Every house I’ve ever loved has its own particular smell. A hint of Lysol, a labrador’s fur, the faint scent of spices. My childhood house, I’ve been told, smells like laundry detergent and a hint of something else that can’t quite be placed.
But to me, home smells like nothing at all.
The dry, quiet air in the two-story house where I grew up is a completely odorless, empty space that occasionally fills with the sweetness of freshly baked cookies or the moisture of damp leaves on the one or two days a year it actually rains in South Pasadena, California. Other people’s houses always smell like something or another. Their subtle scents of peanut butter toast or stale air hit my nostrils and then subside, familiar and dependable reminders that I’ve been there before. Returning to the smell of the houses I’ve known well feels like hugging an old friend. But I can never quite catch my own home’s scent.
I used to try to pin down the smell when my family would return home from vacations after weeks away from the house. I’d lug my suitcase and backpack from the car to the front door and step into the entryway. For a moment, I could sense it: the undeniable smell of the house itself. Two breaths later, and it was always gone again.
This absence has defined my living spaces since moving to college. My dorm room freshman year quickly lost any defining scent as I grew used to it. So did the little space I moved into the year following, and the room after that — the warmly lit maroon box I now call home.
But every Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer and long weekend, I retreat from the newness. Within a week in my family’s house again, it’s like I never left. Its air fits my skin like a glove, even after months of absence.
It’s this time of year that my longing for home becomes a full-body sensation. My feet crave the eight-minute walk from my house to my favorite coffee shop. My mouth can taste my mom’s home-cooked meals, big bowls of pasta and hunks of french bread resting on a long wooden table. My twin bed in my collegiate room feels smaller and smaller, my bones demanding my childhood room’s wide, cavernous mountain of pillows and blankets. I miss the feeling of wholeness I get from just sitting in my room — the sense that there’s nowhere else in the world I’m supposed to be.
For 18 years, I lived in one craftsman house at the end of a small suburban street, a block away from a Trader Joe’s and a few hundred feet from the 110 freeway. I could walk the whole town with my eyes closed, name a memory at each streetlight. That was home — a ripple effect with an infinite source.
The ripples are harder to trace now, 300-plus miles away from where I grew up. Each new space I temporarily coin “home” feels like a small betrayal, a lie I tell myself to make fleeting living spaces feel safer and more whole. Returning to my childhood room is a reminder of this incongruity and the task I now face on the brink of adulthood, when weeks off for Christmas will turn into days and summers will evaporate into hot weekend getaways. Home will have to change — it will be impossible for it not to.
I don’t know when anywhere else will feel like my childhood house again, or where I’ll be, but I’m certain that I’ll sense it in the silence that hangs between old couches and the cool air that spills from the windows into the front yard. An easy, lazy feeling that smells like nothing and feels exactly like coming home.
Libby Rainey is the associate editor of The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]