This is a guest post by Shannon, who occasionally writes over here.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about what home means.
It has been an odd year with respect to home. The old home base was in Liverpool. It moved last summer, from central New York to central Illinois. New home base feels equal parts familiar and unfamiliar, things I know arranged in a place that I don’t.
Just after my parents moved, or maybe just before, my advisor informed the research group that he had some offers at different establishments. And I'm practically not even blurring the specifics for you, here. Everything about the entire process has been frustratingly vague. And that’s not just frustrating for me, but also for anyone trying to understand my situation.
“So, you’re moving.”
“Probably yes,” I’d say.
“I don’t know,” I’d say.
“I don’t know,” I’d say.
Every question I was asked, I found myself answering with "I don't know." It was miserable, because I was already feeling anxiety about the tenuousness of my situation. Perfectly reasonable curiosity from other people who worked in the building, or from other people ("laypersons") who cared about me, became something dreadful that sank and settled into the pit of my stomach, weighing me down every time I was brought forcibly back to look at the issue: I didn’t know what was going on and I was not in control.
Eventually, we worked out the where (Boston), but not any of the details (When? How?).
Ultimately, it took some seriously proactive behavior to sort everything out. My coworkers, thankfully, are better at being proactive in delicate situations than I am, so Kate worked out an August 1 move date for us – we planned to be roommates in Boston, to solve the problem of the elevated cost of rent.
My boss and I had a conversation that went a little like this.
“Could I possibly move August first? It would be so much easier with regards to my lease, because that’s when it turns over.”
“I think we could probably make that work.”
“Okay. Good. So I am going to Boston this weekend to look at apartments. If I sign a lease, that’s going to be okay?”
“Yes. We can make that happen.”
“So I can make arrangements for my lease here to be filled by someone else?”
“Oh, no, don’t do that. You want to have a plan B.”
The problem, besides the continual sidestepping of questions that desperately needed answers, was that it is not economically feasible to rent two apartments at once on a graduate student stipend. So we took a leap of faith: Kate and I signed a lease for a beautiful, big two bedroom apartment in almost-suburban Boston, complete with full kitchen (and dishwasher!), and I told Yale Housing to go ahead and fill my apartment with someone who is not me.
The reality of the situation refused to sink in, even after the several hiccups we had getting the apartment. First, we didn’t technically make enough in combined income to rent the place (they want rent to be a third of your income, but on our budget and in this city, that just doesn’t happen unless you make some really painful sacrifices). Second, we had to go through a broker to rent an apartment in the Boston area.
This is particularly painful because the broker’s fee is one month’s rent. We had to be prepared to put three or four months’ rent down on the spot. We managed it. I suppose the silver lining is that going through a broker puts a hold on the apartment, so no one else can swoop in and take it out from under you.
We made arrangements to rent the apartment starting July 15, with slightly pro-rated rent for the month of July. Initially we planned to move on August first, but the landlord didn't want to lose a month of rent. We thought it would be fine, because we were looking on June 28, and thought it would be unlikely for him to find tenants who were prepared to move into the apartment in the next three days. We'd move in the weekend of July 26-27. because that was the weekend that Yale Housing wanted me out of my (then) current apartment so that they could clean before the next tenant arrived on August 1.
But then I arrived at work on Monday, June 30th to find Kate frantically printing a copy of the lease. “Something happened,” she said, “Something went wrong. Someone else showed the apartment, and those people want to rent it for July first, so we have to sign this now.”
Something had gone wrong on the broker’s end – the end, if you’ll recall, where we paid her $2,000 to make sure that this did not happen – and the hold hadn’t been placed, or observed, or whatever. So we now had an expedited lease, emailed to us by our broker so we could sign and fax it back.
Turnaround on our end was quick, but we waited days to find out whether or not the landlord had signed.
Eventually we heard: he signed. We had an apartment. We breathed many sighs of relief.
And then I realized I had to pack all of my earthly belongings, and I began to despair. I had too many things, I didn’t know how everything was going to fit, where am I going to get boxes…
One day, Ben made the fortuitous discovery that a lab down the hall had ordered many things that had come in many large boxes. This went a long way toward helping us obtain moving materials.
I took it, very literally, one day at a time. The first couple of days that I tackled the task of getting ready to move, I just went through my clothes. I took the clothes I hadn’t worn in years, the party dresses, and the clothes that just plain didn’t fit anymore, and I put them in a box. That box sat on my floor as I moved as many clothes-to-keep as I could from my closet to my dresser. (I had it on good authority that I should move the dresser with clothes in it to save space – we took the drawers out, and then the dresser itself, and moved it that way.)
It was emotionally taxing even just to put my kitchen implements into a tote, carefully packing breakable items in with towels and t-shirts. There were several days where I only packed one or two boxes and then retired to the bedroom, to stare at the ceiling and wonder if I was going to make it.
