Itsy Bitsy Skinny Minnie

I developed an eating disorder on purpose.

 

It sounds counterintuitive.  It’s like the DARE program telling roomfuls of terrified preteens that “nobody wants to be a heroin addict when they grow up” as they flip through a slideshow of skeletal mugshots and emergency room abscesses.  Nobody asks to have an eating disorder.

 

Except sometimes, you do.

 

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January 2015.  The night before the start of my second semester of my freshman year.  I’d dropped my glasses with the help of LASEK surgery, I’d chopped off all my hair (twice) and dyed it (also twice).  On the cusp of something new and exciting, I dug into my wardrobe looking for something to wear to the first day only to find… nothing fit.

 

Your first semester of college is usually never kind, and Christmas break didn’t help.  With brand new better-than-perfect vision I watched as my reflection in the mirror struggled to button a pair of jeans that had fit so perfectly just six weeks before and tried to dissociate my physical being from that reflection.

 

Now, I’ve never been skinny (excepting a brief period of my childhood where I was too sick to eat for months at a time), but that was something new altogether.  I’d never really put on weight – just maintained enough of an irregular, unhealthy diet that the trash I put into my body was counteracted by the fact that I never really knew for sure when my next meal would be.  I’d never even stepped on a scale, except when I’d be weighed by one parent after visitation with another to ‘prove’ they were unfit for custody by the fact that I’d gained or lost a fraction of a pound, whatever the situation happened to be.

 

It was one of those moments where the gears of change started turning.  I’d already moved thousands of miles away from home, lived by myself for six months, taken road trips alone to big cities, and changed my appearance in ways I’d never been allowed to before.  I was unstoppable.  Why not lose some weight as well?

 

So I hit Google.  I learned what calories were and how to burn them.  I learned what a healthy diet was and that mine was pretty much the exact opposite of that.  I downloaded meal-tracking apps and input my data and learned that I could lose two pounds a week eating 1200 calories, and I realized that I generally ate a lot more than that.

 

I regulated my diet.  I ate 1200 calories.  I cooked at home, stopped eating out, stopped putting cream and sugar in my coffee.  I started going to the gym for thirty minutes a day.  I bought a scale and weighed myself each morning.  I watched the numbers shrink as rapidly as the bad habits I was dropping.

 

For the first time, I felt good about my body.

 

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2012.  The world was supposed to end, and I wished all year long that it would.  Abuse at home was so pervasive that it invaded my school life, to the point where I felt like I was choking on it, steeped in it, unable to escape.  I walked on tiptoes at home, never said a word to anyone, spent my days drenched in a cold sweat with my heart panic-racing, wasted my nights locked in my bedroom sobbing into pillows because it was a sweeter music than the cops being called once again.

 

I started cutting myself.  I’d done so, on and off, since 2007.  But that year, I kept a notebook.  I logged all of my failures that week – things as simple as being cut off while talking (because it must mean that the words I was saying were unimportant and a waste of others’ time) to things as entirely out of control as my dad and his girlfriend fighting (because I’d reasoned that, had I not been born, my parents never would have divorced, he never would have met her, etc etc).  I’d rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, and at the end of the week, I’d multiply that rank by two and make the appropriate number of incisions on the tops of my thighs.

 

What I lacked in quality I made up for in quantity.  I didn’t want dramatic scars.  I wanted to punish myself for existing, for being a detrimental presence in the lives of everyone I knew – doing something deep enough to warrant stitches, to make messes in the bathroom, to cause concern; that went against my ethos.  It would have made people pay attention.  I just wanted to hurt.

 

I stopped a few months before I went to college because I’d found a way out, a light at the end of a tunnel that I never thought I’d be able to escape from, and, in the process, a sliver of self-worth that told me maybe now I could get better.

 

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March 2015.  I was dropping weight quickly.  I liked the way my waist felt smaller, liked the way my stomach cramped when I got hungry, liked the way my body ached after a workout.

 

Gym sessions got longer: I could burn more calories that way, and thereby lose weight more rapidly.  Meals got smaller, or got cut altogether: if I ate less, then all those calories I burned at the gym wouldn’t have to work through a pesky stomachful of food and could get straight to the fat, and I’d lose weight even faster!

