“So, what does this even mean?”
Paintbrush fingers trace the thin black lines that decorate the cavity in my chest where my ribs meet my sternum. Gentle, like warm mid-May breezes dragging the heady scent of lilacs over my skin. A contrast to the aggressive buzzing bees that had filled the hollow of my stomach as the tattoo gun had scarred meaning into my skin over a year before.
“It’s Vegvisir,” I say. “It’s a stave in Icelandic mythology. It literally means ‘sign post’. Way back in the day, it was supposed to be protection for travelers. They’d paint it in blood on their forehead and it’d help them find their way home, even in storms or bad weather or when they couldn’t tell where they were going.”
“I got it before I went to Europe,” I add. It feels at once significant and like I’m undercutting its importance.
Home. Noun. The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. A place of residence.
I’ve lived in Austin, Texas for three years – longer than I’ve stayed anywhere since I was eight years old – but it still doesn’t quite feel like home. My apartment, well-lived-in, is decorated with knick-knacks. The walls are covered in my own artwork. I’ve built shelves, strung up lights, painted the windowsills. I’ve had time to develop a narrative in a place entirely my own.
But coming “home” – coming back to my apartment – still feels like trying to fit a puzzle piece into the wrong puzzle. A key into the wrong lock. The shapes of the edges, the teeth, are similar enough to almost work. The colors close enough to almost blend in. But no matter how much you try, no matter how much you force the issue, you’re still staring at a picture that you don’t quite belong in. A door you can’t enter.
Eighteen days alone in Paris. Eighteen days wrapped in the syrupy humidity of mid-July France. Eighteen nights with my feet propped up on the railing of the balcony in the fifth-floor apartment I’d rented in the twelfth arrondissement, the one smaller than my kitchen in Austin, door flung wide to relieve the top floor from the heat that had accumulated throughout the day. Eighteen mornings of rising with the sun and the scent of fresh-baked croissants from the boulangerie five floors below my temporary apartment.
It had been long enough that I’d developed a routine. Wake up and dress to the sunrise washing the sky in watercolor shades of rose and lavender with just the faintest touch of orange somewhere along the horizon. Pick a direction and lose myself on my way to a final destination – to a market or a church or a garden – and watch the way different sections of the city wake up, how they exist so elegantly while I stumbled, awed, through streets cluttered with rows of buildings. Take lunch with a view – of the Seine, of shaded parks, of sculptures tucked amongst trees – and fill pages of a notebook with words that have never felt more significant. Find your tourist destination of the day and abandon it for dinner in a restaurant close-packed with neighborhood residents who know each other by name. Take the metro back to Dugommier, pick up a bottle of cheap wine, wait for the sun to set. Repeat.
On day two, my phone was stolen. A month’s worth of pictures from travels abroad had been lost, along my contact with the outside world. For sixteen further days, it was just me. It forced me to integrate. Make friends with French shopkeepers. Order food when didn’t know what was in it. Learn to find my way without a map. Experience the Bastille Day fireworks with unmitigated wonder. Fall in love with a city even when I’d seen its underbelly.
I left on a Monday morning, unsure if I was leaving a home, returning to one, or some combination of the two.
Home. Noun. The social unit formed by living together. The place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.
When nowhere feels like home, everywhere starts to. My mom moved to Texas when I was twelve, we’d moved houses twice before then, and I lived with my dad in Michigan until I graduated during which period we moved seven times. Visiting my mom on breaks from school, I never could get close enough to either parent to establish an emotional connection to them or the places they’d brought me. There was a significant period of my childhood where my battered red suitcase – the one broken and taped back together too many times through too many miles traveled – genuinely felt like home. It was the only stable element in a life that could be upturned at any moment. The only consistency. The only thing linking one state to another, when even I felt like I’d change each time I made the 1400 mile journey, when I realized that more of my life had been spent in transit than in one place.
You take comforts where you can find them. You make homes of places you’ll never see again. You find stability in the suitcase that holds all your worldly belongings. You find something to latch onto, something to call ‘home’.
Summer sunshine filtered through the window of a battered Toyota Yaris bedecked in bumper stickers and a Martini racing stripe. Tucked in the backseat amongst a pile of luggage, I felt a sick feeling of loss mount pressure in the back of my throat, the one that always took residence there as I abandoned one place in search of something new.
