#334: The Homecoming Game

June 16th, 2014

Two young women with rolling carts walked up at the O’Hare Blue Line station. They wore fresh smiles and gabbed happily in an Asian language I didn’t know.

“Does this go downtown? To the Forest Park?” one asked, pointing at the nearby car.

“Yes,” I said. “It does.”

Tag, I thought to myself as I lugged my own rolling cart two cars down. You’re it.

I’m home from my trip. I’m home and in the part of the homecoming game where I’m asleep on the couch by 8 and up at 1 a.m.

I’ve done the bit where I’ve glared at the gas station across the street from me and thought how much nicer the Blue Mosque was as a view. I’ve done the part of texting my mom to say the plane landed and getting annoyed at the newest TSA rule changes.

(Why do I now have to check out after getting my luggage with a picture I took at the kiosk five minutes earlier? What is the purpose of that guy knowing what I looked like without a bag?)

I’ve gotten kisses from my ladyfriend and laid out my souvenirs for sundry others. My clothes have been sitting in the dryer since the afternoon. I described to the best of my ability the difference between a kebab in Azerbaijan and one in Turkey and the difference between the cheese in Tbilisi and the stuff in Istanbul.

(“I couldn’t tell he was a terrorist until I saw a poorly printed photo of him taken before he took his luggage off the carousel,” the hero security guard told the media.)

It becomes a game for those who travel, the homecoming game. The tips and tricks we collect to make the last bits of travel more peaceful. Shoes off on the plane so your feet don’t swell. 5 points. Wet naps for the face. 10. Ventra card in the pocket so you don’t have to scramble through bags at the CTA station. 15 points and level up.

(And why security after the luggage carousel anyway? For every bag with something worth stealing, there are 6,000 like mine, filled with two weeks of dirty undies and three Schrödinger’s wine bottles [neither broken nor unbroken until you open the box {I did mention I was writing this in a bout of jetlag insomnia, yes?}])

Train home instead of cab. 50 points. Wondering about work. -12 points. Thinking you should check email. -20 points. Wondering how you’ll be able to afford all you just did. -200.

Wondering when your memories of the train to Baku will blur with the Metra to the office. -30. The view from the window of the ‘L’ home a minigame of little pluses and minuses. A point here for spotting a place you missed or a site you know. A point gone for remembering why it’s good to leave in the first place.

The fat man who always seems to be talking to neighbors on his porch just north of the California stop, a power-up. The endless scream of concrete, cars and suburban office parks before you get to the city, a boss level of depression you have to push on through.

(I wonder what the guy whose job it is to check photos taken five minutes earlier thinks his job is. He’s not crosschecking the photo against anything other than my face. “Yep. Still no mustache,” he thinks to himself several hundred times a day.)

I got the right gifts for the right people. I’m reasonably coherent for the lack of sleep, I didn’t get sick on the plane, the Georgian wine bottles didn’t break and I didn’t lose anything of value on the trip. In this ritualized game we’ve made of travel, where you have to accumulate pictures, anecdotes and a couple boxes of local snacks for the office break room, I did all right.

The final tally of the homecoming game is how long the feeling lasts. Stress stores, so we somehow assume relaxation is equally easy to chuck in some Tupperware and keep in the freezer for later use.

The world doesn’t work like that. If at the end, the fond memories and wonderful times of an excursion outlast the jarring lament of coming home to bills, commutes and mysteriously thick letters from the IRS about your last filing, you’ve got a shot at winning.

Will I win this homecoming game? I’m not sure, but thinking back on the times spent and people met in three different countries, thinking about that morning on the rock beach at Batumi, thinking about the taste of Georgian wine, thinking about the view from Baku’s maiden’s tower and the night a blood-red moon hung pregnant over the Blue Mosque as cargo ships slipped silently through the straits, I’m feeling good about my odds.

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Man, I hate the TSA

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