I never understood what people meant by “you can’t go home again.” I don’t think they were necessarily referring to Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous novel with that title, because I’ve heard plenty of people say it who I know for a fact prefer books with “Chicken Soup” in the title. In general, I guess they mean home is never how you left it, or how you remember it, or how you want it to be. Which is true. A better version, however, is this: “you shouldn’t go home again.”

You need a warning.

I thought about this when I pulled up to the curb of the house in which I grew up in West, Texas, the small, predominantly Czech town about an hour south of Dallas that most people know as the place they stop for kolaches. I had a few minutes to kill, and I hadn’t been back there since my parents sold the house and moved away years ago. I had intended to make the trip prior to that, but I always forgot, or was too busy, or it was dark, or this, or that. But I guess the real reason is: I knew.

Driving through West to my old home takes maybe five minutes—I immediately saw that the town wasn’t how I left it. For one thing, there was an actual, working stoplight in downtown. (With a left-turn signal!) And as I neared the house, a brick one-story with three bedrooms (four if you count the small space between the laundry room and kitchen that I used for a time and that eventually became a home office), my stomach felt like it was full of broken glass. And then I was there. My stomach would have preferred a meal of glass shards at that point—and would have asked for seconds.

I didn’t really care about the house itself. My parents had remodeled several times over the years: first to keep pace with three growing children, then to accommodate new trends in interior design and their changing attitudes toward it, and finally to repair the damage caused by the combination of faulty plumbing and an unfortunately timed vacation. Those were the big ones, but the house was always changing. So I did not stew over the fact that some stranger had probably painted over all the pencil marks that gauged my height over the years, because my parents did that a long time ago.

What I wanted to see, what I cared about, was the outside. The yard we resodded with St. Augustine one hot day. The tree I used to jump over (and occasionally use for second base). Most important: the shrublike tree near the front door that my father kept trimmed as though he expected Better Homes and Gardens to make a surprise inspection. At Christmastime, he strung so many lights through its branches it looked like a disco ball. People drove by just to see it.

I couldn’t stay for long. I had the time; I just couldn’t last. The yard was dead—the only one on the block—except for a few patches of calf-high weeds. The tree was now a giant, but it didn’t look healthy, like a tall kid who ate only fast food and constantly slouched. And the bush, the prize, was unkempt and misshapen. Once a massive globe of tiny green leaves, cut into an almost-perfect sphere, it very obviously had not been attended to in the four years since I last saw it, save a few spots on the side where it had been hacked off to keep the entryway clear. It looked like an egg at the exact moment its shell hits the rim of a bowl, frozen in mid-explosion. Everything else was in a similar state, either dead or overgrown. The whole place looked abandoned. 

Now, months later, that’s all I see when I think about the house I lived in for 15 years and visited for 10 more. Not jumping over the top of a baby oak tree and landing on a bed of bright green grass that felt like shag carpeting on spring afternoons. Not standing on the curb when we plugged in the lights for the first time, making that tree near the front door glow like the moon in a planetarium. I can get there eventually, but I have to wade through all the images of what I saw that day.

Don’t go home again. You can, but you shouldn’t.