Finding a Home

My sophomore spring and summer were essentially nine consecutive months of what felt like dress-up. This table-waiting, trail-running young adult had her very first desk job, in a real office suite complete with a copy machine named Marilyn and an industrial-sized Keurig. From January straight through August I shared that office and a pink-collar lifestyle with three other students. When I arrived on my first day of work I bounded into the windowless room so excited to claim my corner desk, my desktop computer, my cushy swirly chair. I wasted no time settling in. A colorful ceramic mug here, a nostalgic photograph there; my desk was a home that year.

I’ve got a feeling that for many college students, their connection to their campus is a similar kind of love affair. So far removed from the towns we grew up in and years away from any kind of permanence, we latch on to the places we feel at home. The dorm I live in becomes my dorm. The nook in the library I like becomes my nook. And the office we once worked in for nine months becomes our office. The sense of community, however temporary, is something that we constantly seek out. It’s something we encourage one another to do, and it goes beyond the physical spaces we claim. We forge friendships and build community on the fly, when there’s a void to be filled and a loneliness to satisfy.

That office was host to a year of maturation and professional development that shaped the rest of my college career, but was I entitled to call it home? Sure, I wore flats instead of flip-flops and conservatively-cut dresses instead denim shorts. I left my repertoire of swear words at home and developed a “phone voice.” So what if I didn’t own a single pair of slacks and never remembered the password to the copy machine? The office forgave these trespasses against its revered nine-to-five culture and made these little exceptions for us. Never mind that our time in the office was short-lived and our bosses would replace us when our time was up.

Sure enough, summer ended and so did our contracts. With our rainbow sticky note wallpaper dismantled and our coffee-stained mugs in hand, we trudged out of the office as fully-fledged paraprofessionals so reluctant to surrender the space that had transformed us. We were so unwilling to hand it over, since we felt it had become ours.

Was this our triumph or transgression? Is it wrong to claim ownership of what is temporarily ours, or is it our right to do so? Can I truly call this space my home? At the risk of sounding entitled, I say yes.

I think it’s a wonderful quality in a college campus that students rotate in and out and all find the same sense of comfort in its spaces. As small as and as lonely as it can feel at the worst of times, it is always ready to lend itself out as a temporary home to thousands of students who, like me, are looking for a community to belong to. For me, that little fluorescent-lit office was sort of a halfway-house between aimless academic wandering and adulthood. It gave me a place to hang my nametag up. It gave me a place to call home, even just for a little while.

One of my fondest memories of that office is of a morning just weeks into my employment when I finished a rough exam with time to kill before my next class. I locked myself in the empty office, flicked off the lights, and curled up under my desk for a nap. I curled up with my winter coat softening the carpet-covered concrete floor and my sleeping desktop hard drive whirring away overhead, feeling safe. Perhaps that’s all we can ask for in our tumultuous coming-of-age years: a small corner where, miles away from our childhoods and years away from adulthood, we feel at home.

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Business or Pleasure?

I turn over the stiff sheets. I can smell the detergent on my pillowcase as I reach in the drawer for my glasses, next to the Bible. After 5 minutes of fidgeting with the screws and switches of the light fixture, I throw on some wrinkled clothes out of my suitcase and head out for my most anticipated feast.

I convince myself I deserve bacon and eggs and hashbrowns AND pancakes, because I…well I just deserve it. I imagine each plate, each mini bowl of whipped butter and heavily iced water before I even walk into the restaurant. After the menu exchange with the smiling server, I clutch my coffee and take in the musical stylings of Kenny G.

Every morsel tastes exactly as I predicted, down to the grainy sweet ‘n low packets. After I consume every bite I can convince my stomach to digest, I say my 5 favorite words, “Charge it to the room.”

Hotel restaurants are my aloe vera when my skin is screaming from the tropical sun.

They are my sweatpants when I leave mine at home.

They are my favorite bottle of Pinot Noir when it’s taken at airport security.

They’re the one point of my vacation I can depend on. I’m not a big planner. I like to pick a place, book a room, and see what awaits me. I don’t read guidebooks, and pretty much the only research I do is at weather.com. The brochures I impulsively snatch in the hotel lobby dictate most of my trip. But there is one plan I will always stick to—the hotel restaurant.

They’re almost all named “So-and-So’s Café” or “(Local landmark) Bar & Grille.” The décor is always sensible—with a few Norman Rockwell-esque paintings interspersed between earth-toned wall sconces.  The staff always greets you with a smile, ask where you’re from and share pleasantries about the local flora and fauna.

