How to Stay

Before, when you took off and walked down new, foreign streets, it was in defiance. Not that you knew it then, of course, but it was how you were going to prove your worth to yourself. Not anybody else, just you, which is somehow worse. Nerves crackling as you walked jagged sidewalks — I can learn this city, you would challenge yourself, I can crack its codes. This would signify a permanence you could take with you, despite the changing tides of your life, despite the uncertainties. It would carry you through.

But building yourself a home in a new city was not enough, nor was it ever quick enough or solid enough. Seeing the cracks in its foundations, you would start anew: get lost on knotted subway lines in a fresh city, feel that addictive rush of new new new pound in your chest. You didn’t ask yourself how many times it would take, this getting lost and getting found. Instead, you said goodbye to new friends once again, told yourself you were heading off for your own good, carving out independence as soon as you felt that first hint of dependence settling into your bones.

Eventually, though, exhaustion sets in — you’re tired of yourself and your rituals of forced self-sufficiency. It’s not that you’ve finally accepted that you can put together a life wherever you go, though you do, again and again. It’s not that you’ve pushed your insecurities far enough away, either; they still sneak themselves into your bags and come along to the next town with you.

Instead, you tell yourself that it’s about a closet. You want a closet, and a dog. You also think that if you haul your massive backpack onto your back one more time, you might just end up permanently crooked.

So you pick a city somewhat blindly and decide, sight unseen, that you will live here now. I mean, that’s how people do it, right? You unpack. In an amazing case of irony, your new apartment doesn’t have a closet.

Signing a lease — a year lease — is terrifying. When your mum visits and puts massive holes in the wall to hang up a photograph, you want to pack up immediately and go to the nearest airport, tell her the IKEA trip was a huge mistake, what you actually meant was that you wanted to go to Sweden, whoops, my mistake.

But there’s a lease. And now there’s holes in the wall. So you stay.

And the staying is, in the end, harder than the leaving. You stay when things are uncomfortable, when the world grows too silent around you. You stay when the sidewalks turn to ice. You stay when you don’t sleep or you can’t sleep because there’s too much work you don’t want to do, and you stay when the urge to go crashes in waves around you.

Not restarting at will, it turns out, is harder than just drawing yourself a blank slate. But you stay, and you learn to adjust course. When you stay in spite of the mistakes, you learn your fuck-ups aren’t permanent. They are not etched into your history. You hate learning the ropes of a new job, dream of quitting, but as a year unfolds, your frustration melts into confidence. You find, slowly, a community: in the Italian café downstairs, the familiar faces at the dog park, the friends you call when you need your spare key or a hug or an everyday coffee. Your Tuesdays are full, and your Fridays stretch long, and the waterfront park with crunching leaves under your feet greets you and your burnt coffee every morning. You get the damn dog.

And this time, the world that slowly starts to spin together in the city for you doesn’t mean it’s time to leave. Whether it’s because of the lease or in spite of yourself, you stay.

When you do go again — just for a bit, just because it’s been a while — you’re surprised. You take off and walk down new, foreign streets again, but your shoulders are looser. There is no pressure to make yourself fit among the city’s tangles, so you stop searching and start looking, instead. And you find all the things you have at home, only filtered differently: the stranger that stops to pet your dog, then joins you for coffee out of blue, patterned clay mugs; the person that picks you up at that definitely-incorrect-intersection on a rickety scooter; the sweaty bike that carries you across an island with no map.

The cracks aren’t in the foundations we build, after all, just in us. They’re there still, but if you can stop outrunning them — in whatever way you do, we each pick our own poison — you get used to them, learn to sidestep them, allow them to fade into the background. And that, you learn, is when your home actually holds, no matter where you go.

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