I took those carefully folded old clothes to Goodwill, eventually, where a man took them over a counter that seemed like it was just brimming with trash bags stuffed with clothes, and asked me if I wanted a receipt.
“Um, yes?” I said, and he signed a little square of paper and handed it to me. A blank receipt. A you-fill-in-the-blanks. I suppose I could use it as a tax write-off, but I think I might have just lost it in my car.
Kate reserved the UHaul – Ben was moving with us, and we’d split it three ways. The day before we needed to pick it up, UHaul contacted her to let her know that there was some kind of mix-up and the UHaul wouldn’t be in New Haven, as we’d first thought. We could pick it up in Meriden, 24 miles away. For our troubles, they upgraded us from a 17’ truck to a 20’ truck and gave us the extra miles at no extra charge.
It was nice of them to upgrade the truck but I felt that the miles were the absolute least that they could do. We needed those miles because they’d made us drive the truck from Meriden to New Haven, and we hadn’t had that many to spare after our trip from New Haven to Boston.
So, on Saturday morning, we picked up the UHaul. Ben climbed into the driver’s seat, and Kate bought a padlock because we’d be storing all of our things in it overnight, on the street.
We packed Ben first, and it went quickly. He didn’t have very much that had accumulated in his apartment, so it was mainly mattress and box spring, television in the back seat of my car for protection, and a few boxes. Even with his not-completely-packed status (he’d arrived back from vacation the previous day), it only took us about half an hour to move all of his things into the UHaul and then give his apartment a once-over.
Then we moved to my apartment, propping doors open to move everything. I felt panicked as we broke down my bedframe and futon into smaller, more manageable pieces. I’d oscillated between thinking I was fine and thinking that I just had way too much stuff.
As we loaded my things into the truck and I watched it fill up, wondering how we would ever fit all of the furniture at Kate’s place, my anxiety spiked. Everyone was a little bit quieter at my place, worry gnawing at each person, sweat pouring off of us as we marched in and out of the building, in and out of the truck in the humid afternoon.
Finally, all of my things were in the truck and I found myself despairing, looking at it and not believing that there was any way that everything would fit.
By the time we brought the truck to Kate’s apartment, everyone was hot, sweaty, and fairly miserable. Moving out is harder than moving in, by the way. You worry about how to arrange things in the truck, how to fit them, knowing that if you do it wrong the first time, it is going to be an absolute bear to take everything out and play the hugest, most un-fun version of tetris anyone could imagine.
But we needed to finish moving, so we took boxes (one of these was very small, maybe the size of a DVD player, but marked HEAVY and she wasn’t kidding. Later we asked what was in it, and she looked surprised and then said “well, those are hand weights. I did say it was heavy!” and for some reason this was uproariously funny to us), the boys took the couch and mattress, Kate and I moved the dining set that we’d bought from Diane (her old roommate) and Dan (Diane’s husband as of this past June), we moved dressers and end tables and coffee tables…
Somehow, we found ourselves with all of our things in the back of this UHaul and probably 20% of the space remaining. It seemed absolutely miraculous to me, but the truck had been packed efficiently. I guess scientists are good at tetris.
I ran back to my apartment, where I swept and mopped and scrubbed, washed out the fridge and freezer with hot soapy water and reinstalled all of the screens in the windows. I wiped the sweat off of my face with my only very slightly less sweaty forearm, glad for my recent haircut that let me pile my hair on top of my head, and I switched off the air conditioning unit.
I left that apartment empty except for the envelope that I was supposed to drop my keys in, and I headed back to Kate’s.
A bunch of friends from the department converged on Kate's apartment, and we grilled burgers and hot dogs, had chips and hummus and fruit salad. It still didn’t feel real, even knowing that my apartment was as bare as the day I’d first walked into it to see where I’d be living, even knowing that everything I owned was in the UHaul parked out on the street.
In fact, it still wasn’t real until people left, and I climbed into Diane’s bed (she lives with Dan now). I’d never even been in Diane’s room before, and now I felt sort of suffocated by bold orange walls (she didn’t paint them, just didn’t paint over them either) and the white bed in the middle of the room. I tried to arrange the covers on myself, and I lay there, awake.
I sent out a few roaming texts, and received a number of reassuring responses. Mom was particularly good while I lay there, awake and in a panic. I slept poorly in general that night; I woke up every hour and when it was finally morning, I didn’t feel much like I’d slept.
We stopped at Nica’s, our neighborhood… everything? It’s more than a little grocery store, with its hot bar and made to order sandwiches at the back. We ordered breakfast sandwiches. I had bacon, egg, and cheese on a crisp, buttery croissant and a hazelnut coffee, free with the points I’d racked up in previous visits, and we sat quietly around a table outside. I wondered if I’d ever have one again.
I will, you know. I’m going to have to go back to help pack up the lab. I’m hoping that my boss makes some arrangements for overnights if that’s the case. I’d really rather not crash on a futon. But that morning, I wondered if I’d ever have another breakfast sandwich at Nica’s, there in the middle of East Rock where all the graduate students lived.
