I wrote this piece for a project that ended up falling through. But I’m proud of it nonetheless, and it is perhaps poignant that I am posting it just a week away from leaving for New York yet again.
I breathe differently, here. It feels heavier at first – a momentary burden on my lungs, stunned by the sudden intake, not so much of heat, but of airborne moisture after months of dryness and dust. It takes a few deep breaths for them to remember that this defined their existence for about twenty years.
I knew, of course, that it wasn’t freshness in the air. It wasn’t crisp or filled with sunshine (there was a morning monsoon coming). It couldn’t have been fresh air, anyway; that doesn’t belong in a grid of painted concrete dividing the cars that were all waiting to leave with more passengers than they had come with. I assume it would be more romantic if one could still step off the plane onto the runway. I could have stood there as cinematically as one could manage after a twenty-two hour flight, closing my eyes with a smile on my face as I drank everything in through my nose.
In reality, even after half an hour of technically being in the country, it hadn’t been physically proven to me that I was home. The airport was familiar, maybe even too familiar, but it could only offer the conditioned air of hospitality within its hundreds of thousands of transitional square feet (aside: I remember that I get to use metres and centimetres now, spelled with Es coming after Rs and not vice versa).
Nonetheless, there was something about the non-eventfulness of it hitting me in the middle of a conversation with my parents while I pushed a cart of bags that contained all the things I had predicted I would need for the next few months. Whatever the air had been pregnant with, there was something nice about having gravity in my chest again. The weight of breathing somehow made this homecoming real – grounded.
Something about my room smelled vacant, though it hadn’t been empty by any means. When I opened the door, everything was just how I left it, everything that I had tried not to see the need to bring over. My mother must have been in there recently to clean it in anticipation of my arrival. But it was almost as if I was apartment hunting again, and I had been shown a place that had been a shell for quite some time, waiting to fulfill its purpose as a point to which one could return. The room itself wasn’t alien, but the smell reminded me of something still, maybe even stagnant, though not in an unpleasant way. It was objectively stagnant.
I’m not sure what I expected; I hadn’t lived in it for eight months, after all. It wasn’t upsetting, but it was… disconcerting. It was more disconcerting that I noticed the difference than that it was different at all. I stopped noticing after a few hours.
In the past few months, while I was back there, I had been bothered by the noises outside my window. I lived facing the street, and every weekday morning it was four lanes of blaring buses and thundering trucks and honking cabs (very few cars – everyone walks or takes the subway in the city where roads insistently form its skeleton). I wasn’t sure why it was affecting me so badly; at one point, I believed that it must have been the seclusion of my room here from anything that ran on petrol.
I visited my grandma the day I came home. Her block of flats was built practically beside the expressway. I never noticed how loud it was until then – it was always something hidden behind a row of trees – but I noticed it this time. The noise of traffic must have been louder and more constant than what I had experienced back there, and I wondered why this fact had eluded me all this time.
Considering that I am much more well-versed in temporary forgetting these days, I suspect that these incidents are some visceral manifestations of homesickness.
It’s 3.30 a.m., and I am starting to identify a pattern in my jet lag. I spend practically an entire day on the plane, and only manage to sleep three or four hours, interrupted by served meals and several movies. I arrive in the morning, but by noon my head is unable to resist the temptation of a pillow. I manage to wake up in time for dinner, and I force myself to sleep at 2 or 3 a.m., knowing that I will wake around the time the sun comes up (I wish it had been this easy to wake up at this time when I needed to be at school at 7.30 a.m. every morning). For the rest of the second day home, I am under the false impression that I have overcome the effects of Earth’s rotation around its own axis. That impression is dismantled by the evening, when I find my head on my pillow yet again.
It’s 3.30 a.m., and I think about how I even have the opportunity to identify a pattern in my jet lag. On the bright side, at least I have a legitimate reason to be an insomniac.
It was around this time a week ago – well, I guess it would have been 3.30 p.m. here, but it was 3.30 a.m. there – that I found myself sitting in front of my bookshelf, flanked by two suitcases. I was contemplating, with a slight hysteria, the many factors that would determine which of my books I should bring home:
- how heavy each book was (paperbacks only, and certainly not the gargantuan, illustrated-internal-organ-filled Atlas of Human Anatomy and Surgery which I had bought on a whim);
- how long it had been since I had bought the books that I hadn’t read (the two unread David Mitchells have been sitting in my to-read pile for one-and-a-half years);
- the probability of being able to finish each book over summer (maybe I should take the shorter ones, or the Borges, considering my recent fascination with his Collected Fictions);
- how willing I would be to leave the book behind if I did finish it (novels – or that strange book by Pierre Bayard that challenged the legitimacy of Sherlock Holmes – would be easier to part with than any academic texts that I could potentially need for school);
- if I had already read the book, the necessity of it accompanying me home (I decided with much effort not to bring home any books that I had already read, but remembered a day later that one of my summer projects required the presence of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse).
Quite painfully, I settled on a few books on which I could subsist. I was genuinely afraid of making the wrong decision, of regretting my choices. I felt a separation anxiety arising in me at the thought of being half a world away from these objects, these what-ifs that formed half a life. I thought, or tried not to think, about how I would eventually have to lug home that Atlas of Human Anatomy and Surgery, which I had bought online specifically because I was not going to walk 9 street blocks and 5 avenues with that weighing on my arm.
I was overwhelmed by the duality of my existence (I am not well-trained as a nomad).