A few weeks ago I went home for the first time as an adult – you know, a real person who has graduated from college, signed a lease on an apartment, and holds down a full-time job to which one must commute. It was the first time I traveled back to the Cleveland area that wasn’t just a school break or for a short visit while I spent the summer in DC. It was the first time I took an honest to God vacation from a job. And it was different. Here’s how:
When your dad pulls into the driveway of the house that you’ve spent the last 12 years of your life calling home – the house you went through puberty in, the house in which you introduced your parents to your first boyfriend, the bedroom that, for the first time, you got to decorate as completely your own, with your closet full of Beanie Babies and Molly, your American Girl Doll, and your high school cap and gown – you realize that you don’t necessarily think of it that way anymore, as home. The people you love, your family, still reside there, but somehow it’s not quite the same.
The inside is different, too. Everything feels like it’s been moved three inches to the left. You know that episode of Full House where DJ and Stephanie accidentally put a hole in the wall of Danny’s room and they move the furniture to cover it? I feel like Danny when he gets home and tries to toss his coat on the chair but it falls on the floor instead. That niggling feeling that something’s just not quite right. It’s the handles of the shower and how they turn in the opposite direction of the ones in your new apartment. It’s that all the doorknobs feel smaller; the toilet feels a little lower. The painting you did in 4th grade art that used to hang in the downstairs bathroom has been replaced by a concert poster from a show your dad and brother went to when you were away at school. It’s the free food and the well-stocked fridge with the balanced meals that you’re actually happy are balanced.
It’s the struggle between being so overwhelmingly happy to see your parents again, to know that they’re alive and there – ready to hug you at any time – to needing your space. You suddenly seem to realize – even though, let’s be honest, you’ve seen it coming for years – that your parents’ ideologies aren’t the exact same as yours; you hear comments you don’t remember your parents making before. You grew up thinking your parents were so liberal and super progressive and you’re starting to realize that they aren’t, necessarily. It’s not as though they’re suddenly ultra-conservative, it’s just that the hyper-liberal college you went to has maybe shaped your ideology more than your parents have. There’s the moment in the middle of the golf course where your brother almost makes you cry out of frustration because he doesn’t understand that rape culture is a thing you actually think and care about so he makes dumb comments and insulting jokes and says it’s okay because it’s ‘art’ and ‘comedy’. Slowly but surely, you start to recognize the excuses you’ve been making for him all these years, and somehow you still don’t abruptly stop. You do stop talking about politics with him.
And outside of your house you realize that you don’t really belong to these people anymore. At least, not in the way you used to. Your life isn’t ruled by the 6×1 mile patch of ground that make up your hometown. You’ve grown. You’ve lived in a big city, you’ve spent a few months abroad, your experiences and perspective aren’t nearly as limited as they were when you lived here full-time.
There aren’t really any contacts in your phone from your hometown that you feel comfortable calling up to hang out. (Because for some reason being back in your hometown makes you act like you’re in high school all over again, when you would call all of your friends to plan to see each other.) Or, if there are one or two you wouldn’t mind seeing again – they’re no longer spending time in your town. You try to process the crippling feeling that the next time you see them might be their wedding or your high school reunion. So instead of calling or texting everyone you used to be friends with, a long time ago (and not wanting to deal with the boy you used to be friends with and had a crush on but know will ignore you), you agree to hang out with your older brother and his friends. You let him goad you into it even though you could be staying home, watching Silver Linings Playbook with your parents. So you get in the car. You climb the stairs to the apartment complex you didn’t know existed until last summer, and play with the friendly dog, and beat your brother’s friend at Injustice and wonder where his wife is while you’re sipping on Diet Pepsi, getting contact high from the bowl they’re passing back and forth, and wondering, ‘when did this become my life?’. And when you’re brother wants to leave and says, ‘come to this party, my friends want to see you’ you shrug and say okay, because you kind of want to see them, too. But when you finally get there it’s nothing like you imagined – it’s not like the parties you’re used to. There’s a girl stumbling drunk between the six other people present. A guy you vaguely know industriously made a bong out of an apple. You abjectly realize you’re not having fun. You take the keys and go home alone, fervently hoping you remember which streets to take because you never did know this are quite as well as you could have.
By the time your dad has finished packing up the car to drive you the seven hours down to the place you’ve started to call home – the place where you surround yourself with friends that you think one day, maybe, you might consider family, to your own space that exists hundreds of miles away from your parent’s house – you realize you didn’t even accomplish anything on your ‘vacation’. A few days of shopping without having to pay for anything; a carload of furniture your parents weren’t using; some home-cooked meals; a lot of hugs and ‘I love you’s said between yourself and your parents. But does it really mean anything? In the four days you were home you never once went somewhere new, aside from that hole-in-the-wall Mexican place. You didn’t do anything special for your mom’s birthday or belated for Father’s Day. In the end, it was a chance to hug your parents, to answer the question of what your brother and his friends do when they hang out, but not much more than not having to get up early and go into the office for a few days.
As the car pulls away from the house, you realize you don’t miss it as much as you thought you might. The talk of turning your bedroom into a guest room stings a little, but you know you’ll always have somewhere to sleep; a place to return to. You feel bad for the clutter you left strewn over your bedroom floor even though you’ve done so nearly every time you’ve visited home. You feel a little worse than usual, though, because you don’t know when the next time you’ll return to might be.
When you arrive at your apartment, everything you felt at home is still there, flopping around inside you. But it’s fuzzier, more distant. You still miss your family, the house, the friends you left behind and grew apart from. Every once in a while you’ll idly think about what you could have done differently when you were growing up in that perfectly suburban town and decide it’s really not worth the energy, because you like where you are now. You’re trying to learn to like who you are and find comfort in friends more often than you turn to your family. It’s a process. It’s strange and sometimes unsettling but at the end of the day when you’re tired and trying not to think anymore, the thought creeps in that maybe the feeling you can’t always identify is pride – you’re proud of yourself for doing what you always swore you’d do: you left. You’re not ‘stuck’, anyway. You have options. Maybe just remind yourself to take a breath and try to remember that every once in a while. You’ll appreciate it.