Would my wildest dreams feel like home?
May 1, 2022 / Claire Tsui
The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment.
I came into adolescence with restless feet.
It was this perpetual inability to stand fully still, exacerbated by anxiety and bouts of troubled thoughts. I’d point my toes and sweep my feet through rond de jambes and dégagés with my hands clasped behind my back, eyes distant and fixed on something a thousand miles away. Constantly shifting, trying to stifle the pervasive need to be elsewhere.
If I had to capture the feeling more acutely, I’d describe it as a restlessness arising from disaffection — a sort of wretched estrangement I felt towards the life around me. Though it only manifested externally as I came of age, it was a coldness that defined my childhood years.
I grew up with the guilt of knowing that my family loved me in a way that I couldn’t seem to reciprocate correctly: stiff hugs, mumbles of of course I love you, the long silences that would follow. How do you tell your family, the people you love, that you feel like a stranger in your own home? That your restlessness comes from a place of shame and regret, that you feel no choice but to turn and run away?
Once, when I was 10, my uncle got drunk at a family reunion and started talking, candidly. I was running about in the adjacent room with my cousin at the moment, but I stopped to listen when I heard my name.
Claire is a strange child. I didn’t see her cry at all during her mother’s funeral. She doesn’t have affection for anyone — for any of us.
I could feel my cousin staring at me, eyes widening as she realized we’d overheard something we shouldn’t have. But in that moment, all I could do was stare numbly at the wall and think, They know.
To say that I do not love my family would be wrong. It wasn’t so much a lack of love for my family as it was an inexplicable disconnect from them.
We can play armchair-psychologist and diagnose it as a case of unresolved-childhood-angst — that my mother’s death so early in my life made me afraid of investing my heart in other people, woefully traumatized as I was by the painfully transient nature of our existence.
Regardless, a quiet part of me has always been privately relieved to have a backstory, to have a sympathizable justification. But an even quieter part of me doubts its veracity. I wasn’t truly certain whether my disaffection was a byproduct of my childhood, or if it was an innate predilection. I’d lived with it for so long that I no longer knew where the coldness ended and I began.
Nonetheless, I was always sorry for it — sorry that something inside me was laid crooked, sorry that I could not be a better daughter, sorry that I could not hide it any better.
College eventually came, and I left home, bound for a city 200 miles away; it wasn’t as far as I really desired, but it was far enough.
I’m not quite sure how to capture it, the relief of finally leaving everything behind. It felt like breaking the surface of the pool after having held my breath the entire swim across. The arch of my throat as my head breaches the surface, water sloshing and slewing off me as I gasp. It felt like a first breath; it felt like clarity.
I didn’t realize the immensity of it until the time arrived to return home again.
Months had passed since I’d left. The first thing that struck me was how clean I’d left my room.
The side table and dresser were cleared of all the sketchbooks, pens, loose-leaf papers, and random sheets of music that were once scattered over them. Books, glass bottles, and photo frames were lined neatly on their shelves, and the pillows on the bed were stacked on top of the folded blanket.
It was dusk by the time I got back, and there wasn’t enough light to spill over the entire space. I sat on my bed in the dimly-lit room and stared at the pale carpet and the pale walls, trying to reconcile the idea that this tidy, untouched place was the same as the one I spent nearly half of my life growing up in. The cloudy mirror on the other side of the room showed me my reflection; a wan face wreathed by dark hair, faint and ghostly like a spectre.
At one point in my life, I had wanted to paint these walls mint green, coral, and black — all three colors, together. My younger self had questionable taste for sure, but at that moment, I would have preferred coming back to a mess of color — something that affirmed, There was a girl who lived here in these walls and made this space her own.
There were no signs of a lived life in these pale, impassive walls — no sign that I had really existed at all. The room stared back at me, barren and unfamiliar. It occurred to me then how home felt like a stranger.
The tidiness suddenly became suffocating; it was the sort of tidiness that meant whoever cleaned this place had shut the door behind them without intending to return. Had I? I suppose I already knew the answer.
I didn’t realize how desperately I’d wanted to leave until that moment, sitting on the bed of a blank room and staring at the dirty mirror across from me — how deep that yearning ran.
The first week that I was back passed fine, but by the end of the second, I had overstayed my welcome. What was supposed to be a brief, last two weeks of break stretched on endlessly in delirium.
Waking up in the afternoon, heavy-headed, dry-mouthed. Shuffling downstairs for meals and other inane things, not spending nearly as much time as I should with my parents. Feeling restless and hopelessly out of place. A complete regression to the avoidant patterns of my past self, but worse; I had known the surface for so long that I no longer knew how to hold my breath back under it.
When it was finally over, as I lay hunched against the window of my friend’s car on the drive back to Austin, I knew that this wasn’t just a matter of leaving, but of surviving.
If home hadn’t felt like home for a long time now, would it even be running away? Throughout adolescence, the clearest fantasy I always had was the one in which I abandoned everything and disappeared to somewhere far away. The selfish promise of casting aside this life and starting anew beckoned like a siren's call — a longing that burned so bright and raw that it made my heart hurt.
What is home, after all, if not the first place we learn to run away from? To start life anew in a place where nobody knew my name, to chase the tiny nameless towns that would fly past outside the window during road trips that my mind’s eye could never let go. To go anywhere, so long as it allowed me to escape the poison that would slowly creep through my veins whenever I lingered too long.
The novelty of Austin’s lush hills and gentrified streets has yet to wear off, so I enjoy the brief respite it gives while I can. I have no illusions that this peace will last.
Maybe I am happiest not belonging to anyone or anything. With my penchants for distance and estrangement, maybe the only way I know how to love is from afar.
I don't know what it says about me, to be capable of throwing everything away so readily. I don’t know how to solve the paradox that is my heart, to be capable of loving, but not of staying.
Sometimes, I wonder whether this endless lusting will be my destruction. The sirens promise catharsis, that there is absolution to be found in abandonment, but what if there isn’t? Perhaps it’d be a poetic justice fit for the Greek tragedies, to risk and to lose it all in a rush of egoism, to be left with nothing in the end but a tiny, desolate raft, drifting forever out in a dark sea —
For all the guilt, all the doubt, none of it is enough to overcome the yearning. An unquenchable desire that has been one of the only permanent fixtures in my life, through all these years.
I suppose it just isn’t in the nature of fire to be contained. Sometimes I wonder where this open flame in my head comes from — did I get it from you, Mom? Or is it from Dad?
One day, I want to step on a train without having to think of going back, and find peace in knowing I can simply disappear, with no obligations to anyone or anything.
How utterly selfish that would be of me — how utterly at peace. ■
By: Claire Tsui
Layout: Ashley Lee
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
Layout: Ashley Lee
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.