And then Kate and Ben stopped briefly at work to grab some last things, and I stopped at my apartment to drop off my keys. I pushed the envelope through the little drop box slot, and when it fell from my fingertips, I felt frightened and morose. I can’t get back into my building now, I thought. This is really it. And then I turned my back, hunched my shoulders a little bit, and climbed into my car.
We drove through the rain, from New Haven to Boston, to get to our apartment. At times, the rain was hard enough that I despaired some more. Even knowing that you have a sizable moving crew is not much solace when you think you’ll have to move in a downpour. Luckily, when we arrived, the rain was not much more than a sprinkle.
I retrieved the apartment keys from a lockbox, locked to the railing at the house, and I let myself in. Kate’s sister and her boyfriend were the first arrivals, and immediately helped unload the contents of my car. I’m not sure how much help I was, shell-shocked and moving slowly back and forth, worrying about the slightly muddy footprints being tracked into and onto the hardwood floors of the apartment. Kate and I hadn’t even decided on bedrooms yet.
When she and Ben arrived shortly afterward with the truck, other people trickled in. Laura, a postdoc, Steve and Emma, another postdoc and his girlfriend, visiting from the UK. Clark, a co-worker. Denise, another co-worker, came later. As Ben pulled the truck up to the curb in front of the house, I saw an accident out of the corner of my eye. A car making a left turn onto our street had moved into the path of a bicyclist, and the bicyclist had shattered the car’s rear passenger side window with his body. It sounded awful, and the car immediately stopped, the driver exited, his hands on his head out of desperation. The cyclist didn’t move.
Max ran down to the accident and called 911, while people still moved from the truck to the house, from the truck to the house with grim determination. Emergency vehicles arrived shortly: an ambulance, a police car, probably some others as well. I stayed back. I didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to think about it. Eventually it all faded into the background as our transition marched on.
“So, I was thinking, my bed would probably fit better in the bigger bedroom,” Kate said. It’s a difficult situation all around, this awkward bedroom-settling thing. My bed is only a full. I’m not going to lie, I certainly would have been happy with the bigger bedroom, but I didn’t mind conceding it. It wasn’t worth haggling over, and having the decision made gave me some direction. I started to move my things into the smaller bedroom. In the end, everything fit beautifully (another masterful game of tetris), and the room is small, cozy, and very bright because of its two windows.
It was funny, how fast things came together on this side. Some of our people unpacked us into the kitchen, which makes every cooking or baking project also a scavenger hunt (but really, they made a lot of sense when they did it, so it could be much worse). I put things on shelves, in closets; Denise took our empty boxes with her when she left, for her own move in a month.
The UHaul left the curb outside, and I stayed in the apartment, feeling dizzy and disoriented. I looked at my books, and I looked at my room, I made up my bed and I took a long, lukewarm shower, washing sweat and grime off of my body and out of my hair. I was absolutely tired, down to my bones. Fatigue had tried to set in hours ago and had been brushed off, so it returned now – with a vengeance.
I texted Mom some pictures of the apartment, and then I crawled into bed, only leaving once to get some water. I popped a few Advil tablets and eventually fell asleep.
I woke the next morning knowing exactly where I was. I’m not sure why I knew; I had expected to be disoriented when I thought about what that first morning might be like. There’s something nice about having familiar things around you, though, and I had many familiar things in my room. Rain was pattering against my windowsills, and I checked the clock. It was only 8:45, but I got up anyway, savoring the ache in my muscles. Kate wasn’t home, so I picked up a book and sat on the futon.
A few minutes later, Kate and Ben burst, saturated and dripping, into the apartment with groceries. After they toweled off, we made breakfast: waffles, bacon, and strawberries, and we sat around the kitchen table and ate.
Since then, I seem to have been adjusting to my new surroundings fairly well. I made my very first batch of cinnamon rolls – with a brioche base, and it was the first time I’d ever tried using yeast in a recipe – and they turned out beautifully. We’ve gone down into Cambridge to have lunch with Steve and Emma. Everything is going to be okay.
Everything is going to be okay.
Home. I’m not sure what home is, anymore. Home is where the heart is? Geographically speaking, I have no idea where my heart is, or where it longs to be. The past year has been rough on my bearings, not that I was ever particularly directionally competent to begin with.
The apartment that is the first floor of this house feels closer to home than my old apartment did, empirically speaking. It’s in a location that reminds me a little bit of the suburbs that I grew up in. I don’t have to walk through a dormitory-esque hall to get to my apartment door, and we have a kitchen with plenty of counter space.
It’s just so new, and my old apartment was so familiar, that I feel jarred and sometimes uncomfortable here. Not all of the time, but occasionally, for sure. Nothing quite feels like home anymore, and I suppose nothing will until I finally settle somewhere for the (a?) long(er?) haul.
Still, for the time being, this will do. This will do very nicely.