories are stretching, purposeful, in constant search of narrative, a thing I crave like Lilia craves flight. It may be. But I’m partial to the Cracker Barrel theory about my life.
My sister and I stopped in a café in Seattle on our long walk up a hill I can’t remember. It was more of a cultural center. Wifi and workspace to the left, café to the right, gathering space on the patio in the back, art gallery off to the side. Conversation everywhere but I don’t really recall people talking much. The place had a hum. And it looked exactly like a café I once spent an afternoon in on Avenida del Libertador, across from the fine arts museum in Buenos Aires, the new-school energy of September, back before I got used to café con leche. I am not saying it reminded me of this place. I am saying it was this place. I do not know which memory has trumped the other when I picture it in my mind’s eye.
I quote Cortázar:
Y mientras alguien como siempre explica alguna cosa, yo no sé por qué estoy en el café, en todos los cafés, en el Elephant & Castle, en el Dupont Barbès, en el Sacher, en el Pedrocchi, en el Gijón, en el Greco, en el Café de la Paix, en el Café Mozart, en el Florian, en el Capoulade, en Les Deux Magots, en el bar que saca las sillas a la plaza del Colleone, en el café Dante a cincuenta metros de la tumba de los Escalígeros y la cara como quemada por las lágrimas de Santa María Egipcíaca en un sarcófago rosa, en el café frente a la Giudecca, con ancianas marquesas empobrecidas que beben un té minucioso y alargado con falsos embajadores polvorientos, en el Jandilla, en el Floccos, en el Cluny, en el Richmond de Suipacha, en El Olmo, en la Closerie des Lilas, en el Stéphane (que está en la rue Mallarmé), en el Tokio (que está en Chivilcoy), en el café Au Chien qui Fume, en el Opern Café, en el Dôme, en el Café du Vieux Port, en los cafés de cualquier lado…
I know why I am in todos los cafés. So does Cortázar, if not his protagonist. He once wrote a story called “El otro cielo” in which his characters travel between nineteenth-century Paris and twentieth-century Buenos Aires by way of the covered passages or arcades (Guëmes and Vivienne). People call Buenos Aires “the Paris of South America” for its useless Mansard roofs, or rather, the glitz they convey. Cortázar lived that urban fraternity and rendered it literal. He walked into one passage and came out the other. Everything was doubled but not separate enough to be clearly so. It’s not so strange a concept. That is in fact how vision works.
I am in Barcelona when it’s summer and in London when it rains and in New York when it snows and in Argentina when it blooms and in Virginia when it swelters. I am in Barcelona when I dream and in London when I explore and in New York when I achieve and in Argentina when I love and in Virginia when I write. I am in many more places, many times of day. I have only the one life.
Tomorrow is my last day in my hometown. That’s an impossible and unnecessary sense of finality, I know. I’ll always visit. I’ll always be from here. This is my country. But hometowns are incubators for my generation, at least in cities like mine where the rent is rising. We know they are not ours. This is the benefit of being from an old place; it is impossible to get illusions about ownership rather than stewardship.
I expected to feel a lot more than I do. It’s always like this. A lot of nerves, a bit of quiet dread, but no epic sadness. (Yet.) I’ve taken Alexandria with me all over God’s green earth and I do not expect it to be any harder to take it with me an hour south. I am always here. I always have been.