A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Going Home.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
I lived at the bottom of a rolling North Carolina hill at the end of a dead-end street with two people who weren’t my parents. They had parties on the weekends and the guests would give me sips of their beers in between dancing barefoot to Jim Reeves or Connie Smith. I didn’t completely understand what it was they were singing about but in my gut I knew it was the reason people drank beer and danced.
The man who wasn’t my dad was real nice and happy most of the time because he was back in America instead of knee deep in a rice paddy swatting mosquitoes and watching for the Viet Cong. He met the woman in the Army, they got married, and that’s why they came and took me away from the grandparents who weren’t really my grandparents and moved us to North Carolina. The woman was nice as long as the man was around but when he was away things changed. I just tried to stay outside as much as possible. Especially when she started playing Connie Smith on the record player.
One night they loaded me up in the car with a suitcase and drove to a parking lot where there were some people in another car waiting. The man took me and the suitcase out of the car and handed me over to these people. Then he drove away. I didn’t cry. I didn’t ask why. I just got in the car and started talking like this happened every day and it was just another adventure in my life. They told me I was going home.
They took me to an old house that needed painting where other people were waiting for us. They all knew me but I didn’t know any of them. They told me I was born in this place where there was only dirt and sand and hardly anything green and the air was so dry it made my nose hurt to breathe. I sat on the front porch and looked up at a blue mountain topped with white and felt as alien as that mountain looked rising in the distance, splitting the earth without a care for the life it upheaved in its wake.
They told me I was going home but I knew “home” was me and I counted on that. My surroundings didn’t really count for shit.
— Charlotte Hamrick
* * *
“Sorry I’ve been gone so long, fellas. Chester sent me out to Astoria a few days ago with the details for the ridiculous ‘underground food club’ he’s trying to make happen on the 13th. He seems to think that pairing Indian food with home-distilled gin is going to make for a good evening. I hope he cleans his toilet beforehand.
“The journey itself wasn’t bad. I zigged over Williamsburg, zagged over Greenpoint, then took side streets up to this bozo’s apartment. First he just stared at me, then he couldn’t get the message out of my carrier, then he wasn’t sure what Indian dish he could make—he spent twenty straight hours Googling pictures on the Internet. Logically, he wanted to try to find a local tandoor and make some naan as a trial. You can guess how that went. Finally, he decided to heat up some Trader Joe’s frozen Indian and bring that. Took him almost a week to write this brilliant reply missive: ‘Chana Masala. Also—cucumbers.’
“Is this why our ancestors flew over battlefields, dodging bullets and bodies? We used to be essential to setting up war strategy and rendezvous points, not illegal hipster dinner parties. Christ, even the fictional birds on Game of Thrones get more respect than we do—they die meaningful deaths trying to carry secrets from Winterfell! I mean Jimmy, you were sent to Harlem last week to tell someone to bring a hammock to a sleepover. A hammock! Adults having a sleepover! I know it’s trendy to keep homing pigeons right now, but it just seems like our innate talents are wasted on Chester.
“You know, I thought about making a break for it. Just not going home this time. But the way the other side lives—shitting on platforms, fighting over stale bread in dirty, scared packs in Central Park—that’s no life for me. As much as I hate to admit it, I need my gourmet pigeon feed and clean coop. I may hate the work, but I love the inherent dignity of the profession. My home is here, with these terrible, vapid people, carrying their tiny thoughts across the boroughs—a real life Twitter bird. It may not be dignified, but it’s what I’m meant to do.”
— Caitlin Kunkel
* * *
I would love to go home.
The trouble is that home isn’t a single place I can return to, because I have never felt complete.
Home can be felt in fragments.
Sometimes I feel at home in the kitchen of the red house I grew up in, when my mom is making coffee and talking to our dogs.
Home can be found in the white curtains of my childhood bedroom. It’s in the peach color of my walls, the walls that used to be white, with a border of pastel fairies along the top.
I feel at home when I write or draw, and when the only light in the room comes from the Christmas tree.
Home is a book. It’s a red cardinal in a tree. It’s a long ride in the backseat of a car, the white moon chasing us down the street. It’s hearing from him, unexpectedly.
I’m home when I’m crying on bathroom floors, and picking at my skin until it bleeds.
