I believe in a god of moving, one who requires that you leave behind something as a sacrifice each time you leave a place. If you neglect to do so, he will take something anyhow, something precious.
I first fell victim to this greedy little god when I was four and my family moved to New York City: I lost my tin globe. I thought about it long after it was gone. Even as a teenager, I would read about a foreign land and think, Where is that? And I would rummage through the house, even though I hadn’t seen the globe in years, unwilling to let go of the possibility that it was merely hidden away.
When I was twelve, we moved to the country and I lost my pencils. These weren’t ordinary pencils but a hundred multicolored, extra-long pencils with my name embossed in gold on the sides. When I’d first gotten them from my grandparents, I’d thought, These will last forever. Now only three remained in my pencil can, each whittled down so far that my name was gone.
At sixteen I left for the West Coast and lost my favorite children’s books, the ones I had planned to read aloud to my children someday. Somehow they never made it across the continent. I still don’t believe they are gone, and every time I return to my dad’s house I check the lowest, darkest shelves of his bookcases, believing the books must still be waiting there for me to claim them.
In my college years, I changed apartments nearly ten times, making an unintentional sacrifice with each move. On the only occasion I avoided losing anything, I nearly paid for it with my life. As I was leaving, I remembered I’d left behind my favorite lamp, and went back to fetch it. When I exited the front door for the final time, the leaded glass of the porch light came loose and fell, point down, toward my head. I stepped forward at the last second, and it crashed behind me.
Still, I only really came to believe in the god of moving while I was traveling around the world. I packed and unpacked at least twice a month, but no matter how careful I was, something was lost each time: one week, a folding hanger; the next, a comfortable red T-shirt. I escaped the god’s attentions only when I deliberately gave things away, as I did my sable paintbrushes to an artist in Bali. Although I know the proper sacrifices will appease the moving god, I have never become reconciled to their necessity.
Jaida n’ha Sandra
The first time I moved out, I was only about five years old. With stern intent, I announced to my two older brothers and my older sister that I was leaving home for good. They did not try to talk me out of it. Instead, they helped me gather the things that, according to them, I’d need. Although it was a bright midsummer day, the first items they told me I should take were my rain slicker and buckle boots. It was easier to put these on than to carry them. Also: a couple of warm blankets (for those cold winter nights I’d eventually encounter), a pillow, eight or ten cans of soup, pots and pans to cook with, some firewood, oatmeal, salt and pepper, utensils, a dozen eggs, some canned sardines, toilet paper, a gallon of drinking water, picture books, a teddy bear, sheets and towels, and — last but not least — the mattress from the baby’s crib. (I think I also had dry dog food because wherever I went the dogs followed.)
With my siblings’ help, everything was wrapped in blankets and pillowcases, and tied to the mattress, which I would drag along behind me as I traveled the open road in my slicker and boots. My makeshift sledge must have weighed close to a hundred pounds.
I manfully started off down the driveway at a pace so slow the dogs would walk ahead, lie down, and wait for me, panting in the heat. Eventually, the dogs gave up on me and headed back to the house.
After about twenty minutes, I had gotten maybe two hundred feet with my supplies, and had already drunk most of my water, so I maneuvered my load into the shade of a tree and took a nap.
Some time later, my brothers and sister came out and inquired as to whether I had changed my mind about leaving home. I told them I had just been pretending to leave, and, to their credit, they didn’t even laugh, but helped me carry everything back and put it away. You might think that such responsible, wise, and sensitive siblings would not repeatedly recount the story of my failed attempt to all their friends for many years to come, but you would be wrong.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
When I was thirteen, I went to live with my father and his new wife. I slept in the basement, which had an outside door onto the back yard. After dark, I would go outside to urinate, because Dad wouldn’t let me come upstairs to use the bathroom: he and his wife might be having sex, and they didn’t want me within earshot. Living with them, I always had a dim sense of disquiet, of something unwholesome that I couldn’t quite name.