I finish the Deluxe Sampler for breakfast and promptly enter a whirlwind of kitschy tours and even cheesier souvenirs. I track down a map of the area to window shop, sightsee, caffeinate, and decide on some type of plan for the next few hours.

After a long day of—well I don’t know yet exactly—I feel my feet begging for a couch. I’m always inexplicably tired, either from too much adventure or too little amusement, so French Onion Soup and Chicken Marsala for dinner sounds great. I’ll nod to the fellow guests dining at the same table where they ate breakfast and ask them about their day. I know the house wine will be acceptable, but I know the bartender will make my Mojito just as I please—easy on the ice, heavy on the mint sprigs. It’s the sense of comfort that can only be matched by my kitchen at home.

One Christmas, my family went to visit my brother in London. Little did we know, the UK actually celebrates Christmas, not commercialism, in their homes. After pouring through guidebooks, brochures, and concierges on Christmas Eve, we realized the city shut down on December 25.

With nowhere to turn, I remembered the one restaurant that’s always open—the clean tables, assorted breadbaskets, and soft rock sang to me.

We spent our Christmas in 4 different hotel restaurants. I can still taste the salty scrambled eggs from our first hotel. I remember our waiter’s crinkled nose when I asked him what bread “soldiers” were. The sticky crumb cake still feels pasted on my fingertips during our afternoon pick-me-up location.

I remember watching my mother’s face light up when she read there was spiced wine on the menu at dinnertime. And I’ll never forget playing with my father’s reading glasses after a few gin and tonics.

I’ll never forget those moments, but already the names of each hotel have escaped me. I cannot tell you where we walked to find each grinning server with a nametag with their hometown.  I don’t remember if the restaurant was part of a Hilton or a boutique inn. But to me, none of that matters.

I know each restaurant has menus that are blueprints from each other, but I know I have a haven in every city that I can recall memories from every other trip in the complementary breakfast buffet line.

I know that when I return my apartment, thousands of miles and altitude pressures away, I won’t have a menu to comb over, or a soup of the day to ask about—but I know I have my rock, my hotel eatery to visit when I just can’t cram in anymore spontaneity.

Afraid of the Dark

Everything seems sinister. I’m lying in my bed, heart racing, eyes darting around the shadowy room looking for the thing I know is going to creep up on me. I keep propping myself up to peek at the little sliver of light shining under the door, making sure there are no shadows indicating the arrival of an unwelcome visitor. I keep switching by bedside lamp back on to try and gather myself, thinking I should just try watching TV, letting the sound of other people lull me to sleep. But no, I want my ears free to hear every thump of a downstairs neighbor, every whisper of the wind rustling the trees outside—every sound suddenly amplified to the point where I can hear it clear as day, but muffled just enough that I can’t identify it.

My mind is racing, as if Logic and Paranoia are having a screaming match in my head:

P: What’s that sound?
L: It’s nothing. Go to bed, you need sleep.
P: No really, I heard something.
L: Well of course you heard something: traffic drives by outside your window all night every night and your heater has been making funny noises. Normal home sounds, Erin. Normal home sounds.
P: But this was a different something. Someone’s in the apartment, they’ve got to be. Just out there waiting to sneak in once they can tell I’m asleep…

Clearly, Paranoia is winning.

All the while, I’m a “grown woman” wrapped up in my comfortable bed, in the apartment I’ve lived in for the past six months, in a small building filled with old people and families. It’s the kind of place where packages are left unattended in the lobby for the recipient to pick up, where orphaned socks found in the laundry room are pinned to a corkboard in hopes that their owners will claim them, and where we’ve accidentally left the door unlocked on multiple occasions and never been that worried about it. In any case, I’ve triple locked the door tonight.

I’m also in one of the safest neighborhoods in a city I’ve lived in for almost four years, a city I’m comfortable with, one I’ve never really had a threatening experience in.

The only difference tonight? All of my roommates are gone.

I once had someone tell me that if she ever has kids, she wants them to be just like me because I’m not afraid of anything.

I was flattered—still am—but she was mistaken. I have fears, sometimes disruptive fears. They are the things that lead to restless nights, the things that consume my thoughts and keep me from getting my work done, the things that make me want to just hide under the covers and never come out. They change day to day, hour to hour, but they are always lingering there.

Her mistake is understandable, however. See, she’s only seen me when I have my biggest weapon, the only thing stronger than the fear—my friends. I find my courage in the crowd. In solitude, I tremble. When people I trust aren’t around, fear far too easily consumes me. Even if all other factors remain the same, that one little change flips the switch from knowing that I can make it through whatever comes my way to thinking the worst.

