When I came home after a 10-week trip, my apartment was warm and clean and bright, with the feeling of fullness that comes from being inhabited. I was met at the door by the man who had lived in it while I was gone and who left soon after I arrived. With his departure, suddenly my place felt like a hotel room, no longer someone else’s but not mine either.
My books were on their shelves, the kitchen still had glasses and plates in their accustomed spots, the towels were the colors I had chosen, but it all felt weirdly unfamiliar. Although in some ways I felt as though I’d never left, the strongest sense of place that came to me was that I was just a temporary tenant who needed to be careful of the furnishings and appurtenances because they really belonged to somebody else.
This gave my first couple of weeks back a hollowness. The comfort of a furnished apartment was delightful, reading on a sofa instead of on a narrow bed, propped up by lumpy pillows, waking up in a bedroom and moving into another room for coffee, and having enough coat hangers was pure luxury after spending 80 days in the surroundings of a traveler. But this all felt tenuous, as though I were the apartment-sitter and my friend who had lived here in my absence would be back to claim his turf.
I unpacked my suitcases but I didn’t unpack my apartment. I had cleared out spaces for my friend to use while he was here and there was a closet carelessly jammed full of a random collection of stuff. When I peered into it, it looked like the private domain of a hoarder and I quickly closed the door.
There were things I had tucked away into spots that I couldn’t remember now, like my library card. For some reason that I couldn’t identify, I was reluctant to look for it.
Into my third week of this unsettling form of jet lag, I was slapped hard by a cold and my life shrunk to the size of a Kleenex box. Nothing was interesting, not the books I was longing to read, or the movies that had been sent by Netflix, or the beginning of baseball season. I sat and blew my nose and drank coffee that tasted so flavorless that it might just as well have been Nescafe. But when it finally ebbed away, I was back in full possession of my space and the things that filled it.
Things I’d been given, things I had chosen, things I touched and used every day had regained the resonance of my history. I’m not a domestic woman and through the years I’ve given away several households full of furniture and possessions, paring my life down to two suitcases over and over again. I know that feeling of impermanence, of temporary tenancy, is all too real, on many levels. And yet the colors of the things that fill my apartment, the memories that stand behind them, give my daily life a dimension that it lacks when I travel. I suppose I might as well call it home.