One day, they sat me down to tell me about sex. The way my father talked about it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t use those words even with my friends. He told me that he read pornography. His wife rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, great. Now he’ll tear the house apart looking for it.”
It took me only a couple of days to find his magazines, in their closet under some sweaters. When I read them, I felt fascinated and queasy all at the same time.
Dad caught me, of course, and decided that I would have to move out. He explained that I was being sent away because I had violated his wife’s privacy. He called my aunt and uncle and told them I would be coming to stay with them. He didn’t tell them why.
My friends at school couldn’t believe it. They thought I was being sent away for looking at Playboys. I couldn’t make them understand that this was different, this was pornography, and what I had done really was bad.
On the way to the airport, we stopped and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Dad said they still wanted to show kindness toward me, despite what I had done. (I guess that was why we stopped to eat.) They ordered something called a pu-pu platter and joked about how funny the name was. The little compartments of food on the Lazy Susan turned slowly before my eyes.
I flushed the kid’s grass down the toilet and threw his scale in the garbage, then packed his things and left them outside the door. I’d had enough of worrying about his shady friends and poor grades, little marijuana seedlings growing in my houseplants and money missing from my purse. The locksmith charged sixty-two dollars to change the lock.
When his father came home from work, I told him what I’d done. There was no discussion.
Seeing the pile on the porch, the kid probably figured it out — God knows he was smart when he wanted to be — but he rattled the knob and knocked anyway, calling, “Hey, somebody open up! My key won’t work!” I went to the door.
Trying to ignore his look of hurt surprise, I said, “Well, what do you want? I told you this morning: one more screw-up and you’d be out. So get your crap off the porch and find someplace else to live.” Before he could answer, I shut the door.
After a few moments, he knocked once more.
“What now?” This time my voice was softer. I avoided his eyes.
“You couldn’t give me my old sleeping bag, maybe?” He sounded the same as when he was little and had fallen off his new bike. But the times he’d climbed out his bedroom window, lied about staying at a friend’s house, and slept in a stranger’s car were still fresh in my mind.
I came back holding the sleeping bag, which hadn’t been repacked after the last camping trip and smelled damp. “Take it,” I said, “and see if you like sleeping in it any better than you did sleeping in this house.”
He walked away looking younger than his seventeen years. At the corner, he stood for a moment in the glow of the street light. Then he shouldered his old Boy Scout duffel bag, turned, and disappeared. I watched from the living-room window until my eyes ached.
N. C. Curtis
San Bruno, California
When he yelled at me, I wanted to move out. When he kicked the dog, I wanted to move out. When he smashed the window with his fist, I wanted to move out. When he isolated me from my friends, I wanted to move out. When he called me a stupid bitch, I wanted to move out. When he accused me of cheating, I wanted to move out. When he cheated, I wanted to move out. When he forced me to have sex, I wanted to move out. When he hit me, I wanted to move out.
When I finally did move out, he begged me to stay. He promised he would change, that things would be better. He even cried. I almost believed him.
Concord, New Hampshire
In a dark corner of my basement was a large plastic box — the kind you’d use for storing sweaters and blankets. Two years before, I had begun tossing spring bulbs into that box, on top of a layer of peat moss. The box had rapidly filled up, but now I seemed never to have time to plant the bulbs in my garden. Before, I would spend glorious sunny afternoons weeding, mulching, and pinching. But my life had changed dramatically in the past year. My unhappy marriage was disintegrating, and building a new business was taking most of my waking hours. Anything more than the most basic yard maintenance seemed beyond my grasp.
One morning, I finally began cleaning out the basement in earnest. The realtor was coming to appraise our home, which we were selling as part of the divorce agreement, and I was racing to get the place in shape.
After sweeping up several small piles of sawdust, dirt, bits of wire, and nails, I happened guiltily upon my box of neglected bulbs. Feeling certain I’d have either a bunch of raisins or some foul-smelling compost, I lifted the blue plastic lid and found . . . spring.
