When I’d get home after work to the Brooklyn apartment I shared with my brother, the February wind would blow through my hood, black as the sky over the abandoned auto garage. I would sweep through the living room and kitchen, pulling off work clothes, putting away garbage from the night before, setting down a bag of liquor bottles or chicken, challah and carrot salad from the kosher grocery down the street, ranting about my day. After my second glass of wine or halfway through a giant BLT on a bagel from the deli, I would calm down enough to listen to my brother. He usually had little to say, except how great his work was going and how much he hated New York.
I loved Manhattan and considered my coworkers a second family, yet couldn’t afford an apartment I could stand for more than six months at a time. He hated Manhattan, refused to make friends, yet had no idea where he’d rather go. We kept asking each other when and where we’d feel at home.
My brother and I moved to that Brooklyn apartment in late September, and my emotional state grew darker with every minute of sunshine the winter took from us. My boss was unwittingly breaking my heart. It was getting harder and harder to reconcile my 9-5 office job with my creative, nontraditional instincts. Our neighborhood, almost entirely composed of Jewish families in hats, wigs, and black, limb-covering clothing, usually met the sight of two large Nordic people like us with hostility or fear on their faces. The hour ride each way on the subway through some of Brooklyn’s less-lovely neighborhoods, every station covered in graffiti, every passenger grim and tired, each eyeing the next for a chance to steal their seat, every minute another repercussion from my body through the train tracks below, left me exhausted. The Target a few train stops from our house was the only place I could buy groceries that I recognized. My girlfriends and I drank too much, stayed out too late, kissed too many men we didn’t like, and offered each other too few moments of calm.
My brother and I moved from there to a beautiful New Jersey suburb, where my commute was even longer, though quieter and more attractive. From the Q line’s patchwork quilt of European immigrants and young white hipsters, we were now surrounded by conservatively dressed older couples with palatial homes and children in high school. I had nightmares about discovering that my pixie haircut had grown out into a “New Jersey bob” that my hairdresser didn’t have time to fix. I had nightmares about being trapped in the PATH train that travels under the Hudson river from Hoboken into NYC. I joked with my coworker about “giving up,” marrying a pudgy computer programmer, moving into a housing development with a fancy name, and buying a minivan.
In a sudden plot twist, in early May, I decided to move back to Seattle. While my brother took all our furniture and our cat to an apartment in Buffalo, I moved in with a stranger in Inwood. Those three last weeks in Manhattan were some of the most poignant, complex, painful of my life. Late night conversations with my roommate, long walks in Fort Tryon Park, losing hours at the Cloisters, my family members scattered and unsettled, as I worked each day with a boss who had gone from close friend to nervous stranger literally overnight. There were a few moments when it felt like my heart was being plucked with burning tweezers, bit by bit, from my chest.
A friend told me a reassuring story about her journey from an ad agency in Florida to a big time agency in New York. Also fleeing inappropriate feelings for a married coworker, she found her home in Manhattan, living and building her career here ever since. I flew back to Seattle in late May hoping I’d experience a similar fate.
My rabbit and I spent a week with my cousin before we moved into an apartment in downtown Seattle and I started at an agency like the one I had worked in in New York. Familiarity defined those two weeks, filling my nostrils with aromas of cut grass, barbecued hamburgers, saltwater breeze, marigolds. The smells elicited emotions I imagine people feel when they revisit their old bedroom in their family home, after years away in college.
I had spent years of my childhood and early twenties wishing I could live and work in Seattle. Now, returning from living and working on the other side of the country, I saw clearly that unfulfilled wishes can be wishes fulfilled. I left Seattle grateful to have spent time with my relatives, and grateful to see that the alienation I had felt most of my life now had an explanation: home hadn’t been home.
After further pit stops at my parent’s home in Oregon, and my brother’s apartment in upstate New York, I write this from a town in the northwest of Spain. In a few days I fly to England to live with a family there. I didn’t come to Europe to find home, though I admit I feel more comfortable here than I ever did in the town where I attended second through tenth grades. I came here to experience, as I put it to one friend, “The old.” I came here to see the roads and villages where the Met curators who brought the Cloisters to life in uptown Manhattan found their stone walls and wooden idols. And I’m ecstatic I have the opportunity to do so.
But today I admit I’d rather go home than experience anything new. From drunken discussions with my brother in Brooklyn six months ago, to arguing with a strange boss/host about how I should get to the Barcelona airport, it has been a half-year of putting my hand in the fire hoping the flame feels like home.
The last six months have taught me this much: I went home every Saturday afternoon my brother and I spent at our favorite coffee shop in Brooklyn. I left it every time he and I went into Manhattan together. I went home every time a friend and I hit our stride in a conversation, when every sentence was honest and every thought sincere. I left it every time I doubted their affection for me. I went home when my cousin and I laughed while trying to make tacos with low sodium, her belly out to here with her first baby. I left it when she took me to visit our grandparents. I went home when my mom and I spent a morning drinking tea in the tiny Toronto apartment my dad’s boss is lending them. I left it hours later when I got on the airplane headed for Paris. I went home when the toddler I babysat here put his arms around me. I left it any time I talked to his parents.
If home is who you’re with, and not where you live, then I have many wonderful homes, around the world. Holiday homes, vacation homes, cabins in the woods, cabanas by the sea, chateaus in the mountains. That’s a lovely thought.
Lovelier still would be to find a heart I could call my permanent home.