Ten years ago:
Living in the empty shell of my apartment for those last few days was eerie. All of the shadows I had spent the months adjusting to were suddenly without context. I slept in that sleeping bag and watched the shadows bounce across the ceiling, knowing that I would never see that pattern again for the rest of my life.
I become overly nostalgic during these moments, and try to soak up as much as I can about those days. This was the first time I made a concerted effort to remember those moments, and as a result I have some very clear memories of those last days. I remember washing the pot in the sink for the last time. I remember bonking my head on one last door casing. I remember the exact pitch of the squeaky board that set exactly one step into the living room. I remember the feel of that shitty couch beneath me, exactly as it had been the night that whatever that was happened to me. I took these moments and tried to burn them into my brain because I would never be back in that place again.
I had my last day at work, which sucked. As much as my work relationship with upper management had been confrontational, it was my first store and thus my first true retail love. My boss told me that if I changed my mind I could simply come back and all would be forgiven, and I did end up dwelling on that sentiment when it took me a while to find a job in New York. I went and said goodbye to Allie, and although we had not hung out a lot recently she was sad to see me go. I also stopped in to say goodbye to Isabella, which was a bit of an awkward moment. Then I left the mall for the final time as an employee, and went back home and waited to leave.
I had planned for a two day lag between quitting work and getting on the bus to head back to New York. I wanted to be able to take care of whatever problems might come up with moving, including cleaning the apartment from top to bottom in order to get my security deposit back. I had not anticipated the militant attitude I took to cleaning, which resulted in a spotless apartment even before I had stopped working. I had two days to chain smoke and stare at the walls.
Which really hadn't been that much different from the way my life had always been in that apartment. Once I had actually found a job and a place to live, I felt I had merely passed the time. I was waiting for a day off or waiting to go back to work, but not feeling like I was accomplishing anything. But this time I had an objective that was clearly identified, and time was the only obstacle. It was both better and worse that way.
On June 23, 2000, I sat in the kitchen in that apartment in Holland, surrounded by the remaining bits of my belongings, and said goodbye to the state of Michigan. I told myself that I did what I could, but that this place was not for me. I told myself that the time that I spent out in the Midwest was not a total waste, and that I was in better shape now than when I had washed up there. It was absolutely true, all of it. I was well again, and had a bit of money to my name, and I could probably rejoin society without being broken or too weird. I had shaken off most of my demons, and the ones that remained wouldn't be detached staying in the life I had created.
My brother and his wife took me to the bus station, and once again waved at me through tinted glass as I left the immediacy of their lives. My time in exile was over.
I live within driving distance of Holland now, and have for the last eight years. I go up there on a regular basis to see my brother's family, and once in a while I find myself wheeling through places where I used to live. It is a strange sort of deja vu, where things are familiar and harshly alien all at once.
My store, the run down Babbage's at the south end of the mall, has been gone for years. It was replaced with a Chuck E. Cheese's for a while, but I don't think that is even there anymore. The candy store and the little restaurant have also evaporated, leaving behind little retail shells with closed gates. It is only a matter of time before the mall itself disappears into dust, replaced with some tulip time tourist trap.
My apartment is still there, although the building was remodeled a few years ago. It has new windows and siding, and looks like a cute little house. I hope they took care of the low doorways and squeaky floor while there are at it. It is a bit out of the way, so I don't often find myself going by there. When I do, there is usually a light on in my old living room and I wonder what they are up to in that dim light.
I haven't seen Allie or Isis or Isabella since I left. I did manage to find Isis on Facebook about a year ago. We message back and forth occasionally, but whenever I mention meeting up with her the other end seems to go silent. Maybe she is afraid that I would want some answers for her, but really all I want to ask about is what I seemed like at the time. I want to see just how broken I had appeared to be, and how awkward I had made things. But it was better to just take the hint.
My time there is a small part of the sum total, but the importance of the reassembly that took place there makes it a crucial component. I might have survived without those few months, but I would not have done nearly as well. Despite the pain and struggle I was going through internally while I was there, I still think of that time and that place warmly.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
Previous: June 17, 2010