You are afraid to leave home again because it's so complicated now--your kids were born here, you tell yourself, this is their home. But the realest complication is that though the home you know exists only in your memories, it does not quiet your longing. You have learned that home is often little more than idea, that it is, as Brit Bennett writes in The Vanishing Half, "not solid... jelly, forever molding around your memories."
You can't go back to the Orlando of your youth, the one you see in each weeping sunset, golden light spilling its bounty between leaves gently waving in dusk. You can't go back to the peace of your childhood room where you slept for eighteen straight years; more than a decade later, your son slept his first seven months there, his chubby cheeks painted in daylight, highlighting his every minuscule hair. You cannot go back to your living room when your grandmother sat, alive, filling the air with the smell of her life, of mothballs and heavy blankets stored in closets and the steadiness of her existence, consistent until death unmade it so. You will keep writing these feelings down until you distill them to their truest selves.
You cannot reclaim the sweet terror of falling in love for maybe the first real time, of sneaking across a darkened living room to plug in a cable connecting you to a now-omniscient internet. You will never re-know the sensation of having to wait for emails and messages, dipped in yearning. What is space, now, not being connected all the time, everywhere? Like the thrill and anxiety of climbing a roller coaster's first hill, slowly and steeply into the sky, the wait was agonizing. Then, the little running character that accompanied the electronic AOL gurgle would complete their journey; your AIM window would deliver the sound of a door, creaking open; you would check your Facebook, and there would be a new message waiting. The coaster dips over its apex, and you're flying.
That life is gone, and to be honest, you don't want it back. But to be honest, you do.
You cannot stop the city, not even your city, really, just the city, from changing. Parliament House is gone, razed to the ground before you could go back for another drag show; Pulse, massacred into a memorial before you could maybe feel a different kind of free there. Lake Eola is unfamiliar to you now, with all the people running and strolling with dog carriages proudly jutting out in front of them, and so many more people sleeping or watching with closed faces from benches around the lake. When did so many people get here? Why are dogs pushed in carriages like babies now? Where have you been while this developed?
Fashion Square, the mall you claimed rather than everyone's Florida Mall, is dead. (You didn't even realize until editing this that the actual name of your lifelong local mall contains the article "the," and you certainly never considered how odd it is that it is called "The Florida Mall," as if, the sole mall representing an entire state.) The entire top floor at Fashion Square, where he held your hand for the first time like you'd been doing it always, like it was the most typical thing in the world, is empty. The only thing left up there now is the movie theater, where once upon a time, you leaned into the lips of your fantasy come to life like you knew you'd never get to do it again.
There are, at least, so many good restaurants now, or so you are told and thus repeat. Can this still be your city, when you never know where to go to see the best sunset, to get the most authentic margarita, to be the most securely off in the cut? Can it still be your city when it's too expensive for you, quasi-native daughter, to actually live in?
They've changed all the exits on I-4; the hill of the Robinson exit to Lake Eola doesn't exist anymore. The excitement of driving westbound and swinging that old left exit to OBT (always just a little too fast), is gone. They're adding express lanes like I-95 in Miami, another place, frozen in time, that you'll never be able to reach again.
Orlando has always been open for tourist business, but so many out-of-state license plates are here: Michigan and Illinois and far flung places sometimes, like the colorful yellow and turquoise of New Mexico, and always the ubiquitous goldenrod and navy blue of New York. They are everywhere, hurtling down the street in front of the sinuous hideaway that is the cul-de-sac you grew up on. You used to, when you needed to head south, make a left turn out of your neighborhood and beat three lanes of traffic gunning toward the interstate, while avoiding cars meandering into the turn lane from the three lanes speeding in the other direction. You will never again feel that adrenaline as a newly-licensed teenage driver. Your mother taught you that to do this successfully was to be a great driver, and though you always equated the exhilaration of making quick moves in traffic and driving with a heavy foot with your father, which is to say, with recklessness, it really comes from your mother. They closed the middle turn lane in front of your neighborhood, transformed it into a median with trees. Now, you risk your life less by turning into the flow of traffic and then making a U-turn.
You thank God you were never hit on OBT like many pedestrians over the years, but mostly like Ms. Betty in the wheelchair. Ms. Betty, a neighbor's grandmother, with her perfectly ordinary striped shirts that hung over her cotton shorts and her suburban, worn Keds and plain wire eyeglasses and her skin with so many infinitesimal wrinkles that make you think of a dried-out, cracked desert floor. Ms. Betty, the one who always asked for 99 cents, never $1, to head across six lanes of traffic on foot, and then eventually, on wheels, for a beer. Ms. Betty, who did this your entire childhood until she got hit and died and no one ever asked for 99 cents again. Or was it another woman, the one who lived two doors down from you, whose name you never knew, who made a bet on the speed of an electric wheelchair versus the speed of cars blindly flying, and lost?
The original building that was your elementary school is also gone, replaced by that pervasive, Florida-bright, blocky style. It's too far back from the street now, missing that tight car-riders loop in the front that kissed the street right in front of the row of quaint houses. The yellow lines down the concrete hallways, the ones you'd walk down holding your finger over your mouth to signify obedience, noiselessness, are gone. You still dream of your school sometimes. You can smell its distinct cafeteria scent; you can see the room in your mind as clear as you can through the distortion of memories three decades old. There's a slight haze, as if the early morning sun is shining through gummed windows. These things, too, you will keep writing over and over, until you get as close to the memory as you can, until you can press your back upon the past and feel it there, still thrumming, somewhere.
You can never go home again because it becomes, while you're living it, more concept than place, more memory than tangible object. It is both elastic and fixed. It's all relative, you see? This is what your father must have meant when he'd say this to you. Home is past. It is gone, yet always within you. It is a totem you will never stop searching for. It is everything. It is nothing.