My Search for a Place to Call Home
When I was younger, I’d filch the real estate listings from the local Pennysaver and pore over the apartments for rent — a new home brought with it the possibility of happiness. Or something that resembled it. On weekends, I’d board buses that stretched the length of Long Island, spending hours getting lost in the unfamiliar.
Oceanside was a miniature theater that played Dream a Little Dream. Freeport was dirt, soot, and exhaust. Cold Spring Harbor was a boardwalk where I’d watch men fish in waters of glinting glass. Nursing a Coke and a warm cookie, I’d trace over the barnacles that covered the rotting wood. Bethpage was far, and home to a Little Caesars where I’d tear apart breadsticks with cold hands. "You have pastry hands," a lover once told me.
I’d come home from my travels and report about the places I’d seen. “We could move here. We could start over,” I’d beg my mother. Sometimes, she was an accomplice to my escape fantasies. We even visited that apartment in Oceanside. I told her about the research I’d done — digging up high school yearbooks in the local library, and cataloging the nearest laundromats, supermarkets, and bagel shops.
“We can’t just walk right into the unknown, we have to have a plan,” I told her. “We have to be prepared, ready.” She agreed, and I loved her in those moments when we were co-conspirators — when it was just us against the world. I cherished this feeling, even though I knew that we had already become strangers, passing right by each other on the downslopes of a family in disrepair.
I was defined by my velocity, and my ability to move around a map as if I were in witness protection.
Until I left for college, our home was that cramped one-bedroom apartment in Valley Stream. Where cat litter seeped into the floorboards. Where leftover bits of peach pie and cigarette butts were scattered under the bed. Where the volume of the television set was turned down to a low, painful murmur. Even the shouts were whispers. “Wheel! Of! Fortune!”
Our home was above a basement where my cat had suffocated, and the news of her violent death brought me to my knees. They said she ran wild, and clawed for her escape. I opened my mouth in horror, but no sound came out. It was a home my mother would one day abandon while I spent a summer in Chicago interning at Reuters. A house my dad had left behind for his employer’s expansive Brookville estate, a bucolic refuge where he broke yearlings. It took me moving away, and my mother wanting a better life for herself — a do-over complete with a new boyfriend, and soon, a new daughter — to give us the courage to leave.
Pennysaver apartment listings trapped us in disquiet. Our wants undid us, scattering three people to disparate coordinates on a map. We were under construction, desperate to design a life that was foreign to the one we’d known together. We wanted new lives, new families — a home where the three of us would never dwell together again. Unbeknownst to me then, I would soon become a woman who feared abandonment, but would always leave. I was defined by my velocity, and my ability to move around a map as if I were in witness protection. I tethered myself to geography and the hope it bred, never feeling safe unless I was in constant motion.
On the estate where my dad lived, there was a miniature racetrack where he’d break the horses. It was covered in grass and sand — one lap around was a quarter mile. For hours, I would run in circles. In the snow. In the blinding rain. On the days in August where the humidity and heat threatened to swallow me whole. One evening, my dad stood at the edge of the track to watch me run. I had a Discman then, and I remember complaining about the music skipping. We walked back to his small apartment in the dark, and the only thing I remember from that night was him saying that I needed to stop running.
The next day there I was, on the track again.
It took 13 moves over 20 years for me to realize that the only thing I had done was rearrange the furniture.
Watch, as the track expands to a road, to a highway, to a subway stop, to a door, and through its rooms into another door, and through those rooms to a plane, to a freeway, to a blue ocean and hills engulfed in flames, then to a peek into a cat carrier — are you okay in there? — to four rooms with a view, to the locks on the doors, to torching a map and watching it cinder and burn, to a need, a want, a hope, a silent scream and a bottle of pills, to a tangle of hair on a brush that rewinds the tape, to a memory of a daughter, burying her face in the thicket at the back of her mother’s hair, back again to that need, that want, and here we go again.
Here we go again.
Once, I photographed all the front doors of the places in which I’d lived: Huntington Station, Riverdale, Brookville, the Upper West Side, Little Italy, Lower Manhattan, Battery Park, Chelsea, Prospect Park, Park Slope, Santa Monica, Hancock Park. I thought that with each new door, something would reveal itself to me, a bottomless want I could finally identify and fill. A life worth cleaving to. A carpet I could dig my feet into. Pictures I could finally hammer onto the wall. I could become a whole new person. What if I changed my name or the color of my eyes? I always wanted to be a girl with black hair and blue eyes. A face the color of paper, features like a bruise. Me — but new.
But it took 13 moves over 20 years for me to realize that the only thing I had done was rearrange the furniture. Here I was lugging the same old wants, the same sadness, the same incalculable losses from place to place — only whitewashing them with fresh paint, and new books stacked on the shelves.
Home to me has always been a molting — a shell of a life I outgrew, shed, and willfully discarded for another. The Pennysaver has morphed into websites with videos of new homes I could imagine wading through. I am 15, 16, and 17, watching my mother crumble paper in her hands, the still-wet ink from the places I’d circled staining her fingers black.
And now I am 43, wanting, wading, and waiting.