Sylvia plopped down on an empty train station bench, scooting aside an abandoned fast food container. She checked her phone, making sure there was definitely enough time before she had to go to work in the afternoon, even though she’d gotten up plenty early, then settled into the most comfortable position considering the hard seat and her need to slump over, hugging her satchel in her lap, not wanting to lean against the conspicuously dirty wall. She didn’t mind though; this was becoming something of a routine the past few Saturday mornings, provided her schedule allowed. She tried not to think too much about whether it was a creepy thing to do.
People bustled before her. A lone person in crisp business attire walked slowly, absorbed in the day’s newspaper and holding an unlidded cup of coffee from the station’s cafe that Sylvia was well-acquainted with. Others, like her, occupied the benches along the walls and the middle of the hall, some lounging, some poised to hop up whenever their partner returned from the restroom or the clock struck the hour. A mother hustled her family to the next gate, dragging a toddler with one hand, a precarious mountain of bags stacked on a rolling suitcase guided by the other. The child complained, “I wanna go home!” to which his mother replied in a tone that betrayed deep tiredness, “We’re trying to get there, hon, we just need to get a move on so we don’t miss the train!”
“I want to go home,” seven-year-old Sylvia declared, putting her plastic fork down with purpose and wiping her mouth, greasy from the Chinese takeout, with the back of her hand. Sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor, she scooted away from the moving box she used as a table.
Annoyance flickered in her chest when her mother sighed and made eye contact with her father as though sending a telepathic message. Sylvia’s parents, and all adults surrounding her, seemed to communicate in adult-only ways, codes for the words they deemed Sylvia too young to know. Au contraire. She thought herself not only mature enough to participate in their conversations, but that the adults would benefit greatly from her inclusion. For instance, her dad and his friend debated earlier where to best put the couch when they hauled it in from the moving van. If they put it there, it would angle away too much from where the TV was meant to go, but if it went there, it might be too close to the armchair. Sylvia tried to interject that it should go over there instead, but they immediately shot down her idea, saying that it would block the doorway. Her dad shushed her as she tried to argue her opinion, so she didn’t even get the chance to explain that if the couch blocked the doorway they’d get to climb over it every time they passed through, which would be very fun. Her mom, exasperated, replied to Sylvia’s statement with forced politeness, “Honey, this is our home now.”
Sylvia disagreed. “No, this is a house.”
Her dad interjected with a smirk, “Actually, it’s an apartment.”
Her mom glared at him. “Not helping, Paul.” She looked back to Sylvia. “I know it’ll be an adjustment, sweetie, but we’ll get all this stuff unpacked in no time. You’re still going to the same school, you can visit the same friends on the weekends– they can come here eventually too, if you like– and it’ll all work out just fine. Not that much is changing besides where we sleep and eat. We’re not even that far from the old place. Soon enough, you’ll like this apartment better than the other!”
“You mean from home,” Sylvia mumbled, eyes downcast and arms crossed. She didn’t like people, much less her parents, telling her what she liked or would like.
“Sylvia…” Her mom sounded tired.
Sylvia wasn’t tired, though. Well, she did want to go to bed, but she also wanted to say her piece. “It’s just that we always move, like, every year or six months or whatever for the past few years. The– old place– home was nice and this place just feels… weird. Like a hotel or something. Or something abandoned. Not home.” She intended for the words to sound assertive, confident, but in the moment they became suddenly difficult to enunciate, so she almost whispered while fiddling with a loose thread on her shirt. “And I don’t really get why we had to move this time besides the fact that everything was going good and I was happy and you just wanted to mess that up.”
She hadn’t planned on the last part but added it without thinking even though it wasn’t really true, feeling like she needed to say something big for her words to have more impact.
Her mom made a small noise in the back of her throat, possibly out of annoyance, or anger, or agreement. Her mom often makes small noises, but Sylvia remained inept at interpreting their significance.
Her dad jumped in before her mom could say anything. “Sylvia, have you ever heard of liminal spaces?”
Sylvia shook her head, not entirely sure whether or not he said ‘lemonade spaces’ but not really caring either way. She wasn’t in the mood for one of her dad’s pointless speeches that were meant to be meaningful but ended up being a wraparound way of explaining a basic idea through the lens of something he found interesting.
He pressed on. “How about a threshold, do you know what a threshold is? Like over there, the raised part of the floor in the doorway?”
He pointed, and she looked toward it, nodded, then returned to tugging at the string on her shirt, which was about an inch longer than when the conversation began. “Something liminal is a bit like a threshold, except it can be literal or figurative. It’s an in-between, or a transition. Things like elevators and hallways can be called liminal spaces. That make sense?”
