by Annabeth Leong
The sounds and scents I recognize as home come from a small wooden house in the Ko'olau mountains on the island of Oahu. Chickens which crow not just at sunrise, but seemingly constantly. Clean laundry drying on the line. Pork cooking on the kitchen stove and the smells of beer and marijuana in the garage. The texture of the outdoor sink where I bathed until I was too big to fit inside. The scrape of our enormous dog's chain dragging over concrete. My mother's desperate apologies and denials. My father's soft-spoken mumble, suddenly punctuated by elemental shouting.
Maybe the punch in the gut feeling I get when I think of that place is best described as exile. I can't sleep away from it. I am never, even decades later, quite comfortable or relaxed. I am never sure if I belong. There is the awkward smile I paste on when people, delighted to discover I'm from Hawaii, ask how often I get back. How do I explain to strangers why I can't and won't return to paradise?
The women's shelter carpet smells weird. Bobby McFerrin videos play on the television imploring us not to worry but to be happy. My heart overflows with love for him. He is sweet and adorable, an uncle I wish I had.
Other people's food smells weirder than the carpet. Someone else's mother has made Portugese Bean Soup, and I watch with horror as one of the kids declares he loves the skin and slurps up a big piece like it's a noodle. It dangles over his chin. I know I'm supposed to be polite, but I don't know how.
There is a constant battle for the minds and souls of the children in this place. One kid spends a day with his dad and returns with presents, crowing about the cool things they did together. I know his mother can hear him, and her pain and betrayal pierce me. At the same time, I see the uncertainty in his eyes, the way he glances back and forth between us as if waiting for somebody to tell him which thoughts are right.
Then there's the day the social workers shoo us all into our rooms, make us all hide under our beds. My father is here. He's not supposed to know where this place is, but of course my father is here. He can do anything. As always, I feel the conflict between my hero worship and my fear. I know he's come to take us home. My mother won't go today, but I know she'll go eventually.
At some point, I learn that the way to stop longing for home is to forget that home exists. Escaped from the islands, exiled on the mainland, my skin fades and I change the way I say my name. I know now how to run and keep running.
For a while I run with my mother from city to city. The first escape was not enough. After my father, there are other terrifying men. There is an inexhaustible supply of terrifying men.
One day, I strap on roller blades and skate away from my mother's house. I am 14 and have found a terrifying man of my own. I live with him in a roach-infested house with no heat and plywood over the gaping holes in the kitchen floor. This is not homelessness, I suppose, because there are still walls and a roof. But it is definitely not the uncoiling of the chest that comes when stepping across the threshold of a home. It is not safety or sanctuary. It is not a thing a person can permanently survive.
I am in love with a man who sleeps on a floor that belongs to a terrifying man. He isn't himself terrifying. This is a major improvement for me. Soon, we are sleeping on that floor together, and I discover innocence.
We are both screwed up and wounded, but we have the kind of nothing that feels like a lot. I become friends with other people who have drifted. I hear about the punk house, where there's a guy who puts up all kinds of young people who don't have anywhere else to sleep. That sounds great, like a real public service, until I also hear about the large jar he keeps in his room. His life goal is to fill it with semen. He works on it for hours every day.
I work at a restaurant and so does my boyfriend. We ride our bicycles around town all night long when we don't feel like going back to the crazy house where we sleep on the floor. I don't care where we lie down because he is my home. This is one of the happiest times of my life.
Acquisition becomes admirable to me after a long time of having very little, of spending my life wandering and lost. Wanting a boat and a house with additions seems downright wholesome after picking fleas off my arms and suffering unrelenting back pain from sleeping on floors.
I want a romantic story of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, but that's not what happens when we get a little more. The romance of normalcy is not for us. When we break up, he reminds me that he is the one who held me in his arms while I growled and cried like a crazy person. I spend the next decade trying to prove I am not a crazy person.
There are so many schemes I've learned over the years. I know how to use an old-style coffee maker to fry eggs and cook hot dogs (there's a hot plate hidden in there, and you used to be able to find that kind of coffee maker all the time at yard sales for cheap). I know how to shop for a week at the grocery store with less than twenty dollars, and I know how to fill a backpack with cans of tuna and oranges and get on a bus and head for…somewhere. I know how to go back to college and speak about reforming oneself in ways that make everyone think I'm a nice young woman who is getting her act together. I know how to dress like nothing bad ever happened to me. I know where to go to sell plasma and how to sign up to do drug trials and cognitive science experiments for pay, and I know how to make money online, and that it is never very much at all. I know how to apply for a job and make it clear that they can pay you under the table, that you will do anything, that you will take whatever they give you and you won't complain. I know that it's possible to save an incredible amount of money if you have the right sort of landlord and you just stop paying the rent and wait to get evicted. I know how much I have to give my body to science to get enough money to buy a real bed, one that will finally make the back pain go away.
At some point I start to stammer when people ask where I'm from. Do they want an origin story? My current address? The place I feel most connected to? At some point, exile feels like homelessness. I am fundamentally unmoored. I know about possibilities that not everyone knows. My best friend and most of his friends live within a mile of each other. They have left, but they have always returned. I know there is nothing that's really holding me anywhere in particular.
But maybe I don't know that after all. Back in the wooden house in the islands after twenty years away, opening the refrigerator and finding food my father cooked before he died and discovering that it still smells good, I recognize the sounds and shapes of the space around me. I sleep in his old bed and discover that it's squalid, patchy and fallen in. Bugs crawl over the quilt while I sleep and buzz through the light fixture. They are coming into the house from small holes at the back of the closet floor. But none of that matters because I really sleep. Something that's been tight in my chest for decades uncoils.
I might have wanted to declare myself homeless, but home can't be denied because I'm in it. I fantasize wildly about returning here now that it is safe at last. This is the land that knows my blood. This is the place where people look like me, where there are people who can tell stories about what I was like as a child, where I can go to breakfast and everything available on the menu is something I want to eat. This is where people's voices sound right, where the music is familiar, where I move like I belong.
But I can't stay, even though the bakery down the street is hiring. There is a partner in Rhode Island, waiting for my return. There are the ways I only half remember the things I'm supposed to know, and on top of that the ways no one expects me to remember anything at all. There is a life I don't want to share with my relatives, who are the kind to go through one's mail. I imagine receiving my copies of Best Bondage Erotica and being asked what the hell book is that. "You're not a slut," my aunt comments approvingly, but I know that if she knew the truth she would think that I am.
I get on the plane to fly back to the mainland. I am leaving a home. I am choosing a home. I'm not sure if I have too many homes or no homes at all.