A key has a very simple concept: A thin sheet of metal cut into a specific pattern that matches a lock. Each lock is designed for only one pattern to fit. Putting the key into the lock and turning it to either side locks or unlocks it, either protecting what’s behind it or revealing what it protects. Simple. So why is it a concept that boggles me? Why do I turn this one in my hand over and over, until my fingers are raw from tracing the edges? Perhaps the answer isn’t in the key itself, but what it goes to. This one in particular belongs to a room on the third floor of a dorm building. The room at the end of the hall. My room.
My room. My… home?
I’m not sure about home. I don’t know what it is. A place, a feeling… it’s unfamiliar. I’m realizing now that I’ve never known it, but since July of last year, I can’t shake the desire to understand. The house of my childhood – my mother’s house – is no longer available to me, and since then I’ve had to make my home somewhere else. When you wander from place to place, when the pillow under your head is not your own, it’s a hard thought to suppress. Where is it? What is it? Does it matter at all?
How will I know when I’ve found it?
I’m waiting for Alex to say something. I know that he doesn’t know what to say. Although we’ve been waiting for this to happen for years, now that it has, there’s nothing left to say.
“Have you called Zach?” he asks finally. I mumble that I don’t have a phone. He hands me his. “For future reference, this falls under things that girls inform their boyfriends of immediately.” I smile. I can’t help it. Alex is my best friend for just this reason. The situation is far from funny, and he still makes me smile.
I call my Zach and inform him of the news. My mother’s bastard fiancé threw me out of the house, and I wasn’t going back. Yes, I tell him. I mean it. No, my ma won’t convince me otherwise. He was drunk again and we had another fight. Yes, I’m okay. He hit me again. No, it’s alright, nothing’s broken. He told me to go and never come back, that he never wanted to see me again. I’m glad. Screw him and his alcohol. I’d rather be homeless.
Alex takes the phone when I hang up and pulls me close. The tears I’ve been waiting for finally come. He informs me of what we’ve both known for years – that house was never a home in the first place. As only he can, he says the thing I need to hear most.
“You never have to go back. You’re free now.”
It’s been three days and three much longer nights, and all I can think tonight is that couches are so much more comfortable than car seats for sleeping. The digital clock next to the T.V. flashes the time at me: 3:26. I’m thankful they left the back door to the porch and house unlocked. It’s cold, unseasonably so. It doesn’t feel like summer at all. I shiver and huddle deeper into my nest. Warm. I like the warm. I’m quite comfortable on this couch. A part of me feels like I could get used to this. I’ve always felt safe here; it’s the house I usually ran to when I needed a place to hide before. I know they’d keep me, they love me here.
But this is not my couch. And I am not a part of this family. I don’t want to intrude. I resolve to be gone before anyone wakes up in the morning. I’ll stay somewhere else tomorrow night. It occurs to me that if this keeps up, I’m never going to find a place to stay for more than a few hours. Since leaving my mother’s, I haven’t stayed anywhere longer than that. I’m restless and lost, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want to be someone else’s responsibility.
On the porch where my bed is, I wait for something resembling rest. It doesn’t come. Crickets fill my head and I can’t help but get lost in thought again. My mind weaves into a dream-catcher of memories, but this one won’t keep the bad thoughts out. In my head I’m at my mother’s. I don’t want to be there anymore. I’m screaming for my thoughts to escape. Like I did.
I do the math. I’m only seven streets down and two over from where I began. I haven’t gone far enough yet to bleed the poison from the memory. I’m not sure I ever will. My mind moves in circles as the minutes on the clock pass by. My heart starts to panic again; I’m scared because I don’t know where I’m going to be this time tomorrow. I have to work in a few hours. I need to eat something, but I don’t want to take their food. I want a shower but don’t know where to go, not wanting to wake anyone up. I want my Zach to hold me so I hide against his chest. I need my mind to slow down. It starts the circuit of too-fast thoughts over again.
