This installment of the In Between Places series originally appeared in The Beautiful Worst.
My drivers license was set to expire on my birthday and I had to go to the DMV to get it renewed.
I was avoiding the errand.
Not just because the DMV is a hassle, but because my new license would be issued by the state of Missouri. It doesn’t sound like much, but to me it was another small milestone that put a wider step between me and Massachusetts.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Kansas City that I realized how inscrutable out of state ID’s could be to people. Bank tellers and bartenders would squint at my license, unable to find my last name. Maybe it didn’t help that my last name is only two letters. But I would display my out of state license with the same undeterred pride as when I pointed at my “foreign” last name.
This is where I am from.
With a Missouri license tucked in my wallet, it’d be harder to keep claiming that Boston was still my home. But Kansas City isn’t home, either. I still rely on my GPS to direct me places. I still leave the house with a feeling of apprehension, because there is so much that I have yet to learn about this city. My East Coast hustle still comes across as abrasive in social situations. There are times when I say to myself, ironically, I’m not in Kansas anymore—even though I will quite literally be standing in Kansas.
But if there’s one thing that doesn’t change from state to state, it’s the universal headache of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
I went on a Wednesday, late in the morning, right before lunch. The service counters were in a room on the first floor, just a few steps away from the entrance. The overhead lighting was yellowed, the uncirculated air was warm and stale. As I walked in, the people waiting looked up with the most exasperation and disdain that I’d witnessed since I moved to the Midwest. I entered my name and phone number in the digital kiosk, got a text saying that there were 21 people ahead of me and my wait was an estimated 86 minutes.
I decided to wait outside.
Even though it was February, the weather was balmy. The sky was blue and clear with a soft breeze. The raised flower beds outside the DMV hadn’t blossomed yet but smelled like spring. I sat on a stone bench and opened my book.
No one else was waiting outside, except for a couple of smokers and a young woman who was pacing the pavilion in wide loops as she talked to her boyfriend on speakerphone. She was narrating her DMV wait experience to him and his voice replied with a scratchy echo. I put on my headphones to tune out their conversation, but was jolted out of my reading when she suddenly stumbled onto the bench next to mine, her phone rattling across its smooth surface.
“I fell,” she told him, laughing.
“You fell?” his voice cracked through the phone.
“I was jumping between these benches and I fell.”
She lay on her bench, looking up at the sky, reassuring her boyfriend that she was okay.
I smiled at them, at the sunshine, at the day.
Because more than the politics or the landscape, it’s the feeling of being part of a place that I miss most about living in Boston. Living in Kansas City, with a more individualized culture, everyone alone in their cars, there is less serendipity. Fewer moments of connection with strangers. I missed that feeling of letting the rhythm of the city shape a mundane experience into something special.
I was thinking about that as I felt someone approach me, and a pair of sneakers stepped into my line of vision, just beyond the edge of my book. I heard a voice but had to take out my ear buds and ask, “Sorry—what did you say?”
And the man, dressed in an army jacket and smoking a cigarette, repeated, “Will you sing for me?”
“I thought that’s what you said,” I smiled. “You don’t want me to sing for you.”
“Yes I do,” he insisted.
“I can’t,” I told him.
“I know you can,” he said to me.
Knowing this exchange would soon get tiresome, I told him, “I know you can. You should sing for me.”
“What should I sing?” he asked.
I shrugged, “Whatever you’re feeling right now.”
He scratched his thumb along his jaw, the smoke from his cigarette drifting past his cheek. He was quiet for a second, and said, “I know.”
Then he looked directly at me and sang—
“What would you do, if I sang out of tune..."
His voice was husky but bright, and completely disarmed me.
I could feel the other people staring at us, but I couldn’t look away from this man.
“...Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ear and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key.”
Maybe it was because I didn’t expect a Beatles song. Maybe it’s because the Beatles remind me of my mother, and her birthday was only a few days away. Or that, with my 32nd birthday approaching I had been taking stock of my life and feeling like I was coming up short. Maybe it was because I could see that my rabbit, my loyal companion, was beginning to turn a corner from which he would not return. Or that, my friends being a moment away in a text message could no longer compare to hanging out in person, at rooftop parties or in cozy living rooms or after long days at anime conventions.
Maybe it was because, after nine months of living in between places, the loneliness of being away from the familiar and not yet being settled in the new was finally catching up with me.
But this stranger with his husky but bright voice reached somewhere deep inside and remind me of something important, something bigger than my writing desk or my deadlines or my constant ambition.
I cut him off—“You’re going to make me cry.”
He stopped singing.
“And I can’t cry before I get my new license picture.”
He laughed and told me, “Have a great day.”
I took a deep breath as he walked away, and I reminded myself that maybe I wasn’t so far from home, after all.