It’s easy to forget that people have entire lives that don’t intersect with yours. It’s easy to watch your parents mold their lives around yours and forget they had jobs, other thoughts, and other people to occupy their time before you were ever born. It’s easy to see people on campus organizing clubs, completing academic research, and generally living their independent lives, and forget that they are still 18-22 year-olds who are likely still dependents of their own parents or guardians. Almost everyone has close connections to people you’ve never met and roots in towns you’ve never heard of. Hell, nobody even knows I’m a twin unless I explicitly tell them.
This weekend has brought the idea of these separate lives uncomfortably close to my consciousness. As Fall Break started, the majority of people I know on campus invoked the mysterious names of hometowns and old friends before disappearing to visit them. This morning, I went with my parents to my dad’s hometown, listening as he pointed out the house he used to live in and the high school he used to go to as we drove around.
I say these events bring this idea uncomfortably close because I find the idea itself terribly disconcerting. When a college friend mentions friends they made before starting school or a parent alludes to life before they had me, it’s a reminder that I am in fact not the protagonist of the universe. The unseen lives of all my acquaintances and relatives have and will continue to operate just fine without me. And as much as I admittedly dismiss people during my own separate life, it feels so much worse to apply it to myself.
It seems to me that these separate lives can be split into two categories: the double life, and the past life. The college student with a different set of friends and behaviors at home and at school has a double life. They are one person on campus (a student, the mom friend, a public policy major) and someone else at home (a daughter, the funny one, a theatre junkie). When they go home on breaks, they revert. The parent with a life before you has a past life. Their childhood home is a house someone new lives in that they point to their children as they drive by. When they go home, they stay themselves—they’ve gone on far enough ahead that they don’t slide back into old roles.
Discomfort with changing identities and arguments about which version of these people is more real aside, the idea of separate lives is also uncomfortable to me because I don’t know which kind I have anymore. I’ve spent the majority of my life avoiding situations that produce nostalgia; I find the feeling of reminiscence vaguely nauseating. So when I go home, I refuse to settle back into the roles I used to have. I won’t complain to my parents about the snide remarks my brothers make anymore (and to be fair, they won’t make them). I won’t encourage my friends to rehash drama we experienced junior year of high school. I won’t crack open my old yearbooks or listen to the music I used to like. I refuse to worry about the same things I did in high school—I traded all my old neuroses for new ones. But as much as I avoid thinking about my past, I can’t make the final cessation that’ll turn it into a past life. When I’m home, I still sleep in the same bed I did in high school, even if my mom won’t gently tap on my door at 6:30 a.m. and ask what I want for breakfast. I still have pictures of my junior prom on my walls, still run down the streets I used to practice for cross country on. There are still people who picture me as I was when I graduated, and who would address that Rachel if they ran into me here. When I’m home, I’m painfully conscious of all the spaces I no longer fit in since I went away, but the spaces are still there. As much as I try to move forward, as much as I try to define myself anew in college, I’m more a muddled mixture of selves than ever. Maybe this is part of growing up. Maybe there will always be this frustrating wall between myself and others on one hand, and unyielding tethers between myself and my past on the other.
All I can really say is this is excellent fodder for existential dread, and at least I have a few days off from school to start wrapping my head around it.