It’s been a few hours of grueling bumper-to-bumper traffic. You are convinced every driver on the road has been replaced by a narcoleptic elf incapable of using a turn signal. You’re on your fiftieth rendition of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and are ready to slam your head against the steering wheel to test the reliability of your airbags when you finally see it. Your exit. The glorious green billboard announcing you’ve reached your destination. Population: 77,846, half of which will subject you to mind numbing chit chat at Safeway over the next 72 hours. Before you even unload your luggage, you decide you need a drink.
You’re at the local cesspool Molly Magees accidentally bumpin’ behinds with a 40 year old from Google when your friend yell-whispers, “Oh my god, guess who’s here!” Lo and behold, faces from yearbooks you probably should’ve burned already appear at the bar. Everyone is drunk off jäger bombs because strangers think buying women a heart attack for chugging is somehow festive, so you’re feeling adequately chipper and willing to approach these high school motherfuckers as if they’ve never seen you inhale too much water up your nose during the swim unit. The women seem cordial (re: jäger bombs) and unsure how to make small talk despite liking each other’s shit on Instagram for the last 6 years, but the men are friendly. They are diggin’ what you are unintentionally throwin’ down, laughing at your non-jokes and thinking about how to get you into the back of their mom’s Subaru. You want to shout, “Where were you when I had a severe side part and social anxiety in AP Lit, huh?!” but instead push the horrors of 17 aside and let them grind with you as they never would have at homecoming.
The DJ puts on All-American Rejects and even though you’re spilling your drink down the front of senior year heartthrob Joe Shmoe’s jeans, your mind races back to an even more traumatic memory: 8th grade grad dance. It all becomes too much — the sweatiness, the red and green strobe lights, the expectations of ugly duck syndrome — so you slip away, telling everyone you’re “Just going to the ladies’!” even though you’re sure the fuck not. You find yourself alone outside, shivering in the California winter like the weather weenie you are, amused and disgusted to realize you’re leaning against the very Starbucks planter you upchucked in two years prior. Saddened by the lack of satisfactory fast food chains within stumbling distance — you’ve given up on In-N-Out due to the likelihood of more “nostalgic” encounters — you decide it’s time to call an Uber or Lyft or whatever hybrid low-emission drunk person carrier pigeon Silicon Valley has to offer, praying the driver has no affiliation with your adolescent education.
By the time you get back to your parents’ house, all the lights are off. The neighborhood is quiet with the exception of the slight whirring from the mechanical reindeer the new overachieving family across the way set up exactly two seconds after Thanksgiving came to a close. You try to remember how you used to sneak in without disrupting the dogs, but, oh, right, you were lame and never stayed out past 11 because alcohol was (is) gross and boys had (have) cooties. You fumble with your keys, reminding yourself you don’t technically have any rules — you’re almost 25, for God’s sake — and miss the doorknob entirely, sending the Pomchi into psycho mode. You tiptoe/clumsy-stomp down the hallway past the bathroom, too exhausted to figure out the new world order of the medicine cabinet to find toothpaste, and throw yourself on a bed with unfamiliar sheets in a room that’s no longer yours.
You wake up to the sensory pleasures of bacon and children screaming. Your mom doesn’t eat breakfast, but her on-again, off-again boyfriend has two small heathens in need of constant fueling. You’re 90% sure the little boy has at some point wet the bed you’re laying in. Luckily you never made it out of your clothes and under the covers, ya lush. You tilt your hungover head as much as you’re able to take in the decor. The desk is against a different wall. The accent colors of throw pillows and candles are now shades of blue and green rather than your signature purple. The plastic bag full of stuffed animals and sweatshirts from your ex is out of sight, the one change you’re grateful for. You hear footsteps crashing down the hallway and start the countdown of when someone will come hurtling through the door, reminding yourself it’s none of your business. It’s her relationship; her house; her life. Remind yourself that it all used to feel very much like your business.
You spend a few hours aimlessly revisiting parts of your childhood, more so out of bored obligation than any true sense of longing. You walk by your elementary school, notice the little coats left behind by eager six year olds sprinting toward the freedom of winter break. Were you ever that small? Your middle school has been freshly painted, the high school covered in solar panels. There are far too many fusion restaurants popping up downtown. A sculpture you used to rebelliously clamber all over replaced by something even more abstract. None of this has any direct effect on you, on your present livelihood. The people who have stayed in this town longer, watched it all unfold as the months and years idled by, seem unfazed. It’s just what happens. And yet you feel unsettled. Restless. Like those landmarks were meant as anchors even though you intentionally left them behind, tugging at the tethers to let you go.
You expected to come back and feel grounded. Whole. Like every breath of crisp air should somehow revive you. But it all seems wrong. There are consolatory sayings — home is what you make it, home is where the heart is — but lately your heart doesn’t know what it wants. Lately, “lately” feels like it’s lasted a little too long.
There’s the apartment you currently live in, the one that costs too much and isn’t that great but gives the illusion of independence and a balanced checking account. You’ve filled it with useless stools and canvas prints and plants that give you anxiety only to make the next inevitable uprooting more difficult. It’s close enough to the job you’re not sure you like, and the city you think you could see yourself in for more than a few months, but not a few years. It’s now.
There’s your college town, the one you’ll visit in a heartbeat but only for a weekend. Too full of late night Domino’s and rolling around with your first love and naïveté at finding yourself within crowded lecture halls to really fit the person you think you’ve become two years post-grad. You look back on the dish cluttered sinks and seemingly important midterms with a time-stamped fondness, certain a do-over could never touch you the same way again.
And then there’s here. A place whose familiarity was meant to withstand these uneasy feelings. The ginkgo trees lining the streets you rollerbladed down in Powerpuff girl pajamas. Report cards stuck to fridges full of leftovers. The parents who made it all possible. You expect to see everything frozen, to complain about how dull it’s all become in its simplicity. Yet the discomfort hangs. You watch as your mom and dad slowly build their own lives, no longer entwined with the demands of your youth. Mom mentions friends you’ve never heard of. Dad plans trips with the woman you’ve only met in the driveway a few times over the past seven years. Friends from school don’t always come back, too busy with their across country jobs or grad programs or significant others to make the trek. The annual reunions and rehashing of pre-teen embarrassment no longer guaranteed. Everyone has moved on, found their footing somewhere else.
And you want to be happy for them. These are people you love, people you want to see succeed, regardless of whether or not you’re in the picture. But you’re scared. Selfish, perhaps. You haven’t landed on solid ground. You wonder how it’s possible to feel both stuck and floating all at once. You think about someday settling down, finding your own little studio or slice of suburbia to tend to, and instantly feel trapped. You try to imagine a vagabond lifestyle, traipsing here and there with no attachments, and suddenly feel lost. You’ve made such a habit of seeking comfort in fresh scenery you’re unsure if it’s the solution or the problem. “Home” and “heart” meant to be synonymous, but never quite in the right place at the right time.
If your location keeps changing… if your company keeps leaving… Are you all that’s left to keep things steady? What if controlling your state of mind is the only sense of home you’ll ever know?
What if you never can?