 

It worked flawlessly for weeks.  I came home from my very first Long Beach ePrix, and at Easter dinner, my mom took one look at me and endowed me with the coveted title Skinny Minnie.  The pride I felt at those two words was more gratifying than anything else I’d done – more than graduating salutatorian, more than making it into a prestigious university, more than living through years of bullshit and still managing to come out on the other side.

 

I ate until I was uncomfortably full.  I even had dessert.

 

I dutifully logged the entire meal into my calorie tracker to make sure I could compensate for the damage.  I didn’t eat for two days, doubled my gym sessions, and picked up intense sprints to make up for it.

 

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September 2015.  A summer in Europe eating nothing but buttery pastries and carb-loaded breads.  Ignore the fact that I averaged 15 miles of walking a day; I entered a new semester poking at the stubborn little pooch at my hips and lower stomach and pledged I would be skinny no matter what.

 

I knew what I was doing.  I attacked the Internet with a refined vigor, searching for tips and tricks and hacks to lose weight that led me to darker sides of the weight-loss world.  I was angry.  Working out wasn’t fun, it didn’t make me feel good – it was to compensate for the fact that I ate.  Eating was a nightmare.  I stopped doing it wherever I could.  I never went out with anyone because it would mean hard questions about why no one ever saw me do more than poke at a meal.

 

It was the first time I’d ever felt cravings so intense that they were all I could focus on, but my starved body was looking for the satiety I wasn’t giving it.  I spent hours flipping from weight loss blogs to recipe blogs filled with decadent desserts to food delivery apps to see all the things I was missing.  It was as much self-punishment as it was a test of my self-control.  How long could I last?  How many pictures and artfully-decorated cupcakes and gooey chocolate brownies and mile-high pies could I look at and still go to bed hungry?

 

I spiralled into forums full of the things therapists look for when diagnosing anorexia.  I learned that I should drink a liter of water any time I feel hungry to fill myself up.  I learned that if I really wanted something, I could chew it up and spit it out – I could have my cake but I didn’t have to eat it, too.  I learned how to fast for a day.  I learned how to sleep through hunger pangs because I knew I’d wake up skinnier on the other end.  I knew what I was doing.  I knew I was seeking out pro-ana Tumblrs and filling my Instagram with thinspo accounts.  I knew these were the signs of an eating disorder, and I knew I was adopting it because I needed something to control, and I knew this was a much more satisfying way to control something than digging the blade of a pair of scissors into my leg every Sunday night.

 

Because at least I was changing something.  I was thin enough that my clothes all stopped fitting, that I could throw them all away, and I kept telling myself it was a victory and that I was doing it for a good cause.

 

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December 2016.  My wisdom tooth-removal surgery didn’t go quite as planned, and I watched days fall away on a diet of nothing but a banana in the morning and a bit of soup (if I felt up to it) in the afternoon.  After three weeks, I dropped ten pounds and was the skinniest I’d ever been.  I couldn’t open my swollen jaw, but I could stand in front of the mirror, so paper-thin that I thought I might disappear when I turned to a profile view.

 

It made slipping into the semester that much easier.  By then, my fridge was perpetually sparse.  I stopped eating meat because it was too calorically dense, I cut out all fats, I wouldn’t touch any carb unless it was a complex carb – and that was only when I was truly desperate.  I put on a little of the weight I’d lost during my surgery, but I’d never been so consistently small.  I adopted a hands-on-hips pose every time I stood anywhere; it felt nice; it felt like victory.

 

I rewarded myself with tattoos.  I hated myself every minute they healed where I couldn’t go to the gym.  I cut my calorie intake down to 300 a day and was so disgusted in myself that I couldn’t just drop it down to 0.  I knew I was being impractical and irrational, I knew I should start seeking help, but I also knew that that would mean putting on weight, and I wasn’t ready.  Just ten more pounds, I kept telling myself.  If I get down to 105, I’ll build my diet back up slowly and get healthy.

 

It doesn’t work that way.  I knew that.  Like putting a bandaid on a fatal wound, I knew my mantra wasn’t going to help anything.  I just helped me feel a little bit better about what I knew I shouldn’t be doing.

