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Beautiful Splinters

Outside, rain beat the last leafy hangers-on from their branches as rivulets cascaded down the clapboard, its longstanding paint bubbling out—lesions awaiting a lance. Overly-saturated potted plants brimmed with water as the unceasing rain fell down, down, down—quietly lingering in every one of the yard’s myriad depressions, slicking the pavers pocking the weed-cluttered, soggy grass.

Lamplight glowed dully, illuminating the living room, the air heavy with the smell of buttered, peppered eggs bubbling in the dented cast iron skillet. Laughter filled the house as my sister and I recounted past family foibles. And then, as we quietly watched JoJo bat around her toys, a nature-inspired metronome broke the silence.

Drip

Drop

Drip

Drop

Spanning a badly patched seam, a strand of rainwater dribbled down the sunporch wall, over a painting, and pooled onto the chipped, white floor. After wiping down the painting and shuffling it aside, I piled towels along the floor, and situated a bowl beneath the small bubble slowly expanding along the ceiling.

A few months ago, when I recognized that I couldn’t stay here, I realized why it was that I sequestered myself in this cracked, rotting shell in the first place—chose to stick with it for another year.

I needed to heal, rebuild, and transform myself. And Gay Gardens was my cocoon.

But as I watched the dripping slow, and the water pool in the shallow bowl, I recognized Gay Gardens had done her job; I chuckled quietly, and dabbed the water rings on the floor.

Over the past year and a half, this little cottage and I forged an imperfect, symbiotic relationship—and this marked the beginning of its graceful end.

***

Weeks later, my head was nearly inside the oven, my eyebrows level with the wiry heating element. JoJo puttered up and gave me intense side-eye until I retreated from my Sylvia Plath-inspired attempt at staying warm. I sighed, watching my breath cloud dissipate.

Hours before, at my behest, the handyman pounded on the hallway’s walls.

“Jesus, you’re right. This isn’t even lathe and plaster. It’s fiberboard. I’ve never seen it…at least not in a house anyone is still living in. I mean, wow. I bet you get cold.”

From beneath my hoodie and coat, I exhaled deeply in his direction, following the rapidly cooling cloud with a vacant stare until he continued with his line of questioning. Soon thereafter, he left, citing that he’d be unable to fix the heating system.

Roughly an hour before he arrived, an antique dealer perused furniture and haphazardly sorted collections of keepsakes earmarked for sale, cherry-picking pieces for his shop.

Once a curated refuge, Gay Gardens has quickly become a staging ground. The structure remains, rotting quietly, nobly. But the home I created has been reduced to piles of once cherished items, each sporting a fluorescent price tag—an intended passport to others’ waiting hands.

After he left and I drew up his list, I scanned a tabletop cluttered with planters. They’d been so vital when I moved here; I needed to plant things—watch them grow. Scouring deserted thrift store shelves, the warped cabinets of a hoarder’s house, I’d seek out chipped and worn, dust-covered planters and revive them. Filled them with soil and the hopeful starts of a new plant. I yearned to see the planters’ glazes glow in the sun, the tiny greens nested inside them slowly pushing upward, filling out their translucent tendrils, the ends dripping with nascent buds.

But now their vegetative charges would grow without me—under someone else’s dutiful gaze.

***

The night before my heating system failed, I sat on the sunporch floor, my hands shaking—hovering over the small, identically sized boxes labeled “Mementos” as JoJo dragged her bed closer to the spectacle.

Quite suddenly, I was awash with anxiety. Because I knew what was inside the boxes. They didn’t contain newborn velociraptors or pictures of Ron Pearlman dressed as Vincent from the eighties television series Beauty & the Beast. The menacing “it” they held was more biting, more terrifying: paper.

As I opened the first box, JoJo gently rested her paw on my hand. She stared intently, tears forming at the corners of her eyes as they always do. I nuzzled my head against hers and took a deep breath.

“Thanks, baby girl.”

And then I started ripping. Cards, Post-its, little musings and love letters I’d squirreled away were reduced to bits, quickly filling a garbage bag. Then two.

Hours later, I looked from the emptied boxes to my palms, cross-stitched with paper cuts—the last, necessary wounds to heal.

I have to make room for less in my life.

***

Condensation pooled along the weathered mullions, occasionally overflowing, collecting along the warped sills. The heat finally kicked on, and my sinuses flared in response. Beyond the clouded panes, a humungous neon star glowed atop the steel mill downslope, casting its white light up into the backyard.