Home is the Atlantic Ocean when the air is cold, and my legs and stomach go numb as I head further into the water. It’s the drop down to my shoulders, the rush of ice as water hits my ears. The silence found in salt.
It’s the glow of a night light in the hallway. The sound of the television downstairs.
“It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”
Maybe I’ll find myself in someone’s arms, and they will feel like home. That might happen for me.
The thing is that we are each our own homes first, and we can’t move out.
I think my building is cluttered. The light is pretty in the morning, but there are dirty dishes in the sink, and loud voices at night. There is a leak in the roof.
There may never be one place I can go where everything feels right—where I will not want for anything. The idea of being able to go home feels like a carrot on a stick, dangling in front of a donkey’s nose.
Maybe if I keep moving and don’t complain, if I read more books and love better, and patch the leaky roof, then one day I’ll reach home, and my head will be clear. There will be a bed for me, with soft pillows, and I will sleep soundly.
— Sam Lynn
* * *
These haughty crescents and faux boulevards make my skin scream. I cruise them and think only of missed curfews, flunked math tests, and going through the rigmarole of my mother smelling my hair and clothing and fingers to make sure I haven’t been smoking (but I almost always was). The streets are numbered into oblivion and go so far as needing A’s and B’s, and I can’t stand it. Can’t a gas station just be a gas station anymore? Every one is also a Subway or a Tim Horton’s or a Drive-Thru White Spot and it adds a complexity to a life that used to be so simple. I remember the summer that gas was 39 cents a litre and the Hillcrest Drive-In was still open, spouting monster movies paired with Chevy Chase films. Now, when I drive by I only see white and off-white condominiums, named something that is supposed to sound relaxed and wild, like “Fernwood Glen” or “Brookside Green” but you only have to glance to see that it is all concrete, lists or rules, numbered identical half-houses and perched cameras watching like menacing birds. Once, there was a forest with a ravine and creek that held crayfish and small snakes. We would walk through it (run, if it was getting dark), our popsicles dripping down the backs of our hands. It is a Park and Ride now, filtering the 9-to-5ers from their cars into the trains and into a city that is at least honest about what it is, and unapologetic. I do not call this place Home anymore, it is a strange land full of strange people that vaguely remind me of those I grew up with. For the most part, they are fatter and sadder and laden with children. They are thorny in disposition and weighted with smoke, traffic, parking lots, and line-ups. I often daydreamed of being from a small town with dirt roads and endless trees, a Town Hall, a place where everybody knows everybody and you don’t need to lock your car, or your house, or your heart. I live in one now, blissful and sweetly cradled in my solitude.
— Lindsay Williams-Barrett
* * *
It’s dark on the highway back. This day’s over. Spanish moss wavers gray off the cypress lining the road like flood-washed streamers festooned in the tunnels of a nightmare.
Roll the window down, it’s muggy. Neither of us says a word for seven miles.
This fucking state with its paucity of mountains and engineered coast line—a sultry asshole of a place. The old people the least of its issues. Give me cold hard mountains, a desert. Give me anything else. Still, no problem—give him back and I’ll live here forever. Where do I sign?
Again and again: sliding him out of the plastic bag as if he’s a product, broken to be returned. And: widening the hole or standing in the insult of the sun outside the hospital with no one to blame, no recourse, no nothing. Empty hands. Death’s wake is a bitter new loop.
Turn off the highway. Dull buffet of wind drops from my ears, bullfrogs howl from some crazy lady’s yard. Go up the white limestone grid. Stop, turn right. There’s the house just as left these hours before. The porch is dead. The house is dead. Goddamn cicadas are rioting in the yard.
The cat’s inside alone, watching geckos outside past the screen. Where’s her brother, why isn’t he blasting through the door, leash trailing loose and nails skittering over the tiles to his water to drink, to come up with beard dripping and to whack the cupboard doors with his tail and then sniff me like he does, as if I had messages consignable—my dog brother, where’s he?
That new black loop actualizes. Not gonna be here in the morning. Not gonna come when his bowl is rattled. Not gonna look up ever again. He’s gone home, and this is not a home anymore.
Where there was comfort, however taken for granted, is now the lacuna of that comfort—a new poison that even dusted with time will call me back to when his image was yet fresh, his smell still on the blanket and the ultimate mind-fuck is that I’d go back there, back to a dead house just because he was closer then but still gone.
