When I arrived home from a magazine interview the other night to a dark and silent house, I couldn’t help wonder: “Is this what it will feel like when my daughter follows her brother to college in two years?” With my husband at a city meeting and my daughter away at a friend’s house doing math and chemistry homework, it was just me and the cat, so I made myself a Caprese salad, poured a glass of wine and toasted Sheba Bijou, who was curled up in my son’s usual place at the table.
Although I felt a twinge of loneliness, it was comforting to know that my son was surrounded by friends at his college dorm, having pizza during a study group. He’d texted me earlier in the day, relaying his evening plans along with a funny photo of him and three pals sprawled on a sofa they’d lugged downtown from Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood. They’d each chipped in what they could and bought the olive-green couch for $200 to add extra seating in their living room. Hoping to get it back to the dorm on the Trax train, they soon discovered that the sofa was too large to fit through the doors. So they carried it as far as they could until finally giving up and settling in on a busy street corner where they waited for an hour, when a friend with a station wagon could come and get them. Judging from the photo I was sent, all they were missing was a remote control and a big bowl of popcorn.
Sitting alone at the dining room table, I kept thinking about the contrast between my son’s early college experiences and my own in 1979. With my $125 weekly salary as a copy clerk at The Salt Lake Tribune, I was helping to pay a small portion of the rent on a house my mom had just moved into, but then several months later, she decided to get remarried. So at age 19 (the same age my son is now), I moved into my own apartment. I took classes at the University of Utah for the first part of the day, then worked at the Tribune from 3 p.m. to midnight, doing my homework during my dinner break. I had little time for outings with friends; in fact, I’d broken up with my high school boyfriend just weeks before starting my new job, knowing that a cookie-cutter life in the suburbs wasn’t for me.
On weekends, though, it hit me: I was alone. It wasn’t a feeling that I was comfortable with, so without much money for shopping excursions and movies, I came up with my own entertainment. At least twice a month, usually on Sunday, I put on one of my favorite outfits and drove out to the Salt Lake City International Airport. In 1979 and 1980, long before 9/11, you could waltz right through security and go anywhere you liked. For all anyone knew, I was just another traveler on my way to Chicago or Honolulu as I clicked briskly up and down the long corridors in my platform shoes.
Taking a break in my walking routine to sip a soda or have an ice cream cone, I loved soaking in the energy of the people who hurried past, and wondering about their lives. Every time I went home, I carried that feeling with me — that anything was possible. Those afternoons at the airport got me through the most lonely moments of my first year in college, living on my own.
I know that my son will certainly feel that same loneliness and homesickness at some point, and I plan to tell him that it’s normal and not to despair. But I also intend to insist that he come over for dinner. The cat can sleep in somebody else’s chair.