The place I’ve lived that I remember most wistfully, with the most painful pull of nostalgia, is a place where I was always waiting. For the three years I lived there, I waited, not only for the large questions to be answered — who I would become and who I would love, (because I was young then and knew little) — but also for my smallest desires to be satisfied. I waited all week for my Sunday long-distance call to my mother. I waited three months for Thai spring rolls, first identifying a person who might be willing to drive me the two hours to the nearest Thai restaurant (I didn’t have a car), then befriending him, and finally suggesting the trip.
Mostly, I waited for music. Since the nearest record store was hundreds of miles away, I waited six months to be chosen by the public radio station as a volunteer DJ. Each Wednesday, I’d bike down the mesa, the Milky Way pulsing above me, and from 6 to 9 a.m., I’d listen to, and submit the early-waking ranchers to, my favorite songs (by Liz Phair and Pavement and Dusty Springfield). When my shift ended and I headed to my paying job, I could feel the songs leave me, feel myself waiting for them again.
You might be wondering where this place was. What purgatorial abyss? It was a small town in the Mountain West, where I’d moved in order to write for a newspaper. It was 1995, which meant the Internet was a museum where the exhibits rarely changed. At the time, I had a crush on an Israeli man whom I’d met when he was visiting a local farmer. He’d returned to Jerusalem, but one night I found him again while searching through the farmer’s personal website (the first of such I’d ever seen). The two of them were tan, with wry smiles, in white beach chairs at the Dead Sea.
I looked at this picture most evenings, once everyone left the office and I could access a computer with the Internet. Alone, I felt a voyeuristic thrill from sneaking up on their photo, but it was a neutered prowl, the way a house cat stalks and pounces upon a stuffed animal. While the photo promised connectivity to the faraway world, it gave me no actual connection. After I stared for a while, I would find myself neither sated nor distracted, but lit up in my loneliness. The office would have grown dark by the time I shut down the computer and walked out the door. I’d bike home thinking about the fact that nobody knew where I was. It would be days before my mother called again. I didn’t have the money to call my friends back in San Francisco. What were they doing? Where were they eating? Who were they seeing?
In the cabin I rented, three miles away from the office, I ate chickpeas from a can. There were no lights outside, no other houses, just the mesa and a mountain. Inside my house, spaghetti-sauce stains dripped down the wood paneling. From my boom box, Dylan sang “Blood on the Tracks” over and over, his the only voice I heard.
When I think about that time, I wonder how I bore such silence. No signals came toward me from the world, no news, no chatter. These days, I can’t sit for five minutes on a bus without checking my phone. How did my brain work? That person is a stranger to me now.
I’m not trying to romanticize a slower pace. I’m not advocating a regressive purge of the computers and phones that keep us so connected, our small desires so quickly met. But I’d like to remember what it felt like when we tried to touch the outlines of our waiting and there were no outlines. When our waiting stretched as far as the night sky.