Photo by Aristide Economopoulos / NJ Advance Media.
I suppose I’d better begin by explaining where I am.
As I write this, I am sitting in my car with the windows down at an exit off of Interstate 70, right outside of Pittsburgh. It is a hot day and I have just refilled my car with gas.
The exit is almost exactly halfway between New Jersey and Cincinnati, and stopping at this specific point has become a habit in the few road trips I have made home since beginning college in Ohio.
The tone of this visit to my rest stop is different than it has been in the last four years: this time I am not sure when my next return will be.
This feeling of uncertainty lingered over my final few months in Cincinnati.
All summer I found myself visiting old familiar haunts with the thought that I might not be back. I found myself driving around town with no destination in mind, dining at restaurants I loved but did not have the money to afford anymore. I found myself purchasing trinkets that I did not need but that I felt might remind me of the city (I do not need another Reds t-shirt; I don’t even follow baseball). I found myself working in buildings on a campus that I no longer had access to.
All summer I found myself doing things without really meaning to. I spent entire days in this covetous, subconscious drift. The coffee at my favorite shop tasted especially good. Even the lights in my brown college house seemed bright when I returned in the evenings.
But it was decided during the year that in August, I would return to New Jersey for the foreseeable future.
It isn’t that I never went home during my four years in Ohio, but the script seemed to have flipped at some unspecific point in my college career. During some philosophy class, or on some night out with friends, my “home” became Cincinnati. Rather than live in New Jersey and visit Ohio, I lived in Ohio and visited New Jersey.
The dog stopped recognizing me as readily. I forgot where on my shelf I kept my favorite books. Familiar familial disputes could be left decidedly with my parents and sister in New Jersey when I went back to school. At some point, I fell out of synchronization with the subconscious habits that made my childhood home a comforting return.
And that is why I was finding myself places.
That is why I wandered around the city this last summer in Ohio. That is why I was in favorite restaurants and bars that I could not afford anymore. That is why I was buying trinkets. And, perhaps most especially, that is why I am stopped at this exit off of Interstate 70 between Cincinnati and New Jersey.
All these habits seem to represent the unconscious shift from who I was before college and who I am now, four years later. They seem to be the last thing keeping me safe from the particular anxieties that come with returning to a place whose rhythm I am no longer familiar.
My mom called me as I was finishing the sentences above.
She can see my location on an app on her phone, and she likes to follow me whenever I make long drives. She asked why I have been stopped for so long at an exit that to her seems completely random.
In response, I read her what I have written so far.
She is a patient woman, but my exercise in self-reflection is postponing dinner, so she commented on a few of the sentences she liked and reminded me that tomorrow we will go into the city together to see an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — something we’ve been looking forward to. She also told me that one of my friends from high school stopped by yesterday to drop something off and asked when I will be back.
This is how most of our conversations go.
I grew up in the house I am returning to. Most of the neighbors have lived next to us my entire life and we talk about the dogs and family and restaurants where the owners remember our names and orders.
They seem immune to the changes that, to me, mark chapters in life.
I look forward to this when I am in New Jersey.
I do not know when the next time I will be at this rest stop off of Interstate 70, but before we hung up the phone my mother told me that my dad is preparing my favorite meal for when I arrive, so I suppose all of these questions will have to wait until after I am home.