Imagine You're Home
At Long Last
Imagine damp grass underneath a star-speckled sky. Envision concrete sidewalks nestled against bustling streets. Cassie could. She could still remember her life in these places vividly, as if her time there had been captured on film and relayed through the big screen.
But no matter how hard she'd tried, she couldn't make Georgia or New York feel like home. Sometimes she worried she'd never feel at home anywhere.
It took only eight months of life in Manhattan for Cassie to realize it wasn't where she belonged. Before that, it took eight months for her to realize that the man she'd loved in Georgia would never love her back. She could win the lottery, befriend celebrities, and have all the plastic surgery in the world, and yet she'd never be enough for him.
She swallowed once and dug her nails into her fist to fight the prickling behind her eyes. After a few moments, the prickling faded away, and she felt fine again.
"Miss? This is the last stop on the bus."
Cassie looked up from her seat on the bus to see a bald, short, skinny man staring at her with disdain as he stood by the exit.
"Oh I'm sorry, sir," she said. She grabbed her duffel in one hand and scooped up the pet carrier holding her dog, Skippy, in the other, before exiting the empty bus.
"Do you know where you're going? It's dark out," he called out after her.
Cassie smiled. "I have an apartment here, just a five minute walk away."
The man shrugged, closed the bus doors, then took off down the bustling street.
Palm trees and lamp posts lined the sidewalks. Cars drove by quickly in blurs of lights and colors. There was a breeze in the air, and while it was warm out, it wasn't humid.
So this is what California is like, Cassie thought to herself.
Cassie finally reached 303 Yellowberry Lane, which housed a small, two-story stucco apartment complex of about twenty units. She lugged Skippy's carrier and her duffel up the steps to Unit 15, reached inside her pocket for the key the landlords mailed her a week ago, and slid it into the lock. The door clicked open, and she reached inside to flip the switch, which flooded the small studio with light immediately.
Cassie took Skippy on a potty break back outside, and then they returned to settle in for the night. She grabbed the Amazon package from the balcony, locked the front door, and opened the package to reveal the air mattress she'd purchased two days ago.
Forty minutes later, Cassie lay on her back on the limp air mattress with Skippy nestled into her, cheek-to-cheek.
"It's okay," Cassie whispered to her beloved dog. "We'll be okay."
Cassie and Skippy quickly fell into a rhythm in California. Cassie worked her new accounting job in downtown Los Angeles, while Skippy spent his afternoons either snoozing away by the window or playing fetch with the part-time dog walker Cassie had hired. On the weekends, Cassie and Skippy explored their new surroundings together.
Cassie still refused to call it home.
One afternoon, while they were walking in a park across town, Skippy became sluggish to the point where eventually he refused to move. He sat on his bottom and gazed up at Cassie with the saddest puppy-dog eyes she'd ever seen on a senior dog. No matter how hard she tugged on the leash, he refused to move, and eventually he began yelping. Skippy's annual vet visit wasn't due for another month, but Cassie called the new vet and begged for an appointment that day anyway.
An hour later, she sat underneath fluorescent lighting in a hard plastic orange chair, her head in her hands as the vet examined her companion a few rooms away.
Thirty minutes later, the vet carried Skippy into the waiting room and placed him in Cassie's arms while the nurse held out a shiny pamphlet with the word "Lymphoma" across the top.
Cancer. Skippy had cancer.
To distract them both, Cassie decided to bring Skippy to the "Festival of Joy" that weekend in their town square. Throughout the entire ten minute walk from their apartment, Cassie carried Skippy and refused to set him down even once they'd arrived.
Cassie smiled politely at the greeters as she entered the town square. Booths from local businesses lined the sidewalks on one side, with food trucks parked on the opposite path. A ferris wheel sat in the center of the square, commanding attention from all as if it were the shining star on top of a Christmas tree.
"Why are you carrying your dog?"
Cassie turned to find that the question had come from a red-headed girl wearing a UC Berkeley shirt. She sat on a bench alone, holding a stick of pink cotton candy while watching Cassie curiously.
Cassie replied, "He's sick."
The girl considered this for a moment before her face broke out into a grin. "I know what he needs!" She tossed her cotton candy into the trash nearby and ran up to grab Cassie's free hand.
She began tugging Cassie through the crowd, towards the edge of the square where a field of golden flowers awaited them. Once they'd arrived, she let go of Cassie's hand and got on her knees, searching the flowers with an urgent look of concentration on her face.
"Um, I don't know -" Cassie began.
"Yo, Vera, what are you doing?"
Both Cassie and Vera turned to see a tall, muscular man with long auburn hair wrapped in a bun.
"I'm helping my friend's sick dog," Vera said simply before turning back to inspect the field.
The man laughed. "And my parents wonder why I don't like to visit home that often. Hey, I'm Ezra, by the way."
Cassie shifted Skippy to her other side, and nodded warily. "Cassie." She paused before adding, "This is your home?"
"I mean...I grew up here, so..."
