When I think about home, I’m not thinking about the sprawling suburb that contained my last address, although that’s what people are usually asking. I know what they mean, so I say, “Toledo” if they’re American, “Detroit” if I think they’ve visited, and “The U.S., near Canada” if I think they haven’t. I also don’t think about Abu Dhabi, although it’s where I am and where my job and all my friends and all my things are, and I miss it terribly when I am gone. It is my home in all the ways that count, and it’s what I say when old friends ask where I call home these days. It’s not that I’m lying or trying to be vague. It’s not that I dislike either place. It’s just that when I am alone and thinking about home, none of those places come to mind, and I’m not sure I could explain that in the context of first-meeting small-talk.
Athens is my home, and I have complicated feelings about that. Athens, Greece is more magnificent, and Athens, Georgia has better food, but Athens, Ohio is the one I love best. I am suspicious of love at first sight, but this is the closest I’ve ever come. I knew the moment I stepped foot there that I’d never want to leave. No matter that I was there with a boy, wondering if we’d make it if one of us went off to college before the other (we didn’t), or if I’d get offers to attend better schools elsewhere (I did). In the words of Nora Ephron, “I knew the way you know about a good melon.” I knew, and I was terrified.
I was 17, and convinced that all I wanted was to get out, get away as far and as fast as I could. I hated small-town life, hated growing up in a place where there was nothing to do and everybody knew your business. If I’d had my way, and unlimited funds, I’d have fucked off to NYU and never looked back. You couldn’t pay me to pick another small town, much like the one I was leaving. But, circumstances as they were, I was limited to public schools in the state of Ohio, so I resolved to find one as far away as I could.
As it turned out, my resolve didn’t matter much. As soon as I’d parked my car and kissed Nick goodbye, I just stood there, staring. I was aware of the fact that I wasn’t watching him go, even though we’d had the sweetest first love two people could ask for. Instead, I was at the base of a big hill, looking up at an expanse of red-brick buildings with big white columns. It was a Sunday night, and there wasn’t exactly much to look at. But my insides were quiet, in a way that I’d never felt them be before. “This is it,” I heard my insides say. And that was it.
I applied to other schools, mostly to appease my mother. I let both my parents try and convince me that the school down the road with the bigger scholarship package was the better choice. I let my friends needle me about how stupid it was to pick a college just because your boyfriend goes there, unaware that even then I was trying to formulate the words to tell him it was over. I set foot in Athens, and there was never anyplace else I was gonna go.
For the next three years, Athens was the center of my universe. Sure, I could go home or travel on the weekends, but this weird little town full of crunchy-granolas and aging hippies had my whole heart. It welcomed me and nestled me close, and I knew it. I’d spend spare afternoons (when there were any) walking around campus lazily, still carrying my backpack in case somebody asked and I needed a reason to be going somewhere else. I’d sit along the steps of the staircase that flanked the Student Union, abandoned since they installed the only three escalators in the county to make it easier to traverse the enormous hill the building was set in. I’d sit on the roof of my dorm and watch the Hocking roll lazily along below me, overrunning its banks with spring melt. Sometimes, I’d head out to Silver Lake with a novel and a sandwich, staying all afternoon without cracking open either one.
There were more exciting times — it was college, after all, and I’m not a nun. Athens loves nothing more than a good party. But so long as it wasn’t Halloween, the little town was much like every other college town between the coasts. There are boutiques that smell of patchouli and bars that smell of fresh pizza and stale beer, and niche coffeehouses roasting something all mingled together on one not-so-long main street. Even so, this one felt special and different — because it was mine.
As I neared graduation, my heart tumbled over itself at the thought of leaving. Sure I was ready to leave my apartment, all of whose square footage was visible from the front door and whose neighbors included a drug dealer, a meth head, and a small colony of water snakes. I was ready for Florida, for its promise of white sand beaches instead of snow. I was ready for my life to finally begin. But I missed Athens the moment I left her, and I kept my eyes dead-ahead on the empty stretch of 33 as the ground ahead of me flattened out and my beloved home rose up, up, and then away in the rearview.