Easy solution, right? Keep my friends close and I’ll be fine. But because I’m an Adult, and because I think of myself as an Independent Woman, I’ve had this nagging feeling that’s it’s time to release my army of friends and companions back to their own lives, to their own battles, and to start facing mine solo. The idea of calling on backup for just about anything these days—let alone for essentially being afraid of the dark—makes me feel ashamed, like I’m the kid calling her mom to pick her up early from the sleepover because she just can’t hold it together any longer.

That week I cave. After three restless nights I decide that I’ll be an Adult the next week, and solicit some friends to stay over in shifts for the next few nights. They don’t question my request or judge me for it—they just come over. We eat, we visit, we laugh and laugh, and I sleep soundly those nights.

It’s starting to dawn on me that maybe, just maybe, I’ve got it all backwards—that the real naïveté here is the idea that, to be an adult, I must go at life alone. The thought that there comes a point in all of our lives where we have to let go of our support networks and only rely on ourselves. And the belief that, unless I do that, I cannot grow stronger.

Sure, things will change as we grow older. The people on the front lines with us may shift from our BFFLs, to our roommates and trusted friends, to our husbands, wives, or partners—or even our cats and dogs. They may go from being in the bed on the other side of the room to across the country, but always just a phone call away. And sure, as we go through life and face bigger and scarier things, we might have to handle the minor ones on our own.

But I think the real courage is the willingness to not only face the fears in our lives, but to point them out to our friends and admit that they’re too big for us to handle alone. It doesn’t make us childish. It doesn’t make us weak. It makes us human.

There’s that feeling again. I’m walking around the streets of New York, preparing for my upcoming move, looking for a new place to call home. Adrenaline is pumping through me, more poison with every step. I’m most certainly not alone—there are people bustling all around me—but since no one is familiar I feel like they’re all against me.

Paranoia is babbling on :

P: What are you doing, Erin? You’ll never feel at home here. It took you so long to build up the friends you have in DC—here you will be alone. Why are you leaving what you know, what you love? You won’t last here, you’re not strong enough. This place is just going to chew you up and spit you back out.

I’m ready to go running back home, back to my cozy bed in my safe apartment surrounded by people I can count on. The sounds around me are overbearing—car horns blaring, the disruptive white noise of engines moving by, people talking louder and louder, joining in Paranoia’s chorus, as if they’re working together to create an orchestra to drown out what Logic has to say. But he steps in, as calm and collected as ever:

L: Erin—just reach out.

So I do. I stop thinking this is something I have to face alone, that people will think less of me if I call in for backup. I text the friend who always comes back with the words I need to hear. I call the one who, without fail, can make me laugh and put me at ease.

It doesn’t solve everything, but it’s just enough to give me the courage to keep moving forward.

Agra, Uttar Pradesh: May, 2012

The train car begins to fall silent. Even the children in the berth next to us, three of them chatty and manic who spent the entire ride hanging off the top bunk, poking each other, giggling—they, too, become quiet. The sun is dimming, and in five minutes we would be almost enclosed in a grey darkness lit from the inside by orange light weakly shining from the fixtures on the ceiling. There is a reverence and a shimmer of apprehension. The passengers are preparing themselves. We roll slowly into the train station.

The streets of Agra have an ominous feeling. The bonfires light up the fronts of the houses strangely and the alleyways are hungry, like they are ready to swallow something. Someone. I see two boys emerge out of an alleyway and a strange feeling of relief flashes through me. It seems that they have escaped some uncertain doom, coming out of that dark, hidden road. Like they were almost a necessary sacrifice. Disturbed, I push the thought out of my mind.

If the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the fifth most populous nation in the world. I watch the train opposite ours stop at a station, the general seating cars just a pyramid of people, still more crowding in, walking on backs and heads. We pass person after person defecating on the tracks. The Agra station is a kaleidoscope of people, more bodies than floor. For the first time we are unnoticed by hawkers, but this brings me no respite from my troubling thoughts.

I was traveling with two of my friends through North India. I had just finished a semester abroad in a small south Indian town, and was concluding my trip in Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I had been through more during this week traveling than during my entire semester abroad. Food poisoning had ransacked my stomach in Mumbai. I had been threatened and followed and catcalled in Jaipur. I had learned how to stare straight ahead and ignore the legless man on the dirty floor of the Jodhpur train station begging for money, for acknowledgement, for someone to meet his eye. I had learned shame, and I was tired of it. So selfishly, I was tired of being barraged with poverty and sickness and sadness, I was tired but I was not done. Agra would be the end, but it would be the most.

