In early October while a breeze rolled over the desert coast of Perú I sat on the steps of a stone shrine atop a hill.  I’d been out of cell service for a few days, but I could now see a red and white cell tower standing in the distance like an upright needle.  I stretched my phone over my head and within a minute my hand vibrated as a flurry of updates came through.  One message stood out over the rest.  It was a message from my cousin asking if I wanted to come home for the holidays.

“Of course,” I typed.  “But I can’t afford it.”

I raised my cellphone in the air again.  Behind me Savannah laid in the shadow of the shrine, her chest rising and falling with diminishing urgency.  Above Savannah, a foot tall Mary Magdalen looked on, hands brought together in prayer.

Down the hill in front of me was the Pan-American; the asphalt artery I followed from Bogotá.  In North Perú the Pan-American was a walker’s dream – new, flat, and with shoulders wide enough for a baby carriage.  However, since leaving Nazca, the southern stretch of Perú’s Pan-American consisted of two narrow lanes without a shoulder.  The population density was so low on Perú’s south coast that the Peruvian government couldn’t justify a massive infrastructure overhaul. 

Initially the lack of people was relaxing.  I could walk all day without saying a word.  I could sleep without worrying someone would walk by in the night.  I spent hours each day listening to nothing but the wind.

Yet after a month in silence, boredom overtook tranquility.

I felt an insanity creeping into me as though a virus spreading outward from patient zero.

During the day the desert seemed to stretch on forever.  I could see no end.  At times I saw myself as Sisyphus, though instead of being forced to push a boulder up a hill I was pushing a cart through the desert.  My thoughts turned dull and played on loop.  I sang nonsense songs for hours just to use my vocal cords.

My phone chimed at the sound of a new text.  It was a message from my cousin.

“I’ll see if the cousins want to chip in to fly you home and surprise your parents.”

I hesitated, hovered my thumbs over the keyboard, then wrote: “That would be the greatest thing ever.”

I reread my cousin’s text.

I hadn’t seen my family in nearly two years.  With just the faintest possibility of seeing them, my mind raced through a web of new fantasies.

A moment before I could see only more desert, but now the future held potential.  I couldn’t wait for my parents to meet Savannah.  I wanted to show her off to them.  Savannah was strong and brave and loving and I wanted them to see that.  My dad would take her on his morning walk around the river.  On Sundays Savannah could go to my grandparents for dinner.

For a few minutes my mind ran free, possessed by the ethereal potential of dreams, but I had to catch myself.

I couldn’t get my hopes up, not with something so full of possibility and so utterly out of my control.

–   –   –

Fifty days later I had a countdown on my phone.  Only twenty more days until I was on a flight back to New Jersey.  My cousins had come through.  Even cousins who lived out west that I wouldn’t be able to see for Christmas chipped in money.

Since getting the news that the ticket was purchased I was stuck in a loop of fantasies about returning home – christmas morning, walks by the river, dinner with the cousins.  The fantasies played like a broken record of some brilliant song.  At first it was wonderful to think of home all the time.  Then it became torturous.  Eventually I could think of nothing else even when I wanted to.  I was always visualizing what it’d be like to sleep in my own bed or to have a conversation with my mother or to walk through the snow with Savannah.

“Six empanadas, correct?”

I was in a bit of a daze.  Blinded by the sun and reveries of home, I momentarily forgot about the man taking my order.

“Yes, thanks.  Three of chicken, three of meat, please.”

The owner and I were the only ones in the restaurant.  He wore a white apron over a gray sweater and jeans.  It was cold at twelve thousand feet.

The owner left to cook the empanadas.  I stared out the window at the salt flats I’d just finished crossing.  The wind whistled through the doorway.  Savannah sat at my feet.  The flat, white landscape ahead ran unbroken to the horizon like some cheap imagining of the afterlife.

I hadn’t written anything in two weeks.  What was there to say?  I brushed my teeth in the morning.  The land changed.  People spoke.  I set my tent and went to sleep.

A vivid imagination that had kept me company since childhood had abruptly departed.  Now each day was the same until I returned home.

The owner sat a bowl of empanadas in front of me.  “Where are you from?” he asked.

“The United States, New Jersey.”

The owner grinned and shook his head.  “I can’t believe you walked here.”

“I’m a bit insane.”

The owner waved his finger.  “What you’re doing is a good thing.  It’s very brave.  It’s good to know places.  I live two hundred and fifty kilometers from Chile, but have never left Argentina.”

I nodded, too weary for anything else.

A silence stood between us, then the owner wrung his hands and said, “Enjoy your empanadas.”

Once I was finished eating the owner returned.  He took the bowl in hand then stood beside me.  I turned in my chair to face him.  I was feeling better after getting something in my stomach.

“The empanadas were very good.”

“Thank you.”

“How long have you been cooking for?”

“My whole life.  I used to cook with my mother.  I built this restaurant two years ago.  Before that I was working in the salt flats saving money.”

“How long did you work in the salt flats for?”

“Twelve years.”

“Hard work?”

“It’s alright, but it’s very difficult for anyone to make any money with salt, even the owners.  The salt corrupts everything.  The machines break down all the time.  Your shoes are eaten away.  The worker’s skin is dry like paper.”

