It hit me while I was waiting at the arrivals gate at O’Hare. My suitcase with the broken wheel was parked next to me, and my arms were folded as I stood in the middle of the throng, glowering as I was looking for my dad. All sorts of people were around me, skirting around my banged up carry-on to throw themselves into hugs, some holding balloons, some ready with open arms, most of them with smiles they couldn’t control as “hello” finally replaced their “goodbye.”
And all I could think about was how I had dirty shoes.
I had dirty, dusty, rough-looking boots. I scuffed the toe across the floor as I stared at them. They looked so out of place. They walked the narrow cobblestone streets of Spain, propped themselves on the fold out chairs of Prague’s cafes, stubbornly tromped through puddles in Scotland’s highlands and were champs on sticky dance floors in Eastern Europe.
And it was all going to be buffed and polished away in a few day’s time.
I was back home.
Just then my dad made his way through the crowd, smiling and waving excitedly, rushing over to grab the handle of my suitcase. And in that moment, I felt pure panic. Seizing up, I looked around wildly, thinking how it wasn’t too late to just bolt the other way and buy a standby ticket out of here. To anywhere. Just out. It wasn’t too late.
Ignoring the manic look in my eye, he picked me up in a big bear hug and dropped us into the usual airport shpiel. “Hi,” he said. “Mhm,” I answered, keeping the gulp in.
My trip was officially over. And these are all the feels I felt as my passport was taken out of my wallet for the last time.
1. It Feels Like You Never Left
I’ve dreamed about coming home every time I had to stand underneath the trickle of a cold hostel shower, every time I smacked my head on the slats of the top bunk when I woke up, every time I had to make — yet again — another bowl of over-cooked pasta carbonara because #poverty.
But dismay was what I felt when I walked into my house for the first time in six months. My brother hung a welcome home sign in the living room that said “hey” in small letters in the middle of a large poster board, but other than that everything else was the same. My mom began talking about the grocery coupons she found in the newspaper, my friends texted me asking about brunch that Sunday like I hadn’t been gone for half a year, and I immediately turned on “The Simpsons” when I plopped down on the couch, quietly echoing Homer’s “d’oh”s as I sat there darkly.
It was like I never left at all. I was back in Suburbia USA. The rest was behind me.
2. You Feel Changed, But No One Will Let You Be
My favorite part of arriving in a hostel was that moment when I struggled through the dorm door, wrestling my suitcase in as I threw out a distracted “hi” to those hanging off of top bunks and sitting criss-cross on the floor. And as I parked my luggage by the foot of my bed and began to unwind my scarf, the questions would come: How long have you been traveling? What did you see? Did you try the hot chocolate in Madrid? I made out with that same guy in Berlin!
And before you even got your shoes off you’d be talking about the people you’ve met, the way you felt eating a corn beef sandwich on a wall with more centuries than you have fingers, and how getting your cigarettes pick-pocketed in Prague changed you.
But back at home? No one wants to hear what you were doing while they were stuck at work filing. Everyone saw your Instagram photos, your stories feel more braggy than personal and you get neatly boxed back into the old outline of the person you were before you bought your ticket out.