Sound of the fridge opening, he’s not there. Walk the silent hallway, out to the patio dim.
Dark in the yard too, and nobody comes from the shadows to make me a deal.
— Andy Edwards
* * *
I’m asleep. A comatose sleep where the whole universe is resting on your upper eyelids, holding them down; yet awake enough to enjoy my fiancé’s steady, warm pull on my lower bicep as she wrestles in her sleep. She’s a soothing brick oven of comfort that relaxes my muscles and sends me further from her physical presence, into a world of unknown thoughts.
Thump, thump! Two knocks in fast succession and I’m standing in the center of my eight-by-ten box of an apartment. Thump, thump!
Muscular profanities scream through the night, drunk with a touch of grace, like they had been rehearsed. I dart to the top of the stairs that lead to the rest of the house and listen, hoping the raging voice doesn’t wake her up.
“What is that?” she asks with a slight sense of hysteria. It’s too late and I lean into the door, nearly naked, trying to find out.
My half-landlord, half-roommate, tears across the floor upstairs and I hear the click of his revolver’s hammer lock to the ready. The gun, I’d always suspected. Its use, however, never once.
“My keys,” I whisper down the stairs. “And the knife in the top of my desk.”
I hear the rustling, one more knock and I decide we will slip out the back, hopefully eliminating us from the crazed lunatics upstairs.
Minutes crawl, but I know they’re seconds. We both listen as my heart claws its way up my ribcage, inching toward my collarbone. How have I allowed this to be my home? I sleep here at night, working through the day so I can one day leave.
A few more minutes escape and I hear movement upstairs, from the man to which I pay rent.
My landlord-roommate blend has made it outside into the quiet night, realizing the intruder must have been a hoax. I hear his mumbled conversation with himself as he swears to take perch through the night to protect the paying customer living in his basement.
This is no longer home.
— Tim LeVan Miller
* * *
It’s my mother’s 60th, a date we share, and while I want to let the day be hers alone, it smarts a little when no one wishes me a happy day. My aunt has thrown together a catered affair, roasted peppers and bruschetta, which my mom insists on pronouncing in accents. “Have some brooo-sket,” she says. “Shmeer some olive oil on it,” and I want to scream that she’s neither Italian nor Jewish, that turning 60 doesn’t mean you get to pick your ethnicity. Instead, I pour my second glass of wine and push a crab puff around my plate.
Brian, my younger brother, asks his children in a falsetto tone who I am. They’ve seen me in pictures but my three-dimensional form causes one to cry, the other to bury her head in his shoulder. He tells me crowds freak them out, but they seem fine with the other relatives, and I wonder if this is why my birthday is ignored: Clearly I should have been breeding these last years instead of reading books. Don Quixote will never impregnate me.
My gift to my mother is showing up, the $600 plane ticket, and that seemed like enough, but my brother has handed her a hard-bound testament to his love, a picture book that traces 60 years of weight spikes, regrettable haircuts, babies. My mother’s hand shakes as she turns the pages, and maybe because I’m aware of how many pictures are being taken in this moment, I shield my eyes with my hand like that book is the fucking sun and step outside for a smoke.
Leaning against the window of the restaurant, I listen to the sound of my family. My mother’s best friend joins me, wiggles her fingers to bum one. She’s a nurse and asks how my leg is feeling, smiles in stained teeth. Five months earlier, I missed the christening of my brother’s youngest, told him my leg was broken, the only way I could figure to avoid coming home. I kick my leg up behind me, grab my ankle and feel the pull of muscle against tissue, the burn of my body. I tell her that these people make me feel crazy, alone. “But if anybody asks,” I say, “tell them my leg is fine. Never better, in fact,” and she smiles at me again, assures me my secret is safe with her.
— Lisa Nikolidakis
* * *
2009 is colder, still: robbery; then a collision for which I take an ambulance ride, ending in crutches and bandaged fingers, slivers of glass working their way out of my skin weeks later; and, finally, a man who pushes himself into me as though it was an invitation. My open legs, my body, his invitation. How mistaken he was.
God forgot about us that day. I don’t believe in god.
Blue is my favorite color. By that time, mine shifted from blue to green.
Da Vinci Code. That is not my favorite book, but I did ask.
I will protect you. I surprise myself, the loudness with which I laugh into the cell phone pressed to my cheek.
