My best friend once wrote that home was her boyfriend’s arms. It was a private little piece, mostly meant for her I’m sure. But I saw it, one way or another, and I was never able to stop thinking about it. Mostly because I couldn’t understand it. In the metaphoric way, of course I understood, but in the literal sense, I could not wrap my head around the idea of home as another person.
When they broke up I wondered if she was homeless.
Madeline, the French children’s book character, often touted the belief that, “Home is where the heart is.” One video even included lyrics that promised: “If your heart is there, that’s home!” I think about this often as well, unable to fully grasp the meaning. The only place I knew my heart to be was inside my ribcage. I didn’t know where else it would ever be.
My childhood home has always been my home in some capacity, but I never felt a connection to my town. The house itself, while familiar, and of course, filled with my family and our heirlooms, photographs, and other intimate bits that comprise making a house into a home, never felt like a place that grounded me in any sense of the word.
I attended a sleep away camp in the Berkshires. We often referred to the place as “our summer home” and the other girls “our sisters”. To an extent, this was all true. I returned one summer to visit my younger sister, the one I was related to, not one assigned to me by camp, a few years after my friends and I were deemed too old to return. I wandered the familiar place, feeling sad and nostalgic. It wasn’t really my home anymore. And technically, it never was.
Years later I attended a university in Boston. During my time there I lived in a variety of dorms. With the friends I made I felt comfortable, maybe “at home”, but never actually found anybody who made me feel like I was home. The city, too, was not my real home. At the same time, many of my peers completely immersed themselves, declaring Boston as their own and identifying strongly with the culture and behaviors that made the city unique. I watched on, unimpressed and detached.
My older brother had an apartment in Manhattan while I was still in school. Often I would go over for a while, usually falling asleep on their couch. This was widely accepted among everyone who lived there, though not by any means encouraged. It was just something to be expected whenever I showed up. The couch became my little piece in a place that did not belong to me, but this did not make it my home.
When I graduated, I too moved to Manhattan. I took up residence in a small studio in Midtown, reveling in a small space that finally belonged entirely to me. Due to the size and the rush of moving in, I had little furniture or décor that really made the place anymore mine than someone else’s. It is the first true home I’ve had entirely under my own jurisdiction, but somehow it always feels like the place in which I live, and not a true, real home.
In the April after I first moved to New York, I met someone. Our relationship was always casual, light, and very “not a real relationship”. He lived much further uptown than I did, and on weeknights would sleep at my place because it was closer to his office. On the weekends, he was sometimes able to convince me to stay at his. His roommate was often away, especially during those first few weekends I stayed. It was the first real time I had ever spent an extended period in someone else’s home since sleepovers in elementary school.
I used their body wash, had meals cooked for me, and sprawled lazily across a couch that wasn’t mine. At one point, I was presented with my own toothbrush, which I know for some is a large step in a real relationship, let alone a casual one. From then on, I could stay knowing I didn’t need my toothbrush. It was very minor, but I liked having my own piece of property in someone else’s house.
It was my way of leaving a mark, of declaring myself present in the space. I didn’t care much at the time, but looking back now, it was proof I was there, like astronauts having their footprints on the moon. Even if nobody ever believed it happened, if you went and took a look for yourself, you could find a true artifact.
When we ended things, the toothbrush was likely still somewhere in his closet. I know I’ll never be back there, but I think of that toothbrush, my artifact, my proof of belonging, and wonder if it was easy to toss away. After all, it was just a simple toothbrush pulled from a bulk package. It was of no real value. But that was the last true piece of me that remained there, and I could only hope that far uptown, even for a moment, perhaps that would mean just a small something.
Back in midtown, I continue to go on without a real home. I think again of my friend’s ex-boyfriend’s arms and wonder if they are a home to someone else now. I wonder if they are always really her home and everybody else was just renting. Perhaps she could go back, like someone returning from a long vacation, and return home as she was meant to. Or perhaps her current boyfriend’s arms were home now. Maybe someday I will find home in the crevice between a neck and shoulder, or someone else will find it in the hand of another. Who can really know what home actually is?
This is what I know: home is a feeling, not necessarily a tangible thing. I know I haven’t found it yet, that I am still looking. But as they say, not all those who wander are lost.