Within the first few months of college, I had turned my shabby freshman dorm into a place I could love. The walls (a puke-brown) were covered with white posters, those posters filled with picture collages of every single high school memory from the day a bird pooped on one of my guy friends during lunch to a post-graduation selfie.
The stiff desk chair (also puke brown) was replaced by a rolling royal blue chair. Stiff military-style mattress covered with Memory Foam mattress topper and matching royal blue sheets. Desk lamp: royal blue. Desk organizer: lime green and royal blue. Curtains: lime. Closet curtains: lime. My half of the room was color-coded, organized, and screamed ‘me’ the second you opened the door. I liked it. (As much as you could like your freshman dorm).
From August to October, I started to enjoy living in that little box. One of my first friends, a San Diego native that lived next door, would come over and pregame on the weekends with me, blasting Flo Rida and taking shots of crappy vodka mixed with lemonade and fruit juice. We’d put on our too-high-for-college-parties heels and dance our little hearts out in that five by five square.
I started to reference my little space as ‘home.’ Let me stop at home to change first. I’ll be home after workouts. Are you going home after dinner?
College became this weird place I learned to love. Even when I returned to my childhood house for breaks, I started to miss my Iowa ‘home’.
The months, and then the years away at school formed me into a much different person than I was when I first packed a mini U-Haul of all my crap for the six and a half hour journey to school. I had learned how to time manage, what classes I loved, how to both work and play, how much sleep I needed before I was a complete bitch, what made me happy, and how to be independent. But I felt the same. I hadn’t realized how much I’d changed. And when I headed home for the first time, I had expected everything to be as it was when I left.
I still remember returning home after my first year of college. I got this strange feeling when I first pulled off the highway. The world was familiar again. I felt peaceful. I turned off my navigation and just coasted, checking out the new building on N Aurora Road, the construction traffic on Route 59, the houses that appeared out of nowhere on the corner street leading into my subdivision. There was this buzz in my stomach, an almost light-headed feeling. I was excited to return to the place I knew: the little grey house with the concrete driveway, big tree with the looking-perch in the front yard, and third grade basketball hoop.
My family had been standing at the front door, my personal greeting committee. They had all looked different—my mom had a new haircut, my sister was wearing eyeliner and had grown at least three inches over the last few months, and my dad’s beard was sprouting a few gray hairs. Even my dog was different, a little plumper around the middle and a new blue and red collar around his neck.
The house had looked weird, felt weird. New furniture and countertops, new decorations, a new toaster (not sure why I noticed this especially, but I still remember. It was strange!) I settled into a seat at the island table and my mom fed me leftovers of her homemade food. I hadn’t realized how much I missed the rich, garlicy spaghetti sauce and meatballs until it was melting on my tongue. I couldn’t stop eating.
The weirdest part was walking into my room, seeing the somewhat-bare walls, the line of childhood trophies on top of the book shelf, the lime sheets and blue and white checkered pillows I’d left behind. It felt comfortable, familiar, but also so different. Even my bed felt foreign.
I settled into my routine at home (which mostly consisted of sleeping in, eating as much of my mom’s cooking as possible, and attempting to be helpful). I met up with my high school friends at night and we exchanged stories of the craziest things we’d done, our favorite memories, and our new friends. It was strange to think that the people I’d loved for the past four years had now made new best friends, new memories. I wanted to squeeze them into big hugs of happiness and jealousy. I wanted to hate them.
Everything at home seemed different. The streets were bigger, the mall was filled with younger, too-much-makeup-wearing kids, the house parties felt foreign and stuffed with unfamiliar faces. My house even smelled different—like cinnamon instead of dryer sheets and lemon.
At first I was angry. Everything had changed while I was away. I couldn’t really feel where I fit. But then I realized I’d changed too, the same, if not more. I had made new hangout places (like the hill by the water tower that had the best view of the stars or the go-to party house). I had starting liking new foods (hummus, which I introduced and got my family hooked on). And I started liking different things (the show Weeds on Netflix, running, and staying out late). It took me a little, but after a while, I found where I fit in my old life. It was like putting on a sneaker from your last soccer season. A little stiff at first, but then comfortable again, fitting snug and safe around your ankle and toes.
As the years went by, I moved into houses at school, then my first apartment, then my first nice, two-story off-campus house. I swapped my posters for photographs, then store-bought frames. I shifted from rolling desk chairs to portable storage seats, a closet full of clothes to…well, a bigger closet full of clothes. My life became more grown up and slightly classier.
I started staying longer shifts in Iowa, taking summer classes and working extra months. Iowa became what I called ‘home’ but my Illinois home would always be home. No matter how many months, how many moves, how long the time or distance, home will always be the place with the fenced in backyard, momma’s whipped mashed potatoes, dad’s Blackhawks memorabilia, and my sister’s pet bunnies. Home will always be the place where I learned to rollerblade, had my first kiss, went to high school football games, met my first best friend. It will always be the town with the school of 4,000 kids, the snow hill on 95th street, and the McDonald’s right outside of the freshman campus. It will always hold my memories, my tears, and my laughs. It will always be my father, mother, sister, dog, and childhood friends. The people I will always love no matter how tall, how many new friends, or how many gray hairs. Different, yet the same. But always home.