The first time I called home from my college dorm room, shortly after my parents finished moving me in, my mother had me list my entire course schedule, including the buildings and rooms of each class. On the other side of the line, she’d pulled up my campus map, and as I described my morning commute from Jolene to East Pyne to Frist, she traced my path along the digital routes, folding in her own remembered snapshots of the campus.
“How often do you walk past that big garden?” she asked, bringing up her favorite part of the university.
“Maybe twice a day,” I said. “But sometimes, I’m lazy, and I take a shortcut.”
“Don’t take shortcuts,” she said. “I like to picture you walking past the garden.”
She told me later that she asked me for my schedule not to check that I was taking the right classes, but so that at any time of day, if she were to look at the clock, she would know, many miles away, where I was and where I was going. My mother has always secretly been the better writer.
Many of my friends live all across the continent from me, in San Francisco, in Cambridge, in New York and Philadelphia. They live in places that are built for visitors, with landmarks and historical sites and an actual nightlife. So when they choose to visit me, I get anxious. Ann Arbor is a lovely place to live, but to visit? To do what? I can hardly take my guests to Costco, where I spend my weekends, treating myself to a hotdog and a drink for a dollar fifty. I can’t take them to Kroger and scour the manager special aisle for deals on stale cupcakes and irregular bacon. I get scared that my friends, coming from their cosmopolitan cities, will get bored. They will start to wonder, like I already was, why they spent the time and money to visit. And why all of my favorite activities involve discounted food.
Recently such a friend came into town, descending into a gloomy Ann Arbor one Friday morning. I had done my usual frantic research for activities and entertainment, delving into Detroit in case Ann Arbor came up short. I wrote down every restaurant I’d ever eaten at. I checked the theaters for strange movies. I was still looking for a nightclub with decent dancing when I pulled into the airport.
We ended up spending the weekend mostly indoors, watching a food truck competition show on Netflix, eating Chinese delivery. We walked around campus with another friend to witness the football pregames. He saw the English department, where I took most of my classes. We explored the Arboretum, the trail where I walk my dog. In short, he visited not so much Ann Arbor, but me. He told me, before he left, that that had always been his intention.
It’s true and obvious that people travel for different reasons, but what is perhaps less obvious is that sometimes people travel to practice prosaic tourism. By which I mean, they travel to see the spaces their loved ones now occupy; to see how their friends wash the dishes in their apartment, how the bathroom is decorated, what they put in their omelets; to know, when they call long-distance, the outlines of the room the other person is pacing through.
This is why I travel, and for a while, narcissistically, I thought I was the only one. I willingly tour the cities my friends live in, going to neighborhoods they find cooler than their own, sampling the food and drinks each place is known for, but I find deepest satisfaction just exploring their apartments and watching how they move amongst their furnishings, how they feed themselves, where in each room their favorite place to sit is. Sometimes, I take home souvenirs—never from museum gift shops or postcard racks—such as a jar of coconut oil that one friend cooked with, a method of making cold brew from another friend, an idea for a photo collage swiped from yet another one’s bureau. I come home, nourished by the daily rituals of my beloved people, and when I look at the clock, I can roughly surmise where each friend might be in the world.
My desire to map the routes of my friends, as my mother did for me in college, might stem from the same desire to write characters and control their movements. Certainly, I feel at times like a creep, overly involved in my poor friends’ lives. But then I remember that I occupy the other side of the coin as well, that my loved ones are involved in me. I remember the security I experienced when I learned my mother was abstractly tracking my moves. And yes, I was at first surprised that my most recent visitor came to explore my personal landscape, but the feeling immediately following was pure glee. I was happy to show him where I had been made so happy. I was delighted that he cared simply because I did. The space I took up became magical; or rather it became magical again, no longer shaded by the anxiety of the visit. When we drove back to the airport, the day still gloomy, I was sad to release him back to a world I couldn’t imagine. He was sad to say goodbye to the place I held dear. I promised him I would repay the favor as soon as possible.