I arrived back in Keene on Monday night, just in time to see scattered throngs of students walking home from their first day of fall semester classes. As I unpacked my car and got settled into my apartment, it occurred to me that I’m revisiting my own undergraduate days when I’d move home for the summer then return to campus the weekend before classes began, re-inhabiting a dorm room that felt like an empty shell upon entry.
It’s a strange sensation to move back into your own apartment after a summer away. I’d left the place tidy but not immaculate, and all this week I’ve been trying to reacquaint myself with the same old cupboards, closets, and quirks. I imagine this is what it’s like to return to a familiar vacation cottage every year: it takes a few days to remember where you put the colander the last time you used it, and it takes a few showers to remember exactly how hot the water runs. Here is my old, familiar bed, just how I’d left it with a few half-read magazines and a once-worn fleece tossed across the spread. How strange it is to sleep here alone after a summer of sharing a bed with boyfriend and beagle.
This week I’ve felt alien and odd on the streets of Keene as well as in my own apartment; so far, my classrooms are the only place where I’ve felt truly at-home, returning to a teaching ritual that, after more than 15 years of doing it, feels like second-nature. In my office at school, I nearly forgot the combination that opens my basement office, and once inside, I couldn’t remember my computer network password. But once I’m in front of a classroom of students, it feels like I’ve never left, with no fumbling to find a familiar but forgotten doorknob in the dark.
While I was gone, the quiet family across the street has been replaced by a houseful of college guys with pickup trucks; while I was gone, a handful of houses I regularly pass while walking the dog have begun remodeling projects. The houses that first arose as sticks at the start of summer are now finished and occupied, with lawn chairs out front that look like they’ve been there forever. While I was gone, in other words, the rest of the neighborhood has gone on living, not really noticing I was gone. It’s a lesson I should have learned long ago, but I have to learn it anew each year: time waits for no one.