The first time I moved out on my own I was a smooth year or two out of high school. I can’t immediately recall the nitty-gritty specifics: my exact age, how my then roommate (the high school best friend whose mother also outed me out to my own mother) and I found the apartment, what the actual moving process was like, the weather or season. What I do remember were the feelings: my huevos dropping heavy with audacity and bass after announcing my departure to my mother’s face; the rush of release once the tether that anchored me to her snapped open and cut loose as I walked out through her door; and the feeling that settled at lining of my stomach’s floor in my new bedroom after the move.
For the first time in my life I felt…free.
Felt free not because I had an actual plan in place. I didn’t have a significant amount of money saved, or even a clue about what the fuck what I was going to do next. But rather, this new feeling of free—of freedom—felt new because it was a feeling foreign and unknown to me. New in my body. Having been raised by a single mother, a Pentecostal Christian immigrant woman, not only were costumbres Americanas—such as opinions, options, independence or even autonomy over my own body—not even within the purview of options available to me, they were so inaccessible and far out of reach that I did not dream, desire or long for them.
Once I finally had access to this new freedom, I did not actually know what to do with it. How to hold it. What to name it. How it felt to exist in my body. What mattered was that it was the first time in my life that I would no longer live with her. No longer be around her. No longer have to be in her presence or within the perimeters of her jurisdiction. No longer be suffocating, without breath, caving and shrinking into myself at the weight of her shadow and beneath her mother-grip.
The truth is I had no actual plan. Just heavy huevos and legs that could and did walk away.
What may be considered as important details to most often get rendered lost in my own retellings and rememberings. At 31 years of age my memory, more often than not, fails and betrays me regularly, as the people that know me best already know or have begun to discover.
“I told you I can’t eat seafood.”
“No I never met my grandfather. He died when I was three.”
“Don’t you remember I’m deathly allergic to cats?”
Enters my blank stare.
I find myself often piecing bits and pieces together in hopes to make a semblance of a full, whole memory. And when I can’t rely on myself I rely on others to stitch the gaps and fill the seams in. Help me thread a whole memory together. At first I began laughing my “forgetfulness” off as an ongoing running joke. But little did or do folks know that for me it is a joke of the cruelest kind. The kind that is frightening and paralyzing. Forgetting. I do not want to keep on forgetting. I eventually began mentioning this real reality more casually and entering it into everyday conversations in order to make it feel less scary. But the older I am becoming the more I am starting to think about it real seriously; the severity it, perhaps, one day may turn out to be.
Enters #52essays2017 and my journey this year into what #relentless writer Vanessa Mártir describes as digging into memory.
To be honest I am not sure if I actually do forget—have forgotten—these and other life-significant memories, or if my mind has selectively blocked out the difficult things that are for me to remember and reremember. Recall for the retelling and pleasure of others. Perhaps instead my mind purposely creates and recreates truncated, packaged versions of my history in order to auto-pilot-self-preserve itself. Its own way of ensuring that it, and I, now adult, have the opportunity to begin again. To begin anew. Reconstruct and remake myself, over and over again. Be the adult-person now that my child-self needed back then.
At 31 years old I have moved a total of nine times since that first move 13 years ago. I know there have been nine moves because recently my sister made me recount each of them, teasing and asking why I moved for each, while on a long drive to Target to pick up storage bins the day after Christmas. The ride right before we had our most recent argument and fight. Perhaps as an effort to connect, she too having recently moved. Trying to connect even though she has yet to make time to visit said new apartment.
For years I’ve thought about writing about each of these homes, and the circumstances that surround their moves to and from. Map and trace them out. Sit with my grief and disappointments. String and connect them together. Make sense of them. Perhaps someday I will. But for right now just know that they happened. That there were lessons learned, growths made and stunted, pieces of me and my/self lost and gained. Each, and the conglomerate of them all together, have made me who I am today.
Two months ago I moved into my new and current apartment. After two-and-a-half years of feeling physically, emotionally and financially stuck—unable to move or make a move—I finally left the semi-basement of a private home that I rented from the-Greek-landlord-from-hell. When this jackass of a landlord raised my already ridiculous rent an additional $150, despite not providing basic things like heat for the past two winters, I knew then that the Universe was pushing me out—giving me an out—and that I had to listen. When I refused and informed him that I would not pay the rent increase, he mocked me and said that I wouldn’t be able to find anything better. Two weeks later I announced that I had found something better, and that I would be moving out.
I left white-as-hell-Astoria, Queens and moved back to my roots—my home base—that is Woodside, Queens, a mini United Nations in a sea of overwhelming whiteness. I moved back to the same zip code that I grew up in and lived for a 1/3 of my life. I moved back home—not to the same literal apartment building or cross streets, but back to the same zip code and same piece of New York City concrete that comes to mind when someone asks, “Where’s home?” Back to the neighborhood where I first moved out from, untethered, with walking legs, heavy huevos and all.