She nodded, thinking distantly she should cut the string off. She didn’t know where scissors were, though. She didn’t know where much of anything was besides the contents of the flower-patterned backpack beside her, which mostly held toiletries and a change of clothes.
“Maybe we could think of this apartment, as it is right now, as a liminal space of sorts. Maybe it doesn’t quite feel like home yet, but this stage of it, filled with boxes and all, is just the transition we’ll live in for a tiny bit until it feels like, until it becomes, home. That make sense?”
No, not really. All she got was that he equated living here to living in an elevator, and that she regretted saying anything in the first place. Her parents just didn’t get it.
A moment of silence was punctuated by the sounds of her dad, who seemed satisfied with his assertion, chewing fried rice, before her mom said, “Stop messing with that thread, you’ll ruin the cute shirt Granny got you.” A beat more silence. “Why don’t we get you ready for bed? I can help you put the sheets on your mattress and I think I know which box has a few of your stuffed animals in it. We can get those out if it makes you feel better.”
Later, cocooned in blankets up to her chin for fear of the unfamiliar dark, Sylvia fell asleep thinking about how this room was different from her room, back at the old place. She wanted her room back, where she had sleepovers with friends and struggled through math homework and secretly read Nancy Drew books by flashlight after bedtime. She thought about the notches she noticed on the doorframe earlier, from past lives lived here. She thought about the ones marking her growth in the doorway leading to her room back at the other apartment, how they’d be just as foreign to the next tenant there as those here were to her.
Thinking back to it, she regretted her childish refusal to process her dad’s words but, to be fair, his point didn’t perfectly check out. He never lost the habit of trying to make his own conclusions from details of the world but rarely fully managing. Yet, Sylvia did have a fondness for liminality. Change is the only constant and all that jazz.
She watched change bustle around her, the crowds growing in density as the sky grew brighter out the high pane windows of the tall-ceilinged building. She couldn’t quite call this peaceful but she could zone out and relax into her little bubble of invisibility among the people who were entirely unconcerned with her. It was like being alone, and being alone is sometimes like not existing, and she liked not existing in this jumble of footsteps and artificial light and hard surfaces. Sometimes she realized– and every time the realization was just as striking as the first– that each of these people had lives, relationships, thoughts, all equally complex and intimate as her own. She knew there was a word for this: sonder. Someone not too long ago had made it up or something, she’d read.
At eight came her reason for being here. Over the intercom, a voice: “Good morning, good morning on this Saturday, June the fifth. I’ll have you know the eight AM train to Florida is boarding now, eight AM train to Florida boarding now. Please form a line and have your tickets ready.”
Sylvia closed her eyes, letting the voice wash over her, but didn’t budge beyond that. No need to; she certainly didn’t have a ticket for any train ride to Florida this morning, or to anywhere at any time. She fantasized for a moment about buying one, maybe there was still room for the ten o’clock ride to – she squinted at a digital departure board in the distance – Virginia. Then she could wait around, looking in all the little souvenir shops and eating a croissant in the cafe, until at least 10:01 when she’d be late for departure. Then, his voice would come over the intercom just as the train was gearing to go and ask for any “Sylvia Johnson, your train is leaving at this moment, please come to gate 26B with your ticket to board.” It would be enough to hear him say her name, but would he recognize it? Maybe he’d wonder if it was her, hurry out from his little announcer booth or wherever he worked from, and see her, shouting, “Wait, Sylvia! It’s me, Miguel!” They’d start talking and, after an excuse for why it was fine if she missed the train, they’d start to catch up. They’d get food together on his lunch break and exchange small talk (it’s been so long and how’s your family doing?) before dusting off old shared memories of their friendship, then make plans to meet up again soon.
Someone nearby cursed as they stumbled, causing papers to spill from a poorly-zipped backpack, and Sylvia snapped back to the present. She wished she’d quit the habit of daydreaming so much – but not really. Her stupid imagination was inconvenient, yes, but comforting. A small effort on the part of her subconscious to find home in her thoughts. She paused on that thought. That about summed it up, huh? All she ever did, since she was young, was try to feel more at home. Probably this was why she came to listen to Miguel’s voice so often. They’d been inseparable friends from adolescence through early adulthood, but after college had drifted apart. She didn’t want to consider that maybe the reason why she never actually sought him out was because she wanted a semblance of the emotional intimacy they’d had back then, that she wasn’t actually interested in acknowledging how they’d both changed and go through the process of getting to know him all over again.