 

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July 2016.  Another summer of traveling.  I put on five pounds and had a month off to spend with my family at home.  But with my parents’ business opening up and my siblings out with friends, I dedicated myself with renewed vigor to the weight-loss game, determined to finally hit that coveted 105-pound mark that had always seemed just out of reach.

 

Every day, I’d wake up at 7.  I would spend four hours walking on the treadmill while my family was out.  When they came home for lunch, I’d tell them I’d already eaten.  After they left, I retired to my bedroom for another few hours of extended HIIT workouts.  When they came home for dinner, I’d tell them, again, that I’d already eaten.  I might allay any worries they had by snacking on popcorn or making a mini salad, eating where they could see.  I spent any time I wasn’t working out crying in bed, miserable, feeling like I was wasting my summer and then using the sick bile of emotion to get up for a run.  Shower, sleep, repeat.

 

I broke the 105 pound mark – and then some.

 

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September 2016.  The end of my last away race weekend that year.  Camping in close quarters with two other people, it was hard to maintain the habit of never eating, but I managed to claim eating a few meals while they were in the shower and to eat as little as possible while they watched.  On the journey home, I had nothing.  I kept feeling my stomach, making sure it was still flat even when I tried my hardest to distend it.

 

Parking my car, I realized the elevator wasn’t working and that I’d have to climb the three flights of stairs up to my apartment with my backpack and some hand luggage.  Three flights – no big deal.

 

I woke up in the stairwell and an hour had passed.

 

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September 2016.  When I made it up to my room – dizzy, winded, limbs trembling – I sat in front of the mirror and took a hard look at myself.

 

My hair was falling out.  My teeth ached.  My fingernails were so thin that I had to keep them covered in polish so they wouldn’t break.  I couldn’t run farther than a mile without exhausting myself.  I couldn’t stay awake for more than a few hours without a nap.  I hadn’t had a period in nearly a year and a half.  I had finally, comfortably, slipped into a pair of size 00 shorts.  I could finally step onto the scale and see numbers in the double – not triple – digits.

 

And I finally faced the fact that this was just another mode of self-harm.  This was me cutting myself, punishing myself for existing.  This was me trying to be a kind of unachievable perfect in an unachievable way and only making myself miserable and unhealthy in the process.  This was me realizing that this had to change.

 

When I picked up groceries that night, I stocked my fridge and pantry in a way I hadn’t for a year.  And while it would still be pretty sparse for most people, it seemed dauntingly full to me.

 

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This isn’t a story with a happy ending – or even an ending, really.  The thing that nobody tells you about those pesky self-destructive habits is that they just don’t go away because you want them to.  I still have the urge to spend my weekends slicing obsessively into my leg just because I made the slightest mistake.  I started eating again, yes – but that doesn’t mean this eating disorder went away.  It just swapped into a more socially acceptable ‘disordered eating’.

 

The thing that nobody tells you when you start eating again is how fast you’ll gain weight.  Because, yes, I knew it would happen – but I didn’t realize that by October I’d have put on twenty pounds, that by November it was another ten more, that by February I’d be as heavy as I was when I decided to start losing weight to begin with.  Nobody tells you that months spent in starvation mode fucks up your metabolism, that you can still not eat the daily recommended calories that someone in your age group needs, that you can still be active, and that you can still watch the numbers on the scale skyrocket.  Nobody tells you that suddenly those numbers will drop, that you’ll lose five pounds, put on ten, lose fifteen, put on five – in the span of a week – because your body doesn’t know how to react.  Nobody tells you that you never feel hungry, that eating 300 calories for a meal leaves you feeling sick and heavy, even nearly a year later.

 

The thing that nobody tells you is that it fucking sucks.  That you slog through every day helplessly watching your best efforts be for naught – watching the weight you lose suddenly come back out of nowhere.  That you’re trying so hard to be healthy and all you want to do is cry because you finally know what you look like skinny and you keep looking at all those old pictures where your cheekbones looked so sharp and your arms were so small and your waist looked so good and you have all these clothes that are four sizes too small; that you want to cry and maybe you do but you still make sure you eat.

