“Home” right now is a hotel room in California. Ironically, it is only a few blocks away from my one-story, suburban house, where my mother is brewing tea and my younger sister is watching her one-hundredth cartoon in quarantine. If I squint hard enough, I can see my backyard from the hotel window, where my dad is watering his rose bushes.
My COVID-19 test results are several days late. Until they come back, I will continue to drive the thirty-second route to my house every afternoon. My family will continue to serve me dinner on paper plates in the backyard at 6 p.m. We will continue to have awkward, get-to-know-you conversations with my boyfriend, whom I introduced a few days ago through a screen door.
Since February, I haven’t lived in one house for more than a few weeks. In fact, the past four months have seen me through seven different homes. And when you’re an ambitious, soon-to-be college graduate, you quickly realize that constant relocation is not compatible with achieving your greatest goals. That was a lesson I learned the hard way.
Four months ago in February, “home” was a two-story, wooden house in Cayuga Heights. This was the place where I invited friends over for dinner and served short ribs in mismatched pots. This was where my room was covered in yellow and Van Gogh, and where I watched canaries crowd around the birdfeeder on my rooftop. This was where I cultivated my poetry and compiled writing samples, in hopes of publishing a collection.
This was also where I lived with the wrong man. When my two-year relationship became too abusive to ignore, my friends joined forces to bail me out. As their car rolled up the driveway one rainy February evening, I knew what I feared most wasn’t the impending breakup; it was departing from my place of refuge, the one place where I could accomplish my most creative projects.
That night, I watched my colorful room go bare. After all my cardboard boxes were crammed in the trunk, we tumbled into the car, driving off to intense Russian piano music blasting from the stereo. After we pulled away, I realized I had left some of my poetry books behind in the mad rush.
“Home” a day later, on February 26, was a beer-strewn, lofted apartment with deer in the backyard. Life became an unfamiliar couch, new roommates and a TV blasting Lord of the Rings every night. Over the next week, I slowly unpacked my pots and pans. This was where I wanted to focus on my job applications for the remainder of the semester, long-delayed by the chaos of my previous living situation. I wanted to finally complete my poetry collection and submit it to a magazine.
And then, one week later in March, COVID-19 abruptly ended my time at Cornell. I was sitting in Mango Mango when the news of the evacuation was announced. My best friend and I gaped over our half-eaten fruit bowls.
And just like that, I found myself living in Tampa, Florida for the rest of the semester. From April to May, “home” was initially an Airbnb bungalow, where my new boyfriend and I quarantined for two weeks, then his uncle’s attic and, finally, his parents’ house along the water. The only constant was a long, stretching dock nearby, where I dangled my feet in the afternoons and watched stingrays glide underneath.
Each time I settled down again, I felt a mounting pressure to be productive. With quarantine orders in full force, it was not-so-subtly hinted that if you weren’t publishing a novel, proving a new math theorem and losing 30 pounds in your free time, you weren’t doing it right. My projects during this time, however, constantly fell short. I found myself scrolling for hours through job applications, only to realize they were practically nonexistent in the plummeting economy. I managed to jot down only a few lines of a poem before I was overcome by nostalgia for my Cornell peers, who used to help me workshop my pieces late into the night.
I could hardly process these new changes in my life before “home” became a black SUV caked in mud, packed to the brim with everything my boyfriend and I owned. We decided to make the 4000-mile trek from Florida to my hometown in California by car, minimizing the risk of catching COVID-19 on a plane. For the first three weeks of June, we jumped from log cabins in Tennessee, to bird sanctuaries in Kansas, to the red rocks of Utah, to oceanside cliffs along California. We slept in musky motels and made chicken fajitas on a hotpot stove. Along the way, we endeavored to conquer projects together — to document our trip in journals and sketchbooks, dance to a new Billy Joel song every morning and stop at every used bookstore we found along the way. But as we quickly learned, when securing a roof over your head is a struggle every night, sketching a marmot we saw in Colorado becomes the last item on the daily to-do list. The more places we moved, it seemed, the less we could accomplish.
So this is “home” now: a twelve-by-twelve-foot room in Redwood Shores, California, where my boyfriend and I are still recovering from our sunburns and mosquito bites. The lagoon I grew up next to shines right outside our window — the first familiar sight I’ve seen in months. We are already eagerly planning our next projects together, knowing we have the fortune of a stable environment awaiting us after our COVID-19 results come back.
My main project this time, however, will be taking care of myself. It took a four-month journey — consisting of seven homes and a cross-country road trip — to finally come to terms with this realization. As a student, time never felt like my own; it was dedicated to deadlines and meetings I rarely set for myself. To completely focus on my own needs felt too much like a guilty pleasure. But in this time of uncertainty, we shouldn’t feel pressured to get a six-pack or publish a book during quarantine, if it means sacrificing our well-being.
After the pandemic, I’m not sure where the next place I call “home” will be. For now, all I know is that I look forward to the moment I can enter my house, embrace my family members, and call a place mine again. Until then, everything else can wait — even the poetry collection.
Kelly Song is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Songbird Sings runs every other Wednesday this summer.