She got up with a small sigh, made her way to exit the train station, and in the parking lot revved up her car to go back to her apartment.
“A large iced coffee, please, just black,” a college-aged Sylvia told the barista.
“Needing that much caffeine, huh?” Miguel scoffed, knowing she rarely drank much of it, to which she nodded.
“What’ll you have, sir?” the barista pressed, impatient and eyeing the line behind them.
Miguel glanced at the menu. “Uh, one of the teas… hibiscus. Yeah, hibiscus and no milk or anything. And… wanna split a muffin?”
“Sure,” Sylvia said.
“How about that one,” he pointed in the glass pastry case.
Sylvia paid, as it was her turn to do so, and once they had their things they exited the bustling cafe, wordlessly headed a block down the street to the nearby park, and hauled their school bags onto their usual picnic table.
They didn’t talk for a minute, nursing their drinks, before Miguel finally spoke. “Well, I guess there’s a bit of an elephant in the room. Or park. Or whatever metaphysical space you like to imagine yourself in.” He cut himself off before he could start to ramble.
“Yeah, I guess.” Sylvia couldn’t tell if he seemed annoyed.
At least, until he asks, “You okay?” Something inside Sylvia winced at this as she realized he’d asked her the same question in the same concerned tone plenty of times throughout their relationship, but she rarely checked in with him unless something was obviously wrong. She nodded, still not saying anything, wanting to talk about it but also not, wanting his input but not wanting to bother him like she always did with her frivolous personal drama.
“So… Phoebe broke up with you a couple days ago?” he prompted.
“Yeah, she did.”
“And I take it you’re not coping phenomenally?”
“Not too bad, I guess. Not like we dated that long.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to get over it in an instant. You seemed pretty attached to her.”
“Yeah, that was apparently much of the problem.” She paused, but he waited for her to continue. “She said I was too codependent too soon, and felt like I was making it too serious right away when she wanted to start off casual.” She sighed. “Which, fair enough, I guess. I’ve dated, what, three people since starting college… six months ago? And each time it’s ended more or less the same way. I’m always too clingy or attached or something.”
“Why do you think you are?” He took their muffin out of its brown paper bag and split it in half, handing her a piece. “I mean, no offense, but it’s at least a little true.”
“I don’t know exactly.” She thought for a moment. “I guess there’s something about the idea of having such a deep emotional bond with someone that’s really appealing. Like being at home in a person, and for you to be the same to them. And maybe I just try and rush through the initial steps to get to that every time, which is not so great.” She chewed a piece of the muffin, then gave a self deprecating laugh. “Ugh, what’s wrong with me? That sounded so mushy, didn’t it?”
Miguel grinned. “Saccharine, if you will.”
“No clue what that means. You and your linguistics major, man.”
“Well, anywho, maybe it’s time to just focus on… other things. I mean, I guess I get the need to find The One and be super close to them, and it’s not like I always take the advice I’m giving, but one person can’t be everything for you. And you can’t be everything for one person. Then you’d just… morph into a single being or something. And let’s face it, the societal pressure to find the person who you stay with forever – and who is also your romantic and sexual partner – as soon as possible, or ever, really, is a bit stupid.”
“You’re really spewing out the wisdom today, huh?”
“Not without a fee. That’ll be twenty bucks, and ten more if you want me to predict your future five days from now.”
“Sheesh, at that rate I’ll pass. You underestimate my pay grade tutoring snotty-nosed children.” He snorted at that. “Thank you, though. And I, um, I’m sorry if I haven’t been valuing our friendship so much recently.”
He fiddled with his paper napkin. “It’s fine. Or, maybe it’s not that fine, but I know you don’t mean anything by it and it’s not the end of the world. Just don’t resort to only texting me when someone’s broken up with you or you need me to proofread an essay.”
Did Sylvia ever value her and Miguel’s relationship as much as she should have? She had certainly made more of an effort after that conversation, but she wasn’t sure it was ever as much as he deserved. He always tried to be so kind and intentional, where she always got caught up in her own overinflated problems. She still did, she supposed.
At her apartment, Sylvia prepared for work. Never having done anything with her film degree, she was a real estate agent. Today she’d be showcasing a house to a couple who, she gathered, wasn’t much older than her.
While bustling around trying to prepare for work, she deliberated something she’d been researching lately. There is a Welsh word, hiraeth, that demonstrates a notable fault of language systems in its inability to correlate with any English terms. The closest English word may be homesick, which doesn’t begin to brush the meaning of the Welsh word. Hiraeth encompasses a deep seated variety of homesickness – yearning and nostalgia, too – for a place that doesn’t exist, and maybe never did.