 

The thing that nobody tells you is that you can’t look at food normally anymore (ice cream is always going to be calories you’re wasting on sugar and carbs, french fries are delicious but are they really worth all the fat, every meal has to be weighed out and analyzed and picked apart).  That you’re going to indulge in something you love and hate yourself for days afterward, no matter how many times you tell yourself that a handful of candy isn’t going to ruin a great day.  

 

The thing that nobody tells you is how conscious you are of your body – of the way your stomach presses against your jeans, of the way your thighs jiggle when you walk, of the way your arms look when you cross them.  Nobody tells you how much you dread anyone pointing out any of those things, or how much it hurts when someone looks at you differently because the last time they saw you was when you were 100lbs, or how someone will call you soft and you’ll think about it for weeks afterward.

 

But nobody also tells you how great it feels to finally let go.  To have drinks and eat french fries and go out with friends and eat things you haven’t tasted in years.  To have enough energy to go for a run.  To wake up in the morning and not need to plan for intermittent naps all day.  To push aside those worries and finally have fun, because for once you’re making memories instead of hiding away in shame of how you look, working yourself to the point of drop-dead exhaustion every day.

 

The thing that lots of people will tell you about kicking those nasty little self-destructive habits that somehow worm into every inch of your life and hijack your brain and make every moment a living hell is that it gets easier.  Sometimes they skim over how fucking hard it is in the beginning.  Sometimes they make it seem like you just get to jump from fucked-up-point-A to perfectly-normal-point-B in a couple of days.  But those people aren’t wrong.  It’s slow-going, it can be miserable, but I’ll be damned if you don’t sit yourself down and look back after a few months and realize, huh – this has been getting easier.

 

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This isn’t a story with an ending.  It’s not a precautionary tale like the heroin addicts on the DARE slideshows.  It’s not a story of triumph, unless we’re talking about poor choices triumphing over me, in which case maybe it is.  It’s not even really a story, because stories are fictional and make sense and have resolutions and involve characters a whole lot more interesting than I could ever hope to be.

 

I think this is just me.  An unashamed, unabashed me coming to terms with myself, understanding how this chemical-ridden trigger-happy brain of mine works, realizing there are common threads, coping with trauma, etc.  Me shedding light on parts of myself that I hide, because I think it’s disingenuous to claim the shambles of Elizabeth Werth are anything close to put together when I try so hard to let other people know that they don’t need to be ashamed of their mental health.  Me putting myself into words – because that’s really all I know how to do – and me giving those words to a general You because the next step for me, I think, is to stop trying to deal with this alone.

 

So, here I am.

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100 Words: #26-31

26. City
A pier. New York City at night. New Jersey waiting on the other side of the river. Lights over the city dance like incandescent fireflies, halogen fairy lights, fluorescent candles – light pollution hanging like a haze of possibility. We’ve been awake for twenty-one hours, walked as many miles, lost ourselves in corporate consumerism and dead midnight streets. There is exhaustion, first and foremost, a filter that every other sensation must battle through to be felt. I hold your hand, tangle my fingers with yours, let my body fall heavy against you, drape my legs over your own. The city makes my eyes heavy with dreams, the cool wind curls me into your sphere like a tendril of wayward wispy smoke.

I want to sleep, but now is not the time. Not here – not in the city, not on the pier, not next to you, not when the seconds tick closer to my leaving with every breath that I wish I could so desperately hold because maybe if I hold the breath in my lungs I can hold the clocks at bay and hold you in my arms for just a little longer.

 

27. Endings
When my pining stories became love stories – when heartbreaks wrote themselves into heartmends – when I sought out the happy ending instead of the this-is-the-fate-we-have-to-accept ending – that’s when I knew I’d fallen for you.

 

28. Sprawl
Legs tangled up in yours, I never liked sleeping next to anyone until your body was sprawled next to mine. Too close, a breach of personal space, I should have pushed you away and I didn’t.

Legs tangled up in yours, fingertips finding meaning in the faint lines and creases of your skin, draped over you tied up in me, I waited to hate the way I could feel your breath tickling the hairs on the back of my neck. I waited and changed decorative finger paintings to movements with meaning, to quicken your breath, to wait for the moment I could no longer stand it, and I didn’t.

