Notes on Coming Home in Two Americas

by David Miller Sep 18, 2017


After four months in Buenos Aires, the idea of going home to the US felt almost as surreal as the life I’d established here. “Home” had become my neighborhood on Avenida de Mayo, my balcony overlooking the core of microcentro, the Caasa Rosada, and the Israeli embassy across the way. The countless demonstrations and parades (remarkably similar) that would start off as bass drums reverberating from 9 de Julio and end with thousands passing right below, descending on Plaza de Mayo.

Home had become this place, this routine. It was the few nights a week that my kids Mica and Layla would stay with me, the three of us snuggled in the loft bed reading Harry Potter almost like we were having sleepovers. It was in the way we raced through this once-ornate building—its 12-foot high French doors, patched together banisters, and spiral staircase of decaying marble. Home was the 64 stairs it took to get to the third floor.

Home was how we walked across the city. The afternoon jaunts to the river, exploring the Frigate Sarmiento, now a museum, moored at Puerto Madero. It was our weekly circuit through San Telmo, to and from Mamá’s house on Carlos Calvo, or all the way out to Parque Lezama and the old neighborhood where 10 years ago, Layla was born.

It was other nights too. Other mornings. The Friday nights where I’d take the subte to Caballito and visit Pato. Or the Saturday mornings where we’d wake up at my place, sometimes sliding the day bed out onto the balcony, taking our morning coffee out there in the sun.

Author and daughter, Chattooga River, 2016.

So the idea of “going home”? What was that exactly? In my mind I could see a fall paddle trip on the Chattooga River with Layla—my version of a 10th birthday present. I could see taking Mica, now 6, deep into Linville Gorge or the Appalachian Trail for his first backpacking trip. I could see my friends in Asheville, everyone grinding, working, raising families. I missed them and wanted to be there for them. The kids missed their friends and grandparents and wanted to see them. We were “ready to leave,” but at the same time it’s not like I (and definitely not Laura) really wanted to leave.

This is what happens when your family becomes spread out over two continents, two Americas.

You need at least two lives.


People make these transitions gracefully. But something in my DNA, in the way I relate to place, to home, makes me fall apart in the final days before big travels like this. Typically I’ll delay packing until some last-minute, wine-fueled ceremony where I end up giving all my gear away. And yet underneath the madness there’s a sense of time slowing down, almost re-circulating in the final moments before you leave a place. Every little detail becomes magnified.

Bolivian dancers celebrating a day of cultural appreciation along Avenida de Mayo in the center of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The night before, I could feel a gnarly cold coming on. Pato and I tried to enjoy a quiet, final dinner at a pulperia in San Telmo. We’d met at a cafe called Origen (literally the “origin”). Now we dined at the Refuerzo or “reinforcement,” which we both certainly needed. We didn’t know when we’d see each other again. The idea was a rendezvous somewhere in the middle of the two Americas, sometime downstream. That would at least make the parting more bearable. In the meantime, we’d keep working. (She was writing a book on Rodolfo Walsh; I was working on a documentary and writing more.)

That morning after saying goodbye—something as anticlimactic as her getting in a taxi on Agenda de Mayo—I went upstairs for the final pack and cleanup. We’d dropped most of the gear off at Laura’s house the day before. Perhaps subconsciously I’d set it up so I got one last solo walk across Buenos Aires.

Time was fully distorted now, fragmented. I wrote last minute emails to my editorial team. See you on the other side. I took one final look out the balcony: Spring sun, the row of sycamores finally leafing out. It would be fall when we finally made it back to the mountains. And it would be hot here in the city before too long.

I swept, starting in the corners, under the beds, pulling everything to the center. The kids’ colored pencils. Worn down erasers. A stuffed animal shaped like a star. Pages full of Layla’s vocabulary words and math problems. Goose down from my ancient sleeping bag.

Don Ramón knocked on the door. Si Señor, I’m ready to go. Gracias por todo.

I started down calle Chacabuco to meet up with Laura and the kids. It felt almost like a victory lap, only without any clear victory. Was it enough just inhabiting a place—bringing your children there—until it began to feel like home? Was it enough just carrying that feeling back with you?

3. LIVING IN AMERICA – Miami International Airport, 5:30 AM

After a nightmarish flight to Santa Cruz, Bolivia and then an uneventful but still mostly sleepless connecting flight, we arrived in Miami at dawn. Having gone nearly 20 hours without much food or sleep I was so worn out I felt almost dissociated, as if on Xanax. Everything seemed slightly distanced, muted, dull. And yet somehow this had the benefit of making it more comical, neutralizing the typically anxiety-provoking experience of going through US customs. I was just too tired to care.

The simple fact that we’d made it here was itself almost unbelievable. Just three days earlier, Hurricane Irma had passed through. The streets, the airport had flooded. Now the city was back open, operational, and here we all came, from Bolivia, Argentina.

America was indestructible.

Disturbingly, at this point, the chorus from “Living in America”—which just says “living in America” over and over—somehow asserted itself in my brain. This was the song Apollo Creed (dressed like Uncle Sam) danced around to right before getting killed in the ring by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

This was my unfortunate headspace as we operated the Automated Passport Control kiosks, scanning our passports, laughing at our different pictures (mine looking, as they say in Argentina, hecho mierda or “made of shit,”), and then printing out our receipts.

