“If we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,” why should we not look forward to the arrival?” – C.S. Lewis
I’m coming home. I’ve heard it said that home is where your heart is, but returning home is often bittersweet. My recent return from Hawaii struck up a kind of anxiety in me. When I return from vacations I’m shocked to realize that most things have remained in the way I left them. I’m surprised to find my car parked in the lot at the end of our street in preparation for my family’s nine day absence, rather than along the street in front of our house. Entering my room and finding that my shorts lie still folded on my bed where I left them and three shirts are still thrown across a stool from the last-minute decision to discard them from my over-packed suitcase. It’s as if my expectation is that one of the stuffed lambs on my bed will come to life or a garden gnome would run around my room for a week cleaning while I’m gone. . .but instead it remains untouched. Unchanged by my absence and waiting for my return. Can it be that as I have spent the past week snorkeling at the beach, dining at fancy restaurants, and hiking through volcano craters, that everything else back home has remained the same?
And airports! They’re filled with excitement and boredom, rushing and waiting, beginnings and endings. Airports are an odd sort of purgatory as our bodies float in a jet-lagged lull while our minds surge with anticipation for that long-awaited vacation or venturing to a new place to call home. Every airport is strange and tilted. They’re fascinating and technicolor, filled with culture and an air of escape. Airports smell of Chinese takeout and the bare minimum of the fried grit that Burger King can put on its menu and call “food”. Airports are sterile, but dirty. They are laced with a sort of surrealism that floats through people lined up at 5am for a quick Starbuck’s Coffee and piece of cinnamon bread before their next flight. Crowds of twenty + people stand waiting, checking their watch as the hands tick and tock closer to their flight time. Families run quickly through the throngs, pushing people aside, their kids desperately trying to keep up while dragging Spiderman or Miley Cyrus roller carry-ons behind them. Their excitement has stirred up the peaceful fog of half-asleep west coasters in LAX.
Airports like LAX, Dallas, or Chicago O’Hare have plenty of touristy type souvenir shops where one can find all the right spirit wear for the city. Grey t-shirts popping with bright red and navy blue letters, ‘Chicago Bulls’ or ‘Texas: The Lone Star State”. It seems rather transparent to say that I have been to Dallas, Texas. I haven’t. Sure, I’ve had many a layover crammed in a corner of the Dallas Airport food court and stretched along the high windows at my gate while napping in the sun as jets carry passengers in and out. I’ve even been bumped off a 9 pm flight from Dallas to Cincinnati and was forced to stay in a tiny Holiday Inn Express five minutes outside of the airport. I still have never been to Dallas, Texas. I haven’t felt their culture, I haven’t explored their world. I’ve only felt the air of a month-long drought, heavy with humidity which ironically broke the moment we stepped from our shuttle to the hotel parking lot. The ran rising steam from the still scorched black top. I’ve seen white tile hotel bathrooms and other motel signs illuminating the night. The daytime looked no different from Ohio. Being in an airport doesn’t count for being in a city, just as purgatory couldn’t count as being in heaven or otherwise. These brief footprints I leave in these places I can’t claim leave a hollow circle in my thirst for exploration and understanding. An empty feeling of never darkening this doorway again.
Airports are uncomfortable. Like that time when I sat at some gate, in some airport, in some city, in some state far away from home. I sat reading, but something gray and bundled on the ground caught my eye. It was no more than ten feet away and there was a white bundle two feet behind it. I followed the trail forward and saw a roughly thirty year old tan man walking quickly away from the exit of the airplane he had just departed from. The carry-on he pulled behind him was unzipped and dropping tightie-whities, socks, and t-shirts as he went. There were shouts of “Sir! Sir! Your. . . uh, bag! It’s unzipped. . . and there’s clothes. . .and. . .” and then there’s the embarrassment and that awful blush of shame as the man turns back to pick up the clothing and zip them in his bag with a fluster of hands and the realization that we have now all seen his underwear. We know he is a “Tightie-Whitie” guy and not a “Boxers” kind of guy. He’s aware of the weight that realization could hold. Because every move you make in an airport is under a microscope. As we walk about, we are aware of the colorful cultures of all those surrounding us. People from all different backgrounds, different walks of life, different tastes, different economic classes, different political parties, different religions. . . all united by one thing: our humane lack of mobility. We all must enter an airport as we would enter a fork in the road. We all must cross the path which leads to another to bring us to our final destination. The destinations are what define us and force us back to our differences. Away from the awkward scrutiny of imposed interaction with these strange people who are so inherently different from oneself. As if this is a tragedy, but I’ve seen with my eyes the way my own mother may look at a tattooed guy with dreads from California. We’ve most likely all been there or in a cramped chair during a four-hour layover in some city far from wherever we call “home”. We just require a similar route, no matter where point B or point Z is.We’ve all been that passenger on a long flight who got the seat next to the lady who constantly struck up conversation despite the book you had your face buried in or the man who slept quietly to your right, but every time he yawned you were blasted with hot, stale breath. The kind of air pollution that can make one feel stuck just under the water’s surface trying to breach into the fresh oxygen just inches away, just out of reach. Six hours with a man and 14 pieces of gum in a pack I had just bought at one of the Hudson News stores. Needless to say I considered it constantly, but never offered him a piece.
