Rebecca Tan 

Homesick

The house at the end of Colchester Grove looks over an angular cul-de-sac shrouded in old, gangly trees. In 1994, my father drove his Toyota down this street for the first time. He claims that the moment he saw those trees arching their branches towards the house, he knew this was where he would raise his family.

For years, the house had more rooms than we needed. As kids, my sister, brother and I crowded onto a single mattress in the master bedroom with my mother, who slept with her arms tucked close to her body like a small bird. My father hunkered in after the lights went out and collapsed, large and snoring, on the King-sized bed several feet away. In the day, I wandered into one room or the other, threw open the curtains and made myself sick on dust.

The house was renovated in 2014. When I close my eyes though, it’s still the old version I’m standing in. The metal fence was low and punctured with holes. Every evening, for about half an hour, light flooded into the house, spilling warm, golden, sticky liquid into every room. After running around outside, my sister and I would fling ourselves onto the floor of our living room, hair tangled, feet stained with dirt. When I close my eyes and hold my breath, I can still feel the marble cooling on the small of my back. I can still smell hot oil puffing out from the kitchen; can still hear my father turning on the light in his study, the bulb flickering like a dying bug.

I tried to explain all this to an old boyfriend once. One winter morning, sitting in his dorm room, I tried to tell him what I meant by homesick.

I’m not just lonely, I said. I’m not just pining for my family, and this isn’t some desperate assertion of nationhood. I’m tied to that thing, I whispered, touching his palm. That material, unmoving thing lodged into the ground by two rows of trees. He smiled and nodded. Two years later, we broke up. He wanted to be free and it dawned on him almost as clearly as it dawned on me that I was moored to that cul-de-sac.

Winter in Philadelphia was long in 2017, with snowfall as late as March. When the rain finally came, those of us from the tropics were grateful. I spent one of those wet nights splashing on a muddy field to some EDM artist I didn’t know. At some point, I was ushered into the center of a mosh pit, surrounded by drunk and careless boys. When the rain grew heavy, I ducked underneath the tangle of naked arms, and broke free into an empty corner. It was the tequila or a contact-high, or maybe it was the rain – god, it hadn’t rained in so long – but standing in that field, my chest tightened with a familiar grip.

Near the center of Singapore, there’s one square kilometer of forest that surrounds the island’s oldest reservoir, called MacRitchie. For four years in my teenagehood, I went to MacRitchie once a week with the girls of my track and field team. Each time, we ran three to four miles into the forest where we practiced with drills, sprints and races. The uneven trails were good for training balance, our coach said. And anyway, wasn’t it nicer to be around nature for these long runs?

Over four years, I grew to dread those afternoons at MacRitchie. I realized midway through my track “career” that the potential I showed as an 11-year-old 400m runner had been severely overestimated, and that my blind doggedness – my greatest, and arguably only notable quality as an athlete – was limited. One Wednesday, in the middle of a particularly brutal workout, it started to rain. My training partner Magdalene and I cut down on our breaks to finish our set of six sprints. And when everyone else was done, we didn’t slow jog out of the forest like we usually did; we ran. I strode in the middle of the pack, soil and dead leaves dribbling down my calves. I thought about tripping myself against a tree root so I could stop, but just before I could, we turned a corner. The exit was just ahead.

As we flew into the cool, open air, the grip around my chest loosened, and I dropped to the ground. Mag, looking over at my white socks soaked in mud, started to laugh. We stayed like this for a long time, laughing, massaging our legs and listening to the thunder shake through the forest. That night, I wrote in my journal that “for some reason,” training had been fun.

I wouldn’t understand until three years later, legs muddy with the soil of a different ground, that what I was luxuriating in that Wednesday was something quite particular. I wouldn’t realize until later that moments of joy are not made the same; that when your life is linear and contained, when you are where you belong, feelings flow through you in ways rich and real. When those straight lines splinter, nothing feels as simple – as satisfying – again.

In his 1919 essay Das Unheimlich, Sigmund Freud introduces the concept of the uncanny as the feeling of being “robbed of one’s eye” — the eerie sense of discomfort we get when we look at ordinary things. Later, the French philosopher Jacques Lacan refers to this as “L’angoisse,” a state of anxiety. In the story “Le Horla,” he writes about a man seeing his own back in the mirror. For a moment, the back is an object without a subject because the man cannot recognize it as his own. This is the uncanny, Lacan writes, the anxiety we feel when we’re unable to make meaningful distinctions in what we perceive; when we’re unable to grasp what is real.

Being perpetually homesick will acquaint you with this feeling. Do you know what I mean? You’re in a Trader Joe’s picking peaches from a crate when suddenly it feels like this is the most ridiculous place you could be. The tall, blonde woman who helped you grab a box of cereal flashes you a smile and you freeze because you cannot get over the idea that she is here, in this grocery store in southeast D.C., and so are you. It makes no sense. I mean, you have the words to explain why you’re here: you came for school, you stayed for work, yada, yada, but if you really think about it, if you really look at the facts of this situation, none of it makes any fucking sense.

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