As the wind moved through the trees, rocking them side-to-side, the diffused light fell upon the garden’s withered remains. The entrance door hung open—warped and water-bloated; the veneer cleaving from the hardy core. Soon, the walls will come down; they’ll be transformed into ad hoc displays featuring all the bits and bobs to be paraded out for the subsequent yard sales.

Between passing cloud banks, sunlight glanced across the turquoise kitchen wall, amplifying the brilliant greens and cool blues. I stood and stared—through the wall, into the not so distant future, where everything around me has been reduced to splinters that once framed a brilliant life chapter.

Photo description: A view from the living room into the hallway, which is painted bright turquoise.

We’re all fragments striving to piece together a life that, at least from the outside, appears fortified, secure; but the inside is sometimes empty, a looming vastness into which the echoes of dreams reverberate and quietly die.

And in this future ruin, I pieced myself back together—filled that emptiness with something meaningful. I didn’t cure an insidious disease or eliminate poverty. But I made this particular place better. And, in so doing, proved to myself that I could, once again, make it on my own—that though I may be fractured, my edges roughened by experience, I’ve embodied the beauty of this self-reflective process, and know that my subdued resilience helped me survive, and molded me into the person I’ve wanted to be.

And that’s something.

What lies beyond Gay Gardens is unknown—a cloudy picture at best. But within that mental frame and fog, I imagine about 400 square feet with my bed floating out from the wall, surrounded by the plants I’m able to bring along. There, JoJo putters from one sun spot to the next, stretches, yawns, and dozes off. A few other pieces of furniture are scattered around the studio apartment, their valuable surface space cluttered with greenery.

And I’ll be there, assessing my new beginning and willing goodness into it, as I frequently did as I hovered over my planters—the smell of damp potting soil filling the air, the blips of green poking out toward the rising sun.

And I will recognize that I, too, will keep bending toward the light.

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Eden, Slipping

On the darkest nights, when the wind is howling through the tousled trees and leaves are rustling off their dripping branches—and the beams in the attic are groaning, popping from the barometric pressure and moisture—I feel as though this small cottage is a battered dinghy bobbing in a raging tempest. But somehow, its warped, wooden framing and patched, plastered seams always bolster it just enough—holding it firm, silently enduring the onslaught in the dark.

And then, hours later, as morning light diffuses through the seemingly impenetrable, gray cloud banks, I watch the once forceful rain drip lazily from scuffed eaves and rusted, leaking rain spouts.

Image description: a small cottage in the middle of a cleared terrace, with a stone path leading to it.

This, our home, has delivered us, its cargo, to another day.

***

As a kid, my overblown conception of a personal Eden featured a sprawling, multi-room Gothic mansion set in an open, browned field with trees lining its overgrown edges. Never did I imagine a small, dank cottage to supplant that fantasy.

When I think about the beauty of this place—what it has endured—I’m awestruck. Somehow, amid multiple housing booms and a changing skyline, it remained tucked away, sheltered behind behemoth rhododendrons and partially veiled with ivy. Coupled with pervasive rot, its decades-long neglect should’ve doomed it to become a mouldering, collapsed heap on the low, bramble-packed terrace.

And yet it remained upright long enough for a half-broken man and his faithful sidekick to move in and make it the best home they’ve ever had. But now, our time here is inching to an end.

I continue to water my plants, weed my flower beds—knowing that, as the tides swell and slowly pull this refuge from my grasp, I’ll be left unmoored in uncertain waters, reaching for a lifesaver. And honestly, I don’t know what it’ll look like.

My internal refrain has often been, As soon as you’re priced out of this home, that’s it. Back East you go. Mostly because the painful prospect of moving again is blunted by the comforting thought of returning to a place where I first made a home. But with no savings—and no ability to save—and no job prospects way over there, settling into a joyless, cookie-cutter studio miles away from the places I enjoy is my only recourse: debilitatingly sad, but pragmatic.

Seattle is lovely. It’s liberal. It’s scenic. There’s great thrifting. And it’s only a few hours away from Justin Trudeau. But I moved here coupled, with a fiscal buffer; together, it all worked—until we didn’t. Through a combination of begging my landlord and reducing every single expense I possibly could, I managed to pull this place—and myself—together over the past year. Always, though, the specter of another year loomed menacingly, with its associated cost-of-living spikes. But for a time, I was able to occupy my thoughts with surviving, rather than thinking about my imminent displacement as I’d done every moment since I’d taken over the lease. After all, I had another year, full of potential—something would come of my attempts to change my situation.

