Leaving always breaks something, Justine reminds herself, as she sets out from New York City on a frigid February dawn with a suitcase full of summer clothes. In the rare quiet of the snow she half expects the rip of a seam, the clatter of a fallen dish, the crack of a bottle shattering. But peace reigns as she forges a path over the unplowed sidewalk. The corner bodega stands sentry past the block’s familiar stoops, its lights blink, intermittent, over drifting snowflakes.
No one sees her in this gray and white no man’s land. Not the scattered pedestrians returning from night shifts, wrapped up against the cold, not the pajamaed lady out with her dog, not the rats scuttling among garbage bags. The anonymity prompts her forward. Eyes trained just ahead, she resists the temptation to look back. Still, she feels the wake her body leaves behind as the life of the past few years sinks invisibly into her footprints. All those craters, soon to be covered by fresh snow, or flattened by countless new footsteps come morning.
She would peel off the knitted hat, set it on a parking meter, unwind the scarf to feel the last snowflakes melt on the nape of her neck. But it’s too early to open the wool coat, already heavy and wet, to let her body surface from the layers, strong as she knows it to be, ready for something new. She is bringing her strangeness home, moving away from this place that has become so familiar, too familiar. She is stepping out into the past, projecting herself to the other side of the equator, into that world, now almost unknown, where she first emerged. There, she expects, the tail end of a blue sky summer awaits. And more beyond that, perhaps, if she stays. That hovering if tangles with her steps, slackens the rhythm. That conditional conjunction, a tiny word she would do away with. Yet she can’t.
The momentum that propels her does not erase her doubts and insecurities. But the exhilaration of not knowing exactly what awaits on the other side of the equator overwhelms any hesitation. With the door shut behind her, the mix of memories and expectations have come ungrounded and flit, restless, through her mind. Only the choice to leave retains a clear meaning. It lifts movement, pure, into flight. Her feet step unbidden over the sidewalk in steady rhythm. The frigid air unclasps its fingers around her as she descends the stairs into the subway and settles in for the long ride to the airport.
All that energy dissipates once her bags are checked. With her winter coat now stuffed into the top compartment of her frame pack, the sole reminders of the snowy dawn exit are the wet shoes and socks, a mild discomfort. Boarding pass in hand, she reads through the simple itinerary one last time before discarding it. A one way ticket. How easy it would be to stay. Then time would cycle back through the sub-tropical seasons of the south she remembers. Summer would give way to dusty fall, and that same humid-gray winter of her childhood would come to meet her with its clammy embrace, the smell of wood burning, a promise of warmth just beyond it. Her feet would step over the old tiles of sidewalks she remembers, no longer small enough to avoid the cracks. She could, if she were to stay, set the wheel of memory turning again in the space that forged it. To pick up a new layer of experience, one to swathe this entire northern life, to smooth over the difference. After all, she is still the same, in spite of all these years far away, the same beating consciousness.
Breathing in and out, she looks down, beyond the papers she holds, at the waxed floor of the airport where her fuzzy reflection stands, motionless. The conditional envelops her upside down likeness in the ceramic tiles. Below it, the neon lights of the ceiling shine up, firm and unforgiving columns of fluorescent white, the bars of a cell, anchored to the steel beams above her and their reflections below. Suddenly vertigo knocks the air out of her. The height at which she stands becomes its equivalent in depth. It sucks her spirit down into the floor, until she is fully underneath, looking up through the tiles from the airport underworld. Breathless and paralyzed, she watches as airplanes disappear into solid earth or nothingness. She grasps for something to hold and, finding nothing, wills herself to breathe through this moment. Eyes closed, she counts out inhalations and exhalations in an attempt to even out her breathing, to step fully into her consciousness, which has escaped to another place and time.
She is kneeling underground, one or two years before this moment, cat’s paw in hand, dismantling the floor of an abandoned tenement in the Bowery. A shaft of light from a tiny window illumines orbiting microcosms of dust, which absorb her each time she stops to rest. Behind her, in another room, the continuous rustling of papers that has accompanied her work through the morning stops and her archaeology professor calls out,
“You ok there Justine?”
She looks back and sees him standing in the doorway. In response, she leans into the work of pulling up nails. Most of the slats resist, solid, staunch. They require as much strength as she can muster to gain purchase. But in some areas the wood is rotted through and gives way easily so that she loses and regains her balance over and over again. She lifts up the floorboards to reveal the axe-hewn joists underneath, an ancient inner layer of the tenement, precisely what they’ve been seeking. Here, in the realm of rodents and treasures, the structure must be disassembled but its contents left intact. Times comingle in these shadows, stories beat, invisible. Justine’s mind travels wildly with each object she finds, though the artifacts are mostly irrelevant to this project. They are to be collected and sent off to a museum. So far today she has discovered a disintegrating music score, “Woch Tioch Tioch,” a skipping Yiddish melody that lodged itself in her mind as soon as she hummed it out. In a crevice under the staircase, she found a clay pipe with an open hand carved into its bowl, sewing needles of all shapes and sizes, and an ancient bottle engraved with “Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach bitters.” Now, wedged in a corner, she sees a wooden piece which resembles a miniature bowling pin. She hooks a finger in the space between it and a wooden beam to pull it out. Upon close inspection, she makes out almond eyes and a heart shaped mouth, a faded dog-rose emblazoned on the body. The innermost doll of a matryoshka set. She cops the piece with slight remorse. For months, she’ll carry it all over the city, always intending to return it. One day she’ll reach her hand in to feel its smooth solidity only to discover a hole in her pocket.
