Coming home – Steph Conroy
I had been travelling alone for 6 months when I decided to quit the job I was ‘supposed’ to return to after my year of unpaid leave was over. And so I quit, not knowing if I’d get another job, but knowing enough to know that I didn’t want to return to where I’d been. Not back to my job, or my house, or my life as I knew it before. It would be like crawling back into the cave, having finally glimpsed the sun. I was untethered and I didn’t care. But then I applied for a job at a school on the Mornington Peninsula which I had begun fantasising would be the setting for my new life. I interviewed via Skype from a dingy hotel room in Sapa, Vietnam at 6:00am on a grey August morning. There were other people’s hairs in the sheets and holes in the walls behind me and somehow I got the job. And just like that, I was coming home.
I chose to make a detour via Thailand before flying into Melbourne. Coming back to Bangkok felt like coming home. Why hadn’t I been here the whole time? I guess because I wouldn’t have appreciated it so much if I hadn’t seen what else was out there. And I have seen some incredible places, but the simple fact is, this is the country I have connected with the most. The place I have found the greatest sense of connection. The place where I read the most, wrote the most, felt the happiest; just felt. The place I lost myself, made some near fatal errors, and found myself again. It’s the place with the most places I have loved. Places I know I will come back to again and again.
On my second last morning, I woke to the sound of staccato violins. Lizards maybe, or birds. Waves rolling in the background. Cicadas vibrating. I was back in Koh Jum. Rolling over to face the sun I was struck with the thought: What if I’m not ready to go home?
What if I don’t want to?
Maybe it’s Thailand, I thought. I certainly didn’t have this feeling in Sapa. Or Bali, where I was longing for home. But being on the island, that island, with the beach to my right and jungle all around, I felt immense melancholy at the fact that, very soon, this wouldn’t be my life anymore. No mud squishing up through my toes as I heave a bucket of water from the well so I can shower. No painful ass rash from riding a motorbike after swimming in the sea. No Thai men smoking their bamboo bongs and shooting the shit while strumming guitars. No more little cat in my lap. I came looking for community and I found it. I also found ways to connect to myself and to the world around me. But could I take that feeling with me?
I remember walking off the plane in Melbourne and into the terminal and then I was outside, scouring the short-term parking for my dad. My phone wasn’t working and it was cold and our wires were crossed and we were both eagerly waiting in two different places for one another. The cold chilled me to my bones, despite the fact that I was wearing a fleece jacket. Did the middle of September always feel like this, or had I been warm for too long? And with a sudden breeze came a slap of doubt: Was I supposed to be here?
But then we found each other and things felt okay. We went back inside and dad bought me a coffee and I gulped it down gratefully. It was jarring to think that only yesterday I was on a bus watching the driver nurse two cans of Red Bull between his knees while he yelled into the old Nokia clutched in his gnarled hand.
The thing I have found most difficult about returning after so many months away is my need to assert to friends and loved ones that I have changed and grown; without sounding like an insufferable dickhead. That the person they knew before I left – the perpetually worried, stressed, lonely, bored Conroy was no more – instead, I would be introducing them to a relaxed me, a me that didn’t enjoy drinking anymore, one who didn’t smoke, one who could, who need to- who loved to- spend hours alone to get her thoughts straight. A woman who no longer froths for movies because there is so much to do outside. One who wants to meet strangers for a hike, not a hook-up. A person who feels comfortable in her skin and sure about what she wants in life. I felt a need to defend this new self. To advocate for her. Mostly I was determined that no matter what, she was not allowed to go anywhere. It took me months of regular, deliberate solitude to find her after years of believing she didn’t exist. What if, now I was back, she just…disappeared?
Maybe this is what people mean when they say coming back is hard. I don’t miss the chaos, the perpetual feeling of moving on, the noise. But I do miss being alone, and the freedom. I miss having to rely on myself and the confidence and sense of self-assuredness that comes with that. I miss the autonomy I gained over my choices. I miss myself petting cats or throwing my body in the sea. I miss myself sitting in that cafe in Hoi An listening to blues music, or riding a motorbike with abandon. Grabbing life by the horns while insisting on the simple pleasures. Back at home, it can often feel like things are out of my control and I have the sensation that life is happening to me, unfolding before me, fast and determined, unrelenting. Indifferent to what I want. Incapable of presenting me with those opportunities.
But for all the coming home has been a challenge, I have found my new, more introspective disposition has enabled me to recognise the simple pleasures that can be found here.Things I missed the first time around. Going for early morning walks and smelling the jasmine that grows in tangled bunches over the old fences. Driving on the open road listening to a podcast about a serial killer. Reading stretched out on my bed, gazing at the small plants I propagated. Not putting a curtain up so I can wake with the sun. I made some bigger things happen here, too. I bought a wetsuit and signed myself up for surf lessons. I’ve gone on some dates. I have consumed alcohol only a handful of times since returning home, only once in the past month, and I’m curious about my new-found sobriety. I am living with a friend who makes me feel welcome and cared about. People at my new job are fun and supportive, too.
I’m still trying to find my footing, still learning where I fit, now. Carving out space and time for myself. Approaching life with curiosity. And that, even more than the coffee, was worth coming home for.