From Boston to Indianapolis, Montreal, Toronto, New York City, Pocono, and twice to Watkins Glen, that cramped backseat had become a place I looked forward to being almost more than the destination itself. Intimate. More familiar than the return trips to Austin had felt. It was a stable presence in a summer of living in tents and hostels, in living rooms of friends or spare beds of strangers. I’d left a little bit of myself at each locale, a promise that I’d return one day to the streets and forests and tracks I’d explored, but it was always the Yaris that welcomed me back with open arms at the end of a long, sunburnt weekend.
It was the last trip of the year. Back to Austin from September until January. I kept saying I was going home, but there was a familiar feeling telling me that I already somehow was. I was in transit, moving, establishing myself across the country, always coming back to the same familiar face and the same cloth-covered seat. Always, still, with the ruined red suitcase by my side. It felt like home, and I knew it wasn’t.
In 2016, I went home. Home. A place of origin. A native place. I had never been to East Lansing before in my life, but it was Michigan – my birth state, my general area of residence for eighteen years – so it became ‘home’.
East Lansing is 120 miles from both the quiet town I grew up in and all the reasons why I hadn’t set foot in the state for two years. A two hour drive if traffic is clear – and it usually is. A two hour drive from the Indiana border, from which I’d come in 2016.
In Michigan, things never quite feel like they’ve changed. I had never driven that particular route before, but there was a sense of recognition. I knew those trees that lined the pothole-ridden streets. I knew the cars eaten by rust, the regional grocery stores, the jumbled Midwestern dialect, the houses with perpetual ‘for sale’ signs tacked in the front lawn. I knew it all. It was home.
But after 730 days away, I didn’t want it to be. After drinking in sights and sounds and smells from across the world, I wanted this to feel foreign in its familiarity. I didn’t want to stop at Kroger to pick up duct tape for my front bumper and know where to go. I didn’t want to find Superman ice cream waiting for me in the freezer of my childhood best friends’ apartment. I didn’t want to hear their voices and fall back into the patterns of speech I’d spent so long trying to abandon.
And yet – 120 miles away from my hometown – it was.
Wisner, Michigan is an unincoporated community of Wisner Township, a region whose total number of residents doesn’t exceed 750 in forty square miles, a town so small that it’s unrecognized by the postal system – all our letters had to be addressed to Akron and forwarded from there. Our claim to fame was the Log Cabin Grocery Store that was, in reality, a Shell gas station that served mediocre food and stocked postcards from Lake Huron. You’d have to drive ten miles to find the nearest stoplight, forty-two if you wanted a Wal-Mart. It was a thirty minute walk to the nearest neighbor.
Surrounded by four fields that alternated between corn and sugar beets depending on the year, flanked by three rows of tall pine trees to shield our house from view of the few cars that may pass down the dirt road, was the A-frame house that I grew up calling my home. A two-story nightmare built of knotty wood. [redacted] There that I called home.
I called it my home long after we’d moved out, long after I’d lived in the equally-barren Bangor, the slightly more populated Rose Island and Sebewaing. We’d lived in that house in Wisner for no more than six years, but moving out felt like a displacement of my entire world. My entire being. It was the place that taught me who I was. I’d hated it more than anything, but every time I drove by, I felt wistful. Home.
I don’t remember what it looks like inside now. I can’t remember if my bedroom walls were white or pale blue. I don’t remember how many drawers were in our cupboard, if it was the fourth or the fifth one that held the snacks. I wiped my memory clean when I left, and then spent years trying to recover from the damage of a place that exists only as a symbol. An abstract. The definition to the elusive word ‘home’.
“So does it work?” A blunt fingernail scratches ever-so-gently down the line splitting the sigil on my chest in two. Shivers. I lay my hand overtop his and spread his fingers wide, pressing down so that his palm obscures the totality of the tattoo. With it, I’ve found paths and ways. I’ve found places. I’ve found homes that I left behind for other homes. But I’m not sure that’s what he’s looking for when he asks, “You find your way home?”
His hotel room feels a little bit like a home, too, from how many times I’ve been to places like it. I could tell him that. But I smile.
“Something like that.”