I’ve been living in New Zealand for quite some time now. Just long enough for me to fall out of love with everything here. Rolling green hills? Yawn. Flower petals floating gently down the river that cuts through campus? Lame. Gluten-free alternatives offered at every conceivable cafe or restaurant? Enough already! Where is that Texas heat? I never sweat anymore! And why are the birds here so much bigger? What are they eating?
I. Want. To. Go. Home.
Easy to say when you’re thousands of miles away from everything you know and love and your flatmate is blasting poppy music while he scrambles an egg at three in the morning. Easy to say when roses are bursting into bloom all around you and you’re still zipped up head to toe in your lengthy parka, or when everyone is sending you facebook messages to “have the time of your life!” while you’re stuck another night under a pile of books at the library.
But what about those times when you were sort of having the time of your life? The movie nights when you projected Avengers onto the sheet EJ hung on the wall, or the time you and Devon went to that Cambodian restaurant and drank an entire bottle of wine and toddled back through the gardens arm in arm? What about all of the times that Patrick has scrambled you an egg at three in the morning? Not so easy to get on the plane home after remembering that, is it?
This is one of those times.
Dad is staring at me and I am staring at him back. “Tonight?” I ask.
He continues, nonplussed by my sour expression, either not noticing or choosing to ignore it. “Just to get a head start. Maybe take down some of the posters on your wall? Or pack up some of the pictures.”
My face must register shock at the thought because Mom swoops in, “You ought to relax tonight. I’ll come over in the morning to help you organize.”
I nod and look out the window of the plane we have just boarded, the plane that will be taking us back to Dunedin, my home of five months. Back to the little room I have lived in that I will soon be packing up. Back to my last exam. And then it’s goodbye to the South Island and hello to our farewell tour of the North. Then on to Texas. Home.
“One last night in my room with everything in place,” I whisper to my mom.
She nods seriously. “We’ll let your father go to the museum in the morning while we take down your pictures.” She can tell there will be crying. She is right.
Everything happens at once.
Katie knocks on my door and I am a puddle of tears on the floor. “Are you alright?” she asks, fully anticipating my sniffled and emphatic “no.” Mom is sitting on the bed, rolling my posters into a shipping cylinder. My pictures are scattered around the room. I look pathetically tragic, or tragically pathetic, and I don’t know which is worse.
“I’m so… just, overwhelmed,” I squeeze out through my tears. Katie and Mom sit patiently beside me. I am fundamentally a good person, I think, but not a particularly easy one. Everything in the extreme.
Later on, when my things are packed in boxes, I turn to mom and sheepishly apologize. “I’m sorry for getting so upset today. I wish I didn’t take everything so hard.”
“That’s alright!” she chirps, sealing the last of the boxes with a thick layer of packing tape. “If you didn’t then you wouldn’t be you.”
I can tell this is meant to be a good thing, but personally, I am still left wondering.
Fireworks are shooting off outside my window. The curtains are drawn but I can hear them, the peal of excitement followed by a satisfying bang. Fitting, if I were celebrating, but instead I am huddled around my books, cramming for my final exam and thinking about anything but The History Of Eugenics in Modern Cinema.
My tiny fridge hums beside me. It’s been empty for a few days now, cleared of its burden when I used up the last of my medication. A shot in each thigh, while never fun, used to be sort of romantic. But on my own in New Zealand, I came to discover that the rituals of illness stay with you whether someone is around to make them adorable or not. My stomach will cramp even if there’s no one to rub my back while I whine about it. So I taught myself how to sterilize a needle, and that was that. Eight needles later, empty fridge.
There’s no real hoo-rah when you become more independent, is there? The nature of the accomplishment leaves you no one to turn to and high-five for your success. Moving out of the country was a lesson in a lot of things- how to cook noodles, how to exchange currency without getting ripped off, how to schedule my day around whatever time zone my mother was in- but largely it was a lesson in loneliness. How to settle into it when it comes. And somehow, more jarringly, how to wake up out of it when it’s time to go.
I give up on studying and flop across my bed. Through the wall I can hear the rumble of EJ’s voice mixing with Katie’s. I am simultaneously annoyed at their volume and aching at the thought of leaving them in one more day. I want them to shut up. But I want them to stay forever.
My last day is very quiet. I wake up early and slip out the door to take my last exam. Three hours later I trudge home and slump onto my floor. There is packing to be done. There are things to wash. I am on my way to the kitchen when I am distracted by Katie’s laughter. “Come in here, Shannon!” her best friend Freya invites, “we’ve found a list of questions that are supposed to make you fall in love!”
We sit around the table and take turns answering from the list: what is your worst memory, how is your relationship with your mother, if you could change one thing about yourself what would it be, what is the most important thing you look for in a friend?
“Someone you can laugh with,” I answer, and Freya scoffs.
“That’s a given, something else!”
“When they let you be yourself,” Katie says decidedly, and Freya gives an appreciative nod.
“Someone who will never judge you,” she adds. Seeing how much they trust and rely on each other makes my heart swell with thoughts of my own best friend, and I am almost ready to go home again when I remember that she won’t be there. I remember my reasons for leaving in the first place.