Incredibly, with no help from me and not much light, the bulbs were sprouting. Little clusters of perfectly formed pink hyacinths bloomed along pale green stalks forced to grow horizontally beneath the box cover. A bright patch of tiny daffodil shoots were growing straight up, right on schedule, next to a round mound of crocus greens.
I breathed deeply, smelling the heavenly scent of the hyacinth and the sweet, cool peat moss, and just for a moment the pain of ending my marriage, the trauma and exhaustion of the move, and my anxiety about the future all melted away.
Shokan, New York
I remember when I was seven my parents had a terrible fight. They had been out drinking, and an argument erupted when they returned. Their first angry words woke me. I pulled the covers tight around my chin, stared up at the dark ceiling, and listened.
There were vile words and accusations, and the sound of a glass smashing. Then I heard their footsteps coming closer to my doorway.
My dad said, “I’m moving out and taking the boy with me.”
My mother replied, “Go ahead and move out, but the boy is staying.”
That was the end of the fight. All was quiet then except for the sound of their breathing. And somewhere in my seven-year-old head I understood that my parents loved me, and would stay together. I slept.
Rochester, New York
In my midtwenties, I often asked lovers to move in with me, then ended up pleading with them to move out. Having tired of a vagabond life, I was desperate to fall in love and settle down. Each time, falling in love was easy, but learning to live together was another matter.
My first lover and I were together when I bought my house, a light-filled Victorian on a quiet, small-town street in the South. Together we set about making it our home. After a month, however, I realized it wasn’t working out. He was controlling and I was independent, so we were constantly angry with each other. He was bewildered when I asked him to leave; during the two months it took him to move out, he stopped talking to me, slammed doors, and stayed holed up in the spare bedroom.
A month after his departure, I took another lover, one I thought gentle and kind. During our year together, he kept promising to get a job. Instead, he stayed high on methadone, smoked Camels, and sketched nude, full-figured women from old issues of Playboy. For whatever reason — blind love or codependency — it took me nine months to realize I’d made a mistake and three months to convince him to leave.
When my third lover moved in, with her bouncy black dog and fat calico cat, I felt certain our relationship would be an improvement over my last two encounters. I was wrong. She turned out to be just as controlling and angry as my first lover. We took our ferocious battles to a counselor and made compromises we couldn’t abide. After a year, our relationship split apart like an axed log, she moved out, and I was alone once again in my house.
This time, instead of taking a lover to fill the empty space, I called a real-estate agent, put up a For Sale sign in the yard, and moved out.
My daughter and I moved out of a run-down building in a noisy urban neighborhood, and into a well-maintained, suburban apartment complex. We were both students. I was taking graduate courses; she was in junior high. Our apartment faced a huge, grassy courtyard, like the quadrangle of a college campus.
In spring and summer, our senior-citizen neighbors gathered in the courtyard to sit on their folding chairs and chat. To us, they were just part of the scenery. We exchanged polite greetings with them, but nothing more.
As my daughter grew up and moved out, my widowed mother grew old and moved in. Rather than join the others of her generation in the courtyard, she sat quietly indoors in her recliner, reminiscing about the past. Before long, she needed a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. At the same time, she lost her desire for companionship, then for food, then for life.
On the day she was wheeled through the courtyard to a waiting ambulance, she passed an old woman planting marigolds. The woman looked up with a sympathetic smile and waved goodbye. My mother responded with a faint smile, a silent wave, and a resigned shrug. The woman understood.
Mom died in the hospital that summer; the marigold woman died in her apartment a few months later. I gathered the seeds from her marigolds and planted them throughout the courtyard the following spring. By June, the vivid orange and yellow flowers bloomed abundantly.
Many of my former neighbors are gone now, and I’ve moved on in years. To my new, young neighbors I may seem just part of the scenery.
Clark, New Jersey
From the window in my parents’ bedroom I could see my father loading up the car with his bags. The fresh snow on the walk became muddied as he traced and retraced his steps, lugging out the possessions he’d accumulated during nineteen years of marriage. I had skipped class that day to help him move out. Together we’d brought his boxes and bags and papers downstairs, but he’d wanted to pack the car himself.
