The Accumulation of Objects
by SAMANTHA SCHUYLER
The bird was small, but seemed much less frail on the ground. In the air you can’t see the dome of muscles around its neck, or the heaviness of its body. It lay half-covered in the grass, dappled with midday light, and made no signs of movement. Then again, it also gave no signs of being dead, either. No part of it had decomposed yet, there weren’t even any bugs.
So we buried it, I think. That was the only conclusion I could come up with, the only reason I was standing over this spot specifically, my chin on my chest and my shoulders on my ears hunched tight against the wind. Because somewhere in my memory Maggie and I, at a sub-decimal age, had touched an old dead thing and put it under the ground. We got in trouble, despite having the best intentions. But the memory was so strong I could hardly keep it back: cradling the limp sturdy body, using our fingernails to scratch out a hole. My mouth bitter with fear, of Trouble.
But I couldn’t be sure that it happened. Remembering and remembering myself remembering sometimes feels like the same thing. It could only be true right now: because then there would be no reason to be here, under this palm tree, in front of a house that is not mine anymore.
I mean, I do remember wondering if this was going to be home. I was untangling metal coat hangers, a whole box of them, liberating each with a series of chimes and slipping them onto the bar that ran through the closet. One by one, front to back, coat hanger sardines.
The room was dark and huge and lit only by one lamp that had a dim shade. Golden, syrupy light vaguely touched everything. The light was palpable, suffocating. Or maybe the part that made it hard to breathe was the singed smell of new carpets. In any case, it was there, unpacking coat hangers, that I felt finally unfortunate.
I thought, maybe this is home. And then I thought, what if it’s not home? And then I thought, then I don’t have a home.
Home spaces are ones that are filled haphazardly. There exists a quiet accumulation of objects that is natural and reassuring, but is only apparent once you have lost the home space. Once lost, you understand that not every space has the same comfort of senseless, constant addition. But the fact that the feeling of home is so undefined, based totally in feeling, is what makes it unique, and therefore valuable. So then the home is only peculiarly itself, perfect and relieving, when one is not aware of why.
I wonder why there is something so tender in a single shoe between the coffee table and the couch. Or, a scarf draped over the counter, despite being August. Or textbooks rooms away from where the student sleeps. A baseball bat leaning against the stairs; goggles forgotten on the kitchen table. Objects out of context, absent-minded and natural.
Invited to a friend’s house, I sit by their piles of clutter and forgotten objects and marinate, measuring the unacknowledged and complete sense of ease. The friend, bored, looks restless. Suddenly I am pulled from where I am, towards the door, seeking somewhere else. “Let’s get out of here,” they’ll murmur, wanting to leave, sidestepping their mom’s knitting project, their brother’s set of cards, their sister’s iPod. I am obliged to follow, but if I wasn’t, I’d stay, flicking through the various complimentary pens acquired over time, the ones stashed away in the pencil drawer.
The place with the bird and the place with the new carpets are different places, but I do not know if they really are. I have lived in three places: the house I grew up in, the second one, and a dormitory. On one hand, they are very distinct; none remind me of the other. On the other hand, they are all essentially the same. They have all been the place to which I return for sleeping, for stowing myself away, where all my material possessions are stored. Is that home? And if it is, then yes, all have been home in the sense that they are my home-base, my headquarters: essentially a utility, otherwise irrelevant.
Yet the haphazard objects, meaningful in their accident, meaningful in their meaninglessness, existed in the first space, did not in the second, and in the third were only my own possessions. A roommate existed in the peripheries. But the absent-minded messes only make a space like a home when they are markers of other people’s presences, that other thoughts and actions and possessions exist simultaneously with your own, and with the same naturalness that yours do. This is coexistence; cohabitation.
Dad said we’d have a month in the house, and then we’d be gone. This, after sudden loss, is not welcome. It occurred to me that it would be called “the house I grew up in,” if I had to explain it. I looked at my brother, who only reached my ear. Jeez, I thought, we aren’t grown up. My hand rested on the top of his head, pressing the springy dark hair. I thought, will we ever be? I mean, does anyone really finish?
