The road to Emmaus is this world.
– Franz Wright
I stood on the crest of the most beautiful mountain in the world; I could see the North Face and the hazy clouds resting on a nearby peak. An alpine raven I hadn’t noticed at my feet took off and danced in the sky before me. Tall, lush greenness winked from the valley below. Everything around me felt alive and I breathed in blue blue air. But in that moment, I just wanted to be home. The majesty provoked a loneliness in me: I’d rather be on the flat prairie with the dried yellow grasses waving in the unforgiving winds than in this picturesque here.
I had been chasing home – without naming it – for the last two and a half years. I left out of spite. My high school band director, a man whose opinion I had for too long regarded uncritically, told me he didn’t think I would actually do it. “No, you won’t,” he dismissed me when I told him I was applying to a small college 2,000 miles away in Washington, DC. “You’re a homebody.” I sat in his office in a chair in which I had cried too many times and thought, You don’t know me at all. And he didn’t. You can’t be a homebody when you can’t feel alive at home.
Still, when I moved into my dorm, the concrete floors and generic furniture unsettled me. You’re a nobody echoed off the cinderblock walls. But I had grown up in the house my father had grown up in and this new, sterile, institution did not have any of the rootedness I had known at home: a grandfather clock in the hallway that could tell the time only twice a day, long-yellowed lace curtains, a pile of mish-mash my mom was passively telling me to take back to my room, a scratch on the pillar from where my brother’s crutches had rubbed it every day when he hopped up the stairs.
I had packed only what I thought would be necessary: a few clothes, a few books, one pillow, one set of sheets, one blanket, one set of plastic dishes. I felt proud of my minimalism. I didn’t need all the fluff and frills some of these freshmen did; I was stronger than that. I didn’t want or need emotional talismans to connect me to my childhood. That’s far away now. And I’m an adult. Independent. Starting new.
I slept badly for a week. I called my brother and cried as I tried to imply-but-not-admit that I was, in fact, homesick. I called my mother and asked her to send me another pillow, blanket, and – if she could find him in the pile of my life I had left behind – Stanley, the stuffed dog I had loved most as a young girl. Ashamed to admit it, I wanted the connection after all. She fit all the requested comfort in a box and mailed it to me. I had to carry it across campus like a cross, clear evidence of my own weakness. I hoped with each step that I wouldn’t see someone I knew.
Finally admitting to myself I was homesick two and a half years later while perched on the edge of a mountain, I composed an email to send to my parents. I wanted to explain this feeling of being in a place so beautiful that I had to interrogate my own understanding of beauty. And what was beautiful to me? The prairie of my childhood: stark, wild, possible. Where the glaciers had long since melted a fallow furrow from which I grew. But the email I sent must have passed through a scrambler as it rode wires across the world, because, when my parents responded, they made jokes about the inside of my heart I had held out in offering to them. I didn’t think it was possible for me to feel further from home than I had felt on the crest of the mountain. But it was.
The distance I felt on the mountain returned with me to campus. A mocking specter accompanied me to my Shakespeare class, to the dining hall, to the chapel. Time and experience settled in my chest, hollowing out my relationships. When my grandparents died months later, I finally understood the compounding interest of loneliness. Any lingering possibility of going home died with them; childhood was well and truly over for me. To be homeless as a child is a tragedy, but to homeless as an adult is to be just another shadow on the wall.
In the long years since, I have looked for this thing I don’t if I really believe in any more, this sense of being home, in other people and in myself and in the idea of other people. Homelessness tastes a lot like loneliness and loneliness tastes a lot like vodka.
I am still chasing a phantom I can’t quite bring myself to say is unreal. The chasing feels a lot like wonder, like looking to the sky and wondering if there really is, somewhere above the clouds, behind the moon, beyond the furthest stars, a love so personal and close that being known is possible. So I fill the ghost space in my new apartment in my fourth city in as many years with dresses (the kind that make me feel as though I can take off like a raven), books (one tall shelf of already-read and two of yet-to-reads), pillows (there are seven on my bed tonight), blankets (always at least two on my bed, two on my couch, and two in my linen closet), and a mish-mash of marginalia, anything spotted out of the corner of my eye that I can cling to as proof that I exist in this world in a specific place. That I am right here. And this pair of socks on the stairs is proof. This electric bill. This stack of library books. This key dish holding two paperclips and no keys. This jean jacket. This half-empty water bottle. This unopened pack of envelopes. Waiting to be stamped with my home address. Waiting to be home.