During that first job post-graduation, the grimy toil of dismantling the tenement brought the city to life for her in a new way. She understood how the top layer on which she walked had grown, intricate as lichen, over the accumulated history below it. Her self, her body, was one more piece of foreign material that had drifted over the surface. She had yet to settle into the sediment, still vulnerable to currents that could pull her in other directions, to other territories. The objects she encountered on digs: rings, shoes, dice, had moved through time and space in the hands of bygone persons. Artifacts, used, treasured, forgotten, now in her grasp. She spun stories around these objects in an attempt to understand their pasts. But the work of looping through another time brought her again and again to her own reality and fed a desire to break it up, to radically transform it.
Now, riveted to the dense reflection on the airport floor, she recalls a previous rupture similar to this one. Seven years earlier, when she left home for college in New York, she had yearned for a similar break with her family. Almost free of belongings, she moved into a room in a shared flat like a pioneer might settle on the fantasy of untouched land. The home she had left, built on the tenuous foundation of exile, breathed incommensurable languages, nostalgia and an uncomfortable yet stubborn foreignness. That rare mixture of idealism, dogma, and immigrant aspirations left little space to grow into herself. The city embraced her with a liberating amnesia. Family and the country she had left behind as a child, her south, receded into the distance.
But one winter she returned to the city from a visit to her family with a backpack full of her father’s clothing. A blue wool sweater, still exuding the musty smell of the south, for cold winter nights; a t-shirt from a holiday in Brazil, its green and purple stripes faded, the cotton rendered silky from decades of wear. When the layers of the city unfurled incomprehensible, when, overwhelmed, she sought to rise above them, she would pull on t-shirt and sweater, buy herself a pack of cigarettes and crawl out her window onto the fire escape to smoke the way she remembered her father smoking. It’s like this, she would tell herself: cigarette between index and thumb, take a drag, then drop your arm apathetically. Turn the cigarette so that the lit side faces back, your arm hanging by your side. Then flick it without looking. Let the ash scatter and dissipate into the night; these are your memories, your past. Now lift your hand along a wide arc back to your mouth, take a drag, narrow your eyes in pleasure, blow the smoke out with a distant, impassive look.
Smoking started out as a way of putting her thoughts in order, as an exercise in fully inhabiting the present. It was an effort to situate herself in her own life and person, distinct from past and future. But objects have a way of insinuating themselves, even when the user denies their origin. The comfort of familiarity comes laden with the memories on which it builds. Over time, in those moments when she smoked, dressed in her fathers’ clothes, her memory crept back to early childhood in the south. Roller skating over Montevideo sidewalks, that place of incessant wind. The old city on a cape, where every street began and ended with water. She remembered starched school uniforms, piano lessons, beach excursions. Specific moments came back to her. Early morning walks to school over a sidewalk littered with tiny paper rectangles. The adults strained to read them without picking them up, lest they be caught with incriminating evidence of resistance to the regime. Everyone recognized those miniature flyers, they called for a protest. She knew that by evening she and her sister would be sent to turn off all the lights in the apartment. Then all four of them would step out onto the terrace, spoons and pots in hand, to join the metallic cacophony that rose over the city from almost every window and balcony, demanding an opening.
Then her mind would wander to that last summer at the beach house when all any adult talked about was leaving. The urgency in their voices as they considered country after country, possible escapes, wound itself tightly around her. All of it funneled to that moment when the plane finally lifted the family off. The excitement of flying for the first time contrasted with the bitter regret in the faces of the adults. That memory tore at her chest as she smoked on her New York fire escape, it threatened to uproot her from the present. One night she exhaled her resistance and breathed in the cutting winter air. Then she let the desire to see it all again flower inside of her.
From then on, smoking transformed into a ritual, not of yearning and nostalgia, as it had been for her father, and no longer of inhabiting the present, but of envisioning a return. The idea of traveling south alone, of seeking out whatever there was to find there and immersing herself, claimed its space and grew into a plan. When her studies ended, when the work on the tenement site ran out, she set herself in motion.
Now the boarding call filters, insistent, into the bleary reflection she has become. It dissipates the density of her underground prison until she can break through the waxed surface of the airport floor. She sees herself reaching a hand out through the tiles, grabbing on to the chrome frame of a terminal chair. With great effort, she pulls herself up, up and out, back into the actual airport where people roll their bags about with resolve, where stepping heels spell out the time like second hands, inexorably turning, telling her to go, go to the gate. Go stand in that line bulging with passengers whose particular dialect she recognizes even before she can make out their words. The language draws her in like the first notes of a familiar song.
She enters the passenger cabin with a knot in her throat, finds her seat, and watches through the oblong window as the plane takes off. Here, in this moment, gratitude soars inside of her. For gravity’s lenience, for the seemingly impenetrable clouds that give way to boundless blue.
Denise Milstein is a writer and a sociologist. In both capacities, she chases after stories to write them down, then lets them go unharmed. She teaches at Columbia University, where she guides students through qualitative research projects, and lives in Harlem with her son.