Then, soberly, tersely, You can’t protect me, I say in English, knowing he cannot understand me. English. Korean. Yeongeo. Hangeul.
To whom do I speak? It is my brother. He is all long lines and slender body, tall, his eyelashes thick and generous. We are in our twenties, my brother and I. We are in Korea, exactly twenty years since we last saw each other.
1989: that quiet dinner where my stepmother cried. A first. We are eating soup, the four of us: father, stepmother, brother, me. That quiet dinner where she said to my brother, Go find that picture of you holding your sister in your lap when she was a baby. My brother leaves the table. He comes back. I can’t find the picture.
Why are these people so sad? I wonder to myself. The next day, I will never see one of them again, and for two others, I will make myself remarkably tethered in order to weather the seeing of them. Paris. Doha. Narita. Incheon. In my absence, a girl named Ha Na will spool like fine linen out of a womb. I will never meet her. A fourth person. She is a sister I will never meet. A face I will never know.
But, I see him again. My brother. Named River.
He is a smoker. I am not. He reaches for my hand. I do not reach for his.
I no longer speak to him. Something to do with gods, something to do with protection. How we could not protect. That I saw. And walked on. I finally leave Korea, after spending a week in the mountains among dragonflies.
— Soo Na Pak
* * *
Friday night, our first ever night together, we picked out images in the stains of my ceiling. I’d ended so many nights staring up, falling for her through the phone, that her lying next to me immediately felt natural. A random L.A. rain storm struck and filtered through my building’s roof. We watched water follow and form cracks in my pimpled ceiling. Topless, she outlined a structure in the discolored blobs. It’s a rat, she said. I was afraid there really was one in my apartment. Our fingers crawled all over each other, satisfying promises we’d made before we’d ever met. We put our clothes back on sometime the next afternoon.
Sunday morning we sit at the two-chair table in the kitchen that’s always in the way of the cabinets. She taps the end of a cigarette into the water bottle she’s been dropping butts in all weekend. A black liquid, the opposite of water, is puddled at the bottom. She’s still wearing my roommate’s T-shirt.
After an impressively long drag, a shell of ash falls from her cigarette onto the white table. She smudges it with her thumb. She won’t look at me, unembarrassed, just ignoring me.
It was supposed to be a stay-and-live-here brunch. Now, and not soon enough, she’s going back to her home.
I’m not supposed to smoke in my apartment, I finally grunt with as much incivility as I can muster.
I’m not you, she says, her head tilted down so her brown bangs lurch forward like spider legs.
— Alex Koplow
* * *
These days home is a small apartment, and high up off the ground, like a birdhouse. On sunny days it is impossible to be upset here without closing the blinds. It is home because it is familiar after a couple of years, even though the furniture is still too new to be personal. Home is where the coffee maker lives. And the shelves of books, which are pushed into friends’ hands and puzzled faces. Read this one next, I say with understated urgency. Home is in the books, but not everyone knows that. Home is San Francisco, but we only learned that after we got here and left once or twice on trips. And home for now will not be home forever, a lesson learned the hard way in seventh grade. There is no going back to that home, where they cut down the tree in the front yard and painted the front door electric blue.
— Sam Zeitlin
* * *
at some point, the suitcase,
the old car packed blind,
the headlong tumble out of the tree
before the updraft and the sky.
after this, all glory, all beauty,
boredom of days and the heart’s unease,
the long ballad written in blood.
the nest remains on the branch,
the old house on the same street.
you think you know that place,
but you cannot discover it
in ten thousand things.
— Kathleen Kelly
* * *
I scroll across the ridges of the Catalina Foothills until I see the sprawled entrails of my particular housing development. I find the familiar street names, all arbitrary Spanish words, like Los Arbustos, or tragic-sounding one-word poems like “Whitehurst”—that was my street.
The sun is so bright in Tucson that the houses appear on the screen surrounded by the blinding glare of their own white facades. I move the little green man who looks nothing like me and find my old house. No matter how much I zoom in I can’t see the window where I snuck out of all of high school. I walk to the dead end where you waited for me in your Camry. I never wanted to return to this neighborhood but I can’t stop myself from clicking ahead to the next street and then the next.
