This past weekend I paid a strange visit to my old house.
I wasn’t able to get in, of course—it’s no longer mine. I gave up all claim to it the day I decided to move out, didn’t I? No, I was only there to pick up a few last boxes in the unlocked garage, destined to be hauled away by either me or a dump truck depending who got there first. The race was on! I won.
I then got to catch my breath and pause to remember how much I’d lost.
Remember that leap I felt compelled to take last year, abandoning my stable present with a running jump? This is what I left, the house that hosted several years of my life… several difficult years. It’s the house I would’ve seen in my rearview mirror when I set out to drive across the country, if the view hadn’t been blocked by all my belongings packed to the roof in the back seat.
Well, not quite all. A few odds and ends were left behind, hence the boxes I was back to claim.
There they sat, waiting patiently. I ran a hand over them in greeting, but before lifting them I looked up at the house that used to welcome me back from work each evening. I stole a glance left and right for passing neighbors. Though there was no one around, I felt the need to tiptoe as I climbed the front steps.
Earlier in the day I’d driven up the street to find a real estate agent standing here with coiffed hair and heels that matched her handbag. I watched from the car window as she gestured to a would-be client, pointing out some feature of the landscaping before she unlocked the front door. They stepped inside. The door shut behind them.
I sat for a moment as if guarding the house, feeling protective, though they were the ones allowed in while I was rightly locked out. The customer would squint and prod to see whether he could live his life within these walls. He’d want to see the coat closet, the kitchen appliances, and sooner or later the garage—where he probably shouldn’t find a prowler like me moving boxes.
I’d come back later.
Maybe some small part of me believed I’d always be able to come back later. Not that I wanted to, but… if I ever did want to, someday, it’d be there, right?
Well, now this final errand had brought me here one last time. The wooden porch creaked slightly as I approached the window. Its curtain hung to one side, quietly indifferent to the house’s privacy. I leaned in close to the glass and framed my eyes with both hands to block the afternoon light.
Inside all was still. The clutter was gone, the walls were bare, the floor was swept. The lights were left on, not just in the front hall but in every room: the open doorways on either side spilled yellow pools of light from lamps that were hidden behind corners.
I angled my head to peek further, but no luck. My view was blocked by an old curtain, one I recognized. I know the texture of its heavy cloth and the metallic jangle that rings out when it’s drawn across its rod. I know that the outer side is faded to an uneven purple-brown, though the inside is still its original deep black.
My breath was beginning to fog the glass. I stepped back, then blinked.
What I saw in there was a sterilized version of familiar, ready for real estate agents’ tours. Anything that had once belonged to me had long since been hauled away, or at least, at last, set out in the garage. All I really recognized was a curtain—I laughed abruptly and shook my head. Time to return to the garage for my last few boxes.
Regardless of what that small part of me had quietly believed all these months, there was no more coming back. From this point forward the rooms I once lived in would live only in my memory, itself as prone to fading as a south-facing curtain.
Why was there a hot tightening in my throat as I hauled those boxes to the car trunk? I chose to move, I thought to myself angrily. I chose this. I chose this. How dare I feel some squeeze of nostalgia for a life that pushed me to flee?
Maybe I needed to see how empty I’d left things to fully feel the permanence of my leap. There is no going back in life—not to old homes, not to old paths, not to old possibilities.
I chose to move out, and I have to choose to move on.
I closed the trunk with a solid slam and got back into the car. The engine started; the gears shifted into reverse; then with a subtle press of the brake and turn of the wheel, they shifted back into drive. And away I drove.
We can’t ever go back to old things or try and get the “old kick” out of something or find things the way we remembered them. We have them as we remember them and they are fine and wonderful and we have to go on and have other things because the old things are nowhere except in our minds now.
letter to William D. Horne, Paris, July 1923
In what ways have you been compelled to confront your past? How did you find old places had changed, or just you yourself? Revisit and move on in the comments below, or on one of my social media pages...