September 29, 2019

VALDETARO | Calling Home

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I fumble with my keys and phone as I bundle through my building’s never-quite-closed front door to begin my daily trudge up what my roommate spitefully calls “the Himalayas.” Unsure if I’ve already missed my Mom’s drive to work — or if she’s running a little late like I am — I tap through my phone and hit her name. Cutting across an intersection with no cars yet still full of potholes, I hear the dial tone cut out and a familiar voice greets me with a stressed, but warm, “Good morning.”

I didn’t use to call my Mom while heading to class in the morning. It took me until a couple of weeks ago to realize that my daily climb this semester coincided with her daily commute.  Unfortunately, it took me much longer than a couple of weeks in college to want to call home at all.

For a long time at the start of freshman year, my family and family friends played a one-sided game of phone tag with me, with them always trying to get me on the phone while I avoided their calls like a distant deadline. In the past year or so, though, I’ve not only started to make those calls myself instead of avoiding them, but I’ve realized that they’re a harbinger of my overall relationship with Cornell.

I didn’t like Cornell when I first started college, and my phone calls home reflected that. I texted that I was too busy to talk, quickly ducked out of rooms when I did answer those calls so that others wouldn’t hear my artificial answers to questions about how I was doing and perused the winding paths that crisscross North Campus for more serious conversations with family and friends from home. During an early phone call with one of my aunts, she told me about another freshman who had gone viral for a video she made about how difficult she found making friends, and all I could do was internally mumble, “It’s not just her.” Phone calls were a way to buy time to find happiness without anybody getting more concerned, an act where I told them I was adjusting well and enjoying Cornell, and I hoped they couldn’t tell my words were more performative than truthful.

Thankfully, by my second semester, things looked up even as the weather made me walk everywhere looking down. And yet, even after I started feeling more comfortable telling the truth to those who called, I still wanted my privacy. As a respite from late night self-sequestration in the library, I would circle the plants at the top of the slope while talking on the phone. During finals week, I would walk around and around for hours on the now-destroyed Olin roof, a reward for the many more hours spent in the library below grinding through final papers. In both of these cases and many more, I didn’t want people to hear my tone. Even though I was starting to like it, I couldn’t wait to go home, where everyday wasn’t a desperate attempt to lay down roots strong enough to make these the best of these four years but flexible enough for their eventual excavation to not be too painful. The longing in my voice would have been shameless if the reason I walked and talked outside wasn’t out of shame in the first place.

Throughout my time here, I’ve also talked on the phone while walking to and from class. A campus that can take more than a half-an-hour to trek from end-to-end offers sufficient time for even the longest of conversations, especially when hills are involved. Occasionally, the efficiency of using walks as time to talk diminishes the value of the conversation to the person on the other end as if that dash to dinner is the only time I can only be bothered to chat.

But now in my junior year, the phone calls I have are so much more than a time-filler, escapism or elusion. They’re a way of maintaining connections to the people and places that shaped who I was when I got to Cornell and set the stage for who I’ve become since. They remind me that there’s so much more than the hills and valleys, trees and not-so-towering buildings I can see from the vista at the top of the slope. They forcefully state that it’s okay to have an ambiguous, even downright-negative relationship with this place.

In doing so, they’ve even given me the freedom to think of Ithaca as something of a home. A flawed one, for sure, spread out over large distances, with high physical and metaphorical hills to climb and limited time to do so while making sure I don’t snap like a rubber band. But, nonetheless, a home with friendly faces I love and would do anything for and times I will never forget (or maybe remember).

Now as I push through the right door of Uris, I wonder why they decided to re-christen it the “out” door recently and nullify the years of habit-forming trips I’ve made into the library through it. Cantering down the steps, I push that thought aside and scroll through my phone, looking for someone to call as I start my walk. The tone rings a few times after I press my aunt’s name, and I soon hear her familiar question of where I’m walking to and say — with a tone that can never capture the journey of how this word came to be the answer — “home.”

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at gvaldetaro@cornellsun.com. Far Above runs every other Monday this semester.