Home; and other feelings.
It was one of the first words I asked my Italian roommate to translate for me. Agrodolce; bittersweet. He laughed — that’s a little sad, isn’t it? — but told me nonetheless. It got buried beneath all my other requests — vov, spacciatore, accendino, che disagio— frases that flowed into one another endlessly, weaving together the basic outlines of a life, a person, that existed in Milan. The girl I was there, the way my mouth formed the language, everything about myself, existing only in that time. Che pale, I’d groan, dragging my feet into the kitchen after a night of drinking; Bellisima, I’d sing, dancing; Ciao, ciao, I’d call, waving goodbye. My self, my life, in Italian, all there, remembered most in these simple words, these snapshots of moments. I knew Italy would never be my home, but it was for the girl I left there.
Bittersweet is the one feeling that overarches between all the selves I’ve created, in California, in Italy, in Spain, in Jersey, in wherever I have run to and from. Who I was in Italy was different than who I am; in the end, the only thing that remains is bittersweet, palpable to those that barely knew me, a melancholy feeling that surrounds me even in my most performative moments. Always running, searching, finding; a self like clay that adapts to become, me, the one person who I could never be. Bittersweet, like I said: in the process of becoming, I lost who I really am. All I have are vignettes, mannerisms and words that constitute an amalgam of everyone I’ve pretended to be.
At the end of the day, I’d collapse in my bed in Milan, but then I’d remember: this isn’t really home. Eventually, I will leave here. Just as I had left before; just as I had left to come here. Every piece of me that I’ve become will be left here, and this life will be left here, and who I am now will never exist again. Bittersweet, like I said: for every joy comes the pain of knowing that I will leave. I’d slip off this self like unclasping a necklace, lay it in a jewelry box, and return to who I was, before, or who I would be.
In California, home is not where I live but where my father does — this I am certain. It’s a condo in the Silicon Valley that always felt a bit too clean, a bit too empty. My father treads around the apartment like a ghost, coming and going as he needs. That’s home, I guess; a solid point of reference. Three scarcely used rooms, each occupied by the spirit of my younger self, all by her lonesome, dreaming of different worlds. I used to fantasize about running away, slipping off my name like unclasping a necklace, biking up and down the coast of Japan, hoping that in solitude I would become who I really am. But I know myself better than that now — I know that I would become someone that suited the moment, molding myself into the time and space, filling my mouth with words of a different language. I’d bike up and down the coast, alone, with the same thoughts, with the same yearning to be home and never knowing what that means. Inside, that small kernel that exists no matter what — the bittersweet part of me — would endure, but the outside would change, morph, harden, soften, shrink, scab, adapt until I became whoever I needed to be in that moment, in that space. Then I would slip off that self and become someone else.
In Spain, my friend told me: el hogar no es solo un lugar, es un sentimiento que te llevas dentro. Or rather: home is not a place, but a feeling you hold inside. Later, he would tell me that he was just mocking a popular tourism ad.
Does that make it less true, I wondered. I thought of home as a point of reference: in California home is my dad’s house, in Milan home is California, in my dad’s house home is somewhere out there. Is home a place that you long for? Is home the place that you are yourself? Or is home merely the place that you keep coming back to?
In the summer I live alone, a few hours from my dad’s house. On my weekends I sometimes take the train down. He picks me up from the station in the car he taught me how to drive in, listening to NPR, wearing his Porsche hat. Just as he did when I was in high school; just as my brother did when I lived in Jersey. Without thinking I become the self I need to be, I find myself politely asking questions, discussing my future with a detached and serious tone, saying I love you and How are the kids with ease. We drive along the highway, the sun melts down into an orange sky, the trees blur together, never losing their leaves. I stare out the window and watch the streets. Here: the cafe I used to study at. There: my best friend’s house. Across: the liquor store that took my fake. Memories, some of them so far away. I know it didn’t use to feel like this, but I don’t remember what impressed instead.
Now, when I go home it has a different feeling, an aura I can’t explain. The clean surfaces of my father’s kitchen, the hardwood floors, the buzz of traffic. Home — I thought it was where the heart is; and yet in here I haven’t found that. I’ve found only nostalgia, little clippings coming together: the table I used to draw on in high school, my framed graduation photo, my brothers guitars. All of them bittersweet, relics from a life I only half-lived. In these moments I too find myself becoming who I once was; a daughter, obedient, quiet, melancholy. I see endless reminders of a young girl who thought that she could become something; a promise I would never fulfill. I sit at the table and find myself longing, maybe for Italy, maybe for Spain, most likely for home.
My father interrupts me whenever I spend too much time moping; there’s always something that he needs, and it’s best that I don’t ruminate on these thoughts for too long. I leave my room, I set the table, we eat, we chat, we watch TV, I take a hot bath, I wrap myself in fluffy towels, I sleep in a warm bed. It’s comfortable here, and I miss it when I’m gone; but I still yearn for something, somewhere else.