when returning home feels unfamiliar
“I had grown disacquainted with myself, a sensation akin to what one may experience when meeting a close friend after years of separation: For a few empty, lucid, but numb moments you see him in an entirely different light, even though you realize that the frost of this mysterious anesthesia will presently wear off, and the person you are looking at will revive, glow with warmth, and resume his old place.” – “Terror,” Vladimir Nabokov
Every morning when I left Keeney, the sudden change in temperature would hit me suddenly and forcefully, but only momentarily. This was a great change for me, since I had grown up in California, where the air caresses rather than slaps. Yet, after the initial shock of stepping into frigid wind, I would become accustomed to the cold air and would never give it another thought. The drive home, scattered with formerly familiar landmarks, was that cold breeze on my face, that initial shock. Driving down the sunny, palm-tree-studded Pacific Coast Highway, I realized suddenly just how long I had been gone and just how much Brown had become my daily reality. I wondered which was more real, my life at Brown or the years I’d spent in my childhood home.
Nabokov’s “Terror” describes this feeling so well, this moment of brief unfamiliarity when we become re-acquainted with pieces of our past, whether those be our friends or former homes. “Terror” is a short story that explores what it means to exist. At the start of the novel, the protagonist sees his face reflected in the mirror. Confronting the physical manifestation splits the narrator’s self into the image reflected in the mirror and the “‘I’ whose identity [he] failed to grasp”. Yet the narrator’s double existence becomes unified by strong emotions when he loses his girlfriend. In the face of human grief, suffering, and love, these two selves merge once more, suggesting that this separation between mind and matter exists only in solipsism, separation, and cold aesthetics.
I confronted this chilling unfamiliarity again, when I crossed paths with Lynn, my best friend from high school, for the first time since we’d parted ways the summer before college; Lynn’s path would take her to Paris for a semester abroad, while mine led me across the country to Brown. Despite the fact that Lynn and I had texted, FaceTimed, Skyped, Facebooked, etc. throughout our physical separation, recognition of her in the physical world did not come immediately. For a brief instant, all was numb and unfamiliar, like an out-of-body experience. But then, things seemed to glow again. We shared a lengthy hug and settled into our usual routine of walking in the sun, drinking Arizona, and chattering away. It felt as though no time had passed; Brown and Paris selves were all but forgotten in the sunlight of friendship. But not everything at home revived as instantly as my friendship with Lynn. Maybe it was the fact that my social life was obstructed by oral surgery: I spent the two-week recovery period in silence on the sofa with a tub of ice cream. My isolation made me feel all the more out of place, unable to reconnect with old friends and former haunts. The sunny California beach town felt like it belonged to a former Sylvie, who I had also become unacquainted with. I found myself struggling between those two Sylvies during the weeks that followed my recovery — my Brown self and the self that I had left behind in Southern California. My Brown self, feeling out of place, sought comfort in rooftop smoke breaks, heavy reading, and 2 a.m. falafel binges. These consolations felt somehow foreign and all the more isolating in the place where I used to run on the strand, draw pictures, and drink swamp-like green juices. I struggled to accept that I had become a different person during my time away. Runs and green juices no longer appealed to me the way they used to. My California self had enjoyed solitude, but my Brown self simply felt lonely. I no longer woke up in my bed, but on the sofa, since my brother took over the room we once shared. I no longer wore the same clothes or used the same shampoo. Even jet lag, which put me on a slightly different schedule from the rest of my family’s, was enough to make me feel separated from them; I would wake up and eat breakfast long before the rest of my family did and go to bed before my dad could get back from work.
And like Nabokov’s narrator, the breach between my Brown self and California self was bridged by connecting with other people, rather than existing in my own inner world. My California self stepped into the forefront when my orthodontist back home fitted me for new retainers; when I chatted with the cashiers at the 7-11 I had frequented on my walks home from high school; and when I could eat my favorite foods again. But most importantly, it was walking with my dad, a Brown alumnus, that finally merged these two selves. Two worlds connected when I felt the sun on my face and the sand between my toes while discussing the questions of sophomore housing, the struggle of waking up for classes before noon, and whether I was going to take anthropology or a class in comparative literature next semester. These walks provided both of us the opportunity to connect with our former selves: his Brown student self and my California daughter self. My love for my dad was a constant, unlike the sun or my shampoo or my waking hours, and it encompassed both my Brown and California selves in a comforting embrace, leaving neither in the chill of unfamiliarity. Perhaps this love will always exist and is capable of connecting all my selves—past, present, and future—together.