But here I am, slipping along the downward slope of my current leasing cycle, knowing that begging will do nothing now; even the slightest rental increase will make this place unreachable. The bubble continues to expand in Seattle, and there’s no cathartic burst in sight. With an entire paycheck consumed by rent, and the other pulled apart to satiate the utility, car loan, and credit card gods, I usually have between $5 and $15 left at the end of the month—and that’s if everything else stays consistent, which it never does. Unless you’re in corporate, being single in Seattle means you scrape by—you survive; you don’t live.

Seattle is no longer the grunge scene-inspiring, gritty city of the Cobain years. It’s now a polished playground for the rich—where upwardly mobile Millennials with six-figure salaries wave goodbye to longtime tenants and homeowners—most of whom are people of color who have to watch their neighborhoods be shattered by multi-million dollar box houses with Black Lives Matter signs posted out front, or re-zoned for massive micro-studio complexes.

I was silly to think I’d be an exception—that I, a relative newcomer, and of all the people displaced by Seattle’s boom, would somehow hold steadfast in my battered rental cottage against the raging tides of gentrification.

I fantasized about Gay Gardens being the place where I’d make it as a writer—no one famous, but earning just enough to stay put, save up, and buy this little place as ravenous Microsofties and Amazonians gobbled up everything around me. And then I’d slowly will my other dreams into reality.

I wouldn’t have to think about selling off most of my things just so I could afford to be displaced. I wouldn’t have to imagine the carefully crafted outdoor spaces I’ve built out of nothing being plucked apart by yard salers—bird houses and garden baubles and outdoor furniture snapped up like carrion for crows. I wouldn’t have to eventually hand over my keys and walk up the front stairs to a laden car, looking back over my shoulder at my Eden: the future site of million-dollar mansions. And I wouldn’t have to acknowledge that this place will soon be gone—face the imminence of a backhoe plowing headlong into the living room, its bucketed arm pivoting to level the tiny bedroom where I curled up my first night alone in five years and sank into the inky darkness of the forested hollow around me.

***

JoJo and I complete our around-the-house circuit, and as we reach the front patio, she stares up with her watery eyes, pleading for more time.

“Alright, we’ll go around again.”

Leaves cascade down from the gusting wind, their brittle edges reminding me that I won’t experience another fall here—staring out from the sun porch’s wavy-glassed windows while cradling a cup of hot coffee.

I’ll be somewhere else—probably in a large apartment complex in Tukwila with paper-thin walls listening to my neighbors squabble. But, with hope, in the depressing box that awaits me, I’ll be able to save enough money to pay off my credit card—racked with car repairs and heating bills rather than fanciful vacations and pedicures—and save enough money to move back to the East coast, or someplace I can actually live.

The wind nips my back as I run my hands along the weathered wood pallet garden wall. I clutch it hard, my knuckles turning white.

I wanted to build so much more here.

Back inside, as I warm her towels in the dryer, JoJo claws her way up into my lap. Her head, heavy with sleep, thuds quietly into my chest as she blows a snot-laden sigh into my orange cardigan.

I rest my chin on her tiny head, exhale deeply, and murmur through tear-clouded eyes, “Wherever you are is home.”

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Leaning In

Life is weird. If being an autonomous agent in this world teaches you anything, it’s that. You can plan and scheme and outline your entire future – or even just your morning – and everything can change without pomp or circumstance, without some clouds parting or an internal voice telling you “This is your moment.”

Things change. People change. We get older and more tired. But something that few of us leave behind fully is a taste for life, for the sweet, sometimes unexpected bits sprinkled into our daily existence like toppings over ice cream. And right as you’re squaring your jaw, drawing a hard line, you break into that bizarre, alien sweetness – an experience that, again, throws you off balance just enough to make you pivot and change course.

This past year has been full of heartache and changes. We’ve said gut-wrenching goodbyes, moved from a desert to FernGully, had plenty of hiccups, and started all over again.

As freeing as moving here and there can be, I’ve found myself waiting for that inevitable push elsewhere, using a bad day or passerby’s glare to fuel some choking ember into an inferno – raging and demanding change, being that ostensible evidence that I belong somewhere else.

Not long after we rooted in Seattle, we both started having misgivings. Perhaps we succumbed to Seattle’s permeating dampness, its seemingly impenetrable gray skies; or maybe we just needed something in the world around us to reflect our internal dialogue. So, yet again, we vowed that perpetual motion was the only way out of this overwhelming, emotionally draining welter. And where better to funnel our efforts than toward the place where we first met, where we first made a home together – on the other side of the country.

