I love New York. I always wanted to live here, and here I am. It is never disappointing. Every day, I remember that I am lucky. Every day, it is my job to check on Black River Bay, and this is a good job.
And so I do not say what I'm about to say in order to convey any kind of sadness, because I am not sad.
For the last three weeks, I have dreamed over and over about the coast of Mississippi. I used to live down there...not quite on the coast, but just up from it. We were stationed in Italy, and the Iraq part of the war had just started. When my husband went to the war, I went to south Mississippi. I was getting my doctorate down there and had to go to class. Then, after a year, he came home, and I went back to Italy to stay with him. But the next year, he went to Afghanistan, and I went back to Mississippi. And so on, until I finished my doctorate and we moved way up here, to New York.
The first part of the war was incredibly awful. Communication was difficult and slow, and people kept getting hurt and killed. And graduate school, for those of you who haven't been, has some difficult parts even though it's fun. So it was a hard time all around. But I lived in south Mississippi, and there were no sharp edges there for me.
My apartment was on the second floor of a two-story building. Long into the hot nights, me and my neighbors -- college students and National Guard people stationed at Camp Shelby -- would sit out on the balcony drinking tea, passing around the resident baby, petting the stray cats our landlady encouraged us to spoil. In the day time even, on the weekends, I'd sit out there boiling, reading inscrutable literary theory and making notes for my papers. And sometimes, when the war was too terrible or the sky was that deep blue it only gets in Mississippi, I'd leave everything I ought to be doing and drive 45 minutes to sit by the ocean.
Sometimes I'd drive straight from work. I'd be down there in the dirty sand wearing my dress shoes, sharing donut holes with the gulls. This was before Hurricane Katrina, so if I looked one direction, there were lovely huge houses and if I looked the other direction, there was the bay. To a girl from Oklahoma, smelling the ocean is miraculous. My Mississippi friends teased me for loving it. They didn't consider their beach a beach or the bay the ocean, but it was salt water, there were jellyfish, and I couldn't see its end, so to me, it was the ocean. It was everything I needed right then.
Every time I drove toward it, I'd feel like I was going to find out it wasn't really there. That's how much I loved it. And unfortunately, one day, much of it really wasn't there anymore, after the hurricane. It was a long time before we could drive down there, and even then, driving down there wasn't the right thing to do unless you came to help. So I came to help sometimes, but not enough. And I never helped the Mississippi coast as much as it helped me.
I hate that every time I talk about it now I have to talk about the hurricane.
I haven't been dreaming about the hurricane. When I dream of the coast right now, it's like it was before -- a little dirty, a little tacky in places, a quiet place where I could sit on the sand and watch banana boats. There used to be a restaurant with a lobster on its roof and a casino shaped like a pirate ship. The Mississippi coast wasn't an idyllic place, even before the hurricane, but there are a lot of beautiful things missing from it now.
Still, I love it, and I wish I could go there. I think I dream of it because it still sometimes seems weird that my husband is deployed and I'm not in Misssissippi. I never considered being anywhere else. I keep dreaming I park my car by the pier in Gulfport and start walking along the beach, then forget to stop and realize I've walked all the way to Alabama and it's getting dark. Last night in my dream, there was a party going on all along the water's edge, so it wasn't scary walking back. Everyone was making big vats of shrimp and dancing.
I'm so happy in New York, and this deployment is no worse than any other so far. Like I said, I'm not sad. But there is a longing that is not sadness, and that's what I have: Wishing so deeply that if I just blink my eyes real hard I'll find I dreamed myself in New York but I'm really lying across my bed in Mississippi with the window open and the humid heat all through me and my car full of gas so I can just get in and drive through the longleaf pines until I can't go any farther south.