the bones we inhabit

January 10, 2022 / Clarissa Rodriguez Abrego

In the ruins of my memory, I find home.

It’s summer 2021, and I’m standing in front of the house. I can’t fathom that life once existed there. In a way, I feel like I’m looking through a glass box: there it is before me, yet so out of reach. I recall the afternoons of boredom that extended beyond time, my long limbs laying on the cold floor, the cartoons on TV illuminating my face. Now, all those moments dwell in between the nooks and crevices of cement walls. As I see the frame that once held my memories slowly dematerialize, I wonder, Can I trust my own memory? The bones of the house, once so big and encompassing, shrink down under my aged view.

My childhood home is a skeleton of the place that once held the hottest summers, the lavender smell of freshly cleaned floors, and my lovingly crafted play corner. It is a mismatch of ruins where undergrowth creaks and overcomes. The beige is chipping off the walls, and patches of paint showcase glimpses of all the colors that came before it. The front door can’t be opened. It’s stuck, maybe in time. The door net is unfit for light to shine through.

Getting inside is an odyssey. In a town with an overestimated population of 1,300, it’s no secret that no one lives there anymore. It’s been broken into — small-town solidarity ceases to exist at the thought of finding something valuable.

But every now and then, my parents go through the wistful nuisance of caring for it. Once, they walked into their old bedroom only to find photo albums spread on the floor and my mother's teenage clothes outside of their shelter in the bottom drawer of the dresser. Since then, most of the entries to our home have been blocked, even from those who are supposed to belong there. Thick metal rods brace the doors, and no sky gets through the steel sheets covering up the windows.

During the Renaissance, aristocrats delved into the act of collecting by creating cabinets of  curiosities, or “wonder rooms.” These spaces were like museums, categorizing strange and wonderful objects that told stories about the oddities of the world: bones of a majestic bird; paintings of faraway lands; a half-broken seashell. Humans have always believed that physical objects can preserve memories, and that aspects of our former selves can be held by tangible artifacts.

A fossilized butterfly is not a butterfly, but a fragment of an almost mystical time, a revelation of the life someone can hold in a glass jar.

When I turned two, the swingset in my backyard was painted yellow to fit the Winnie the Pooh theme of my birthday party. I’m not sure whether I was obsessed with Winnie the Pooh or if he was bestowed upon me. Either way, when I imagine home, yellow is the only color I remember. The swingset became the meeting ground for playdates, the piece that taught me to move with the air, tilt my head and look up.

Back then, the world looked bigger. In between the swinging push and pull of childhood, I longed to devour life. I wanted to run faster, to jump higher, to hold tighter. This is where I learned to love the sunlight piercing through the trees and its warmth on my skin.

The swingset remained yellow until it didn’t. Air and rain reclaimed it, and rust eroded its color. When my family and I moved, it had to be stored away. Sometimes, I get to catch sight of its state in my uncle’s warehouse. What now looks like just a dismantled piece of metal is still the host of my Winnie the Pooh memory, forever awaiting for the old familiar grasp of eager hands.

When I was 7 years old, my friend and I found a dead bird on the grass, its shattered body coming into itself. We named him and gave him a funeral. The scorching sun was our only mourner, and the headstone was made of Scrabble letters. I can’t remember the name of the bird anymore. All this was before layers of dust smothered my toys and I grew too self conscious for birthday parties.

I think of my old home as a fossilized butterfly, some sort of wondrous entity that reminds me of all the life that once inhabited it. Something that will, eventually, disappear. Poet Safia Elhillo says, “Home is a moment in time.” When I get to go inside, or picture it from miles away, 9-year-old me is all of me that is there.

Slowly, I try to let go of my fear of decay. I remind myself of all the things I hold dear and can’t grasp. After moving cities and countries, I’ve come to realize home is not a set of walls carefully put together.

My old house is nothing but a frame and home is all that happened inside of it.

My youth was filled with a secret craving for moments of turbulence, wishes to move, to go go go as fast as I could. Maybe I’m a hopeless explorer, or maybe it stems from my secret desire to constantly reinvent myself. Maybe it’s both. All I know is that as time passes by, I find myself craving some sort of stillness.

I long for the certainty of knowing there’ll always be a home I can come back to. Even if it only exists inside my body, even if Mother Nature decides to completely reclaim what has always been hers. ■

by: Clarissa Rodriguez Abrego

layout: Grace Harter

photographer: Rachel Karls

stylist: Madee Feltner

hmua: Jordan Busarello & Claire Philpot

models: Chizaram Ajiwe,rachel Lazatin Aquino & David Reed
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