We spent the month packing, and another month in the second place, unpacking. Two new sets of hangers to unravel, two new closets to fill, two sets of walls to repaint. New carpets. Convenient! The house needed new carpets anyway. My brother and I, being updates, were good excuses for more.
In my new room, I painted two walls a color called Terra Cotta, and one called Sierra Red. Maybe it was a gesture toward a home-space, but a room is not a home-space. A room is for an individual. I built a tree on one wall, painting branches, attaching plastic tree-limbs so they would hang off of the wall and over me when I slept. I attached shelves all down one wall, and filled them with books. Each book was bought for me, or I bought for myself, or chose for my own consumption. I flattened posters of my favorite faces to another wall, each hanger had a piece of clothing which I felt looked good on me. All of these things were particularly my own, a matter of my individual identity — it was not a home space.
Outside of my room, things were sparse. Charlene is very neat, Dad explained. Charlene smiled, and revealed a row of very white, very straight teeth. Bent together as they were, their hair was like a black and white cookie. My father’s, wiry and dark; Charlene’s, wispy and light. Too sweet, I thought. Those cookies.
In the living room, everything was vaguely wood-colored, even the walls. The theme appeared to be African Congo Adventure. One lamp had an elephant as a base, the other a monkey. The coffee table looked like a trunk, the kind you put on a ship, and could have been filled with waistcoats or petticoats or corsets. It was purposefully aged, sprayed with a darker color in some places, like the sea had warped it; it was an object of canned experience. The blades of the ceiling fan were made to look like palm fronds. If you thought about it long enough, the aggressive colonial theme was unsettling.
Here, nothing was out of place. Items belonged places; they did not exist collectively. They belonged in rooms. Any personal belongings found out of place were gathered up and placed on a counter, a temporary lost and found.
A few months ago I stood outside of the dorm with my dad with all the material possessions I could need pressing up against the windows of the car. How is one to feel, going from one space to another? This process of moving had once, before, felt so heavy. I tried to reach for a feeling. I didn’t come up with anything. I felt, decidedly, nothing much.
What I mean is, I sense a distinction between house and home. One is utility, the other is sentiment. One is the thing you miss when you miss food that is not microwavable or needs more than half an hour to prepare. The other is the thing you miss when you feel something tense and solid in your chest that hasn’t unwound in a very long time. One is missing a hot shower, the other is missing the same feeling, but which occurs when you find yourself lying splayed and unmoving on the carpet because who is going to judge you, Mom? Both, I guess, are forms of comfort.
As I emptied the car of my possessions, I felt a moment of liberation. This nothing that I feel, it isn’t so bad. I could pick up and travel through another country—many countries, a dozen countries!—without feeling regret or longing. I am untethered, unbound, I am free! I am a single human, unattached. For a moment I felt giddy. But as I filled up my new space with things, and my father hugged me and said goodbye, see you, the heaviness returned. I felt a loss incalculable, which I hadn’t felt in a very long time. The last time was a hospital: like a dorm, housing for utility’s sake. Residents circulate, no one stays for long. People passed me by carrying luggage, while images one by one made me very still: a book laying face down on its pages on the kitchen table, a broken video game controller that needs to be fixed, a picked-through gift basket from some party.
Under the palm tree, there is a tiny grave somewhere. Here, I grow certain of something. Maggie and I had knelt by the bird a long time. We said a prayer. Our hands were dirty and lay in our laps, but we felt calm. A gust of winter wind cuts through me, like a reminder that I should keep walking: this is not my property anymore. A few days ago I had, as they say, come home. I had felt the impulse to look at the house that I grew up in, and so I walked here, to stand in front of a home that is no longer mine. It is here that I remember a very specific feeling more vividly than anywhere else. For a moment, I am tethered; for a moment, something unwinds. The feeling is relief, and it is familiar.
"Revelation Blues" - The Tallest Man On Earth (mp3)
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