“Now you get to hide in the shade and eat empanadas all day.”

The man smiled.  His skin was dark like a Spaniard on the Mediterranean.  He had a stubble of hair at the chin.  I thought he probably had wealthy and famous ancestors.

“What did you do before this?” the owner asked.

“I used to install solar panels.”

“You liked it?”

“I did.  I liked working outside with my hands.  And it was good money.”

“But you like this better; traveling, getting to know places.”

“I do.”

The owner peered out the window.  It was late in the day.  The sun was changing rapidly from orange to red, its reflection streaked across the salt flats like a tremendous brush stroke.

I looked at how the red light hit the owner’s face and thought that he was very friendly, but I didn’t care one bit about him.  I was tired and wanted to be home.

–   –   –

On December 24th, I found myself back in New Jersey, seated on a quilted bed in my aunt’s guest bedroom.  It was 2:45 and the Turcich Christmas party was starting at three.  Voices of my aunts and uncles bounced from the kitchen, down the hallway, and into my ear.  Someone asked when my parents were arriving.

It was surreal being home.  Throughout the two hour drive from Newark to South Jersey I gazed out the window in wonder of the ample infrastructure.  Every road would be a dream to walk on.  There were sidewalks and shoulders, cars used their turn signals, and there were no moto-taxis puttering in the opposite direction as the traffic.

Even stranger than orderly roads was how ordinary I felt sitting in my aunt’s guest bedroom.  For two years I imagined that whenever I returned home it would be as a someone wholly changed.  Rather than feeling new however, I felt as though I’d only went for a quick jaunt to the town over.  Maybe since my family has known me since birth, two years abroad didn’t make such a big difference.

My phone went off with a text from my sister: “Mom is going to call.  Don’t pick up.”

A moment later, my mom called.  I watched my phone go to voicemail.

During my walk I spoke with my mom more than anyone else.  When times were good and life was easy I called her less, but when I was in a tough area, or when I hadn’t had a meaningful conversation in weeks, I’d call her to expel my backlog of thoughts.

At some point during nearly every conversation we had my mom would mention how she wished I’d been at Sunday dinner or at so-and-so’s party.  She’d say the party was fun, but that it would have been better had I been there.  She didn’t say any of this as a guilt-trip to get me home, but because it was how she felt.

Gradually voices filled my aunt’s house so that it became difficult to pick out a single conversation.  After a time three new voices joined the fray.  I heard them as my mother, father, and sister.  They were cheerful.  My sister giggled at something then I heard my aunt offer to take their coats.

Somehow they were all brought by the door I was sitting behind.  Savannah had her nose to the door and her tail wagging.  I feared my parents seeing Savannah’s shadow beneath the doorway then opening the door.

Quietly as I could I scooped Savannah in my arms then tip-toed to the darkened closet.

My parents didn’t linger by the door.  Their footsteps moved down the hall until becoming indecipherable from the crowd’s noise.

After fifteen minutes or so my sister, Lexi, entered.  She was as tall as ever, smiling, and with blonder hair than I remembered.  We hugged, laughed a bit that somehow our family of forty-plus people kept my return under wraps.

“I can’t wait to see Mom’s reaction,” Lexi said.

“She’s going to lose her mind.”

“She really is.  How do you want do this?  Brian said you were going to come out as Santa.”

“No way.  I’m not going to sit in here for two hours until everyone is ready for Santa.”

As per Turcich tradition, each year a neighbor, boyfriend, or otherwise generally unrecognizable male, will dress as Santa to surprise the youngest members of the family with a red bag of presents.  Santa always came after dinner, hours into the festivities.

Lexi laughed.  “Seemed a bit over the top to me anyway.”

“Here.”  I lifted Savannah and handed her over to Lexi.  “You walk out with Savannah and pass her to dad.  I’ll wait a little bit then come out.”

“Alright.”  Lexi laughed.  “This is going to be great.”

I opened the door, then Lexi led the way.  She walked slowly down the hallway.  My cousins who could see us grinned then quickly glanced away to feign normalcy.

Lexi rounded the corner.  I hesitated, then peaked my head around.

“Hey Dad,” Lexi said.

My dad, dark Croatian skin and built like an old sailor, turned to my sister and widened his eyes in surprise.

“Who is this?” he said.

The whole of our family was watching.  My dad took Savannah from my sister.  I didn’t look away from him until he turned to my mother.

“Hey Hun,” he said.  “Look who it is.”

My mother had been chatting idly, cocktail in hand, with a female cousin of mine.  My mother was 5’ 4”, had short blonde hair and fair-Scottish skin.  She was happy and looked to my dad with a sort of light-hearted what’s-this-going-to-be-now smirk.

The smirk fell from her face, and was replaced by incomprehension.  Her expression froze in such a way that it seemed the gears running her brain had suddenly locked up.  She tilted her head slightly.

I gave her a moment to understand, but just a moment.  I couldn’t wait any longer.

Since everyone was at a standstill, the second I shifted from the edge of the room my mom’s eyes darted to mine.  Her eyes went red.  Then she was crying.

“Oh no,” she said.

I walked through everyone to hug my dad.  We embraced tightly.

“Good one, bud,” he said.

Then I went over to my mom.  I was teared up now too.