Between the Lines / You can't come home again
Published 3:44 pm, Tuesday, October 19, 2010
The funny thing about time as you get older is that it becomes less substantial in a way. Decades dissolve into a few memories and years seem to merge into one. Time seems like a very ethereal notion then. We either don't believe what the past has to tell us, or we realize that the past is ongoing and forever present. You step into the river and the water flows on.
Forty-three years ago I left home as a freshman for the University of Hartford. Memories of whatever happened and didn't happen there decades ago still linger in my imagination. More than a few writers have told us that life is a dream.
Was I ever that young? Was I really that naïve? Why didn't I say this or that? Why did I say what I said? What drove me on? What held me back? How did my carefree childhood become such an awkward adolescence?
If nothing else, the passing years give us a certain perspective and hopefully a bit of wisdom. Life can't be changed or improved upon. We must deal with where we are at the moment. Our perspective is always limited by uncertainty and our own human nature. We really do see through a glass darkly.
Looking back, I realize now that I was simply growing up -- separating from my twin and leaving the family home. What was difficult for me then only seems natural now. My father told me that I couldn't come home until Thanksgiving. In those first weeks of school I couldn't imagine being away from my family that long. I looked forward to Mother's chatty letters and relished every detail in the my brother Brian's letters about his days at Sacred Heart University. He was fitting in, making friends, enjoying the college experience, but I wasn't yet.
I recalled my mother's gentle nature and the thousand nights I spent with my father at the gym. I remembered the beautiful sunrises and sunsets from our bedroom window on Old Town Road. In my mind's eye, I saw the faces of my friends and thought I heard their voices in the halls. But they weren't there. Instead there was a sea of strangers around me. The Hartford earth was red instead of dark brown; the skyline was severe and the trees were bare; even the winds were piercing and cold. I walked back and forth from class talking to myself about the subjects I was learning. I mulled over all the many ideas and was tangled up in thought and different sensations. The brand-new me was slowly emerging like a snake sloughing off its skin.
I was delighted that gray November day when my cousin, Sherry, and her boyfriend, Bill, pulled up in her Opel, tooted the horn, and threw open the back door for me. Thanksgiving had come at last! Bill was a student at UConn and Sherry went to Southern. Their lives seemed like everything mine wasn't at that point. They had a close, intimate relationship and they were going places together and having fun. Sherry was independent with her own little car and was planning on seeing her friends over the holiday. I had four days at home before they picked me up again and we all headed back to class.
But my visit wasn't as happy as I thought it would be. I felt strange around my family in a way I never had before. The house seemed to have shrunk and the dining table was crowded with kids staring at me. Most surprising of all was that my father had asked my mother to cook a steak for me. That just wasn't done in our house. I sat there looking at the big hunk of meat on my plate and my throat closed right up. I wanted to tell them that I didn't deserve anything special. I was doing well in my classes but my athletic career was kaput and my social life wasn't all that great.
They wanted to hear all my stories, but I had nothing to say. I found myself unusually polite and stiff around them. I made small talk about the cafeteria and the Hartford weather, but my voice sounded hollow. At my special homecoming dinner I suddenly realized I could never really come home again. My father studied me with cautious pride. He tried to encourage me to buck up and carry on but I was already past that. My basketball days were over, and we were losing the very thing that bound us so closely together as father and son.
After dinner I helped Mother clear the table and volunteered to do the dishes. The weekend passed quickly, but not the feeling that I didn't quite belong in my old house any more. I was a little sad but also relieved to see Sherry and Bill on Sunday for the ride back to school. It got dark early and the ride on the interstate was bright with lights and then a pitch black abyss. My dorm room was my own little world now and I would have my books and my schedule to anchor me. I was caught somewhere between the old and the new.
We stopped at a Hartford deli for a meatball grinder. The melted cheese and warm tomato sauce tasted wonderful and I wolfed it down. We made jokes and laughed easily together. I closed the car door and watched the two of them speed off to the Storrs campus. It was just me again, and I was beginning to think I might be okay.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.