In the years since then, I get back as often as I can. Athens has welcomed me on impromptu post-breakup roadtrips. It’s been an out-of-the-way stop when I’m on my way to somewhere else, worth the gas and the three extra hours in exchange for an O’Betty’s hot dog and the smell of fall leaves. It’s not the people, although I imagine they are lovely. The college kids there now look like college kids everywhere, that burst of eagerness beaming out from dark-circled eyes. I don’t have many friends there anymore — most all of us moved on to bigger things, or at least bigger places. Bigger, but not better, I don’t think. Every time I fly home, I almost always end up back there, even though it’s inconvenient and my family gives me the side-eye. I don’t blame them. With such short stretches at home, it must seem terribly rude to spend a very valuable weekend of it away from everyone, in a place that’s no longer my home. I try to tell them kindly that the place they live is no longer my home, either.
Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out if the daydreams I have of getting a place on the outskirts of town and trying to make a life there are reasonable ones. Is this really the place I am meant to go, or is it just a romanticized version of this place as I was when I last inhabited it? I don’t think so. Sure, I was younger and more eager then, but Athens also held a fair share of my darkness. And besides, I don’t think that this is just a silly daydream, because I’m not prone to those. I do not only dream of her when the weather is bad, when the sand stings my eyes and it’s so hot that I would beg to be anywhere else, anywhere green, where a light drizzle on exposed skin is even a vague possibility. No, I dream of her even when Abu Dhabi is at its most beautiful, welcoming everyone outside and wrapping them in sunshine while the call to prayer sings. I also know because I do not dream of Athens at her most beautiful, at least not all the time. While the kaleidoscope of fall colors is breathtaking, and it hurts my eyes to think about it for too long, that’s not usually the day I picture in my head when I go back there in my mind. For me, it is spring and damp, the trees on East Green that once radiated color now close in overhead. The uneven brick paths squelch with mud, and it’s chilly enough to require a sweatshirt. There’s a cup of coffee in my hand. Not the fancy stuff from one of the downtown baristas, but a styrofoam takeaway cup with a flimsy lid that whistles when the wind hits it the wrong way.
In this fantasy, I finish up my business on campus and walk across the loamy-smelling green and head back home. I feel the pull in my gut as I crest the bigger hills and wonder if my car will make it. But it does, and I find myself in the driveway of a house. Not a particularly big house, but big enough. It has a front porch and a fireplace that I only really get going when there are guests. But there are always guests in the dream, because I’ve built a writer’s retreat, out here in the sticks. Athens has always been a sanctuary for me, and now it gets to be a place where others find solitude, too. A place to come in from the cold.
That is usually where the dream ends. Whether it’s because that’s actually where the dream ends, or it ends because I’m too scared to take it any further, I don’t know. This isn’t the first time a dream has scared me. When I was younger, I dreamed of travelling the world — which terrified me and those closest to me. But here I am, on the other side of the planet, with as many passport stamps as years. I’ve lived and loved and gotten lost across four continents. I dreamed of being a writer, a dream so scary I couldn’t even write it down. I am less afraid of the page now; not unafraid, but less. I dreamed of wearing big scarves and having fascinating conversations with people from everywhere. The scarves here are muslin and silk, but otherwise, nailed it. Writing is my job, and my own work gets published, if not regularly then at least enthusiastically. I write and write and write and I share that work with other people, and I do not crumble when I do.
Those dreams were big and mighty, the kind of dreams you might expect from a woman whose Mom still calls her Hollywood, the stars in her eyes are so bright. Those dreams scared me then because they felt like too much to ask of the universe. I am happier than I have any right to be. And yet, this daydream scares me because it is so small, so comparatively dwarflike in the face of things like, “go to Harvard” and “see the Great Pyramids”. But the thing is, I’ve done those things. They were exactly as magnificent as I’d imagined them to be. I am no stranger to dreaming big dreams, and having them come true.
By contrast, dreaming this small feels transgressive, taboo even. I’ve spent the better part of a decade building up the life of my dreams, and by all accounts, I have it. I want for nothing, and still she calls me back, this modest fantasy I can’t let go of. Would I really give up all this ladder-climbing, that has given me a reasonable shot at Oxford or Cambridge or London or Paris, to return to Ohio of all places? Would I be throwing away all the work I’ve done to get here, just to turn tail and go back? Is this just idle fantasy, borrowing trouble?
The answer comes, in a wave of stillness that doesn’t surprise me like it used to.
It isn’t quite yes.
But it isn’t quite no, either.