Alone at Home

on displacement

Among the many things I learned in my freshman year of college: how to write code, how to use a Linux machine, how to draw supply and demand curves, and how to solve a surface integral using parametrization and Stokes’ Theorem (…yeah right). But academics aside, freshman year also endowed me with some more gripping bits of wisdom. Forget maximization with Lagrange multipliers— looking back on it, the only thing I learned how to maximize was the amount of sleep I could get in before my 9am. Freshman year taught me that laundry machines are a scarce resource, and that there are literally no good places to study in the SciLi. It taught me that even when everything is about to collapse, you can always rely on memes for support. And it taught me that Freshman 15 was actually very possible.

Above all, freshman year made me realize that I was not as independent as I had once thought. With Brown’s lineup of rigorous courses and tantalizing extracurricular opportunities, I expected to be immersed in a rich campus life that would keep me occupied for the entire year. Home should have been the last thing on my mind. Yet strangely, I still found myself feeling homesick. I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, but the symptoms were certainly there: I phoned home daily, I lacked the motivation to get out and get involved, I opted to sleep in whenever possible, and I shied away from the numerous opportunities presented to me. As far as I can remember, not once did I explicitly say “I miss home,” or “I want to go home,” but those are hardly necessary conditions. Why? Because 200 miles away, my younger brother John was experiencing the same thing— despite remaining ‘home’ the entire time.  

John, two years my junior, is more than just my best friend. Even with my closest friends, I often feel obligated to maintain a certain image or persona— one might even call it a facade. I am sure that most people can relate: we act differently in the company of others than we do when we are by ourselves. We have appearances to keep up and expectations to satisfy— we are all actors on a stage. When I am with John, however, I have nothing to hide. The two of us have spent more time with each other than anyone else on earth. We share the same room, have many of the same interests, and even hang out with many of the same friends. We follow the same sports, and have similar tastes in music and food. We rarely get into fights, and when we do, we are quick to mend fences. When I am with John, it is as though I am by myself. I can be as silly or as embarrassing as I want, and I can say stupid things that I would never dream of saying in public. When I am with John, any facade that I might otherwise behind crumbles away.

Likewise, John depended heavily on me. In many ways, I was his role model. So, when school started, my sudden disappearance really took a toll on him. During the week or two following my departure, my mom would occasionally call me and whisper softly into the phone: “He’s in a bad mood today— you should talk to him when you get a chance.” John was clearly exhibiting the symptoms of homesickness, but he wasn’t missing a house or a bed. That’s because homesickness is not just about missing home— it’s about missing what is comfortable and normal. It’s about being thrown into a new way of life and being unable or unwilling to adapt to its changes.

Some time later, I heard that my house had gained a new member– a large, fluffy 53″ plush bear from Costco that my brother had taken to calling Leon #2. “It’s just going to take up space!” my mom chided as my brother begged her to get it for him. “What are you even going to do with such a large thing?”

“It’s to replace Leon,” he said.

That silenced her. The next thing you know, Leon #2 had joined the family. He would spend most days resting quietly on John’s bed, always there to welcome him home from school and keep him company. He loved to take naps with John, and perhaps he sometimes woke up to a pile of drool on his belly. As a side note, John happens to really like horror films, although he has some serious trouble sleeping afterward (I have no clue why he still watches them). In those situations, Leon #2 became his new guardian, standing watch until he finally fell asleep.  

Sometimes it can be quite easy to forget that the relationship between college-student and family is two-sided that while we may miss our homes, our homes can miss us just as dearly. My brother felt homesick despite being home the entire time, because “home” was no longer the same place to which he had grown attached. For John, Leon #2 was a way to fill my vacant space, at least until he adjusted to the changes in his life. Likewise, it wasn’t long before I began to feel at home at Brown, and from there the calls back home became more infrequent.

On the occasions when I return home for a visit, John and I cast Leon #2 off to the top bunk that nobody uses anymore. It is a symbolic ritual— after all, there is only room for one Leon in the house. This transaction is only temporary, as shortly after my departure, Leon #2 is welcomed right back down for the long haul. But for the most part, he is now nothing more than a symbol. The stuffed bear has long fulfilled its purpose, and has instead been relegated to comparatively trivial roles— like preserving the daily Snapchat streak. Today, John doesn’t really need him anymore.

And yet, something tells me that Leon #2 is here to stay, for all the same reasons that caused me to feel that occasional pang of longing, and that drove me to reach out for home. I still vividly remember the joy and excitement in my parents’ voices whenever I called them after an exhausting week of classes and work. They would always have so much to say, and I could tell from their enthusiasm that it had not been easy for them to resist their own urges to call me. We were all doing our best to move forward, but neither party was intent on leaving the other behind.

And so we proceed onwards, licking each other’s wounds, pulled along by our ties of family, camaraderie, and affection. For as long as these feelings remain, no matter how far we may go, there will always be a place for Leon #2. There will always be a place for home.