For a long time, home was easy for me to define.
I had lived in the same place for my whole life – a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a part of the vast Northern California that people from out-of-state are mostly unaware of. This was “home” to me; there was no other possible answer. At eighteen, I was pretty tired of the town that I called home. Founded during the Gold Rush, it was rural and isolated, forty minutes from the closest mall. I felt stifled, and I was eager to move on to something bigger. I was enchanted by the cities I had briefly visited, awed by the possibilities they presented. So I applied to colleges only in cities, mostly on the east coast – as far away as I could possibly get from home, from everything familiar to me. In the autumn of 2013, I flew across the country to start my freshman year at New York University.
I acclimated to city life quickly. But when I was crammed against other people in a subway car, or searching hopelessly for a free table at a restaurant, I would think longingly of the empty space afforded in a small town. When the New York City winter set in, I walked to class through 15-degree air and dreamt of the milder California winters, where snow would dust the evergreen trees, but I was rarely inconvenienced by it.
When I returned to California during breaks from school, I reveled in the things that New York lacked. The familiar streets, the sparse population, the air scented with pine sap and dust: coming home felt like slotting the last piece into a puzzle. But not everything in my hometown stayed static in my absence. Businesses opened and closed downtown, a new exit was built on the highway, and my favorite coffee shop changed its hours so I could no longer loiter until 2AM. My relatives moved to different houses, and old neighbors left and new ones replaced them; my high school friends got jobs in other cities and didn’t return home. It was jarring to come back and find things that were unfamiliar, or to have lost things central to my childhood memories. This place was home, and it didn’t feel fair that home could just go and change on me.
But I was changing, too. I was forming memories in another place, learning and growing as a person while I went to school across the country. I was taking the things that I did in New York – books I read, classes I took, people I met – and carrying them with me.
After spending three and a half years in Manhattan, I left once again, and returned home. Weeks before the end of my final semester, my mother fell ill and was hospitalized. I was leaving behind the life that I had built in New York, but I went home, because it was where I needed to be. My roommates that semester were some of my closest friends. Our shared dormitory told the story of us as individuals – my photos from writing camp and Van Gogh prints, Angelyn’s boy band merch, Megan’s various Batman paraphernalia, Jainita’s Hamilton mug, Avani’s posters of Friends and Parks and Recreation. We had covered our walls with evidence of our friendship, flyers and maps and souvenirs from places we’d been together. The dorm had been the setting for so many stories, both our own, and the ones that we loved together. It was there that we’d watched the Jonas Brothers concert movie while drinking cheap beer, where we debated whether the conclusion to Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle delivered on the promises of the series, where we lauded A Song of Ice and Fire and complained about the TV adaptation. On the kitchen table we laid out tarot cards for one another and tried to string together the disparate meanings into a cohesive narrative, weaving the cards into the stories of our lives, looking to plot out the future.
I remained in my childhood home to help my family while my mom recovered. For the first time in years, I really lived in my hometown, instead of just visiting during a school break. After five months back in California, I returned to New York to attend my graduation ceremonies. I took a red-eye from Sacramento to JFK, and rode the A train to Canal Street. As I exited to the street, I recognized the pharmacy in front of me. I knew that Church Street was a block to my left, that the Walgreens where I used to shop was two blocks away, that I was back in familiar territory. I had just left the town where I’d grown up and flown across the country, but upon arrival I was somehow home, again.
The New York I returned to was strikingly similar to the one I’d left. There was still construction work happening on Washington Place. The elementary school in Chinatown where I’d worked as a tutor was still in session. At one point I had to go to the office of the Dean to pick up a certificate. When I walked into the Silver building, the home of the College of Arts and Sciences, I flashed my purple student ID at the security officer by the entrance. He smiled at me, allowing me in. As though I were still an enrolled student, as though I belonged – as though nothing had changed.
But, of course, some things had changed. My old dormitory bedroom was now occupied by two complete strangers. The walls in the common area were less colorful, missing the decorations that had belonged to me and Megan, since the two of us had graduated. I didn’t belong there anymore, not really. My housing contract had ended, so Room 411 wasn’t my home. The older version of it – where I’d lived and made memories, where I had found a home – didn’t exist anymore.
I stayed in Megan’s new apartment. I’d known Megan since freshman orientation, and we’d lived together for four semesters throughout college. It was strange to be in her studio apartment, scattered with objects that we had once shared. It was an odd sort of déjà vu to open her new cabinets and see the dishes that I’d eaten my meals off of for two years. The reusable Keurig cup, made of purple plastic, was something I’d bought at Bed Bath and Beyond our sophomore year so we could save money on coffee. Many of her books that filled shelves and lined windowsills had familiar spines. Cassandra Clare’s novels had always had a place in the dorm rooms she had occupied over the years, Clare’s stories of a supernatural New York ones that Megan and I had both read long before moving to the city. American Psycho and A Midsummer Night’s Dream had been assigned reading in classes we’d taken together. She had bought Meg Cabot’s Mediator series on my recommendation. All of these familiar objects were interspersed with new things – furniture purchased or brought from her parents’ house, items that she’d never needed while living in university housing. This tiny apartment in Harlem was a dizzying combination of memory and alienation. I found myself among Megan’s things, but also saw evidence of how individual her life was now, living across the country from me, roommate-less.
“Home is the setting of the stories you imbibed.”
The objects that Megan and I had shared were part of what had made a place home to me. My memories were filled with these practical items, the familiar curtains and saucepans. And more importantly, I remembered the cultural things: our books and movies, the classes we’d taken together, the stories we’d written and read while living in the same place. These were what had built our home, just as much as the walls and floors of our dorm rooms.
The two weeks that I spent back in New York were a mixture of the familiar and the unknown. Some of the places I had known and loved were different. In coming back after a long absence, I realized just how comfortable I could be in these places of my memory – but also how they had been reshaped, how they no longer belonged to me once I left them behind.
Home is a confluence of stories – it’s where your memories overlap with a physical place. Home is the setting of the stories you imbibed, the people you surrounded yourself with, the events which made you the person you are today. It isn’t a place in the present, but a location that holds the echoes of your experiences. I can no longer say where my home is in any simple way, because I’ve got that feeling for more than one place, now. My homes are multiple, split, spread across the country. My homes live in rooms illuminated by fairy lights where I laughed at Jupiter Ascending with my friends, and in the living room nook where my mother read Harry Potter to me. Rooms that don’t necessarily exist anymore, except in my memory. My homes are where the exterior world reflects my past, and I expect I’ll make new homes yet. •
All photos taken and provided by the author.
Jenna Remley graduated from NYU, where she studied literature, creative writing, and linguistics. She’s been writing stories for as long as she can remember. She loves learning odd facts, visiting new places, and pomegranate lip balm. You can find her on Twitter.