West Lafayette, Indiana was nothing like Bloomington, where I’d lived during graduate school. The land was flat, unlike the foothills of Southern Indiana, and there were few trees. The campus of Purdue University, where I taught for a semester, was far from sylvan, while Indiana University had untouched woods and ivy-covered buildings at its oldest end; at the other, there was a more gardened forest and modernist piles of monumental attitude and size. By comparison, Purdue seemed like an overgrown public high school.
I didn’t like the look of the place, so unlike the coziness and historicity of Eastern liberal-arts campuses. But in a moment when the academic job market was dry, I had gotten this one. My new department had some talent, including a famous historian of literature, and some smart colleagues of my generation, including a Post-Structuralist Mormon! And they were set on gathering steam and prestige. It was a good career move.
I had landed there in the middle of winter, with permanent snow banks several feet high. My department had found me a place to live, a furnished studio apartment in a modern and insipid complex, all that was available at the last moment. I took a bus to work, riding in the cold early mornings with the local women, all country ladies of a certain age who did custodial work on campus. They were a chatty lot, particularly colorful the morning after the Winter Olympics, the hyperbolic name of an annual midnight race among fraternity brothers, who ran naked in the cold February air; this was, I believe, the reason for Purdue’s claim to have invented streaking. But what charmed my ear was these ladies’ ribald tone of voice as they imagined the naked men in the flush of athletic youth.
Eventually, I would have friends, including a girlfriend in whose spacious Victorian home I’d spend a bit of my time. And eventually spring came: the temperature and my spirits lifted. But these were not enough to mask the barrenness of northern Indiana or the graceless campus, so when Purdue offered me a permanent position, I chose instead an offer from an old liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania. But before then, before the snows had melted, I was racked with longing for a home with a patina of coziness. And I had found what I wanted, though perhaps only in my imagination.
I often walked back to my dwelling from the building where I taught classes, and in those walks I passed the house where I wanted to live. It was big and gracious, but no mansion. More like an old and attractive family home of generous enough proportions. I never did see who lived there, maybe a professor and his or her brood, maybe a group of students. There were lights on inside during the dark winter. There must have been a fireplace. The house emanated a warm glow.
I wanted to walk in, take off my snow-crusted boots, join everyone for a fine meal, drink wine and joke at the table, sit later by the fire. My move to Indiana from Connecticut, where I had been teaching at a prestigious liberal arts college, was more than just my grasping at a fortunate job offer. I was ending my marriage, and this move was the beginning of a separation, not just from my wife but also from my two young sons. I learned that it's possible to be homesick even when one had not been happy at home, and, in fact, I wasn’t longing for my home but for a home. A warm inviting house like the one I passed every day on the way to my temporary studio apartmen.
I went back to Connecticut at the end of the academic year and spent the summer there before I made a permanent move to my new job in Pennsylvania. It was a happy season, though I was basically homeless, sometimes not knowing where I would bunk for the night. I slept on friends’ couches and guest rooms, and for a few weeks I house-sat a lovely faculty home. It didn’t faze me. I was surrounded by good friends and the homes where I stayed were inviting and sweet, like that house off the Purdue campus that filled me with saudade, the word Brazilians say means nostalgia for something one never knew.
That house had been all unfulfilled promise, like Joyce’s “Arabia.” I didn't live in that house. I wasn’t even inside. But it has stayed with me during a long errant existence, a nomad in spite of myself, racked all my life with feelings of homelessness, with saudade. (Is that why when I visited Rio just walking around the city moved me to tears?)
I live in a beautiful rural setting now, in my own place that was once my parents' and after their passing I have transformed into my home, next door to my sister and her husband, with whom I share much of my life. But I still nurse a longing for that house in Indiana, surrounded by snow but giving off a light from inside.
My friend Sarah, a poet who has studied such things, told me once when I shared my longings with her, more from dreams than from memories but they were the same, she told me Buddhists say such dreams are how the soul prepares for death. Nothing sad about it, she insisted. And she told me this so long ago that obviously there was no forecast of imminent death, nor do I think there is now as I still long for the inviting house in West Lafayette, the one I couldn’t live in or even enter as I made do with a nondescript studio apartment in the snow-banked winter.