On Returning

The first time I returned, it was like I had never gone. It had been roughly a year at that point, a not-insignificant amount of time, but it might as well have been only a week or two. I still got all the inside jokes and cultural allusions peppering conversations. I still knew what mattered and what had become passé or obsolete. I could confidently express opinions about the state of things or, conversely, feign ignorance or detachment without legitimately having no clue.

And when I went away again, I felt assured that everything would be more or less as I had left it. Familiar people would be having familiar conversations about familiar topics in familiar settings. I suppose there was some comfort in that, and I took comfort that returning would present no challenge as I traveled that distance far from everyone.

The next time I returned, I began to perceive a shift but maybe only a subtle one at that point. Sure, there were new touchstones, new concerns, new outstretching strands of interconnectedness now beginning to elude me, but I still felt literate, conversant in prevailing codes and signals. Sometimes things fell into a comfortable routine as though I had been away only briefly, but then there would be some innocuous reference or comment and I would be cast temporarily outside. Or there might be an accord that had been arrived at with no obvious deliberation that was incomprehensible to me.

And then when I was away again, I had the sensation of being absent through something pivotal, epochal. I knew without knowing that everything I had been acquainted with was being transformed irreversibly. I would journey through that multidimensional gate from here where I have so recently been to there where I have not and find not the world I had left behind but alien terrain, its inhabitants resembling my kind but different enough in manner and motivation to unsettle me, its objects recognizable in structure, identifiable in purpose but conveying no sense of familiarity. They likewise would find me altered in some undefinable way. I would resemble the person they had always known, yet something in my words and deeds would betray my otherness.

That is exactly how it was when I next returned. I had come through darkness and through light and arrived at that once-familiar place considerably depleted, and I noted how little I now recognized. Everywhere, there was anger, palpable at all times, and a divided people consumed by resentment and fear. The fear that now drove everything was like nothing I had experienced before in this place I once called home. It was not that there was no joy, but it was derived from the perceived suffering of others, from arbitrary groups having gained or lost advantage over one another.

Where before I had dreaded leaving and always looked forward to my return, counting down the moments until I could traverse the dimensions and be here among the comforts of home and people, I now felt the opposite. I failed to connect. I stood apart. I held my tongue in discussions for fear of censure and avoided most gatherings altogether. I was unable to discern people’s allegiances, incapable of ascribing meaning their espoused values, their reactions, the myriad offenses they took. It became clear that this process would continue for as long as I commuted back and forth between these two worlds. My estrangement from them and theirs from me would only intensify but never abate.

It is easy enough to explain this all through the lenses of man-made constructs like political partisanship or social justice. I find the people from my past less and less familiar because I live outside their culture and its rhetoric and ideological tribes. They are unable to relate to me because my context is not theirs. Old friends who once had everything in common can become strangers to each other through divergent life experiences. This is perfectly natural, but it only partially explains my unique situation. There is much more to it than this.

To begin with, there is a physical transformation every time I leave or return. In the beginning, I still possessed the same actual recognizable body. Over time, it aged and broke down, but it still maintained many of its distinguishing features. Eventually, I needed to discard that body altogether and inhabit an entirely new one, an understood side effect of the damage caused by being in that faraway place and by the labors of transdimensional travel. Much of the conflict arose from re-introducing myself and convincing my acquaintances that I was the person they had once known. The people I had left were as altered upon my return as I was. They were not simply inhabiting new bodies; they were actually new beings replacing people who no longer existed, people who had been obliterated from my subjective, bespoke reality.

There is also the effect of time, which proceeds differently where I am. One might say that I live in the future and, when I can, attend the past as a visitor making a polite appearance at a social event. Regularly, there are lags and paradoxes with which to contend. For a while at least this dissonance was easily mitigated. I could return more or less to the appropriate time in the past that I’d left. Eventually, this was no longer possible, and I found myself amid eras I might describe as booming and prosperous or as broken and apocalyptic and landscapes that alternated between inviting and foreboding. It was, to me, an incomplete narrative.

Eventually, I stopped returning altogether. The words there were no longer comprehensible and the mouth I now possessed was no longer designed for the production of language. My biological shell could no longer survive in that volatile atmosphere, and, worst of all, my heart no longer felt affection for these alien people and their barbaric rituals, their trivial matters of fleeting importance or their malevolent, false gods.