When I was little, I’d sometimes wished my parents were divorced. My friends whose parents had split up got to watch TV after school and eat cereal with sugar in it. My mom was always home, making us play outside or read, and feeding us vegetables. I’d never thought divorce was something that might actually happen.
After my dad wedged his last box into the car, I heard the front door slam, his boots tromp across the floor, and his key clatter on the kitchen table. “Ready to go?” he called up to me. I went downstairs and we drove to his new place, a little third-floor apartment hardly large enough to cram his belongings into. The place was so tiny I had to laugh: he’d come out of the closet only to move into one.
My roommate asked me to move out today. It’s because I’m a stripper. She said that by accepting my rent money she was supporting an industry of which she disapproves. She said if I found a different job she would be more than happy to let me stay.
I consider myself a feminist, a twenty-seven-year-old woman who made a choice, who thinks that being unafraid of her sexuality is not perverse or shameful. I also have a large student-loan debt, a desire for graduate school and travel, and the need to support myself.
My roommate knew I was a stripper from the day we met. She was hesitant about it, but also admitted she found it interesting. I was sure I could disprove her stereotypes: I would not be doing coke on the coffee table, tearing out of the driveway in my new Camaro, and coming home at all hours with a man on each arm. She would come to know me as an artist, a cook, a dancer, a traveler, and a lover of nature, as well as a stripper. I did not think that after a year and a half the one would cancel out all the others.
My job is physically and mentally exhausting. Many of the men just want human contact, and I’m almost as much a social worker as a sexual entertainer. But the flexible schedule and the cash are working for me for now, and I value the deep connections I’ve formed with women of many different backgrounds. Conditions could be better, but that won’t happen if strippers are forced into feeling ashamed of what they do.
I’ve never been sexually abused and was not coerced into stripping. I have yet to meet a talk-show stripper, one who makes a thousand dollars a night and brags about taking men for all they’re worth. (They may exist, but I’ve never seen them.) Most of us are students and mothers. We show up for work in Birkenstocks and flannel shirts. We’re just people.
Through this job I have become less afraid of men, and less afraid of my own sexuality. I’ve had many of my own stereotypes shattered. Sometimes I forget that not everyone can see things from my perspective. Tomorrow morning, as I begin to search for a new apartment, I’m sure I’ll remember.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Walking down the hill from Norm’s house, I was shattered and disoriented. He had given me the ultimatum three days before: either believe that he was the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, or leave the community. I had gone that morning to find out if he was bluffing, or perhaps to decide if at some level I could accept his claim. I’d found him sitting in his underwear with his mistress (“Mary Magdalene”) and a couple of disciples, ripsnorting drunk.
Frankly, I didn’t care if he wanted to be Jesus. It didn’t change the fact that there were close to three hundred of us there carrying out the vision he had given us: living in harmony with the land and each other, meditating, and running successful businesses.
For five and a half years I had worked for the good of that community. I had handed over my inheritance to purchase a schooner. In return, I’d gotten to live and work with some of the best people I knew, and my needs for food, clothing, and shelter had always been met. I’d been married there, and my children had been born there.
I had never questioned any of this. But now my family and I, along with many others, were being forced to leave. I had entered the community a single man with fifty thousand dollars. I was leaving with a wife and five children, a thousand dollars, and a few boxes of food. My life has been a struggle ever since.
Everything our family had was Dad’s: the house, the car, the food on the table, even the clothes we wore were really his, since he had paid for them. Mom was his, too.
Dad had nine kids, and two of them turned out bad. The first was my beautiful big sister Joy, who shared a bedroom with me and taught me jumping jacks and cheers. When she was sixteen, Dad gave her a bus ticket to Portland and told her to find her own way. I was only eight then — too little to go with her — and for a long time I cried myself to sleep. Then, bit by bit, I turned bad, too.
I was lazy, vain, prideful. I loved pretty things, books, and music. I wanted a college degree and a pair of suede boots. I was contentious and carried myself in an unchristian way. For this, Dad disciplined me. And he prayed for me and consulted the elders of his church.