When we rolled into the Agra station, it felt like the edge of the world, where a person could fall off so easily, tumbling into black space and no one would ever even notice. That’s what those alleyways felt like, like a magnetic vortex pulling people out into negative nothingness, in order to simply make a little room.

And now it is night, and night is a dangerous time for us. Our rickshaw driver is probably 13 years old; he bargains well, but not too well. He drives crazily, nothing new, but there is an added urgency. Normally I would tell him to slow down, but I don’t think I want him to. I want to get to the hotel we are staying at as soon as possible, so that I can forget the people roaming the streets that don’t seem to have a direction or a purpose.

Our hotel. Though it boasts cleanliness and Internet access, it unsurprisingly lives up to neither claim. Agra, we have read in our guidebooks, has nothing apart from the Taj Mahal. Spend your day there and leave, they say, because you will not want to stay the night. I don’t want to believe my guidebooks. I don’t want to think that this town is nothing but the tourists it attracts. But despite my best efforts, I begin to agree with the Lonely Planet. We find bugs in our beds, mysterious brown stains on our towels. We are here for one night, we reason. We will sleep in our clothes, since we’re planning to get to the Taj Mahal for a dawn viewing. We have arranged with our pubescent cabbie to pick us up at 5:45.

At this moment, I am tired of traveling. A mental exhaustion accompanied by a physical one consumes me, as a knee injury I sustained from being hit by a car a few months earlier continues to get aggravated. I am carrying fifty pounds on my back every other day. I am constantly sweating, never quite clean, never quite rested enough.

It is hard for me to be in Agra at the moment. There is a cynicism inside me that I’m not ready to confront—a nagging fatigue, a jadedness that disgusts me, and so I take myself out of this place. I look ahead instead of inward, ahead to my comfortable house in Chicago. I see Agra through a split lens. One eye sees what it’s meant to see, everything of Agra before it—the people at the train station, the tourists at the Taj, our young driver, the invisible barriers of the night and the sweat—while images of Starbucks and cut off shorts and neat traffic lanes dance in front of the other, a magical western capitalist ballet.

There are stops to make before the plane home from Delhi, though. We came to see the Taj Mahal, and we were going to see it. In the morning we arrive to find that the sun has already come up—maybe. The sky is grey but light. It is the smog of the UP. It envelops us; thick with pollution, it blocks out the sun. We see the Taj in an ambiguous fog, rather than the sunrisen splendor we expected. The sky is still bright, but still grey. I almost feel at home in the haze. It is not what I expected, but not wholly bad either.

I am supposed to be in awe. I know that. But I find that every observation is spoiled with cynicism, morbidity. Instead of reflecting on the beauty of the palatial structure, I’m caught by the shroud of mortality encasing the Taj Mahal. It is a mausoleum, built by a Mughal emperor, born out of grief over the death of his wife. It is the epitome of romance, but it is tainted by death. I see the beauty vaguely, but my mind is moving forward to our train ride out of Agra. I’m frustrated with my hideous apathy, but I can’t make myself stop. I turn away.

Outside the gates of the Taj Mahal things are different. Tourists hurry into rickshaws, walk swiftly past vendors. It is the Agra of the train station, although this time we are not invisible to vendors. Our teenage rickshawalla is nowhere to be found, and is not answering his phone. I am not especially surprised by his unreliability. I am not especially surprised by anything in Agra and this concerns me.

It wasn’t fair. India was beautiful and rich, many times over. The small southern university town where I stayed, the forts of Jaipur, the ruins of Hampi: all of it beautiful. I was simply angry at India, angry at Agra for making me look at myself and see how ugly I could be in the face of difference. It sickened me. I had felt this way throughout my time in India but Agra seemed to shove my face in my own privilege and prejudices, holding my head down in the muck until I could accept it and reason with it. Forcing me to swallow every experience and keep them inside my chest instead of trying to spit them out and turn away, always turning away.

It was only later—maybe while writing this—when I realized how much I took in. The train station, our driver, the long narrow lanes leading into the pristine white Taj Mahal, clouded by the population’s smog. Unable to spit them out, I kept the sights and smells of Agra in my mouth and tried to ignore them for a while, but they made their way down my esophagus anyway. And they were hard to swallow, coated in my prejudice and privilege. I kept them, though, for this. To show you.