It's strange to be back in Atlanta, where I was born and raised, and where I've been living since I fled New York in early March, without really being back in Atlanta. I haven't gone to any of the bars or restaurants I visit each time I come home. I haven't bumped into my high-school classmate at the coffee shop by my house where she works. I haven't hugged any of my old friends, or squeezed in next to them on their couches, or spent a night trading stories and swigs from a bottle with them until sunrise. These are the things that make up what it means to be home, for me. Without them, sometimes it feels like I'm not even here.
There's one thing I'm missing particularly badly: sitting on my father's back porch, surrounded by magnolias and birdsong and warm spring air, and doing the crossword. It's become a ritual for us over the years. He pours us each an iced coffee and settles into his wicker chair in the corner; I drag mine up next to him. He pulls the latest edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from a two-foot pile of them on the floor, turns to the reprint of the New York Times Sunday crossword, and plops the paper on the table between us. I light a cigarette, take a sip of coffee, and, over the course of the next hour or two, we solve the puzzle together. He's uncannily good at them. No matter how stuck we may find ourselves, we always manage to finish them.
Last Christmas, he gave me The New York Times Sunday Crossword Omnibus Volume 11: a large, purple book, about the size and thickness of a copy of Vogue, containing 200 puzzles from the Sunday Times. Once the holiday was over and it was time to go back to New York, I took the Omnibus with me. It was too bulky to bring anywhere—to a park, say, or a coffee shop—so instead I would rip out a page and tuck it into my pocket each Friday. I'd keep the puzzle with me all weekend long, working on it in bits and pieces wherever I went until, finally, I'd finished it.
Two months ago, as I was packing for my now-indefinite "trip" to Atlanta, I hastily ripped six pages out of the Omnibus and shoved them into my backpack. It was the best afterthought I've ever had.
Deprived of the ability to see my father, much less solve a crossword puzzle six inches away from him, I've been doing them on my own. They take me about a week apiece, usually. While Sunday puzzles aren't the hardest on offer, they are tricky. They're often themed, littered with circled letters and question-marked clues and puns that are ostensibly hilarious to Will Shortz but mystifying to me. Frustrating as they may be, there's something extremely satisfying about working on these puzzles. I'll stare at an unsolved corner for half an hour, slowly testing out answers in my head until—aha!—I've cracked it, and I can fill in every square in 15 seconds flat. Lying in bed at night, I often find myself trying to decipher a puzzle's obscure theme, with only its title as a hint. (An example: "Places, Everyone!") Then I jolt awake: I've figured it out, discovering the key to ten clues I'll be able to handily write in the next morning. This might sound ridiculous, but it's legitimately thrilling.
Solving a crossword puzzle makes me feel challenged, but not stressed; exercised, but not drained. It's a way to feel just productive enough, a small source of accomplishment that isn't connected to my job. It's also a way for me to feel a little bit closer to my father.
When I reach a dead-end on a crossword from the Omnibus, I give him a call. I read out the clues I can't solve, rattle off the letters I've already penned in, and we work through it together. There are about five miles between us, and an unknowable chasm of time between now and the day we'll finally be able to work on a puzzle in person again. But for a moment—staring down at a grid of letters and a list of clues, hearing birdsong in one ear and my father's voice in the other, feeling the same warm spring air in my driveway that he feels on his back porch—it's almost as if I'm actually there.
Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.