The computer screen only shows the front of things. I don’t know the code that gets me into the back parking lot of what used to be a family steak house filled with wooden dioramas of the Old West. The computer doesn’t show when it became corporate headquarters or how it changed again, after five lines, into an ICU for aliens crash-landed in the desert. We sat there until 4 AM listening to CDs and doing one more line, one more line until our brains started coming out our ears. Then I snuck back into my window and you snuck back into yours and we talked quietly on the phone until we had to go back to school.
I don’t know the coordinates or cross streets so I can’t click on the Circle K parking lot where you had two strokes from too many speedballs. I only found out you were dead from Facebook posts by people I know didn’t care about you as much as I did. But of course I’m wrong—they at least knew you were dead before I did.
And that is how a coward goes home. I scrolled down old streets from three thousand miles away while you were dying, a John Doe. Me waiting for the day to end, you waiting for the hospital to call someone who could tell them to unplug you so they didn’t have to make the choice. Everyone hiding behind their buttons and both of us wishing we could go all the way back.
— Lindsey Cornum
* * *
Winter 2011. Home again. Up early, hunched over the kitchen table, trying to get warm, listening to ice crack outside. In Canada, plane tickets are only cheap in the dead of winter, so here I am again, in February, at my mom’s house in P.E.I.
It is bitterly cold, -33. Last night was the coldest one of the year, here as well as across much of the country. Wayne Gretzky would definitely not be jogging through the rain with a torch in Vancouver this year. The whole country is encased in ice.
It’s 7 AM and I’m waiting for my toast to pop in my mom’s kitchen, swaying to a bit of Leonard Cohen weakly bleating out of my laptop speakers. It makes it feel even colder. Maybe that’s what is distinctly Canadian about Cohen—there is so little warmth to his music.
My mom and I gave up on Cohen and listened to a shitload of Reba McEntire and Bobbie Gentry instead while we played cards, hoping that maybe the swampy Southern tales of woe would heat the place. We drank leftover bottles of wine from my wedding in the fall. We talked about what would happen with my brother and his girlfriend, hoping for the best, but not so sure. It stayed so cold. Something was bothering my mom and I couldn’t figure it out. She spent her days in a deep defensive crouch; maybe it was shelter from the cold in our bones, maybe it was something more. The winter brings out the worst in her—the worst in my brother and me, too. This island grinds to a halt in inexplicable ways. Things get stuck, we push and shovel, push and shovel and salt. We make no progress until the snow melts in the spring. We just wait.
— Alix MacLean
* * *
It hit me as I lay on her couch, eyes fluttering and unfocused thanks to the crystal meth‑packed capsules we’d been taking, that I was homeless. I’d always thought of the homeless as “others,” crawling around on park benches, but then I realized how close I was to becoming one of them. Only this couch and this girl’s desperate need for company while she tweaked kept me from being out there. That night I started hearing voices, and when I told her so she rolled her eyes and said, “Maybe you should stop doing so much dope.”
I laughed. Hi, pot; meet kettle. We are both black as night, you see?
The next day, I grabbed my bags with what little I had—dirty laundry, mostly—and walked out of her apartment for the last time. I sat on a bench outside a grocery store for hours, using the last few minutes on my calling card to try to reach someone who would come get me. It’s amazing how few friends you have when you really need something, or when you have nothing they need.
Finally an ex-boyfriend showed up. “How did you get here?” he asked me. “I walked,” I said, though I don’t think that answered his question.
The next morning I woke up asking for the phone; my birth mother answered on the third ring and didn’t seem surprised to hear, “I need a place to stay for a while.” I knew that she’d accept even though I hadn’t lived with her since I was two, when she’d given me up for adoption to my grandparents.
Four hours later, I was on a plane due north—headed for the state where I was born. I planned on only staying a few weeks, maybe a month. I didn’t know then that I would learn the rural backroads like the veins on my wrist. That I would internalize the changing of the seasons, a truer cycle of life than I ever knew down south. That I would meet a man who would make me want to be better.
When I was on that plane that day, I didn’t realize I was going home. But I was.
— Victoria Fryer
* * *
I retreated to the basement while you resumed your daily lesson: teaching a once strong leg to walk again after brain surgery left your right side in a stupor. Screams burned through the cold darkness that I had learned to bask in, and I went running; I found you bleeding on the floor next to a treadmill gone wild. As exasperated by our life as I was, it had revolted by changing speeds without warning, spinning faster than your waking limbs ever dreamed of moving.