Legs tangled up in yours, skin sticky with the day and the hours and the city and the rain, skin sticky because of the way your skin moved against mine – legs tangled, I closed my eyes and fell asleep to the rhythm of your heartbeat, hoping to claw my way just a little bit closer.

 

29. Venemous
Bitter poison pills swallowed down one by one – words choked back, actions buried deep in the gut, acid memories eroding stomach lining. Bitter poison pills I can’t spit out, can’t retch from my body even with violent force. Bitter poison festering in veins, trapped, bitter poison warping minds, twisting gnarled fingers that pervert and defile everything they touch.

 

30. Tell
“You can’t tell anyone about us,” he said.

“What do you think I bought you all those fucking drinks for?” he said.

“I’m bigger than you. Try to push me away,” he said.

“We’re just friends. That’s it,” he said.

“It’ll make me look bad if they find out,” he said.

“I’m trying, but I can’t,” he said.

“I’ll come over again if you want me to but I need you to do something for me first,” he said.

“I don’t know what you want from me,” he said.

“You looked better last summer,” he said.

“That was just one night, it didn’t mean anything,” he said.

“That’s your fault,” he said.

“You weren’t the only one,” he said.

“Whatever,” he said.

 

31. Pour
The words drip from your lips drenched in tetrahydrocannabinol, palliatives, and dopamine. You’ve waited for the moment, planned for it, imagined it, tested out the weight and heft of these words in various settings, with different inflections, with every possible reaction – and then they slip from your lips with the ease that sinks ships and you can’t bite your tongue fast enough because it’s not the right time or place, because you’re drunk and high and half out of breath buried in a dark night wrapped in humidity, but it’s too late.

Your heart misses a few of its quick, steady thumps in the silence that follows and somehow you’re still sure of your choice – because of course it would happen like this, of course it wouldn’t be the beautiful planned moment turned robotic from all the times you ran it through in your mind, of course it wouldn’t be the perfect fairytale hopeless romantic unrealism you’ve dreamt up, of course it would happen here, of course it would be this simple, of course it would be messy and rough-around-the-edges and imperfect and spontaneous – because that’s who you are. Your heart misses a few more because of how positive you are that you’ve made the right choice.

And they ask, “Really?”

And you breathe, “Yeah.”

And you wait. And in the space of the seconds where you wait, you begin to dream up grandiloquent responses and declarations and echoes of your words, where they seal the letters with hot-wax kisses pressed onto your enveloping thighs, where star paths cross and everything falls into place and you fit that last piece into the puzzle and it’s like all the books told you because maybe it can be a mess and maybe it can still be a fairytale hopeless romantic ending and maybe it can be the story you’ve always wanted to write and maybe it can be modern day American realism.

And you wait.

And wait.

And you hesitate.  And you stop breathing.  And you wait.

And.

And and and.

And

nothing.

And the heart you’ve torn, bleeding, bruised, broken from your chest – the heart that’s tumbled awkwardly from a thick tongue – the heart you sewed to your sleeve to bare to the world – that heart withers, ashamed and defeated and distrustful. And that heart pries open your clenched teeth to slip past your tongue and bury itself in your throat and dig its claws into the tender flesh there. And that heart chokes you every time you open your mouth so that it will never be made to feel so foolish again.

100 Words: #20-22

20. Beat
I flatten my palm on the center of your chest, five fingers splayed wide like roots in a fertile garden. Your heart beats a steady rhythm of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard against my palm. I spread my fingers a little wider. Maybe, if I try hard enough, your heartbeat will fill the spaces between my fingers. Maybe, if I try, I’ll never have to let you go.

 

21. Stop
My life is a process of leaving. Perpetual transience. The unstoppable force without an immovable object, I’ve existed in past-tense terms as I left destination after destination in my wake. It doesn’t hurt to leave when leaving is all you know how to do. You’re just a force without an object to give you a reason to stay for a while.

I never thought I’d find anything to make me want to stop leaving things in the past and start living in the present. I’d been committed to my suitcase being my permanent residence, to friendships being as fleeting as a tree flying by outside the window of a speeding car, to a life best lived in the process of moving.