I’ve even felt apprehension from my 5 foot 3 frame sitting next to the 6 foot 5 woman of the Sparks Basketball Team on a flight to Chicago out of LAX. I’ve felt that disconnect, that inability to relate. We leave our bubbles of “home” and are forced to realize that there are things out there that don’t exist in our day to day lives. Returning to that familiarity can shock me so bad that I simply want to run from all I’ve known. I want to be comforted by the unfamiliar, I want to know or at least understand all these different ways of living.
On my triple flight home from Hawaii this past Monday night/Tuesday day (the time overlap was so bad I still can’t keep it straight) I saw three people I had seen at some airport on some other travels at another point in time. I could not remember where or when I had seen them, but their faces. Their faces registered and I instinctively thought, “Wait. . . I know you!” The woman with the curly hair. . .but that’s all I could remember. Just a face and some features, but she may have well still been a stranger. Everyone in an airport is a stranger essentially. Nobody truly expects to see each other again and when you do it’s just too strange. I had given up on seeing that woman again before I had even glanced at her face the first time. I have this odd way of accepting airports and airplanes, because to be honest, they depress me. All this empty interaction with so many people whom I’ll never have any reason to see again. Airports are one of the most genuine and most diverse places to find oneself in. Yet we can’t appreciate that fact, because of the fact that quickly follows: these people will always remain strangers. Unless we happen to be flying to the same “home”. We keep each other at a stranger’s distance, because we’re tired and jet-lagged, we’re homesick, we’re fearful of an inability to relate to these other people, we’re bored by all the unfamiliar, or we’re so fascinated that to come face to face with mystery and then to just as quickly part with it becomes more painful than shifting in one’s seat due to an unsatisfied attempt at getting comfortable [shouldn’t every airplane provide pillows? The tickets aren’t cheap and the seats are certainly not for sleeping].
After 24 hours of no sleep except for cat naps on some of the flights we took that day, we finally turn onto our modest suburban street. All the cloned white townhouses lined up, all the green trees and gardens pop vibrantly off the bleach of the wood paneling. The landscape is greener than I remember, be it because of the rainfall Cincinnati got while we were away or perhaps because the tropics are vibrant in a different ways. Every aerial view of Ohio I’ve had from flights home have been greener than it seemed on a flight away from there. Our eyes lose the ability to filter through these more intense colors. It’s as if the longer our eyes take in one place, the more the color dulls to a gray-scale.
As we near our house, Teddy [my twelve-year-old brother] shouts, “Steve! Steve! [our stepfather] Your car is there!”
And we all laugh through our fog of sleep deprivation.
“Yes, Teddy. It’s still there. But where would it have went?” Steve asked.
“Oh. . . I don’t know. . .” Teddy seems a bit awestruck by that realization that we all have eventually. That pang for all we’ve left behind here or where we’re returning from. The realization that our familiarity is all too familiar. That this place doesn’t change enough and we’re no longer homesick, but sick of home. Or rather, he had just realized that he missed home more than he realized.
Walking in the front door of our house, I had to drag my carry-on up the front steps and through the threshold with two hands due to my lack of energy. When we got inside I think we were all hit with the potency. The strong, delicious stench of “home”. After ten days we could appreciate the smell of our life, of our family. It always hits me in the face when I return from trips, because I forget to brace myself for it. I forget to remind myself it will be there waiting to slam me back to reality and away from wherever I had been. Our home always smells of new house and a summer cottage. It is a warm and comforting smell. It makes me smile and my eyes sting with the slightest pull of moisture. I don’t cry, but I’m struck by what I had forgotten to love. After unpacking I realized I was famished, because the salad I got at the O’Hare airport [which cost $10 for a bowl of mostly lettuce and a few toppings] was long gone and my stomach was growling and turning in on itself. Excitement coursed through me as I pulled a jar of my favorite peanut butter [the kind that has to be kept in the refrigerator so that the oil and peanut butter don’t separate] from the pantry and a the box of Go Lean! Crunch granola cereal. The only thing missing from our otherwise empty refrigerator was Dannon Oikos Greek Yogurt. I’m vegetarian and tend to love and crave some strange foods that one can’t really find on vacation. I realized that all natural Kroger peanut butter was perhaps what I missed most about home. The simplicity of it brought a bubble of laughter to my chest.
“What is that smell?! Mom, why does it smell so different?!” Teddy and Grace ask just as their feet touch the foyer of the house.
“It’s the smell of our home! You just can’t smell it when you’re here all the time,” My mother laughs as she replies.
The smell of home used to disturb me when I was their age. I returned to our old suburban home back then. It was larger, older, and in an entirely separate neighborhood, but it smelled exactly the same. The smell was most potent after trips longer than three days. It jolted me back to this world and made the house hollow and strange. I would breathe it in and out, all through the night we got back. It’s scent would push me back to the place we had come from and I longed to escape back to it. But I was forced to view it as a face in the airport, familiar but then quickly made a stranger again. The place became a type of cloud nine which no longer existed if I could not see it or sit on it.
If I could not be sure that the tides were still pulled in and out by the moon, then perhaps I had never even been there at all.