In kindergarten, I was an unexpected patriot.
Whenever my best friend, an English expat at five, would bemoan the points she missed on our spelling tests over the unwelcome u’s of her British spelling practices, or passionately disparage Hershey’s in favor of Cadbury chocolates, a powerful sense of patria would possess me—the same kind of love that coursed through ancient Romans and modern-day gun owners—and I’d snap at her fiercely, even though I’d never liked the taste of candy bar chocolate. I surprised myself in these instances; I barely mumbled the pledge most days, and I knew about slavery, and I was more cognizantly allegiant to the Disney Channel than the United States. Regardless, an aquiline parasite lived inside me, compelling me violently with its bald-eagle talons to wage psychological Revolutionary Warfare against my own best friend.
Two months before my eighteenth birthday, with adulthood and the hazy red of wildfires on the horizon, I remembered mortality, and suddenly my life felt accordioned into nothing, and my home city felt flat and suffocating like one of those labyrinthian kids’ toys you shake to solve. Nothing really mattered anymore, and I got really scared of airplanes and engine backfire noises, and I couldn’t read books because everything worth reading is secretly about dying. I subsisted on quality time with my mother and Adult Swim cartoons. I found an article—“How to Make Life Seem Longer”—that told me doing new and unfamiliar things would help me stave off the looming threat of mortality. Suddenly, when I thought of college I saw myself on the other side of the country, certain all the good stuff was thousands of miles away, where the grass was greener without the use of drought-fueling sprinkler fixtures and there weren’t quite so many airplanes. I’d unmasked Southern California, reverted it back to the apocalyptic desert wasteland it tried so hard not to be. The East Coast would coddle me. There was safety under the cover of trees, miles of anonymity separating the larger cities, humidity that fireproofed the air.
When death seemed to haunt Los Angeles, I was wracked with a grief I couldn’t comprehend. A familiar, loved thing had become perilous. It was the numb, disbelieving grief of losing a family friend, one who’s in all your baby pictures.
Unlearning that grief feels like falling in love.
I was never truly a patriot—affection for my city, which had raised me with equal parts gentleness and excitement, had cast a striped and starry film over my eyes. To insult the United States was to imply the imperfection of my home, a reality I wasn’t yet ready to face. I should have realized. I’ve lived in the same house forever, and I hate vacations. Home, real home, has gravity. You have to go back.
Now that I’m home again I’ve been having all kinds of ridiculous, epiphanous moments. I was driving on the freeway and the sun cast a golden bar over the asphalt in front of me, and the mountains were purple on either side and I was giddy with love for all of it—giddy about gas stars and asphalt of all things. Driving 70 on one of the most infuriating highways in the country, I felt swaddled with comfort. An obsessive corner of my brain latched onto the word home and it coated my mind like a wallpaper.
Home lives everywhere; that’s not profound. It lives in my parents and my friends and my favorite taco truck and outfits that, when I wear them, imbue me with a euphoric sense of myself-ness. To me, the most hedonistic life I could live is one where I chase down every homey object and experience I can. I used to stretch out facedown on the AstroTurf field of my elementary school so that the sun could coat my back while the hot plastic warmed my face and that was what elation felt like to me, but there is comparable joy in coolness: before now I’d never pressed a warm hand against iced window glass, never crunched snow crystals flat under weighted shoes. In my mind, white strings and pins slice up the United States like the manically constructed cork board of a mad detective, because home is a network.
Moving to New Jersey did not lengthen my life, nor my perception of it, but I found safety and belonging in my friends there, in the lunch special at my favorite restaurant, in Wawa soft pretzels and Vitamin Water for breakfast. As a domestic hedonist, I can only hope to continue to be serially endeared, so that the accordion of my life can seem, if not long, at least wide.