August 10, 2010. Early morning, and I am standing in my old room. It is the room where I grew up, the room where I spent my childhood, my own little room in a house full of memories, but I stand, adrift, my hand resting on my suitcase because I can’t figure out what else to do with it.
For thirty-eight hours I have been traveling to reach this spot; for two and a half months before this I have been observing and learning and trying to fit in, in a country and a culture where I do not belong. Always in the corners of my mind as I struggled to understand a glance, to remember a protocol, to say the right thing, rested the reassurance that, at the end of it all, I would be coming back.
But now that I am here, my edges feel blurred: my vowels not quite right, my memories unshared, my phrases not my own. I stand alone in the middle of my room, and I wonder where I am, and if where I am will ever be home again.
I let my eyes run across the walls, touching on the familiar paintings and prints, until I see a small gift bag, ribbon neatly tied, perched on the edge of the dresser. Finally, something for my hand to do. I look into the bag, draw out a card. My name is on the front in my mother’s cursive. I set the card aside. My eyes are too tired to read it just yet. I reach into the bag again.
Sunday morning, and I am ten years old. Everyone is busy around me – Dad drinking his coffee, Mom making breakfast, the boys getting in each others’ way – so I duck out the door and run down the sidewalk, stopping only long enough on the cold pavement to grab the paper before dashing back to the warmth of the house. I carefully draw off the outer bag so that the dew doesn’t hit the paper. I didn’t have to be so careful; there’s an inner bag today that I pull off in turn. It’s heavier than usual. I carry the paper into the living room and deposit it on the couch, the plastic bag still clutched in my fingers.
I know what I am hoping to find when I look at the other side of the bag: a sampler pack of shower gels, with exotic scents such as Rainforest Breeze and Spring Bouquet. My heart quickens when I see that today I was lucky, that the samples came. I look around. No one has noticed me. I could just take the samples for myself, but I know I won’t. I reluctantly set them back down where I know Mom will see them and save them, and I wait for them to appear in our bathroom.
I don’t touch the gels for the first few days. Someone else might want to use them, and it seems only fair that I give them a chance. Besides, they aren’t mine, so am I even allowed to use them? Every night, I stare longingly at the packets with their vivid pictures of flowers and streams and instead use the Dove soap that Mom always buys. The sensible soap, as Anne of Green Gables would say.
Finally, I can’t wait any longer, and I take the thin packets down from the soap rack. I should have opened them before I got in the shower; my fingers are slick and it takes me three tries before I can get one of the packets separated from the others, then I have to begin all over again to get it open. Eventually I resort to tearing it open with my teeth, but I feel ridiculous.
I squeeze the gel onto a washcloth, just a little, so that there’s still plenty for someone else. A rich scent fills the air, swirling around me and soaking into my skin, and suddenly I feel graceful and elegant and sophisticated. I am pampering myself, I say, trying out the words on my tongue. I am being luxurious. I close my eyes and revel in the moment.
No one else ever mentions the samples, and I surreptitiously use them all each time they come, doling out small portions to make them last as long as possible. I always feel vaguely embarrassed, as if I am criticizing my mother’s sensible soap, so when the samples stop coming in my teenage years, I never try to find a way to replace them.
In college I start buying bath gels and feel that I’ve come into my own in some small way. Look, I can buy whatever soap I want now, my mind proclaims. I must be an adult.
A few years pass, and I have graduated from college, moved back home for a year, and moved out again, this time across the country for medical school. By now I am buying “sensible” shower gels – the ones that are on sale, the off brand, the scents that are just a little unusual – but I still feel the occasional pang of a ten-year-old’s guilt. This isn’t one of those things that should matter, right?
The year passes. I leave to do public health research abroad for the summer and spend two and a half months living in other people’s houses or visitor accommodations, two and a half months living out of a suitcase. Two and a half months adrift.
I reach into the gift bag and pull out a smooth bottle of bath gel. Exotic Coconut, reads the back. At once, both fresh and sensuous. I pop open the cap and take a deep breath, letting the smooth, soft scent wash over me.
My edges start to come into focus. I reach again for the card and open it slowly, skipping the printed text to find my mother’s writing.
I thought you might need to be pampered, it says. Love, Mom.
August 10, 2010. Early morning, and I am home.