The sun rises through the window as I stare out at what was the night. I won’t stay here again. It’s too close to where I started. I’d rather be lost.
I carefully re-organize my box and put it under the futon. Everything I currently own fits conveniently within it and the backpack I left my mother’s house with. I should really go back one of these days and pack my things. I’ve already stopped working, and I’m working on the other arrangements. I’m moving to Indianapolis when summer ends, into the spare room of a friend. I’ll go to a community college there for a year before resuming my original plan going to Grand Valley. I’m excited for the move, it’s my escape and I want it to be perfect. I’ve planned my flight for years, and I’m ready to see how I’ll fly.
Or am I? I’m living in Zach’s house, on a stiff, barely-used futon in their family room. I’m with my hero and I feel content. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. He rescued me. He likes to take care of me; I live to do the same for him. Unemployed, he’s hardly ever more than an arm’s reach away, and he’s always ready to hold me close. Grateful, I support our expenses gladly. My savings whither away quickly when there’s two of us, especially with gas prices so high. When I feel too small, he’s my protecting blanket. I’ve never felt so safe before. I’ve never felt so warm. I don’t want to let this go.
I go to stand and my foot brushes against something I’ve missed. It’s a frisbee, lime green and too light to play a good game of Ultimate with. I think tonight, I’ll go to the soccer field by the elementary school and play with my friends. Though it’s hot, we play hard until the sun sets, and then gather in someone’s yard and spend what time we can together before summer’s end. We’re all separating, and everyone’s terrified but too proud to admit it. So we spend the quiet hours of the night together, making small talk about Frisbee and timid talk about plans for the fall. The excitement runs like an electric current through the crowd. They mill around, afraid to be static. Afraid to waste time.
I’ve never been so content. My days are filled with play and laughter, my nights with my shy guardian. I forget everything in his stormy blue eyes. I need nothing else but his soft, comforting words, and safety of his arms. I feel like I’m dreaming. I could sleep like this forever.
The days on the calendar fall into the wastepaper basket below, one by one. I pray for them to stop so I can continue to rest. Please, I pray, don’t let this end.
The librarian stares at me over her tortoiseshell glasses, disbelief apparent on her face. She’s elderly but modern, according to her wardrobe and desk, and she doesn’t believe I’m checking out thirteen books. They’re thick. They have to be, if they want to last.
She doesn’t understand; books are my best friends. It is autumn and the leaves are turning bright red. I watch them change, my heart pounding more and more each day. My friends flew like the birds migrating south to their new homes. Their numbers dwindled until there was no one left, Zach went back to work, and I am left alone in his family’s house.
Indianapolis didn’t happen. I couldn’t let it. I was too happy, and I wanted to go for the wrong reasons. I just wanted to run away from what was hurting me. I still want to run. Therefore, I stay.
The librarian can’t help herself any longer. “Are you really going to read all of those?”
I smile in return. “Yes ma’am. I’ll bring about half of them back tomorrow.” She shakes her head and I laugh. “It’s okay, the librarian yesterday didn’t believe me either.” I point to the stack of eight in the in-box. “Those were mine.”
Her eyes widen and she gives up, turning back to her computer. I put the books in my beaten backpack and head for the reading chair in the corner. I like this place and I’m thankful I found it. It’s quiet and dusty, and the smallest library I’ve ever seen, a forgotten place in a tiny town. On some level, we match. I don’t have anything to say anymore. There’s no one to say anything to, except myself. Everyone has gone.
Even Zach’s house isn’t comfortable anymore. I am restrained, and overworking myself trying not to impose on his family. I try to make it seem like I’m not even there. It’s hard for someone like me to continually fly below the radar, but I’m getting better. I’m helpful and respectful, and other than that I hide in my books. It’s less lonely then.
I open the thickest one and start my journey out of space and time. Maybe this one will last the night.