Once, Sylvia stumbled across the definition on social media. She’d been scrolling mindlessly to procrastinate some impending deadline but, eye caught by the word home, scrolled back up to look at the post. In a brief moment of euphoria, something in her clicked. Yes, she thought, this, this exactly. She researched hiraeth, devoured the scraps the internet offered her of etymology and blog articles by people who the meaning also resonated with. She learned with newfound interest how Wales, due to colonization, means place of the other, foreigner, stranger, and she grappled with the thought of inherently being an intruder in one’s home as a result of other intruders. Sylvia’s not Welsh, though. Or, didn’t that many-greats grandparent come from – no, never mind they were Irish. Still, she indulged the thought of belonging. Maybe she could take Welsh lessons instead of scrolling on her phone so much, and save up enough money to move to the countryside in Wales and maybe even own a few cows, and then her constant yearning, her ceaseless unrooted homesickness, would be validated. Then, she wouldn’t need to keep trying to feel at home because she’d feel exactly how she was meant to feel there. But no. That was irrational on many levels. Debatably immoral, even.
She saw the time and realized she needed to get a move on with her work, so she abandoned the daydreams and did so.
Sometime later, though, she researched other untranslatable words. She’d never cared much to ponder the gears and cogs of language, and English certainly wasn’t her strong suit in school, yet something about these words that represented universal experiences but were only accessible to those fluent in a given language intrigued her.
Now, she was off to introduce people to a place where they might try to feel at home.
She got to the house with time to spare before the appointment, so she meandered around it. It was big– not huge, but larger than any place she’d ever lived in and it was evident the couple had a decent budget.
Walking through the empty house, she thought about the not-uncommon horror trope of comparing houses, especially haunted ones, to bodies. The door: the mouth. The entire place consuming those who entered. Walls: skin. Or bones, maybe. She wondered where the heart lay. Possibly the basement, or the kitchen.
What if she reversed that, looked at her own body as a house? Her body was the only place she was destined to inhabit for the rest of her life. Did she feel at home in her body? Certainly more so than when she was younger. She had plenty of insecurities, but she didn’t feel like a stranger in her skin.
At fourteen years old, Sylvia’s body wouldn’t leave her alone. She was acutely aware of its unwavering presence. It was always with her, taking up space, soft and constricting.
She gave a presentation in school today, in her last period. Having practiced it the previous night on the phone with her friend Miguel, she knew the material well enough, but the moment she stood in front of the class to speak, her mouth went dry and she could feel her cheeks flush. Were there always that many students in the class? She fumbled to pull up her slideshow on the teacher’s monitor to present it, and it felt like she took hours to do so. They were all watching her. Bored and annoyed, surely. She began to speak. Hello everyone! Today I’ll be talking about the effects of climate change on the migratory patterns of hummingbirds… Her brain went to autopilot, and she didn’t notice she’d zoned out while talking until she snapped back to focus and realized she’d already made it halfway through the presentation, somehow without paying attention to her own words.
She clicked the arrow button to go to the next slide and her mind blanked. What was this graph for? She couldn’t exactly remember the last thing she said, pausing way too long to pluck whatever she was probably supposed to say next from her memory. The presentation dragged on. Why had she made it so long? She hadn’t looked at the clock when she started, so couldn’t tell how long she’d been going. Chest tight, she felt suffocated in the unending moment. As her breaths became more shallow, her voice went up an octave from trying to keep her sentences even despite insufficient air flow. She distantly regretted wearing her pale lavender shirt, even though it was among her favorite button-up ones, because everyone could probably see how profusely her armpits were sweating.
Eventually she made it to the end. Any questions? Nobody had any questions. Did that mean she’d been completely incoherent? At the teacher’s Thank you, Sylvia. Anyone want to volunteer to go next? she made her way to her seat, heart pulsing loud in her ears and legs wobbly.
After the class was dismissed, Miguel caught up to her in the hallway. “You feeling okay?” he asked.
“Was it that bad?” Once at her locker, she focused on precisely putting in the lock combination with still-jittery fingers to avoid eye contact.
He spoke softly to match her small tone, leaning against the lockers. “No, it was fine, pretty much the same as when you did it last night. Partway through you stumbled a bit and looked like you were trying to hide the fact you’d just seen a ghost, but it doesn’t really matter because no one was paying attention anyway. You still look kinda on edge, though, so I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Thank you.” Time to change the subject. “Your presentation was decent at least.” After grabbing the folder she needed, she closed her locker and looked at him with a forced grin. “Maddy looked pretty engaged.”
