Katherine Xiu

I didn’t unpack my suitcase during winter break.

Instead, I just left it lying there, its contents spilling out onto the floor. Sweaters. Socks. Shoes. A jumbled mess, three weeks’ worth. My mother suggested on the fifth day that it might be helpful to tidy it up a bit, in case I tripped.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” she said. “Why don’t you put everything away?”

I shrugged. How could I tell her — how could I even start to tell her — that I just couldn’t?

This doesn’t usually happen. Summer, in Cambridge: On the first morning, I unpacked everything. Opened up the dresser, opened up the drawers, folded up my clothes, even organized. Short-sleeves here, long-sleeves there. Darkest colors on the bottom, lightest on the top. And, this is for my underwear. And, this is for my bras. And, this is how I’ll line my boots up — tallest to shortest.

Fall, at Yale: I took longer this time. Boxes, shoved together in my room, piled up to my waist. It was too hot, too muggy to jump right into the thick of things, but after a week, I couldn’t stop myself from ripping apart the tape, the smell of cardboard and storage — dank and dusty, clinging to me like the humidity — finally too much to bear. Fan on, music on, I remember slapping my hair away from my face as I put away all of my things, one by one. Finished, I lay on my bed. The heat was intolerable, but a burden had been lifted, that unease finally gone.

But at home, unpacking is impossible. I drop off my suitcase, open it up for the toothbrush and ignore everything else. I pull out what I need. I put in what I’ll bring back. I can’t settle in anymore, and it took me a while to realize that this paralysis — this standing over my stuff and looking at my stuff and walking away from my stuff over and over until my travel itinerary is in my hand again — exists because I just don’t live here anymore.

My mother joked with me as I left for freshman year of college that I wasn’t a permanent houseguest any longer. It’s a phrase that still churns in my head. When I look out the window of my dorm room, or when I’m walking down Science Hill, or when I’m in Bass Library crouched over my organic chemistry textbook, it just hits me, this pang so sharp and sudden that I want to cry. And I think about the way I used to drive down the roads in Phoenix late at night. And I think about the way I used to walk around my neighborhood in the quiet morning. And I think about the way my bed in my house used to smell, when I still slept in it every night.

I know this pain will pass. It’s just a part of growing up, this moving away from place to place. City-jumping, state-jumping, home-jumping, it’ll happen again and again and again. I guess I should get used to it now. It’d be good if I could unpack again.

Yet, I can’t bring myself to hang up all my clothes and put away all my socks and line up all my shoes when I know that in a few weeks’ time I’ll just zip everything back up again. Maybe it’s a bit naïve of me to still feel this ache, but it’s something I want to hold on to, if only for a little longer. It’s the feeling I get when the waiter at my favorite restaurant back home asks me where I’ve been, he hasn’t seen me in a while. It’s the feeling I get when my friend mentions that there’s a new movie theater at the mall, with a bar and reclining seats, and that the old one’s been boarded up and replaced with a Chipotle. It’s the feeling I get when my mom waits up with me as I pack the night before I leave again for Yale, and we watch as Bobby Flay urges a soufflé to rise, sweat beading on his forehead, shiny from the kitchen’s lights.

I think the word is nostalgia. But also memory and loss and good times and childhood and ending. Whatever it is, I can’t let go of it yet. For now, I’ll keep it with me, tucked somewhere safe.