And then I met you.

 

22. Insecure
I wear my insecurities like armor and wield them like weapons. It’s easier to use them to keep the world away than confront the hard truths about myself that I’d rather choke on than swallow.

100 Words: #17-19

17. Dead
You count the dead flies lining your windowsill. Like tally marks carved into wooden bed frames or concrete jail cell walls, they track the weeks spent trapped in your own head, prisoner to the cocktail of chemicals that make bedsheets an impassible barrier.

 

18. Fool
i’m a fool
– for you
– about you
– before you
– because of you
– with you
– around you

 

19. Silence
I’ve settled comfortably into the spaces between your words. Living alone, its intimacy is as familiar to me as the moments I align together to make up my every day. Grandiloquent declarations of affection strung next to uninspired chatter has always made the latter pale in importance in my eyes. Let me hear your laugh, your stories, your testimonies, your thoughts – but let me share the authenticity of your silence.

100 Words: #14-16

14. Good
I am not a good person, but I am trying my best to learn how to be.

15. Voice
The lilting dance of your accent is one with which I am unfamiliar. I could dedicate hours to tracking how sincerity and heartbreak and laughter alter the choreography, how once dancer can be so fluidly adept at performing variety.

I have yet to see the way your lips come into play as a setting – a vehicle – upon which your uniquely-you accent comes into its own. How do downturned lips and teeth ground together and curling-ivy smiles change the way you pronounce your ‘a’? How does nature give way to nurture every time you say my name? How many pages can I fill with its every quirk and detail?

16. Commit
Each of Maggie Nelson’s novels are stories of fixation. Hundreds of pages exploring the color blue, what it means to be a queer mother, transition, loss, death, murder. Her life is dedicated to things and ideas, to inanimate objects and abstract concepts; she analyzes personal stories, anecdotes, objects, definitions. She learns histories and makes them her own.

 
What kind of thing would I focus on like Nelson? A color, like pink? A theory, an event? I’m not sure. I don’t know if I’m the kind of person who can commit to anything, even an insentient substance, with enough zeal to write a whole novel about it. But I think I’m ready to try.

100 Words: #13

13.  See

The first time I see my therapist, she tells me that I’m strong, that I’m valued and valuable, that my life provides a significant contribution to the world and the people around me, and I don’t believe her.  I am vulnerable, not strong.  I am valued for the utilitarian purposes I provide in the moment it’s necessary but that does not make me valuable.  My contributions are ones that anyone could make.  I smile at her and nod.

The second time I see my therapist, she tells me the same thing.  She asks me to repeat the affirmation with her.  She asks me to write it down.  She asks me to do the same thing as I wait for lukewarm coffee to come back to life in the microwave after I wake up and as I try to will my body to decompress as I go to bed.  I do, if only because the money I’m spending to see her should buy my participation.

The third time I see my therapist, she asks how I practice self-care.  I think.  I go running until the pain in my hips and knees makes sitting unbearable.  I make detailed to-do lists filled with more tasks than there are hours in the day, disappointed preemptively in my inability to do three things at once.  I treat myself to a half-portion of my favorite snack and spend three days scrutinizing the reflection in the mirror.  She tells me I do not practice self-care.  I ask her how to care about a self.

The fourth time I see my therapist, she gives my details to a local hospital in hopes that I will postpone my spring semester and admit myself to the three-month inpatient program.  I am not an immediate liability, she says, and so she cannot admit me; she hopes I’ll do it myself.  She hopes it will help me find routine and stability, that I will learn how to cope with depression and understand trauma, that I will find reasons why I should allow myself to eat again, that I will stop writing notes about ending a life worth living, that I will make amends, that I will build a future.  She hopes that three months of structure and constant attention and peers who understand will be the toolkit and instruction manual I need to learn the revolutionary concept of how to cherish myself.

I do not see a therapist again.

can’t find my way home

“So, what does this even mean?”

Paintbrush fingers trace the thin black lines that decorate the cavity in my chest where my ribs meet my sternum. Gentle, like warm mid-May breezes dragging the heady scent of lilacs over my skin. A contrast to the aggressive buzzing bees that had filled the hollow of my stomach as the tattoo gun had scarred meaning into my skin over a year before.