“I think,” I venture at length, “it’s about finding someone who actually likes the things about you that other people tell you are your flaws.”
A silence settles over us. “Yeah,” Freya says. “That’s good.”
No one falls in love, and it’s okay.
I’m in my room on my last night living in Dunedin. I’ve made spaghetti, everyone has gone to the gym and I have the house to myself. I take advantage of this luxury by pretending everything is normal and that I won’t be boarding a plane bound for the North Island in the morning. It works.
Everything is peaceful until a knock on my door interrupts- it’s Katie, back from the gym. “Sup?” she asks, scooping up the last of my unfinished noodles. Just as we settle into conversation the door opens again and it’s Patrick, a box of cereal and bowl of milk in tow. By the time EJ gets home my little room is bustling and overcrowded. We move to the dinner table for one last lingering conversation and nobody says anything important.
Everyone peals off one by one to take showers or finish packing. I wrap up the last of my items, sorting through the things I will be carrying on my back throughout the rest of my New Zealand adventure. My journal, my camera, and a framed drawing of my friends from back home. These are the things that make the journey with me.
And as with any good ending, I start to miss the beginning.
The green hills look greener. The flowers smell better, my parka feels more comforting. Everything is just as it was when I arrived five months prior, just as amazing, just as terrifyingly new.
The rest of the night unfolds slowly. EJ and I brace ourselves for the cold and walk through the streets of Dunedin together, talking about how ridiculous and unreal it all feels. With exams finally over most international students are packing up to go, and people stop each other on the sidewalk to hug and say their goodbyes. I look at EJ as we walk, and it’s impossible to separate his image from the assertive, fatherly, guiding figure I have come to need from him. I don’t know how to say goodbye. “See you in the morning?” I ask, instead.
At Carly’s flat my true anxiety comes out. I start talking as soon as she opens the door, a continuous stream of how my final went and what I did that day and how much fun her trip to the Moeraki Boulders looked on Facebook. She stands patiently in front of me. “I waited for you to call.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” I gush, “but I was so tired after my exam that I just laid in my bed for like, three hours, and then I had to pack, and time just got away from me, and…” my words lose steam. She looks at me, always the calm one, with tears in her eyes. I can tell she knows what I’m going to say. “And I didn’t want to. I knew this would be hard.”
We hug and the reality of what is happening slips over my head once again. I activate my chatter. “But it’s fine! It’s fine!! I come to Colorado like, twice a year anyway and you’ll come down to Texas for my graduation and sure, we’re used to seeing each other every day but it won’t be so bad! It won’t!!” I’m talking too loud and pretending too hard and she’s too kind to burst my bubble. Even in her painful moments, Carly is always protecting me. She waits until I leave to cry.
“I love you, I love you!” I shout from the doorway. Then I run all the way home without looking back.
Katie and I sit on my bed. My laptop is out in front of us and I’m scraping up the remains of a McDonald’s frozen coke. We’ve paused in the middle of an episode of our latest television conquest, a (fourth) re-watch of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I contemplate our scene. “If this was a normal night, I would just write and go to bed,” I say, suppressing a yawn.
“Should I leave?” she asks.
We ponder a moment longer.
“Should we take a shot?” I ask.
“I will if you want to.”
“We can do whatever you want,” she says. “It’s your last night, after all.”
She reminds me that on the first night we ever met we ended up sitting just like this on my bed, talking like easy friends. I recall that night, and every subsequent night spent with her in this room, sipping frozen cokes, chatting about our best high school dramas and summing up the lessons I hope to learn. They are my best memories.
“So should we do something?” she asks.
“This is something,” I say, and we lean back on the pillows. I reach for my laptop and press play.
I am up before the sunrise on my last morning in Dunedin.
I dress warmly. I make my bed. I curl my eyelashes. I pretend that everything is normal.
My first morning in Dunedin I wake up at six am. I’m jet-lagged and wired, so I decide to creep out of my flat and watch the sun come up. I put on three pairs of pants, a warm hat, and grab my camera. As I lock up behind me I run straight into my neighbor, a German exchange student who also couldn’t sleep. In three months a package from his German girlfriend will be delivered to our door by accident. EJ and I will open it and realize our mistake. We will uncomfortably return it to him, and he will dislike us for the rest of term. But none of that has happened yet. For now, we wave.
I walk down my long driveway, dewy and chilled. I step over a speed bump that will prove to be a menace to many of my friends on many drunken nights. It will scrape the bumper of the Bluebird on our weekly trip to the grocery store. But for now it is easily forgettable. It is just a part of the street.
I turn from campus and head the opposite way. I come upon a sign that says “Botanic Garden” and head into the cover of trees. I hike up a hill that will, in a few months, be covered in roses. I will come this way with new friends. I will hike this hill with my parents. I will come up here numerous times by myself when I need a reminder of where I am and what I am doing. I do not know this hill yet, but someday soon I will.