"Ezra is a gypsy," Vera spoke up in a flat voice as she carefully twisted the stem of a flower she held only inches from her eyes. "He doesn't have a home."
Ezra laughed again. "I have the best home there is! Planet Earth!"
Vera rolled her eyes. "That's debatable."
Cassie slowly lowered herself to sit in the grass beside Vera, still cradling Skippy in her arms.
"What's wrong with him?" Ezra asked.
Cassie kissed the top of Skippy's head. "Skippy has cancer."
"I see," Ezra said quietly. "And what's wrong with you?"
Cassie stared at him. "Excuse me?"
"You have Sad Girl written all over you. No offense, but unless you're Lana Del Rey, I'm gonna ask questions."
As hard as she fought against the curling of her lips, that did it: now Cassie was smiling. "I love Lana Del Rey."
"So she can smile!" Ezra lowered himself beside her, and reached out to scratch Skippy's head. "Sorry, buddy."
"Ta-da!" Vera said proudly now. She stood in front of them, beaming excitedly as she revealed a flower crown from behind her back and leaned over to carefully arrange it on Skippy's head.
"Beautiful," Cassie murmured. "Thank you, Vera."
"They're marigolds, and they symbolize happiness, good luck, and positivity," Vera said. "They'll help Skippy."
Cassie reached out and plucked a marigold for herself. "Maybe they'll help me too, right? Make me Happy Girl."
In her peripheral vision, Ezra grinned.
Imagine sitting alone at the lunch table in middle school, enduring laughter at your expense and pieces of wet food spit in your direction from afar. Envision lunches in shiny buildings with civil adults who somehow still make you feel lonely. Cassie could. She could still remember her life in these places vividly, as if her time there had been photographed and put on display in a museum.
Unlike Georgia and New York, California seemed promising - she'd met Ezra, and was lucky enough to make friends through his social circle before he left to backpack across Europe. She'd expanded her network of friendships through local music festivals and raves. Cassie did always love a good beat she could dance to. Maybe California could be her home, after all.
But on a random Friday in September, she received a frantic call from her dog-walker. Skippy had collapsed.
Cassie met the dog-walker at the emergency vet, where they informed her that Skippy was dying. They could perform surgery, but at Skippy's elderly age, it would most likely kill him.
"This can't be the end," Cassie insisted with the vet. "Can't we try something else?"
The vet shook his head. "Let me know what you decide." Then he left the room where Skippy lay on an examination table, panting and wheezing.
Cassie grabbed Skippy's soft, apricot face gently and massaged his ears. Then she lay her cheek against his, the way they cuddled every night.
"We've been through a lot," she whispered. She pulled back to look into Skippy's eyes, which glistened back at her knowingly.
"You've been there for me through so much pain. You've put up with two cross-country moves for me. And I promised you we'd find our home."
Skippy stared at her lovingly.
To keep from giving into the pinching sensation behind her eyes, Cassie dug her nails into her fist until skin broke, then whispered, "I don't want a home without you."
Imagine falling fast and foolishly for a man who used you for pleasure until he was bored, then tossed you aside with no remorse. Envision feeling so completely dead inside that for months after, not even the kindness and warmth from a new man in a new place could heal you. Cassie could. She could still remember her life in these places vividly, as if her time there had been painted and framed for art galleries around the world.
Cassie hid from the pain in Georgia and ran from the coldness in New York. She'd tried to make California her new home. She'd really tried.
But how could she feel at home in a place where her only true friend in the world had died?
At 6:30 PM, as Cassie stood outside her apartment door alone, she couldn't recall how she'd made it home from the vet.
She numbly unlocked the door, walked inside, and grabbed the last of the weed Ezra had secured for her before he left for Europe.
Twenty minutes later, after smoking a bowl, Cassie lay on the carpet of her empty studio, staring at the ceiling through blurred vision. She was in no condition to be high. Her head swirled with memories and ghosts she thought she'd buried a long time ago.
Suddenly her phone rang. Cassie glanced at the screen and was surprised to see Ezra's name.
"I'm home!" he hollered when she answered, and the word "home" seemed to echo in her ear. "How are you and Skippy doing?"
Cassie began to weep in his ear.
Ezra paused. "Oh man...Do you want me to call someone, Cass? Someone from back home?"
Cassie imagined the man who broke her in two. She envisioned the parents who would never accept her. "There's no one to call."
Fifteen minutes later, Ezra and Vera showed up on Cassie's balcony. Ezra held a pizza box in his hands, while Vera presented a flower crown of marigolds. She placed it on Cassie's head and hugged her tight.
That night, Ezra told stories of his time in Europe. Cassie and Vera laughed until their stomachs ached. They talked about Skippy, and what happened in New York, and finally, everything that fell apart in Georgia.
Imagine a place with palm trees, a quirky town square, and a field of marigolds. Envision meeting people who've learned the darkest parts of your story, yet they still want to write new chapters with you.
Cassie can. She is still living it. After all this time, she is truly, finally, at long last home.