When I traveled home for spring break, Mill Valley, California no longer felt like mine. Maybe it was the disconcertingly hot weather or the way that my house had a distinct smoky citrus smell like that of a tasteful stranger’s, but something felt distant, removed. Most unnerving was the evident ease with which the town had run in my absence. Tam High had a new set of burnt-out seniors, toiling through the college application process; Greg had hastily hired my replacement — a perky hostess in Chuck Taylors — and my parents had adopted an only vaguely recognizable nighttime routine. Life at home had moved on without me.
I coped with my detachment by indulging in childlike behaviors: ice cream sandwiches on the porch, solitary laps around the little league baseball diamond, foraging for four leaf clovers and snacking on finger food from Joe’s Taco Lounge. These remedies proved to be fruitless attempts at regenerating an outdated sense of belonging. With a fistful of three leaf clovers, I was out of luck; I was no longer a child, and Mill Valley was no longer my home.
If the carry-on suitcase I received as a gift for my 18th birthday was any indication, college is a period of impermanence. I belong to a band of displaced pre-professionals, always in transit, never fully settled. Uprooted. I’ve learned to purchase face wash in travel-sized units and navigate through Boston Logan airport with just ten minutes until boarding. I’ve stopped scouring the flea market for wall art because every time I tape up a poster, I can only imagine tearing it back down. My parents’ house is merely a pitstop, a purgatory, between Dartmouth College and wherever else adulthood takes me. Home is a place of permanent residence. I, along with most other college students, don't have one of those anymore.
Initially, I relished in the anonymity that came with being a tourist in my hometown. I used the insignificance of my existence in Mill Valley as an excuse to engage in otherwise absurd activities. Nobody recognized me! My behavior became increasingly erratic. “Is she ok?” I envisioned strangers thinking as they observed me take a midday nap in Hawke Park or belt a shitty rendition of The Kooks “Taking Pictures of You” as I jogged down Blithedale Ridge. I acted on every impulse. But this liberation was short-lived — swiftly replaced by a state of dissociation. Nobody recognized me.
I am no longer twelve years old; that’s a tough pill to swallow. My dad once told me that when he looks in the mirror he is greeted by a college-aged reflection. Initially, I thought this was one of his many flopped punchlines. It wasn’t.
I shouldn't have been so surprised — I too am out of touch with my age. Irrationally, everytime I pass a tween in my hometown, I expect to know them. When I can’t place a face, I feel like a passive observer to the reality I once lived. The only thing scarier than the gaggle of pre-teens loitering outside of the Starbucks on Camino Alto is my inability to recognize any of them. Am I getting… old? I wonder what they see as I walk past them. Perhaps they don’t really see me at all.
Despite the swarm of unfamiliar faces, life at home was hauntingly the same. Sure, the little things had shifted, but Mill Valley Market sold the same assortment of hotbar delicacies and Mount Tam sat as poised and handsome as always. These consistencies allowed me to slip into the monotonous rhythm of old routines. The only thing new about Mill Valley was my foreign relation to it. Here I was, an eighteen-year-old woman, being woken up by my mother, called down for dinner and nagged to take one more bite of my dinner. This set the tone for the rest of the week. My time in Mill Valley was reminiscent of trips to grandma’s house: Nostalgic, constrained and fleeting.
In the end, it was the little things that got me — bike helmets, the girlish shrieks and splashes of a marco polo game, the Mill Valley Middle School lunch bell and smooth, unsalted Laura Scudder’s peanut butter. Bittersweet fragments of adolescence teased me at every corner. I’ll never trick-or-treat again or beg mom for a sleepover. I’ll never walk home from school or design an obnoxiously feminine ice cream cake. Pretend as I might, I’m no longer a kid. The suburb that raised me has moved on to a new generation.
As I write this, I am tempted to end on the “college is my new home” trope. But not everything needs to be wrapped up in a pretty little bow. Kids grow up. Parents grow old. Everything is temporary, and sometimes, life moves on without you.