“Where are you from?”
It’s a simple question, a way of trying to learn who a person is. Hometown illuminates background, illuminates identity, we think.
When I moved onto Notre Dame’s campus as a freshman, the where-I-am-from answer rolled off my tongue. I responded with my home state or, if I felt like being specific, my town.
Five years later, the question is harder. The possible replies compete to exit my mouth first: New Jersey, Princeton, Indiana, Notre Dame, Washington D.C., The United States.
My hesitation makes me uneasy. Where am I from?
It stands just off the side of the driveway, a monument to layup practice and one-on-one. It’s been there for what feels like forever but is probably only 10 years. In my mind, it’s imbued with my stories — a testament to milestones passed, footpaths traversed, bridges burned along the way.
I’m 15 when I discover that the basketball hoop helps me to heal. I duck outside one evening and dribble around the driveway, shooting lazy free throws as I go. My head spins, and I’m lost in my thoughts. There’s a blue-eyed boy from school who knows I think he has a cute smile but who says that although I’m “a sweet girl,” he just doesn’t like-like me, ya know? “I had to let her down easy,” he tells his friend, thinking I won’t find out. But I find out, and the comment stings. When you’re 15, I learn, your heart is fragile. So I dribble in circles that night, throwing shots up against the backboard, over and over, until the chill of the breeze drives me inside.
I’m 17, and I think I’ve managed to slip out to the garage when a voice from the couch asks me where I’m going. “Just to the driveway,” I call back, shutting the door behind me before he can question me further. High school is finally, blessedly, in my rearview mirror. I’m looking to the future with excitement and worry, while my childhood appears to me through the rose-colored glasses that often come with endings. What if I didn’t know how good I had it while I was growing up? What if none of my college classmates like me? What if it’s hard? What if, what if, what if?
I’m 19, and I’m preparing to spend a semester on the other side of an ocean from everything I’ve known. As I dribble up and down the driveway, I try to process what this will mean: living with someone else’s family, a language barrier, four months away from campus and the people I’ve come to love. I haven’t left the country yet, and I already feel pummeled by loss. I toss the ball up toward the hoop — one, two, three times. I don’t let myself go inside until a shot swishes through the net.
I’m 21, and the wound of graduation is raw. I hold the basketball in my hands one night as I sit on the Belgian Block lining the driveway and gaze aimlessly toward the street. Crickets, but otherwise silence. Four months after we packed up my South Bend home within easy sight of Notre Dame’s main gates, and I am back at my parents’ house in Small Town, USA, jobless, restless and scared that it will always be this way. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I know I’m ready to leave.
I’m 23, and the months since graduation have become a blur. A move to Washington, D.C., filled with equal parts trepidation and relief. A weekend disconnected from everything in the hills of Pennsylvania. A funeral and a wedding, in quick succession. And still, uncertainty about where I’m headed and what turns the path will take. But now, nights shooting hoops on the driveway hint at serenity. I don’t know where I’m going, so I’m trying to enjoy the ride.
“Where are you from?”
It’s a simple question, but life has obscured the answer. Time transforms experience, transforms identity, I think.
So far, the trail has been winding.Walks around St. Joseph’s Lake as a freshman, praying that I would find my place at Notre Dame. Washing my hair in a sink in a Madrid airport with my study-abroad companions, thinking that if I have to do this, there’s no one else I’d rather be with. Ten weeks falling in love with Pittsburgh before having to leave. Flights to Boston, Miami, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles. Two months on an air mattress, wondering what would come next.
The 23-year-old me, who is learning to live the questions, hardly recognizes the 15-year-old me, whose small, insular world could be so easily upturned by a bad hair day or an unfriendly look. Years have passed, and much has changed.
But every so often, I return to the house where I grew up. I put on my shoes and slide out the garage door with a basketball in hand. Come highs or come lows, the hoop is always there, right where I left it, reminding me where I’m from.
Marisa Iati is a reporter for The Star-Ledger and NJ.com in New Jersey. Her article was awarded an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2015 Young Alumni Essay contest.