I don't smoke.
Or, at least, that's what I used to say.
Nearly all of my friends in Spain smoked, at least socially. They'd light up when we were in the plaza, outside our favorite bar, walking through the city at all hours of the day or night. I was happy to lean against a whitewashed wall or the back of my wicker chair, observing their exhalations float lazily from their lips to the cloudless sky. I'd smoked enough cigarettes to know that I like them too much to start.
Then my last week in Spain arrived and I gave up. I found myself on a balcony in Madrid, taking a long drag on the hand-rolled cigarette that I told myself would be my last. Earlier in the evening I had gone to dinner with my host mom, the woman who took me in during my college semester abroad in that wild and wonderstruck city. I still call her mi mamá española. We went to a bar around the corner from her apartment, the same one where she took me after surprising me at the airport when I arrived in Spain in January of this year. I ordered whatever I could find on the menu, hold the cheese-jamón-hardboiled eggs please. She laughed at the accent I picked up in Andalucía. I laughed because I love it when she laughs. She took a sip of her wine and fixed me with her gaze.
"You know it's going to be harder this time, right?"
I asked what she meant, my heart slowly sinking.
"Well, the last time you went back home after living here, you were going back to university. You had your friends and your classes and parties waiting for you. This time, you were here on your own. You made a life here. It's going to be harder to leave it."
My heart dropped into my stomach. Of course she was right. She was right and I knew it. But I have an inconvenient habit - my own special brand of denial - of failing to mentally prepare myself for transitions. I'm smart enough to know that I tend to struggle with moves, but not smart enough to fortify myself in advance.
The next day, I was the last person to board my flight. I'd briefly considered missing it on purpose. Some sense of logic, or obligation, or at the very least shame at the thought of disappointing so many people, propelled me through security. The doors at the gate were already closed, the airline staff calling my name as I sprinted to the desk. When I stumbled onto the plane and flashed my boarding pass at an exasperated flight attendant, he posed a question in Spanish to a seething bespectacled man glaring at me from first class: "So, should we kill her or what?"
I dragged myself to my seat and buckled in, wondering for the hundredth time if I was making a mistake. I arrived in Casablanca for my connecting flight and texted my actual mom that I felt like shit. Ever the practical one, she responded right away with, "Well, you didn't expect it to feel good, did you?"
To be honest, I did. Back in May, I decided that I want to get my Master's degree in Spain. I want to go back to school, and I want to live and work in Spain permanently, so it's the perfect opportunity to combine the two. My residency visa, while a feat in itself to obtain, did not allow me to work. I staved off financial anxieties with a combination of savings and a work-housing exchange that spared me several months of rent payments, but I couldn't live out the rest of the year there without a job and expect to pay my way through grad school. Suddenly, my old room in my house in DC opened up at the same time as a position at the health center where I used to work. The circumstances seemed like the ideal transition back to a temporary life in the States: no major adjustments, comfort, home, where I could focus on preparing to come back to Spain in a more sustainable way. The bones of the life I used to have were still there. All I had to do was come back and give them substance again. I'd stepped away from writing for a couple months (as you probably noticed) and gotten clarity on my long-term goals. I was taking care of business. I was doing The Right Thing.
So what do you do when the right thing feels a little like dying?
If you're me, you go out and buy a pack of cigarettes.
I woke up late on my first morning back in DC, wrapped like a sad burrito in the blanket I hauled all the way from Córdoba because I spent too much money on it at El Corte Inglés to leave it behind. I stared sideways at my bare mattress and tried to think of what to do. I needed to buy groceries. I needed to paint my room. I needed to purchase at least a few pieces of clothing more appropriate for working in a community non-profit than a backpackers' hostel. More than anything, I needed to wake up in Spain, but that was impossible. So I walked to a bodega.
They had paper and filters but no loose tobacco, so I settled for a pack of American Spirits because they supposedly have a couple fewer chemicals than the hundreds that lurk inside cigarettes. And I'm not going to lie: when I sat down on my stoop and inhaled that first toxic breath, it felt good. Smoking reminded me of Spain and forced me to sit still with my anxiety for ten minutes. It was predictable, methodical, even meditative. The nicotine hitting my bloodstream didn't hurt, either. I knew I was making a bad choice for my health, but frankly I didn't care. Smoking became a ritual, a portal to the world where I wanted to be, a numbing agent for the countless good things I missed about my time there and the few traumatic events that I'd rather forget. That's the benefit of years spent in therapy: even when you make self-destructive decisions, at least you're aware that you're making them. Smoking is a terrible coping mechanism that I plan to leave behind as soon as possible, but like all humans, sometimes I turn to unhealthy activities for a psychological Band-Aid.
People keep asking me about my experience in Spain. I never know what to say. How do I explain that I found home somewhere else and then had to leave? Then they ask me how it feels to be back in DC, and I don't know what to say to that either. How do I explain that the home I had isn't here anymore?
Don't get me wrong; I missed this place and my people here dearly. There were times, one week in particular, when I wished more than anything that I could teleport myself right back here to this tiny bedroom in this creaky house in this weird city. I still love my friends and I still love DC. But right now, I'm not sure if the city loves me back. I'm dealing with a classic case of reverse culture shock, but it feels bigger than that. I changed. I built a vision of my future that isn't here. And though I'm here to do the work that will make that vision a reality, it feels really fucking hard. Some days, I don't know which way is up. I know I did the right thing, logistically and financially, that I made the choice that will best prepare me to move to Spain permanently next year. But I'm a little bit miserable for it.
As of tomorrow, I will have been in the States for two weeks. Today is the first day when I felt like writing. Tomorrow will be just a fraction easier, and the day after that. I'm ready to put in the work. I have a plan. I just don't have much American spirit.