A scrawny 14, I was helpless to pull you off of the ground so I sat bandaging your skinned knees as you cried, our roles reversed half a century too soon. I was unable to look you in the eyes as you said that everything was going to be okay; I knew that you believed in your words and that I would never again believe in anything. Choking on my unspeakable love for you, foolishly wishing you were already gone, I settled into my silence, concentrating on the green carpet I had hated from the day it entered that house.
When we were no longer alone and you were no longer on the floor, I went to my room and quietly cut out my own heart—burying it in the place you would die, telling myself that if it were gone I wouldn’t love or hurt and it would save me the trouble of missing you. Later I learned there are certain troubles that cannot be escaped.
I wanted everyone to believe I was undaunted and strong when all the while I was the cowardly lion with messier hair. I became the scarecrow out of necessity; there was no place for a brain in this act. Lacking a heart made being the Tin Man easy and when I found the perfect curtain I became the Wizard himself. In my Oz every place was like home, without you; I never had a chance at being Dorothy.
I believed that memories were of cancer without a trace of my mother’s love until one day I realized that they were one and the same. That was the day I looked in the mirror and saw the eyes that told me on green carpet, half of my life ago, that everything was going to be okay. That was the day I became Dorothy and started to believe in everything.
— Colleen Walsh
* * *
She left in my arms. She came back in a tin can.
Bobo would’ve been nineteen this month. I was four when I brought her home. She was just a puppy, a few months old.
We grew up together. She waited for me every day outside my elementary school. When I was a teenager, she waited for me to come home no matter how late it was past my curfew. She waited for me to come back from college, and she watched me drop out of graduate school. I was certain she would break the world record for the oldest dog alive.
One morning she couldn’t stop yelping, so I take her to the vet. He examines her and then gives me a look. He hesitates, sensing that I already know what he’s going to tell me. “Keep her warm. Keep her comfortable. That’s all you can do,” he says. At home I dress her in a sweater, wrap her in a blanket, and place her in her bed, next to the heater. I sit on the floor and pet her gently. I don’t know if she can feel it. Her breaths are shallow and she doesn’t move. Her eyes are half open as she drifts in and out of consciousness. After three days and two nights by her side, I realize I can’t do anything except watch her die. She doesn’t make it through the third night.
The next day, I’m outside the vet’s office, alone in the car, cradling her frigid, stiff, lifeless body. I look at her sunken eyes and cry. The tears burn my eyes and face. I gasp for air. I want to scream but nothing comes out. This is the last moment I will ever spend with my dog and I don’t know if I want it to last longer or if I want it to end right away. I’m collapsing into myself.
A week later I’m in the car again, with a brown paper bag sitting on my lap. Inside is a green tin can, holding her ashes. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. What am I supposed to do with a tin can?
Going home hurts. Every time I open the door, my eyes fixate on where her bed used to be. Bobo’s not there waiting for me.
— Kevin Fong
* * *
My stomach refused to settle on the alternatives, so I went home.
Potato bugs lumbered across the mossy walk that led to the sloping porch. I lugged my suitcases to my room. Its buttercup-yellow paint reeked of childhood. It was quiet there, with crickets whispering through my window. I’d become deaf to piercing sirens in Manhattan, but I missed them. It was too dark, without hall lights and vertical walls of illumination. At home, the pitch-black-purple night vacuum suffocated me.
Then you and Mom moved: The house creaked overhead and groaned underfoot. You filled century-old plaster rooms with your voice, NPR, Bjork turned up loud. We sat at the tiny kitchen table for dinner, fought over the remote control, went to chemo.
I stayed close, in part, because I didn’t trust either of you to tell me the truth about what doctors said. Not that what they said made sense. You were living on post-prognosis time, taking it PSA test to CT scan, scrawling numbers of fickle indicators in your black planner with a mechanical BIC pencil.
Three years later, I asked you two about leaving. “I’ll stay if you want me to,” I said. “If you need me.” You were lying in a hospital bed after another transfusion, IV needles shoved into your blotched hand, paper-thin skin spotted like Grandma’s. Mom and I sat on the window bench in the shiny hospital wing, wondering why your oncologist hadn’t stopped in to check on you.
