When I was small, my grandma had two cats. One was black and named Sassy. I don’t remember the other one’s name; I’m sure it also started with an ‘S’. My mother had a horror of animal smells, and the only people we regularly visited were my grandparents, so these cats were the first domesticated animals my brother and I had experience with. I learned how to pet a cat from front to back, and not against the grain; not to pull a cat’s tail; what a purr sounds like (and, with more years and practice, how to do a convincing imitation); the unusual shape of a cat’s pupils, and the marbling of the iris; what a pet flap is for (and not for, i.e., for small children to crawl through); that cats eat cat food and not, as the cartoons had lead me to believe, primarily mice.
My grandma fed the cats out of the pantry, from what looked like cans of tuna fish. She would call them by clanging a fork against their metal food bowls, and the cats would drop in as silently as fog. The pantry was deep, more like a low-ceilinged closet, three feet wide with a plywood door, which was painted, if memory does not betray me, swimming-pool blue. The door always stood open.
I’m not sure what brought my grandma’s cats to mind today. The cats vanish from my memory sometime around my middle school years. The pantry itself was removed in the great kitchen remodeling project that my grandpa and uncle took up around the time I went to college. The house lost its old zip code when the town had to be split, and the roads to get to my grandparents’ house were redone and expanded when the outlet mall came in, before the Great Recession turned the county upside down. I still have nightmares in which I am asked to navigate the new roads, five or seven lanes wide, with indecipherable signage and multi-lane roundabouts and flashing yellow left arrow lights (the paper had to run a column at the time to explain what they meant). Inevitably in these dreams I wind up driving the wrong direction, to the mocking disappointment of my father in the passenger seat.
I thought the pain of nostalgia was the pain of being separated from the past by my changes. I could go away to college, I could grow into a bona fide adult, but I had imagined that the past I left behind would remain static. I could come back to my small town and it would be the way it was. I imagined that nostalgia would mean missing what I used to be.
But the pain of the past is more like the pain of a divorce. It’s not that I left a past behind; it’s that I and the world I came from have grown apart. The more times I came back to look for it, the further we had diverged.
I can google my high school and see students attending an institution of the same name, but nothing about it is recognizable. I scrutinize the walls in their YouTube videos, hoping to catch a glimpse of a familiar piece of architecture while the Spanish 1 students ask each other, “Como tay yamo?” But like Jerusalem in the wake of the Romans, not one stone has been left upon another. I can’t tell if they’re in the same building. I can’t tell if they’re in the same town.
The teachers whose names I know have retired, or left, or been ousted; it has not been a good decade to work in Michigan public education. Old news stories inform me that bona fide celebrities built a house there, but they appear to have left again. There was a highway sniper, a bizarrely big-city crime. A dead Klansman’s robes were auctioned; the local journalist notes, memorably, that they were tinged pink, as though they had accidentally been washed with some red socks. The auction house is gone.
On my first day at college, alone in my dorm room at night, I sobbed. Not because I was afraid, but because my mother, having delivered her firstborn child into the first official phase of adulthood, had been so obviously eager to get it over with. I was not ready for her to be ready to move on.
When astronomers turn their telescopes to the night sky, they can see a shift in the light. The universe is growing, not at the edges, but because every part is moving further away from every other part. It casts a bloody tinge over all there is. We are growing up; we are diverging; we are eternally breaking apart.