I also do not know that the sun does not rise for another two hours. I learn this after a few more days of confusion. I learn what time the sun rises, the fastest way to Allen Hall when I’m running late for rehearsal, how to call my bank internationally, and the names of all of Patrick’s friends from home. There is so much that I learn.
But for now I sit in the darkness and wait.
Katie huddles in front of my heater. My parents have arrived, they are rushing around my room making sure every bag is zipped and ready to go. Dad does one last sweep of my now-blank room. He is the good kind of dad, one who brings home a brand-new volleyball when you mention that you might try out for the middle-school team the night before.
He is always taking care of me and I am always letting him.
I sit on the edge of my bed in a daze. Have I accomplished all I was meant to? Did I prove what I came out here to prove? Did I find what I was looking to for?
Katie laughs. “I like how Mom and Dad are doing everything and you’re just sitting there.”
I feel something in my heart snap. No. I did not prove anything. I did not accomplish anything. I came to the other side of the world all on my own and people will still always see me as a helpless little girl, because that is who I am. I am the girl who cries as often as she smiles. I am the girl who is incapable of hiding how she feels. I am the girl who is always reaching out for help, reaching out for everything, because I am terrified of being left alone. I moved away to try and beat it, but it will always beat me.
My greatest fear: I cannot change, I cannot change. I came here all for nothing.
“Katie, why would you say that!” I fume. I storm out of the room just to storm back in and wrench a bag from the ground before my dad can grab it for me.
“Here Shannon, let me-”
“No, oh no, let me do it,” I snarl, piling more bags onto my shoulders, “I should carry everything, since I am incapable of doing anything for myself, since I am such a princess!”
Four bags are hanging off of me and I struggle to make a dramatic exit, bumping into the doorway. I stomp down the driveway and it’s raining, I’m shivering, I am so so angry. I hardly ever feel angry. Sad, yes, always, I am amazing at feeling sad. And happy and scared and excited and nervous and hurt but never angry. I don’t yell. I painstakingly explain how an action hurt my feelings several times over which is arguably worse, but I don’t yell. It feels so unnatural, this pulsing hot anger running through my body.
The car doors are locked. I stand in a pile of bags in the rain, waiting for someone to help.
My return to the flat is less than triumphant. I come looking for forgiveness, my tail tucked between my legs.
Katie and EJ are waiting in the hallway. “Hi,” I say very quietly. They laugh.
“We didn’t know if you’d be coming back,” EJ tells me.
“I didn’t mean to get so upset,” I press against my eyes to stop the prickle of tears. “It’s less about what you said, Katie, and more about the things I have been saying to myself.”
“You know I was only joking,” she soothes, and we all smile, but I still worry because that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the truth.
Patrick comes down the stairs and we all walk in to my empty room. If this were the finale of a television show and not real life, there would be a flashback episode. We would all reminisce about the time Patrick walked into my room by accident on my second night in New Zealand and disappeared without introducing himself, and I warned the entire neighborhood that a creeper was on the loose. We would laugh and then share a group hug as our theme music slowly faded in. The scene would cut.
We wouldn’t have to see the rest of it- the part where we turn and walk out, where everyone gets quiet, where I apologize once more for my emotional outburst. The fun part is over. I tell them how much I love them, and for the last time I walk out my front door.
I am very particular about goodbyes. I have to get them just right. I have to leave everything in the right way before my mind can be at peace. On the car ride to the airport I cry, not because I am sorry to say goodbye, but because I am sorry about the way I did it. I worry I have messed it up. I worry I will remember that part more than the rest of it.
Outside it rains and everything is grey, just like the day I arrived.
I can feel my nostalgia for New Zealand building as I ready myself to leave it.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: This story has a happy ending. I just don’t know what it is yet. It’s still happening, you see. I’m still writing it.
But I know it will be good.
“I miss my friends. I miss Texas. I’m excited to go home,” I tell my mom, “I’ve been looking forward to this. So then why do I feel so mixed up?”
She ponders this a moment. “I think,” she says at length, “you were counting on New Zealand to fix everything. And now that it’s time to go home, you might be afraid that it didn’t.”
Everyone has things they don’t like about themselves. At this point in my life my flaws sit neatly packaged in front of me, detailed from years of fights with friends and counseling and harmless jokes: too needy, too dependent, too emotional. As a kid they were things that I liked about myself, and as I grew up I learned to resent them. I thought that I could prove that I was better than these flaws if I came to New Zealand all alone. I wanted that.
“What is your biggest insecurity?” Mom asks me.
I think hard. When it comes to me it’s enormous. “If… if I’m good. If I am worthwhile.”
“Don’t you think you are?” she asks.
I’m not sure. I’m just not sure. I think I’ve changed for the better, I do, but did I really need to change? Would being more independent or less emotional make me a better person? And even if it would, how can I truly understand the tiny differences in myself until I am back at home?
I think I’ve changed. But I don’t know what made me think that I needed to in order to be worthwhile.
I look back at Mom. “I want to say yes.”
In time I will understand it. I will look back on these past six months with clarity. I will know that I am good, that these qualities that make me who I am are good. There’s a happy ending, like I promised.
But for now, I am still left wondering.