Peaked, you asked, “What are your opportunities for gainful employment?” You rose your throttle hand to your bristly dome and rubbed it slowly front to back and back. “Don’t tell me about your love life. What about a job?”
Before I left, you died.
Dreams haunted me in the yellow room, and I knew they’d follow. That summer, I drove across the country for a boy I loved, leaving Mom alone.
Before fall, I flew back in a window seat. I saw Mt. Hood, backlit in a steely blue salmon sky. Your ashes were spread on the summit. The moon ran silver through rippling creeks like tendons in musculature below. With the snow, melt into those creeks and the valley’s lakes and rivers; then float up to the sky to fall again to the soil.
— Elizabeth W. Carey
* * *
His father said, “He’s not like his sister, or even other boys. He’s a lot more emotional.” Yes. I know this well. My son has cleaved to me for the last fifteen years. He surprised me first, pissing in my face during his inaugural diaper change. He hurt me first and second, my nipples pained with the shock of his first teeth erupted at age four months.He’s really an empath, this boy. He gathers and carries the emotions of others, the little dustman sweeping childhood’s streets into a bin each day.And I’m the one who empties the dustman’s bin, just as I’ve emptied his diaper, his pencil box, his backpack.Years ago it had been habit with his much-older stepbrother that I asked about his day in the car on the way home from daycare. Ritually posing open-ended questions kept the boy awake and on his regular evening schedule. But my stepson was not chatty; he resisted both drowsiness and my inquiries. So unlike my son, who dumps—buckets some days, tankers on others, but he dumps. In second grade he spilled about the little girl tormented by bullies; in fifth grade he disgorged group dynamics of classmates bucking for best reader. Every day was fraught with emotional turmoil; my son captured and delivered it all in a stream of consciousness, within the safety of mother’s automobile, between the school’s driveway and that of home. It took all my strength not to pull over and weep with the overflow the day he told me his middle school classmate’s teen brother committed suicide. I was almost prepared for the emotional burden; a friend had called, warning me my teen daughter might be impacted as the deceased had been a classmate.
But no—it was my son who talked with and comforted the surviving sibling, a friend of his with whom he’d worked on class projects.
On rare occasions my kids had been allowed to use the car as their Maxwell Smart-ish “cone of silence,” within it permitted a single trenchant word when something particularly wretched earned rapid decompression afforded by an otherwise forbidden expression.
This dark day deserved such treatment. He asked if he could swear, once he’d offloaded his emotional freight.
We both said it. He roared first, I seconded, the final harsh consonant fading as I pulled the car into the driveway.
— L. Leilani Lum
* * *
This isn’t your brain on drugs. No, calm down. This is a trip down memory lane. Your brain may feel over-stimulated and flooded with vivid and faded images, emotions, and memories you thought were permanently filed under “do not open.” Your brain may feel clouded because of the different patterns each of these memories is weaving as your 1999 silver Honda Civic passes through your small town a few miles outside Philadelphia, after you’ve come back from college in Boston. This is all normal, I promise. Memory Lane will test the strength of your tires; it’s a weathered road, no doubt. And at the corner of your past and your realization that—with or without your consent—you’ve grown up, you’ll feel simultaneously overwhelmed and relieved. Overwhelmed that all at once, your childhood and adolescence have stared you directly in the face. Relieved that you survived to see adulthood.
This is what they call “going home.” Triggers of this condition may include:
- The movie theater where you had your first kiss.
- The corner auto shop where you bought that 1999 silver Honda Civic.
- The church you sat in each and every Sunday.
- The street where those guys called you a faggot.
- The other street where those other guys called you a faggot.
- The street where your friend crashed his motorcycle and taught you about death and stole your innocence for good.
- The elementary school where you laughed the hardest laughs.
- The high school where you learned to accept yourself, even if others wouldn’t.
- The house where you were raised by the most incredible parents a kid could ever imagine, where your older sister became your first best friend, where you learned what love means, where you grew to be the person you are today, the one who lived through each of these moments, both good and bad.
“Going home” brings these memories to the surface. They affect you in ways that build you up and break you down. You’ll fight through the symptoms. The over-stimulation, the flooding, the clouding. You’ll make your way down Memory Lane, and when you arrive at the other end, you’ll feel accomplished. You’ll feel stronger. And whether you like it or not, you’ll feel home.
— Thomas Vellner
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.