I need new gloves. These ones don’t keep out the cold when I’m chopping wood, and my hands ache for hours afterward. I line up another log and pray for the snow to stop. If it gets any warmer, I won’t have to stay so close to the fire all night. I take the wood into the tiny house and slowly bring a fire to life in the woodstove. It takes coaxing; the wood is wet, but I am getting better at making a fire. With no one else around to help me, I’ve had to learn fast.
This house is so quiet and so small. It only takes six steps in any direction to reach the outside walls. It’s my father’s, but he doesn’t live here. He lives a few miles away with his girlfriend, so I am left alone. Zach’s parents asked me to leave by the time December rolled around, in the hope that I would find motivation and stop merely existing in the background somewhere. A clever plan, but it had forced me to relocate to a place I’d rather not be. My relationship with my father was worse than with my mother. He’d never had custody of me and was barely in my life. His lack of respect for child-support laws had him in and out of jail a few times, and my mother kept me away from him because of that. We are quite nearly strangers, and our personalities are so similar that we don’t get along.
I hate the near-silence. Everything feels so close. I turn on loud music to drown out the lack of sound, but it changes nothing. I am alone and there’s no one around for miles. Like half-cracked glass, I’m afraid I’m going to shatter into a million pieces at any moment. I feel this way every night. My emotions are raw from the silence of the night. I am a prisoner in this place, in the lonely cell of my own mind. What am I doing here? This place isn’t for me.
My hope lies on the table. I’ve been accepted to Grand Valley State University, and I can’t wait until summer comes back again. Zach’s been accepted too, and I feel a warm feeling in my chest at the thought of not having to be alone anymore. When fall rolls around, I’m going to get back to original plan. In the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to fill my time with something, could it? I think I’ll take some classes; I’ll try harder to find a job. I can’t take this quiet.
I feel as though I’ve done my time in solitary. I’m ready to be set free.
All I can think about is sleep. It’s been a few days since I slept, but I just haven’t had the time. I’m working thirty hours or more a week, and with the sixteen credits I’m taking at Lansing Community College, sleep is too far down the list of priorities for me to even consider it. It’s four in the morning and I have an exam tomorrow, but I’ve only just come home from work and I don’t think I can stay awake to study. I open my World Civilizations book anyway on the table, and sigh when I see the past-due bill beneath it.
It’s hard, supporting myself. I’ve learned to cut back on food; the necessities of life are expensive, even more so when you’re working minimum wage. I lose most of my paycheck the second I get paid. And then I get to school as fast as I can, trying to keep up in my classes. I hope my professor isn’t mad at me if I’m late again. With the roads the way they are, I pray they’ll just cancel the class. Just so I can get a few more hours of sleep. I haven’t had time for me in a long while, but that rates lower down the list than sleep does. I wonder if what I’m doing is healthy and shrug it off. I don’t have time to think. I’m beginning to hate every moment of this uncomfortable existence. I tell myself every day, “It’s better than your mother’s. It’s better than living with him,” but I only half believe it. While I hated every second of my life there, it was at least familiar. I could run away when I needed to. There was food there, and a clean place to shower. I stop myself before I get too caught up it that train of thought.
That house wasn’t a home. It wasn’t fit for man or beast.
I cross off another day on the calendar and cock my head to the side. March. I turned nineteen a month ago and barely even noticed. Strange how nineteen doesn’t feel different from eighteen. Stranger how they both feel much older than that. I am nineteen years old with no idea of who I am and no energy to think about it. I’m nineteen going on forty.
It’s raining again and I finally have the time to stop and breathe. I’m standing in the rain with my eyes closed, sorting through my thoughts. School’s finally done for the semester, and I should have time to sleep again, but I don’t. When the flowers pushed their way through the last frost, the people I care about finally came home for the summer. Since then, I haven’t stopped moving. I’m a whirlwind across the Lansing area, divvying my time with care. I work when they tell me to, but other than that I’m filling my quotas and making memories to store for the school year ahead. I’ve been lonely before and I know I’m going to need them.