“It’s Vegvisir,” I say. “It’s a stave in Icelandic mythology. It literally means ‘sign post’. Way back in the day, it was supposed to be protection for travelers. They’d paint it in blood on their forehead and it’d help them find their way home, even in storms or bad weather or when they couldn’t tell where they were going.”

“Deep.”

“I got it before I went to Europe,” I add. It feels at once significant and like I’m undercutting its importance.

___

Home. Noun. The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. A place of residence.

I’ve lived in Austin, Texas for three years – longer than I’ve stayed anywhere since I was eight years old – but it still doesn’t quite feel like home. My apartment, well-lived-in, is decorated with knick-knacks. The walls are covered in my own artwork. I’ve built shelves, strung up lights, painted the windowsills. I’ve had time to develop a narrative in a place entirely my own.

But coming “home” – coming back to my apartment – still feels like trying to fit a puzzle piece into the wrong puzzle. A key into the wrong lock. The shapes of the edges, the teeth, are similar enough to almost work. The colors close enough to almost blend in. But no matter how much you try, no matter how much you force the issue, you’re still staring at a picture that you don’t quite belong in. A door you can’t enter.

___

Eighteen days alone in Paris. Eighteen days wrapped in the syrupy humidity of mid-July France. Eighteen nights with my feet propped up on the railing of the balcony in the fifth-floor apartment I’d rented in the twelfth arrondissement, the one smaller than my kitchen in Austin, door flung wide to relieve the top floor from the heat that had accumulated throughout the day. Eighteen mornings of rising with the sun and the scent of fresh-baked croissants from the boulangerie five floors below my temporary apartment.

It had been long enough that I’d developed a routine. Wake up and dress to the sunrise washing the sky in watercolor shades of rose and lavender with just the faintest touch of orange somewhere along the horizon. Pick a direction and lose myself on my way to a final destination – to a market or a church or a garden – and watch the way different sections of the city wake up, how they exist so elegantly while I stumbled, awed, through streets cluttered with rows of buildings. Take lunch with a view – of the Seine, of shaded parks, of sculptures tucked amongst trees – and fill pages of a notebook with words that have never felt more significant. Find your tourist destination of the day and abandon it for dinner in a restaurant close-packed with neighborhood residents who know each other by name. Take the metro back to Dugommier, pick up a bottle of cheap wine, wait for the sun to set. Repeat.

On day two, my phone was stolen. A month’s worth of pictures from travels abroad had been lost, along my contact with the outside world. For sixteen further days, it was just me. It forced me to integrate. Make friends with French shopkeepers. Order food when didn’t know what was in it. Learn to find my way without a map. Experience the Bastille Day fireworks with unmitigated wonder. Fall in love with a city even when I’d seen its underbelly.

I left on a Monday morning, unsure if I was leaving a home, returning to one, or some combination of the two.

___

Home. Noun. The social unit formed by living together. The place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.

When nowhere feels like home, everywhere starts to. My mom moved to Texas when I was twelve, we’d moved houses twice before then, and I lived with my dad in Michigan until I graduated during which period we moved seven times. Visiting my mom on breaks from school, I never could get close enough to either parent to establish an emotional connection to them or the places they’d brought me. There was a significant period of my childhood where my battered red suitcase – the one broken and taped back together too many times through too many miles traveled – genuinely felt like home. It was the only stable element in a life that could be upturned at any moment. The only consistency. The only thing linking one state to another, when even I felt like I’d change each time I made the 1400 mile journey, when I realized that more of my life had been spent in transit than in one place.

You take comforts where you can find them. You make homes of places you’ll never see again. You find stability in the suitcase that holds all your worldly belongings. You find something to latch onto, something to call ‘home’.

___

Summer sunshine filtered through the window of a battered Toyota Yaris bedecked in bumper stickers and a Martini racing stripe. Tucked in the backseat amongst a pile of luggage, I felt a sick feeling of loss mount pressure in the back of my throat, the one that always took residence there as I abandoned one place in search of something new.