“Why are there no black people in your church?” I asked. “Why can’t I dance if the prodigal son did?”
My Uncle Nestor, a preacher, told me that such questions showed I was a doubting Thomas. He was right.
Dad did his best to strengthen my faith. He had me held back in school, to keep me simple. He decided not to give me braces, so I would develop a meek and humble spirit.
On Sunday evenings, he gathered us around his brown recliner and read from Scripture in strong, persuasive tones. But I only pretended to listen, all the while imagining in delicious detail what I would do when I finally left home.
The day after I graduated from high school, Dad drove me to the city to find an apartment. He gave me three hundred dollars to pay my first month’s rent, and let me take some clothes, a suitcase, and a sleeping bag.
“I’ll see you in church on Sunday,” he said.
“No, Dad,” I said. “I’m never coming back to church.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ll never love you like I do the other kids.”
“I won’t be missing a lot, now, will I?”
Dad kept his word, and I kept mine. A few years ago, he called to say I owed him three hundred dollars, and that by moving in with my boyfriend I’d made a mockery of God’s laws. If I were a good daughter, I would have cried. But I’m bad, so I just laughed and hung up the phone.
My family has lived in subsidized housing for almost seven years. I waited for three years to get into this building. At first, it was peaceful, quiet, and very clean — much better than the gloomy trailer where we had lived before.
Then several violent families moved into our complex. Some have harassed me because I am Japanese. I have called the police and complained to the landlord, but the landlord just wants money and does not care about our safety.
Last November, I found two of my tires slashed. Then, in April, four more tires were slashed, gas was siphoned from the tank, and graffiti was sprayed on the car. We have endured noise and swearing day and night, sometimes keeping us from sleep. My son’s radio was stolen.
We can’t live like this any longer. We are going to move away from here for good.
I still think of Tim all the time. I’ll be washing my face before getting into bed, and I’ll think, He needed me; that’s why I stayed. Or I’ll be driving alone and thinking how pleasant my life has become, and I’ll tell myself, I sacrificed him to get it.
Tim says it’s my fault that he can’t keep a job now, that he is in and out of jail, that he is unable to stop drinking and taking drugs. He says it’s my fault because I gave up on him.
The first time Tim and I kissed was the first time I didn’t hurt in almost two years. I’d had two abortions before I met him and prayed constantly for forgiveness from God. Tim understood my sadness. He lived in a huge warehouse filled with unfinished sculptures and crammed with photographs, paintings, and videos. It was utter chaos, like something out of a movie about a tortured artist. He was irreverent and funny, and I believed he could protect me from anything.
The first time Tim stayed out all night smoking crack, I made him breakfast and tiptoed around the house all day while he slept. I got someone to cover for him at work and waited for him to wake up so I could care for him further. He was very sorry and begged me not to give up on him. He promised it would never happen again. So I promised I would never leave him until he stopped trying.
After a while, Tim spent less and less time being an artist, and more time being a drunk. He was mean to me. He would twist my arm behind my back and call me a cunt. He would break down a door because I’d fed the cats the wrong way. Once, he didn’t speak to me for two days because I’d left a song he didn’t like on the radio. Another time, he needed money and I said, “How about I give you twenty dollars to wash my car?” and he replied, “How about I lock you in the trunk, set your fucking car on fire, then push it into the river and watch it sink?”
I cared for him as if he were ill, cooking for him and cleaning house. During our last month together, he rarely got out of bed. He urinated in plastic gallon jugs he kept at his bedside. I would empty them when I changed the sheets. One night, I overheard him telling someone on the phone that he had bought a gun and planned to kill himself and take some people with him. Later, I asked, “Tim, are you planning to kill me?” He said, “Do you deserve to die?” I asked him again and again, and he gave the same reply each time: “Do you deserve to die?” So I called the police and had him taken to a mental hospital.