Returning to a place you consider home almost seems a given these days. Or maybe it’s just a product of getting older, realigning priorities – all of those revelatory moments you witness onscreen and never imagine actually taking hold in your own consciousness, made audible by your two lips and shaky vocal chords. And for a while, we began to pave our road back to Raleigh, imagine house-hunting around our old haunts, remembering all of the goodness we shared with family – genetic and chosen. But, as I’ve said, life happens.

***

A few minutes into my 90-day review, I know everything is about to change. My director is leaving the organization, and I know with the utmost certainty that it’s only a matter of weeks before the other member of our dwindling department raises anchor and sets sail too. I swallow. I smile. I say all the things a professional would – interjecting humor where necessary, blunting cynicism with sarcasm.

And so the shift begins. A week after she leaves, my other teammate departs, as I’d suspected he would. So, it’s down to me.

This is it. There’s no point investing my time or energy here. 

But the departmental chaos reveals a chance to propel up the ladder a few rungs faster than I’d imagined. Coupled with a few other wrenches that’ve been thrown our way, we have a lot to consider, more than a few decisions to make.

***

It’s easy to run away; it’s harder to stay, absorb, learn, grow as much as you can, and have confidence that, no matter what, you’re doing something because you want to – not because you have to, or because it’s what’s expected at this point in life.

So, we’re leaning in. We’re staying in Seattle – for now.

We’re acknowledging that where we are today is incredibly different from where we were in May, when we first set foot in the Pacific Northwest. And that’s a good thing. And we owe it to ourselves to keep making it as good as possible, to let the ink dry on this latest map we’ve scribbled down before wetting the quill again and drafting a new one.

For me, the scariest character in all of our conversations has been that familiar specter – the great and powerful Unknown, which gobbles up fear and optimism, dreams and nightmares. And we never know if what we entrust to it will ever manifest down the line in some guise – vindicating or damning us.

But at some point we have to look beyond the paths we see ahead of us and take stock of what encompasses them – limitless beauty and opportunity and, yes, that terrifying, ghoulish Unknown bathing in a soup of ambiguity.

Left, right, back, or none of the above?

You can yoke yourself to the trite saying “There’s a time and place for everything and everyone” – that when you hit some arbitrary number of years on this earth, you must fall in line.

Or, you can acknowledge that there’re lots of places, and time enough to do some exploring.

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New Beginnings

A cross breeze gently stirs the blinds in the living room — animating them like a ghostly marionette.

Early morning moonlight glances across the mirrors piled on tables, which are stacked on chairs, which are turned in every possible arabesque-like contortion — everything fitting together in a hoarderish Jenga.

The macaw from the unit across the courtyard rouses, belting out a few throaty caw caw‘s before settling back into her early morning haze. Sweaty socks from our run cling to my feet like a second skin.

The new digs!

And I feel rejuvenated.

It’s a new day. A new week.

A new beginning.

***

It’s hard to believe we’ve been living in California for almost half a year. So much has happened. And just getting out here has been punctuated with every possible test imaginable as we started over.

And now, we’re starting over again.

On the road again...

Almost immediately after landing in Los Angeles, we realized that there’s a certain mysterious gravitational pull to this place. There’s grit and beauty, noise and quiet — everything that attracts and repels.

I never envisioned living in such a large city. But now, the streets are more familiar. The freeways less imposing. Goals seemingly cemented on the horizon — like distant dots — now much closer, more accessible, like low-hanging fruit.

Our time here has been exhausting and invigorating. We both started over professionally. We’ve pushed ourselves out of our respective comfort zones — leaving our loved ones, our friends, in search of some new adventure.

And it’s been hard.

But what’s been borne out of this entire process has been something indescribable — a feeling of possibility. Of realizing that so many things we thought were so completely unattainable six months ago are now dancing around our fingertips, and we just have to keep reaching for them.

Leaving everything — and everyone — you know for something else, some nebulous blob of unrealized and somewhat unformulated goals, can be so overwhelmingly painful and draining that it’s easy to crack and crumble.

And we’ve definitely had our low points here. But through it all, we’ve kept going. And now, we’re in a place we’ve wanted to call home for six months.

We’re making friends. We’re laughing more. We’re breathing deeply, and drinking it all in.

Koreatown served its purpose. It was — and will always be — our first nest in California.

But West Hollywood is home.

Home

An apple we reached for and grabbed.