This morning, as I brushed my teeth (water-free since the tap water isn’t safe) in the house where we are staying in rural Peru, I watched the neighbor plow his backyard with a pair of oxen. This sounds like a romantic view — and four months ago it would have been — but it prompted a deep, teenager-esque sigh. Because this is no longer what I want to see from my bathroom window.
With less than a week until our return, I’ve realized that my romanticized view of “normal life” may be a problem. In my home-craving mind, our house is a Shangra-La of welcome, all glowing counter-tops, plumped pillows and sunlit vignettes. In my rose-colored memory, it smells simultaneously of simmering onions and fresh-baked cookies. My wardrobe is bursting with flattering pieces, all of which exude funky glamour and fit perfectly every day. Meals are effortless and toilets always flushed.
My brain has erased the reality of weeds and caked-on toothpaste and backpacks dropped directly in the doorway. Of what it’s like to breathe in a tailored pencil skirt or hurry in heels. Of chipped plates and carpet stains and crookedly-hung curtains that I never got around to fixing. That one deck chair on whose back I regularly bruise a thigh as I pass. The long shivering wait for hot shower water. Our neighbors’ eternally yapping dog. Somehow, none of these feature in my fantasies of home.
Our homecoming itself is shot through a golden filter. Deep in the reptilian recesses of my mind, it plays like a Bollywood movie, my family and our life running toward each other in slow motion through a field of flowers. Everyone we love — nay, everyone in San Diego which has shut down for a welcome-home celebration — is gathered around, looking younger, taller, a more Hollywood version of themselves. Many, of course, are teared up in relief at our return.
As a grown-up, I can look dispassionately at these delusions and recognize them for what they are: a Christmas-morning-like wish for a perfect world of which I am quite profoundly the center. And of course I know it won’t play out this way. Some people will be excited to see us. They will ask questions about these six months: how it was, how we changed, what it’s like to be back. Others will incorporate us into their routine like we never left, the same chitchat on the blacktop, the reminder emails about timesheets, resuming carpool where we left off. A few will forget we were gone, making references to events we weren’t here for, ignoring the gap in our presence.
Some of the things I deeply soul-miss will likely fulfill all my expectations. Trader Joe’s baby spinach, for example, and takeout from Sushi Deli One. My car. The luxury of having separate shampoo and conditioner, instead of the inadequate combo formula. Knowing how to navigate from bed to bathroom in the dark. A world without stray dogs and unnecessary, excessive honking. Flushing toilet paper and drinking tap water. But other things will be forever ruined by this trip: $4 Jamba Juice when I could get a full three course meal AND juice for that price. The massive, embarrassing excess of Fashion Valley Mall, even if I miss that acrid-clean smell of clothing stores. Conversations involving comparative busyness.
Most of all, though, I worry that my kids don’t realize on a heart-level that life didn’t press pause when we left. That many of their friends have filled the Retta- or Jack-shaped holes in their lives with other people. That their friends have had new experiences — and changed themselves — while we were gone. That an ego-deflating percent of people won’t have noticed that they were gone.
And that my kids can’t yet see how much they’ve changed too, stretched and grown and built personality muscles that were flabby before. My daughter, who left a somewhat-gawly seventh-grader, looks fifteen now, and converses like a college student about World War II and metaphors. My son sprouted multiple inches, sheared his hair and learned to suck it up through some pretty tough situations. So even if the them-shaped spaces in San Diego still existed, they won’t fit those molds any more.
This is not to say, of course, that any member of the family has even the slightest interest in delaying our return for fear of what it will be like. No, we are all running — full-tilt — through the metaphorical meadow, arms open wide.
We will deal with the painful reality later.