It begins when you leave, for good, for the first time. You turn to your roommate, at a party, or the dining hall, the week after orientation, and you tell them you're going home, and you immediately catch yourself and say, I mean, back to the dorm.
Before the start of mid-semester breaks and long weekends, you turn to your friends, at a party, or the dining hall, and ask if they are going home, and you immediately catch yourself and say, I mean, home home, emphasis on the former.
Home home, with the childlike repetition, the innocent weight on the first syllable, welcomes you back for the weekend, greeting you with anxious parents and riotously happy pets. Over dinner, which will probably include one or more of your favorite foods, you will accidentally refer to school as home, and your parents will either correct you at once (But this is your home!) or pretend they haven't heard, depending on your birth order. I'm home home, you say, when you Skype your oldest friend (termed a "friend from home," to your new friends) while Thanksgiving dinner wraps up, a floor below.
This is, perhaps, the first time since childhood you will repeat a word in a sentence and give the phrase an entirely new meaning. Before, when you had a crush, you didn't just like someone, you like liked them. (Even now, saying "like like" out loud makes you cringe involuntarily). For now, and for the next few years, home will be home home, where you live out of a suitcase and receive jury duty summons and watch your bedroom gather dust. Where you actually live, with your new mailing address and plastic shower caddy and magnificently uncomfortable vinyl mattress, is now simply home. This is also the last time you will repeat a word in a sentence and give the phrase an entirely new meaning.
Home continues to frameshift in your mind, with the novelties and excitement of home beginning to take up residence alongside the fading memories of home home. For a while, they will occupy equal and opposite forces in your head. And then the balance will begin to shift.
When you picture the word home, which place immediately comes to mind? Home is where the heart is. Home is where you make it. Home is wherever I'm with you. These and other aphorisms make great clearance décor at Marshall's but are otherwise woefully insufficient descriptions of the deeply ingrained idea of what home means to each of us. For those of us still studying away from where we grew up, home proper is and continues to be where our parents live and take the dog out and fret about the mortgage. Home proper is where you slammed your bedroom door and did your homework on the breakfast table and tried your best to make curfew. But despite home being a very distinct brick-and-mortar place in our minds, it took a mere week of being away from it to relegate it to second-place status, so that home in our minds is home home out loud, and vice versa. When did the switch happen? When did the slip become Freudian, if indeed we don't actually mean what we're saying, if indeed we mean the complete opposite?
If you have been away from home proper long enough, another development may have already begun. Act III, the last stage, the longest and final book in the much-anticipated trilogy of your life - also known as the day that home, home home, and home proper are melted down and recast to become the thing known as your parents' house. All of a sudden, or perhaps more slowly than you realized, a home (your home) has become a house (your parents' house), and when you say it aloud for the first time you relinquish home to the four winds and have to face the apartment, the starter house, or the couch in your college roommate's living room as home.
For many of us, it was not the act of leaving that told us we were on our own. It was not the packing of the proverbial beat-up station wagon with mattress toppers and twin-XL comforters, nor was it the signing of your first lease (yay) or your first rent payment (ugh) or when you finally managed to construct an IKEA bedframe dragged across two boroughs, three subway transfers, and one monster of a sixth-floor walkup (elevators have now become a religious experience). It was, in fact, the first time we said it, the first time that home in our minds disconnected from the home we spoke aloud.
Home is not something that happens to us. It isn't someplace we travel toward or away from. We want it, want to believe it will always be there for us, even as we demote it to the soulless word house and groan about the long hours spent going back there for the holidays. If we are to learn anything from how we use language, the provenance of home appears to have no more permanence than the words we use to describe it.
If everywhere can be described as home, then perhaps home is everywhere - and therefore nowhere, except in our minds. If you are leaving for the first time, or for the last time, it is okay that you are leaving, because you are not actually going anywhere.
Home is where you started, and home is where you will go. In the beginning, home became home home, and it took you a few days, but your thoughts accommodated and shifted what you said. When home becomes your parents' house, the frameshift has gone one step further, and nothing, or everything, has changed.
You are on your own. You are home.