Are you happy to be home?
The fourth time this week I’ve been asked this question, and it’s only Wednesday.
I’m sitting on my bed, my legs pulled protectively to my chest, while she hovers expectantly in the doorway, one hand placed on its frame.
My suitcases have been unpacked and tucked away, but the room still has just-returned-from-college written all over it. Two new precarious stacks of paperback novels on my desk, a royal blue journal with golden-etched suns and moons on the floor beside my bed. An organizer bin heavy with things I haven’t found homes for just yet: lab goggles, a hefty psychology textbook, crisply folded sheets.
I have an answer ready, well-rehearsed, but behind my customary facade of nonchalance I’m drawing a blank. Home? I’m not even sure I know what that word means.
…Okay, sure, I’m accustomed to the traditional definition of the word, the one people are most often referring to when they use it. Home (n): The place where someone tucked you in and read you your favorite story before bed each night, once upon a time. The place where, if asked, you could point out all of the best hide-and-seek spots. Where the meals are made from scratch (except for when they’re mac and cheese). Where the cabinet above the bathroom sink contains your toothbrush, where the attic contains your old Halloween costumes (oh, and where there are embarrassing photos of you lining the wall along the staircase).
Technically, I have one of these places. On days that I choose to view the world through rose-colored glasses, I could tell you singular things about it that I find familiar, even comforting.
The cat’s eyes, shimmering yellow-y green in the headlights when I pull into the driveway late at night.
The smell of liquid lavender soap, tendrils of steam dissipating into the air as I meditatively wash the dishes.
Non-serious, nonsensical debates with my brother. (Because why not?)
The leafy canopy that stretches solicitously over the backyard, making a time capsule of the viridescent enclosure.
But. But, but, but.
Am I happy here?
Every time I try to come up with a truthful, organic response to that question (one that hasn’t been practiced to perfection fifty times in the mirror) I feel a heavy ache in my chest, a hitch in my throat. And I have a sneaking suspicion that those two symptoms of something’s-not-right probably speak for themselves.
To be entirely honest, it is very difficult (often impossible) to find any similarities between the tiny red house I was raised in and the Hallmark version of what a home should be.
After all, I remind myself bitterly, a home isn’t a place where sickness is in charge and logic constitutes punishment. Where restriction and religion are inseparable, a toxic cocktail. Where a child must be the adult while the adult indulges in a deranged daydream. Where being yourself is against the rules.
I found ways of distracting myself back then, while things were bad. While I was suffocating in plain sight, but hiding it well. I was in my own dark little world, I once wrote in an angst-filled letter to an entrusted teacher. I was angry all the time and I loathed my parents for what they were putting me through. The secret they were forcing me to choke on.
I’ve been able to breathe easier, since those days. Freedom tends to associate itself with the purest of air. Once I put roughly 140 miles between myself and my heartache, I slowly began the process of re-learning how to exhale properly. After that I was even able to mend a little bit, to grow and develop (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). But right now I’m back in the house that once doubled as a prison, and even though it’s only for the summer, I feel a little bit like a fish on dry land–flopping about in a panicked frenzy, desperate for water.
It seems that I unpacked questions along with my wardrobe when I moved back in with my parents. Enormous, intimidating ones with unclear answers.
How do I begin the process of forgiveness?
When will I be able to hug my parents without cringing internally?
Why is all of this so damn hard?
The truth is, when I think of the concept of “home” in a broader sense–a place of refuge, acceptance, unconditional love, et cetera–I don’t think of this place at all. The truth is, returning from college feels a little bit like taking two steps forward, one and a half steps back. The truth is, I’m a little bit trapped between wanting to feel better and not being ready to let go of the past.
The truth is, I’m not quite sure where to go from here.
In terms of forgiveness, I’m just not there yet.
I think that some people grow up with the luxury of never having to mentally untangle “house” from “home“. I think that those people are really lucky. I hope that one day I’ll get to share a nice little place with the person I love most, and maybe then I won’t have to distinguish between the two, either.
My favorite person visits me on weekends. He wakes me up, shaking my shoulder, and we giggle like the happiest goofballs alive. When we’re barrelling down the highway, racing toward new adventures at ten miles over the speed limit, it’s easy to talk about all of the dysfunctionalities I’m leaving behind with a flippant, light-hearted tone. They feel trivial, insignificant.
But our reconciliations last two days, my week lasts five. And the emptiness always finds its way back to me eventually and settles in to my stomach, its standard residence. So I embark on quests to find the missing pieces of myself. I go for long runs on shady paths, I take photographs of trees and ferns. I buy tiny trinkets at shops with extravagant names. I sit in my favorite booth at the library (the one with red leather seats and natural light) and write, attempting to pin down my run-away thoughts. I sip tea, I lay in the grass and read books. I tell jokes to make my friends laugh. I run errands.
I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that home, for me, is not what it is for other people. Some days it is a hard pill to swallow, one that leaves a bitter after-taste in my mouth.
Lately I’ve been stuck on this habit of taking the longest possible routes back to my house. There’s just something vaguely reassuring about a city as it’s closing up shop for the night. After a trip downtown I often drive in an erratic pattern of lefts and rights, passing by a park, a book store, my favorite coffee shop. I’ll circle through out-of-the-way neighborhoods, I’ll weave my way through the college campus just to kill time. I’ll cruise along windy stretches of road illuminated by moonlight. Sometimes I park next to the soccer field two blocks from my house, just to watch the different hues of twilight blend together.
I don’t know what it is that I’m looking for…or maybe I do.
Maybe I’m looking for pieces of a home–the unconventional kind, my only kind–to last me through the night. Maybe I’m looking for pieces of this town that I can tether myself to. Maybe I’m looking for secluded spots where I feel a little more me, a little less lost. Or maybe I’m just putting off the inevitable return to the place where I’m the smallest version of myself. I’m not really sure.
All I know is that some nights as I drive through the dark, the moon looks as melancholy as I feel, and it helps me pretend that I’m not alone.
That I’m not the only one with a vacancy in my heart, instead of a home.