Coming home is a deceptively ordinary human habit. We do it all too often, and still each return is a motion in time, a forwardness that is also a regression, a necessary coming face-to-face with layers of our past selves.
I’ve lived in a total of six places in New York City, five of them in the past four years. This number is explained in large part by my parents’ divorce nearly four years ago; I think that flurries of transitions are natural in moments that demand the conscious uprooting of old familial identities, the brave and messy construction of new ones.
My parents each moved to the apartments they live in now during my first year of college. I had little to no awareness of these moves when they happened — partially, I suppose, because I was so many miles away. But really it was because I had nothing resembling a childhood bedroom I wanted to save, no physical things I was worried would get lost in the crossfire of the transition. The signed yearbooks and middle school track medals that wouldn’t fit into our first set of post-divorce apartments had already been put in storage. I didn’t have the heart to decorate the walls I knew I’d leave in a year.
This isn’t to say that I don’t think of New York City as a home. I find my lifeblood in the subway more than anywhere else there: I spent upwards of 12 hours per week on it through high school until Covid. It connected my mom’s apartment to my dad’s, and their apartments to my high school in Manhattan. It linked Brooklyn Bridge Park to my friend’s apartment in the Bowery that I love waking up in. On the train, I’ve written essays on my iPad and poems in my Notes app, fallen in love with albums, laughed with my very best friends, and cried more times than I can count.
On the subway, you’re between where you were and where you’re going: everywhere and nowhere all at once. No matter how hard you try, you can’t pin yourself down.
There’s a boygenius lyric from the song “Ketchum ID” that I love: I am never anywhere anywhere I go. What does it really mean to be somewhere, anyway? the band asks. Of course, geography matters to a certain extent. But there isn’t necessarily a one-to-one correlation between the distance you travel and how far away you are from home, or familiarity, or whatever you want to call it. My relationship to myself, I’ve found, is the only constant force underlying my reality, no matter where I travel.
Like many of my peers, I went somewhere far from home this summer, traveling from the East Coast to the West. I found myself constantly awed by how much space, physical and otherwise, I found in San Francisco. Even though it is doubtlessly metropolitan, the slant of the sidewalks and the fickleness of the weather — the wildflowers and orange sunsets and coasts only blocks away — make the city more than that too.
When you lose the trappings of the familiar, you have no reminder of who you have been, or who you are supposed to be. So being in new places, at least at first, is both terrifying and exhilarating: You get to move a little more freely, losing the weight that expectations and environmental cues hold. I learned, in San Francisco, about making friends with law students, balancing cynicism and idealism in the workplace, sitting languidly at bars, watching the sea rush by as I drove along the coast. I learned about being someone new and then someone new again without regard.
It’s a running joke between my freshman year roommate and I that I bring less to college than is reasonably needed to live on the day-to-day, and she more. (She was very proud of me for bringing tape and scissors for the first time this year, though I still borrow lots from her closet.) But what I have with me at college is more than enough to live. I think I find freedom in leaving what I don’t need behind: the less you carry with you, the less you owe to the past.
The second half of the “Ketchum ID” lyric goes: When I’m home I’m never there long enough to know. The way boygenius sings the couplet is chilling and plaintive yet wrapped in peace. There is a sort of relief in understanding that you can’t control the way space and change interact to blur time, coloring whatever home you return to with inevitable dissonance.
The period of life I’m in right now is fraught with transitions, quick stop-and-starts: semesters and breaks and summers and time off, fragmenting these purportedly cohesive college years. I grapple with that a lot: the way relationships and friendships and even identities rooted in a place are often cut off before they have a chance to breathe. How are we really supposed to know what to call home?
The point of the San Francisco story is not that I had to travel far from New York to grow, although I did end up growing. It’s also not that I wanted to stay in SF because of all the ways I fell in love with it, although I did fall in love. It’s that maybe we’re meant to stop holding so tightly onto that idea of home and stay close to ourselves instead, watch the past fracture behind us time after time instead of getting cut trying to fit the pieces back together.
I won’t pretend I don’t miss having a childhood bedroom to come home to where I can find ghosts of my old selves with their arms open, ready to welcome my newest rendition. But — for better or for worse — that’s not what home means to me anymore. I wouldn’t change that even if I could.
When I’m riding the B train across the Brooklyn Bridge from one borough to the next, I see my face reflected through the city in the window. Apartment lights are freckles on my cheeks; stop signs are my eyes frenzied red like in a flash photograph. I’m dusted and sprinkled into those metal grates, those sun-warped wooden slat walkways. I melt farther into the city every time it rains.
— Magazine writer Kate S. Griem can be reached at email@example.com.