I rarely make in back to my father’s house for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s back to sleeping on couches when I’m sleeping at all, with an occasional return to the house. I’m happier than I’ve been in months, surrounded by the people I love. All of them. And at least one of them is always available for me.
I’m having a senior’s summer - the summer I should have had a year previously, free from worry. I’ve learned to how to flow, to adapt to whatever situation is in front of me. I don’t care where I lay my head any longer. As long as there is Frisbee the next day, as long as I wake up somewhere near someone I love, a floor is a perfect bed. It’s much better than being alone.
Alex is in the house, making dinner for us both. I tried to convince him not to bother, but he always ignores me when he wants to be nice. The beard he’s adopted since returning home makes him look much older. So too then do the new glasses he’s wearing. Their rims are a little thicker than what I’m used to, but they suit him well. The changes don’t bother me, we’ve gotten much closer since he came home, though I didn’t know we could.
“Dani,” he orders. “Get in here and eat. You’re getting soaked.”
I smile. He’s the only one I let order me around. I’m glad I’m here tonight. Maybe the winds of my whirlwind will slow down for a little while. I’d like the chance to relax.
The sun is rising through the gray mist, and I’m finally going to bed. I’ve missed my goal yet again. Is it really so hard to be in bed before dawn? I can’t really complain, I’m enjoying every day thoroughly, although my nights are long as hell. My day really begins when the sun goes down, and I find I’m well suited for the night. It’s better this way. If I exhaust myself before I rest, there’s a better chance I won’t have nightmares.
I’m sick of the nightmares. They always come in the middle of my rest, cutting it in half. I wake up crying, sweating, not sure what I’m running from. It’s easier if the sun is up. I can’t get back to sleep, but I’m not alone in the dark either.
I can’t be alone in the dark. I can’t stay with Zach, so I started crashing at Joe’s, only a few streets away from Zach’s house. It’s so much easier to live here. I’m closer to everyone I care about, and I don’t have to be alone. Zach, Joe and I spend most of our waking hours together. I can’t contain my happiness over this. I love not being alone.
Joe is a fantastic roommate for me. His parents work until the small hours of the night, so it’s basically like having our own place. He shares my love of adventure, and it’s common for us to go driving in the middle of the night down forgotten roads in search of the perfect escapade, accompanied by the perfect song on the radio. I love this, as I love him. He’s my mirror’s reflection in all but image, we’re so common in so many ways.
Grand Valley is only a few weeks away. Zach, Joe and I are all going together. I may never have to be alone again. I like this, in a way that I can’t fully describe. I don’t understand this feeling. I’ve never felt it before. What is this?
I want to go for another drive tomorrow night. It makes me feel alive. There’s a certain vitality in racing under stars and fireflies that cannot be recreated anywhere else. Maybe next time we’ll even get home before dawn.
This key is mine. I’ve never had one before, and I’m not used to the way it feels in my pocket, let alone my hands. Although it is mine, I feel nothing when I look at it. Aren’t I supposed to?
I’ve been dreaming for so long that when I got here, I’d finally be home. I love this place, more than most others. I feel calm when I’m here. And yet, it doesn’t feel different from anywhere else. I think to myself that I must be fated go be homeless forever.
Or am I? Perhaps I’ve been looking at things the wrong way. Maybe it’s not a place. Maybe it’s a feeling. Perhaps, that feeling of safety and warmth I feel when I’m with the people who care about me, maybe that’s home. Maybe, home doesn’t have a static definition, maybe it’s something that a person has to define for themselves. Maybe it lies in love, in understanding, in comfort, in trust, and in support and laughter. Or maybe it doesn’t, and people are a good substitute for the place. Maybe I’ve been so weighted down with the heaviness of my existence that I’ve been missing the point all along. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as I’m safe, happy and loved.
And maybe, just maybe, I have something to call home.