The first time you hear about homesickness, you’ll wonder why the hell everyone is crying.
You’ll be at an all-girls church camp, sitting on a log that seems to sweat from the previous day’s rain, trying not to breathe in the campfire smoke when the wind blows your way.
The girls will be taking turns standing up and sharing their faith, their witness, their testimony, whatever they’ve chosen to call it this year, and every damn one of them will be crying. They’ll say that God is real and he helped guide them through this trialsome week as they ached and shook and groaned from this “homesickness.” You’ll wonder, at first, if that’s what they’re calling the camp stomach bug, but you’ll soon realize that’s not quite right.
“I miss my brothers,” One of the girls will say, sniffing and quaking, “And my mom, and my dad, and our dog. I love camp, but I just get so homesick.”
“Oh,” you’ll think, “are we supposed to miss them?”
And you’ll gather that the answer is yes, but you won’t know why. A week away from your brother’s fists, your mother’s yelling, and your father’s punishments has been the best week you’ve had all summer. You’ll wonder what that says about you, what that means, but then you’ll turn your mind to more important matters. Such as the fact that the s’mores have been brought out now that everyone has finished crying, and Jessica from cabin four is clearly taking far more chocolate than she needs.
The second time you really think about homesickness, you’ll be freshly fifteen in an overfilled minivan whose motor hums like a fat June beetle stuck on its back.
Your sisters will be crying, saying they miss everyone so much, that they’re already homesick. They’ll start this conversation over again every time you pass a state border sign, and you’ll wonder how they’re staying hydrated enough to keep it up.
This, again, will make no sense to you. How are you supposed to be homesick when your home is currently following you in a box truck? You will not miss the fields that made your throat swell when they were cut, or the boys you used to be friends with, who stopped talking to you once everyone else with your sort of body began to wear lace and chains, and fickle alliances around their throats. You will not miss, either, the woman who would tap your head with her pen in church when you dozed off, and the girls in the locker room who would snicker at your “boy clothes” and that extra bit of flesh that clung to your middle despite how you tried to run it off.
You won’t get to wonder about it very long, however, because out the window you’ll see a sign proclaiming, “Welcome to Tennessee!” And your sisters will be back at it again, answering that proclamation with, “I never got to give Bryson my number,” and, “They’re all going to forget about me. They say they won’t but they will. I was going to be on cheer team this year, I just know it. We were all going to be on cheer team.”
When you begin to understand homesickness, it will be too late.
You’ll be holding your phone in your lap, turning it just barely so the glare from the plane window doesn’t catch on the finger prints smudged across the screen. A cursor will blink at you from the end of the most damning thing you’ve ever written, and when it finally winks out it will feel like a gavel blow. Like some judgment, some fate, has been decided. You’ll allow a few seconds for the message to send, and then you’ll hesitate over the airplane mode button for far too long while your best friend reads that you’re in love with her. She will be typing, three dots stalking you like the heads of Cerberus, when your thumb hits the screen and delays the inevitable for however long it takes to toss that winged tin can from Virginia to Utah.
You’ll cry as the plane rises, and you’ll hate that you’re crying because it’s a wonderful view and now you’ll remember it blurry. You’ll try to hide your tears from the middle-aged man beside you, but he will see, and wordlessly pass you his extra napkin. The pain in your chest will grow tight and aching like the pressure building behind your nose, but you can’t pop your ears to relieve it. Instead, you’ll take out the pen you stole from a job fair, and to the napkin you’ll say:
“I miss her so much already. I think I was a little too truthful a little too late. Hopefully the distance will help. Hopefully my chest refills, it’s so empty right now I think I can hear it echo. I’ve never missed somebody like this. I think my throat will always have this lump, now. I think I’ll choke to death on it.”
And the man beside you will continue to say nothing, but the napkin will respond the only way it can with: “Thank you for choosing Southwest!” and, “The drinks are on us!”
The day you understand homesickness, you will have come full circle.
You’ll be back in Missouri with a hospital bracelet scratching at your wrist from the way you’re holding your phone, and your best friend will be on the other end telling you funny, and mundane, and terrible things.
“I can’t walk by your house anymore,” She’ll admit with what you hope is a laugh, but know is a sob, “Every time I see the porch light on, I think I should go knock on the door and ask if you want to come walk with me. The family that lives there now has a teenage son. You should see him. He’s got the most god-awful salmon colored shorts.”
And you’ll respond through sobs that you hope she thinks are laughter.
“Sorry I couldn’t be there,” And you’ll beg your voice not to shake, “I— I planned to come back, at some point,” Because you feel like you might be lying, “It’s just, well, they moved before I got the chance. I wish— I wish you were here. You and Alex. We have a new trampoline, and this time it’s not under an oak tree.”
“I hated those acorns,” She’ll sniff, “They always managed to roll right under the ball of your foot. Pretty sure one cut me once.”
“Yeah,” You’ll quake, “They were the worst.”
And when you hang up, an hour later, you will realize three things: One, you’re still in love with her. Two, you now understand what it means to be homesick. Three, you wish you had more practice. You wish that you’d learned how to do it sooner, because tonight it feels impossible, and your chest is still echoing like it did on that plane, and you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to offer it something in the shape of home again.
E.M. Wittlock is an emerging author with an interest in all things beautiful, terrible, and especially, strange. She produces a variety of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry belonging to a wide array of genres, but especially realistic fiction, surreal fiction, and creative nonfiction.