“Really?” He reddened.
“Well, um. Okay, um, tomorrow’s Saturday, right? I have to watch Nathan while Dad’s at work, but d’you still wanna come over?”
“Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll text when I’m on the way.”
She still felt tense as she made her way outside to walk home. Her palms and the back of her neck remained slick from sweat, and she felt claustrophobic in her clothes, her body, the residual energy from her anxiety quickening her pace until she was almost jogging. Maybe she could walk fast enough to leave her body behind.
Sylvia relayed this all in her head as she unlocked the front door, dropped her backpack by the doormat, mustered a passable “Fine!” in response to her mom’s shouted “Hey honey, how was school?” from in front of the TV in the living room, and hastened to the bathroom, which she promptly shut herself in.
The bathroom was far from big enough to pace in, so she pretty much walked in circles in it for a few minutes. Not understanding why her agitation wouldn’t ease even though she was no longer that hung up on the presentation, or why it is so physical, she became consumed by spiraling, incomplete thoughts about the inescapability of her body.
It wouldn’t, couldn’t, ever abandon her. Even when she grew old, mind wasted away by dementia and unable to recognize the faces of the people worth living for, her body would still be there. It may not be intact or functioning as it was now, but it would accompany her in some capacity to the very end, only beginning to disintegrate after she no longer inhabited it. The skin of her hands might loosen and wrinkle, fingertips worn and scars added to her knuckles, but they would still be these same hands. She’d wash these hands countless more times in her life, and something about that thought didn’t sit well with her. Something about her skin being clothing she can’t find the zipper to strip off, about how her hands (and teeth and stomach and hair and toes) would always require consistent, daily maintenance at every stage of her life.
She stopped and stared into the mirror. Now that she actually considered it, did she even recognize her face? Know it? It became more unrecognizable the more she looked. She likened this to what happens when a word is used so much it loses meaning; if she repeated her name over and over, it morphed from a title that represents all she was into a brief string of sounds, the vowels stretching out and the grating sibilance of the initial.
Her clothes felt grating against her skin. Her hair smothered her, hot against her neck and falling in her face. She yanked at it, seeking some sort of control. Why won’t it just go away? Is it too much to want to feel at home in her body?
She opened the cabinet beneath the sink. Stashed in the corner were the spare hair-doing supplies her mom, who worked as a hairdresser, kept. A handheld mirror, half a bottle of dye, the nice conditioner her mom got a discount on at work. She grabbed the mirror, rummaged for the pair of sharp silver scissors, straightened back up, and took a deep breath.
Sylvia grew remarkably calm while chopping chunks of her hair off without further thought. Her heart rate slowed, the satisfying snipping sounds soothing as she shaped her hair into a crude pixie cut without regard to time or responsibility.
She stayed in her tranquil, catharsis-induced state while sweeping up all the hair and dusting it off her shoulders.
It was only when the time came to leave the bathroom that panic gripped her throat, choking. What had she done? She looked again in the mirror. Her hair wasn’t too bad, but it definitely isn’t very neat.
She startled when a knock came to the bathroom door. “Hey, I’ve got some laundry, can you fold it when you get a chance?”
Feeling ready to vomit, Sylvia opened the door. Her mom didn’t register it right away, then appeared to sift through many emotions at once before simply exclaiming, “Sylvia!” It was not a particularly positive exclamation.
“I’m sorry,” Sylvia managed.
“I – what – why did -” Her mom stopped sputtering, took a breath, and placed her laundry basket on the floor. Sylvia tried not to cry, feeling small and exposed. “Okay. Okay, well, we can talk about this later. I haven’t had a great day either. Get the scissors back out and sit on the side of the bathtub, I’ll help clean up the edges.”
At last, the clients arrived. She thought it went well; they seemed really interested in the place by the time she waved them goodbye.
Back at her apartment, Sylvia reheated a dinner of leftover pasta, curling up in front of reruns of a favorite show. Before bed, she sifted through emails, responding to a few work-related ones, and came across one from an address she hadn’t seen in a while.
Hey Sylvia, it read, I know it’s been a while so hopefully this doesn’t seem in bad taste, but I was wondering if you’d like to catch up sometime. I work at the train station – got that job you convinced me to apply for years back – and I thought I saw you there today. Not sure if it was actually you, but I thought, why not reach out. Want to get lunch next week? The email was signed, Miguel.
She checked her calendar to see which days she’d be free and typed out a reply.