Last week, I moved all of my belongings into storage and took off for China, where I’m teaching for the summer. Because I was leaving, and because my boyfriend and I are “taking a break,” we decided to give up our apartment, even though it was really, really nice, and surprisingly affordable. I toyed with the idea of subletting it, but there’s no way I could afford the rent on my own when I return, and it would be depressing to be in our old place and surrounded by reminders that we couldn’t make it work even though we loved each other and, again, had a pretty great apartment. In New York City, that’s some sort of crime.
When I was slipping the keys to my storage unit on my key chain, I realized that although my key chain weighs, like, a pound and a half, the keys to that lock are the only keys I need. They, of course, weigh almost nothing. A lot of people move their stuff into storage and marvel at how their life and belongings, which once seemed so sprawling, fit so easily into a 5 x 10 unit. I certainly did, and knowing that key would be my only connection to all of my stuff when I was halfway around the world was both liberating and frightening.
I’ve never been a big “home” person. I didn’t feel at home in the home I grew up in, and everywhere I’ve lived since seemed like it would be temporary, even when it wasn’t supposed to be (like the place I just moved out of). I don’t feel that I’ve truly belonged in any of the places I’ve ended up in. I’m not opposed to “home” – I have ridiculously vivid and detailed fantasies about living in an old industrial building by the water, and in a prefab home in upstate New York–- but those are fantasies, and really, they’re about space. I want to find a home, but I’m not actively looking for one. Sometimes I get sad and think I will find a home but won’t recognize it. I know that “home” is usually something you create, not find, but I’m too skittish to try to create one, even though I sense that having a home would actually make me happier than I can imagine being.
The one time I was actually excited to make a home was when I moved to Brooklyn with three friends when we graduated college – a whopping 12 years ago. We had a small duplex apartment in a not-yet-nice neighborhood (my roommate was mugged within a week), and though it wasn’t quite perfect, it was ours, we could afford it, and we wanted it to be awesome. And it was really awesome for the three months that we were there, before a fire put an end to our party. I didn’t own that much at the time, but a combination of smoke damage and water from the firefighter’s hoses (firefighters fucking wreck places—they break the window, smash the walls, it’s crazy—I know they have to, and I love them, but wow) did away with most of my books, clothing, and my dorky Asian candy collection.
That fire is only one of many disasters that have befallen places that I, or members of my family, have lived. I have always had an aversion to home, but I’m sure it’s been encouraged by the fact that I’ve repeatedly been made aware of how temporary “home” can be.
Growing up, my family had a cabin in New Hampshire, and there was a barn on the property with a small apartment that we rented to college students. The barn burnt down when I was in middle school (the apartment was empty at the time), and then the house itself burnt down when I was in college. Apparently squirrels were responsible for both fires. My mother’s boyfriend was living in the cabin when it burned down, and I was the person who received his hysterical call about the disaster. It must have been Thanksgiving or some other holiday because I was in Boston (in the house I grew up in) and my mother was in detox. I was smoking pot with my friend on the living room floor when he called, and I remember numbly thinking, “You have got to be fucking kidding me,” before going a bit more numb. The cabin was adorable but I wasn’t attached to it. I wasn’t attached to anywhere. Still, the enormity of the situation made me want to cry, but I was too stoned to do it.
The event was terrible, but the timing actually seemed ideal. I could tell my mother while she was in detox, and that might allow her to freak out in a place where she actually had support. I think it did, but it didn’t matter because she went on a real bender when she got out. She and my father spent a lot of time in that little house, and some of my father’s ashes were spread under a tree on the property. She lost a lot of mementos in the fire, and she lost a place to hide. When I tally up all the reasons my mother had to grieve, I am very humbled.
So we had those two fires in New Hampshire, and then mine in Brooklyn. In addition to fires, my family has had two floods – one in my mother’s house, and one in my sister’s. Both came from the top floor, and both did extensive damage. Also, my sister now lives in a nice suburb in a neighborhood that hasn’t seen a break-in in 15 years, but last year, her house was broken into in the middle of the day.
The first time my boyfriend met my brother-in-law, my brother-in-law asked him if I’d mentioned the “family curse.” I hadn’t, because I’d never interpreted these events quite that way. It was kind of a dickish comment, but maybe it wasn’t totally uncalled for. We do seem to have a problem with property, and the more I think about it, the more spooked I get, and the more I spend on apartment insurance.
Unfortunately, I’m spacey enough that more disasters seem a little inevitable. Before I moved to China I left the gas on in my apartment, and everyone in the building started freaking out when they started smelling it. All the neighbors were texting each other, and my boyfriend, who was at work, was texting me because he figured I was behind the smell, and might be close enough to get home and turn off the oven. When no one could get in touch with me they finally called the landlord, who went into the apartment and turned it off. While all of this was happening I was far away on the Upper West Side, talking to my therapist about how I’m really spacey and disorganized and how many problems this causes for me. When I left his office I looked my phone and saw all the missed calls and read all the texts, and I became so anxious and embarrassed that I almost fainted. The situation turned out okay, but I was upset for days.
It’s probably good that my stuff is in storage. It’s safe there. It’s depressing that my stuff is safer without me. I want to finally become responsible enough to take care of my stuff, especially because at this point, my stuff is largely a collection of things that I took from my mom’s house, things that belonged to my parents and things that I am thrilled to now own. I feel comfortable when I’m surrounded by them. I’m proud these things are mine now, proud of my parents for having cool taste, and grateful that I own things I couldn’t or wouldn’t buy for myself. My collection of their random objects—their rugs, ethnic tchotchkes, prints, and books—is what actual feels like home. This surprises me. I’d think that whatever version of home I find would be completely and purposefully unconnected from my parents and my past. My sister thinks it’s weird that I have so much of our parents’ stuff, but I love their things, and I want them around me.
I’m glad my stuff is waiting for me. It makes me feel less adrift. I guess I like the feeling of being anchored by something. I do hope I find a place where I can be with all that stuff, and be happy with where I am.