From Boston to Indianapolis, Montreal, Toronto, New York City, Pocono, and twice to Watkins Glen, that cramped backseat had become a place I looked forward to being almost more than the destination itself. Intimate. More familiar than the return trips to Austin had felt. It was a stable presence in a summer of living in tents and hostels, in living rooms of friends or spare beds of strangers. I’d left a little bit of myself at each locale, a promise that I’d return one day to the streets and forests and tracks I’d explored, but it was always the Yaris that welcomed me back with open arms at the end of a long, sunburnt weekend.

It was the last trip of the year. Back to Austin from September until January. I kept saying I was going home, but there was a familiar feeling telling me that I already somehow was. I was in transit, moving, establishing myself across the country, always coming back to the same familiar face and the same cloth-covered seat. Always, still, with the ruined red suitcase by my side. It felt like home, and I knew it wasn’t.

___

In 2016, I went home. Home. A place of origin. A native place. I had never been to East Lansing before in my life, but it was Michigan – my birth state, my general area of residence for eighteen years – so it became ‘home’.

East Lansing is 120 miles from both the quiet town I grew up in and all the reasons why I hadn’t set foot in the state for two years. A two hour drive if traffic is clear – and it usually is. A two hour drive from the Indiana border, from which I’d come in 2016.

In Michigan, things never quite feel like they’ve changed. I had never driven that particular route before, but there was a sense of recognition. I knew those trees that lined the pothole-ridden streets. I knew the cars eaten by rust, the regional grocery stores, the jumbled Midwestern dialect, the houses with perpetual ‘for sale’ signs tacked in the front lawn. I knew it all. It was home.

But after 730 days away, I didn’t want it to be. After drinking in sights and sounds and smells from across the world, I wanted this to feel foreign in its familiarity. I didn’t want to stop at Kroger to pick up duct tape for my front bumper and know where to go. I didn’t want to find Superman ice cream waiting for me in the freezer of my childhood best friends’ apartment. I didn’t want to hear their voices and fall back into the patterns of speech I’d spent so long trying to abandon.

And yet – 120 miles away from my hometown – it was.

___

Wisner, Michigan is an unincoporated community of Wisner Township, a region whose total number of residents doesn’t exceed 750 in forty square miles, a town so small that it’s unrecognized by the postal system – all our letters had to be addressed to Akron and forwarded from there. Our claim to fame was the Log Cabin Grocery Store that was, in reality, a Shell gas station that served mediocre food and stocked postcards from Lake Huron. You’d have to drive ten miles to find the nearest stoplight, forty-two if you wanted a Wal-Mart. It was a thirty minute walk to the nearest neighbor.

Surrounded by four fields that alternated between corn and sugar beets depending on the year, flanked by three rows of tall pine trees to shield our house from view of the few cars that may pass down the dirt road, was the A-frame house that I grew up calling my home. A two-story nightmare built of knotty wood. [redacted] There that I called home.

I called it my home long after we’d moved out, long after I’d lived in the equally-barren Bangor, the slightly more populated Rose Island and Sebewaing. We’d lived in that house in Wisner for no more than six years, but moving out felt like a displacement of my entire world. My entire being. It was the place that taught me who I was. I’d hated it more than anything, but every time I drove by, I felt wistful. Home.

I don’t remember what it looks like inside now. I can’t remember if my bedroom walls were white or pale blue. I don’t remember how many drawers were in our cupboard, if it was the fourth or the fifth one that held the snacks. I wiped my memory clean when I left, and then spent years trying to recover from the damage of a place that exists only as a symbol. An abstract. The definition to the elusive word ‘home’.

___

“So does it work?” A blunt fingernail scratches ever-so-gently down the line splitting the sigil on my chest in two. Shivers. I lay my hand overtop his and spread his fingers wide, pressing down so that his palm obscures the totality of the tattoo. With it, I’ve found paths and ways. I’ve found places. I’ve found homes that I left behind for other homes. But I’m not sure that’s what he’s looking for when he asks, “You find your way home?”

His hotel room feels a little bit like a home, too, from how many times I’ve been to places like it. I could tell him that. But I smile.

“Something like that.”