We were directed to stand in line 10 where we waited to be called by the agent, a young, petite Latina. When she called us, (“Next!”) her voice conveyed a practiced authoritativeness. Maybe she was just tired? From the line, I couldn’t see any coffee mugs at any of the agents’ booths. Was it possible the US government forbade Customs and Border Patrol agents to have hot beverages at their workstations? What kind of America was this?

After handing her the passports (Me: “Mornin’” – my voice conveying amicability, sobriety, and most importantly, a regional US accent), I noticed that, yes, in the corner of her desk, hidden from view, was a lipstick-stained Starbucks cup.

Agent: Where did you come from?

Me: Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and before that, Buenos Aires.

Agent: How long were you in Buenos Aires?

Me: Four months.

Agent: Did you bring back any items of value?

A microscopic pause here. What did we bring back? And what kind of “value” did it have? The only thing I had was a horseshoe I’d found up in the tablelands of the Rio Mendoza.

Me [nodding to the kids]: Just toys.

At this point she nodded, apparently satisfied. But for some reason she was having trouble scanning one of the passports. She exhaled forcefully and then stepped out of her booth. Another agent, a white guy, unsmiling, and with unbelievable mutton chops, came back in with her. Apparently the US government had a liberal policy on Customs and Border Patrol officials’ facial hair.

Mutton Chops [to Agent]: With some of these passports you just have to either manually go in and set it or…

Agent: It keeps doing this though…

Mutton Chops: I know. And it’s going to keep doing it all day. You just have to [indicating to agent to forcefully run passport through the scanner] yank it.

Agent [trying unsuccessfully to scan passport]: I can’t.

Mutton Chops: Just yank it.

Agent [still struggling]: I’m…

Mutton Chops: YANK IT.

Now just the idea of a uniformed officer with a sidearm and massive mutton chops saying “yank it” at 5:30 in the morning is bad enough. But to hear it, to see it for yourself is dehumanizing for everyone involved. If only he would’ve broken character just for a second, laughing, or even getting genuinely pissed at how ridiculous this was. But that America wasn’t acceptable here. No, as an agent, he was the face of a more officious, by-the-book America.

They continued to struggle. It looked like they were going to give up. My god, this was the crux. Apollo Creed was taking heavy damage from Ivan Drago. The Russians had hacked the goddamned system.

Agent [one last time]: There.

Laura [conciliatory, sympathetic]: It’s going to be a long day.

Agent: I know.

Laura: You have such beautiful skin.

Agent [smiling, caught off guard]: Thank you. It’s a lot of makeup

After picking up the luggage, amazed that all bags were accounted for, I started deteriorating fast. My nose was completely clogged. I needed coffee, antihistamines, rest.

We stopped at a Miami airport Starbucks where it was easier ordering in Spanish and it didn’t feel like we’d quite yet entered the US. At a nearby table, a school age kid played a game on a tablet where the apparent objective was to keep tapping on black squares that cascaded down forever.


Layla in the Mercado de San Telmo.

My kids were doing a commendable job pushing the roller suitcases through the airport, so I took my preferred position when traveling with my ex-wife, which is approximately 100 yards out front.

On the way to the MIA Mover, a light rail from the airport to rental car center, the dim corridors were filled with sleeping bodies—passengers still stranded by Hurricane Irma.

At 6:30 AM the Enterprise car rental office was empty except for a lone representative, a young, portly Southern boy who seemed happy to have a customer to help. Layla caught up and stood beside me.

“I just need a credit card,” said Southern Boy.

I started fishing through my wallet and came upon my old subte card, then Pato’s Buenos Aires Bici card. A little wave of melancholy rolled through me. I found the Visa then, and handed it to him.

A minute later, Layla said—loudly and as if directed to Southern Boy—“Hey Papi, you have a booger just hanging out.”

Instinctively I wiped my nose. That’s when I noticed I had another ungodly flake caked to my shirt.

“Thanks for letting me know nena.”

“Hey Papi, what does a booger like to do?” She was outright laughing now. Southern Boy kept entering data into the computer, pretending not to hear, probably happy I’d agreed to the loss damage waiver.

“Hang out!” was the punchline.

Creed was down. Knocked out by his own 10 year old daughter.

“That’s a great one nena,” I said. “I’m so proud of you.”

4. SOLAMENTE TÚ – Miami FL-836 W – 7:00 AM

The key to survival is being present in the moment. This includes driving a minivan into Miami traffic with your kids in the back complaining about the radio station. Predictably, I had it on NPR, listening to the damage report. People all over Miami still didn’t have power. Nursing home residents were suffering in the heat. Military convoys were coming down I-75 today with expected closures to let them through.

A few days earlier I’d watched the forecasts for Hurricane Irma and thought we’d have no chance of making it back. More importantly, I was worried for my parents, who lived in Sarasota, where we were now heading. The eye was predicted to pass right through their area.

They ended up staying with friends whose house had hurricane glass and shutters. They never even lost power, but stayed up drinking beer and playing canasta. People all over were suffering, but somehow they—and we—had gotten lucky.

After being in Argentina, and before that, Spain, I hadn’t heard that soothing yet engaging push-pull rhythm of an NPR broadcaster’s voice in 7 months. Perhaps even more than the officiousness of the Customs and Border Patrol agents, that perfectly neutral, accent-less radio voice was the signal: we were now back in America.

But then I switched it. The next station was playing some kind of bachata version of “Solamente Tú.” We all listened, and for a second, nobody said anything.

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