Everyone wants to know why I stayed with Tim so long. But to this day, I will swear that Tim loved me, and that he was a good soul and never meant to hurt me. What I finally gave up on was the belief that I could help him, that he would stop using, that one day he would mow the lawn and sit down to dinner with me and we would be happy. That’s what it’s like: you always pray that one day it will get better, but that day never comes.
It was the dogs that saved us. Our four-month-old beagle bounced up and down on our sleeping heads at 4 A.M.
“Do you smell something?” I asked my girlfriend.
Smoke coiled in the corners of the ceiling. I was on the phone in an instant, dialing 911. We met my neighbor in the hall; he was covered with soot and naked except for a towel around his waist. He had started it — how, I still don’t know.
“Don’t worry. I put it out,” he said as clouds of black smoke poured from his doorway into the hall. Needless to say, I didn’t believe him.
Across the street, I fell to my knees as firemen broke every window on our floor, sawed through the roof, and demolished the wall separating our apartment from our neighbor’s. It was Thanksgiving Day.
We were told we couldn’t return to our apartment until January. So, with our soaked and smoke-soiled possessions in brown plastic bags, we moved into a hotel in midtown Manhattan. We were in shock for a while. The cable TV and the clean room kept us going.
A week after the fire, the cleaning lady, a vicious little woman who hated dogs, told the manager that ours would bite her if she entered our room. He said he had no choice but to evict us.
A friend offered us a place uptown that would be vacant until some exchange students arrived in a month or so. We accepted it gladly, then found the apartment consisted of three closets and a bathroom in the upper story of a small Episcopal church. The water was brown, and the windows a sickly yellow. We put our garbage bags in one closet, threw our futon on the floor in another.
That December, it snowed more than it had in years. Central Park was only half a block away, and my girlfriend and I would take long walks there with the dogs, our collars turned up, our hats and gloves pulled tight, our heads turtled down against the cold and the driving wind. The cold kept me alive.
Around Christmas, my girlfriend took off with the dogs to visit her parents. A few days later, there was a knock on the door. It was the Episcopal priest. I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He leaned against the doorjamb and told me the new tenants were here. Their belongings were piled up downstairs. I had to leave the next day.
With nowhere else to go, I crammed the bags and the futon into the car and drove back to our damaged apartment. The landlord had replaced the windows, the ceiling, and the wall, but the place still reeked like a charred, wet log. I mopped the soot and ash and plaster off the bedroom floor as best I could and slept there in a sleeping bag. It felt like paradise.
Brian C. Wilson
New York, New York
“R-R-Rozzi, I-I-I’m g-g-going to b-b-be b-b-better,” my father stammered, his lips twisted by Parkinson’s.
I was finally making him give up the one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood that had been his home for fifteen years. Although he now lived in a board-and-care facility in Westwood, he had insisted on continuing to pay the rent on his apartment for almost a year.
“Dad, we can’t keep throwing away three hundred dollars a month,” I said. “I know you love your apartment, but you can’t take care of yourself anymore.”
Dad cried, his thin body shaking beneath his plaid flannel shirt.
“Daddy, I’m so sorry your life has come to this. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it all better, bring back Mom and give you back your health, but I can’t. I just want to keep you safe.”
Dad looked at me angrily, as if I were a thief who was stealing away his independence. I had tried to make his life better, had taken him to specialists, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop the illness from progressing.
Dad wanted to see the apartment one last time. When we arrived, I moved his stiff body around so that his legs dangled outside the car, then wrapped his arms around my waist and lifted. When he was finally standing, I put his metal walker in front of him, and he shuffled to the front door.
He walked slowly through the empty rooms. The furniture had been sold; nothing remained but the kitchen appliances. He opened the refrigerator door and looked wistfully at the empty shelves that used to hold cream cheese, bagels, lox, coffee ice cream, chocolate cake.
He stood there, a wispy shadow of the chubby father who used to hold my hand and sing to me every night.
I took his hands and said, “Dad, we have to go.”
As he left his home for the last time, he kissed the mezuza, the Jewish symbol next to the front door that blesses a home and protects those who live there.
Los Angeles, California