A smooth two weeks after moving into the (my?) new apartment, after a night of cooking food and hosting a Friendsgiving, my apartment was broken into. He—the alleyway security cameras would later reveal—climbed up the fire escape and through the living room window I had opened the night before so the chilly night air could cool us down while my friends and I danced. I finally lived in an apartment that provided heat—though perhaps this time a little too much heat. Be careful what you wish for. He climbed through my window. A recurring nightmare I used to have as a child when we lived in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
The next morning I discovered that my laptop was stolen. I was asleep, laying naked in bed (with my ex?/exlover?/friend?) two rooms down while it happened. I spent that Sunday morning and afternoon swept in a hazy whirlwind of police questions, clouds of fingerprint dust from the investigators’ search for evidence, and the sound of strangers’ heavy feet walking in and out of my apartment. Doing their job, their lives remaining untouched and undisturbed, while my own crumbling at the seams, readied for collecting.
For weeks since then I have been unable to have a single night of restful, uninterrupted sleep. Like clockwork, around that time when the burglary took place, my body wakes itself up. I search to find my face, cheeks drowning in pools of saliva, dreams and my heartbeat suspended midair, hovering over me. Every sound that the walls to my left and right reverberates, every creak that the wooden floorboards above and below makes, I imagine have been produced by this man-who-stole-my-laptop, who has now returned, returned for more, because he knows this apartment holds more for his taking. Or is it the man from my childhood nightmare returning for me?
Each of these night I tumble out of bed groggy, heart in throat, walk through the hallway, and into the living room, assured that he, this man, too will be there. Instead I am greeted by that fire escape window in the living room, now draped and covered in curtain, standing out like a sore eye. Its firm, closed, locked-ness and silence mocking me.
Christmas came and left in a blink. Having been raised by the most pessimist, anti-holidays-yet-fanatically-spiritual Christian that I, and probably you, have ever met, holidays were and are for us like any other day of the year. Growing up we would typically get new socks and underwear—the essentials—for Christmas, a home cooked meal and Dominican cake for our birthdays. Das it. So when New Year’s Eve arrived this time around I wanted to do something. Knew that I needed to do something different. Although I already had agreed to spend the evening at a houseparty, I decide to stay at home and gift myself a meaningful gift: sit with my grief and disappointments. Map and trace them out. String and connect them together. Make sense of them. Needed to mark and remember them. Could not allow myself to, once again, forget.
I began the night by soaking in a bath and repeating prayers of forgiveness and surrender to myself. Allowing myself the space and room to finally cry and grieve. Giving myself permission to finally let go to the guilt that I was carrying and that was consuming me. Having grown up in a Christian home and church, my relationship to prayer was only one-dimensional and one-directional, directed to God, asking Him for forgiveness, but having really little to do with me.
The hardest part of this experience was not the physical loss of something so valuable. Both of my laptops before the last had been previously damaged: the first, I spilled a beer on it and the second a cup of coffee. Rather the most difficult part about this particular experience was how hard I’ve been on myself. That’s because I felt I did everything right. I stopped carrying liquids in my bookbag. I did not eat over or around the laptop. I even did the grown-person shit and got it insured, and after three years, didn’t even use that insurance because I had taken such good care of it. I was disappointed because I had let my guard and defense down. Left my side-eye, chip-on-my-shoulder, guarded, New Yorker-ness off for the night, and instead engaged in that we-are-friends-with-our-neighbors-and-leave-our-doors-and-windows-unlocked-because-we-trust-everyone-white-country-people shit.
Man did I feel dumb. Still do. New York and my momma taught me better.
I spent the rest of the night naked and alone, setting intentions in my new apartment. I fully swept the floors from the farthest corner in the bedroom, making my way into every room, until reaching the entrance of the apartment doorway. I then mopped the floors in the same rhythm, using the home cleaning/cleansing products my friends picked up from a local botanica in Queens after finding out what happened to me. Saged and then incensed each room, setting intentions: what I need to let go, what I want to manifest, what I want this home to be. I threw the broom and mop out. I showered again. Poured myself a glass of wine and sat down with the jar of memories I had been collecting over the past two years. I read and gave thanks to the Universe for each of them. I burned the hurtful and hateful letter my mother had written to me during the-years-of-silence, condemning me to hell for being gay, bible quotes and all, and burned it into forgiveness and with prayers for new beginnings. I spent the next hour writing intentions, saged and burned into existence. Reshifting energy. Setting intentions in my new-new apartment.
2016 be gone.
2017 come through.
José Alfredo Menjivar is a poet, writer, educator, grassroots activist, lecturer across NYC universities, and doctoral student in the Urban Education program at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is currently unlearning and learning to love the American/Honduran/Mayan/Salvadoran/African/Queer/Borderland in him.
Listen to our latest episode, "New Year, New Me" (feat. Ilen and Lauren Bell of Black Fitness Today).