There was never one house or one place. I was born in a hospital in downtown Cincinnati and taken to my first home in the quaintness of Loveland. It is up to science to know if this place had any affect on me as I moved when I was two.
I remember this next house in Rochester Hills, Michigan. A place where the snow was magnificent to my little self. It was a blizzard every winter, even if it wasn’t really. One year, my father and I built a cavern for two. I remember the plumpness of winter clothes. When the frogs were unthawed, I caught them in the creek in the backyard. I tried to shun leeches. They took scant few amounts of blood that I don’t miss, but they’ve taken much more of my memory that I wish I could miss. Garter snakes swiveled in the yard. The evenings were screech and high treble whistle-ish sounds cut by the jagged bass notes of bull frogs.
One day, after it rained, I walked to the bus stop and the smell of wet soil and worms rankled my nose. I stepped gingerly. So many worms. So many squishy things. On another day, I noticed the moon was the largest I’d ever seen it. It took over the sky, and I could see the craters that had been shadows the night before. I allowed muscle memory to drag me to the bus stop that day, my mind on the moon: thinking about collisions and the origins of the vast white glowingness and even that it was perhaps a good day for spaceships to get over there. I was saddened when I found out in science class that the moon never could get that close. My memory had enlarged it. Like the snow. And I was at first dismayed because it was such a memory. But now, I laugh because the snow is easy to enlarge. You are in it.
We moved to San Ramon, California, when I was 8. We lived on a hill in view of Mt. Diablo, which was mighty back then. I remember vast amounts of windmills. I remember hills that made the road through it seem lonely. On the day we moved there, I played on the yellow grassy peak of the hill we lived on, a newly built housing development that overlooked the city we supposedly lived in.
The movers yelled at me, “Watch out for rattlesnakes!”
I laughed. Those were for books and movies. They didn’t live near people. Yet, I came down because I respected fictional fear. Soon, I would regularly see their huge dead and bloodied carcasses on our subdivision roads, roadkill victims of stark juxtaposition from the usual Midwestern squirrel and possum carcass I was used to. My senses heightened to that percussive shaking that blended in so well with the insects of the evening, the night, and the morning.
One day, I was doing homework while watching the World Series. I was drawing a cursive “h” when the house shook. The house had shaken a lot since we’d moved in. But this was shaking at its best. I went under the table as I was told at school. This was wrong. The table was made entirely of glass. My mother screamed at me and yanked me to the doorway where we stood, my mother holding my sister, me staring at the chandeliers swaying like swings where you are worried the kid will swing so much that they go over and fall, hitting the bar and then finally the mulch below. When things stopped shaking, I learned that Mt. Diablo had moved an inch. I had learned the scale of vastness.
We moved back to Michigan. This time to Troy. Another new suburban development, further defeating the wilderness of America. The woods behind our house was slowly brought down through the course of my tenure there. Room for new houses. My friends and I played in a small grand canyon of giant cracks in a future section of the subdivision. It was like a tiny river system had existed there and then dried up and preserved with it’s hollowed out deep cracks. We built a treehouse back in the forested area behind my house. It wasn’t a real treehouse. It was a platform with stacked and nailed 2×4 segments. I swung out on a vine to show a girl I liked how we got down from the treehouse. The vine broke, and I watched the vine fall faster than me, in long clumps, coming into my arms like, “See, I broke! Here I am!” My backpack, filled with the odds and ends of young carpenters, somehow cushioned my fall. I remember lying underneath that long vine, still clutching it fiercely, feeling the ground on the back of my calves and head. Thinking of broken things.
When I was 13, we moved to England. We rented a house in Northwood, where I was made fun of on the bus by a girl who claimed to be my boyfriend though she was much older. She would never leave me alone, and I remember being old enough to really taste what I thought was such malevolence, but now I wonder at her pain.
The Northwood house was furnished, which made me feel like the real owners were just out for a moment. I remember my mother crying in the kitchen. After a couple of months, we moved to another rented house in Beaconsfield. There was a massive snail problem in the backyard. I experimented with salt. My friends and I hit them with baseball bats. We put them on the road for cars to run over. We terrorized that established snail community. It was cruel. Inside that house, I innocently plagiarized an assignment. I got a B and the guilt of an evil-doer.
I moved to Gerrards Cross and switched schools. This is where we spent most of our 3.5 years living in England. It was another rental, but it was one that was so nice I didn’t know it until years later. Gerrards Cross was quaint. I would grab a spoon, put it in my pocket, and walk these almost secret but worn paths to the high street and buy Haagen Daz ice cream from a grocery story and eat the whole thing on my walk back. Or, I would walk down the path just to eat the blackberries that grew along it. The path led to the town train station, and I would go with my friends to London and walk around. No adults. Feeling the immensity of a city that had experienced more than I could ever imagine.
I went to the community tennis courts and was kicked off. You had to wear white. We were wearing the clothes of growing boys, all cheap and multicolored and largish for future growth. We were lectured. We never went back.
My family and I traveled around Europe and Africa. I went to Scotland, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Kenya, and Israel. These places have vivid memories, snapshots of different worlds. Memories as large as the ones I had amassed living anywhere for three years: the safari van breaking down amidst a pride of 70 lions and our driver nonchalantly getting out to fix it; my mother telling me not to wear any clothes that would paint me as American while packing for Israel and realizing it later what that meant; trying to find a real and legit coffee shop in Amsterdam; the eggshell tannishness of old stone buildings, famous for their longevity and their use; the black and unforgettable sheen of a gondola; the beautiful multicolored skiers dotting mountains of white snow and black crag and the fundamentally world bending experience of a long trek on skis between mountains, between countries.
We moved to Shanghai, China. I realized we were ever going east since California. I’ll never forget the late hours of our arrival. Everything in that city: grey. I watched in first-world-judgemental amazement as a man pushed a kebab cart that was mired with layers upon layers of paint and rust and paint and rust and rust. My neighborhood was full of internationals and nationals. It was small. There was a wall encircling it with broken glass cemented onto the top that resembled a dinosaur’s back.
I didn’t leave my neighborhood for two weeks.
There was no need for a car. Two dollar’s worth of Chinese currency could get you to plenty of places. I learned how to say “chicken nugget” in Chinese.
I traveled to Hong Kong and saw beautiful lights and ferries from kung fu movies. In Australia, I saw a Western world that was out of place in my now Eastern sensibilities and understood frontiers and colonies more. In Japan, I wondered at design and beauty and food. In South Korea, I was surprised at how American culture was here too. In the Philippines, I saw the most beautiful islands I had ever seen, the water so postcard blue. In Indonesia, I ate at a Hard Rock cafe that would later be blown up in a terrorist bombing. In Cambodia, I saw Angkor Wat and the scariness of men and guns and airports.
I saw poverty. People digging ditches by the side of the road in dirty sports jackets. I saw panhandlers with missing limbs and disease and real starvation. I contemplated my family’s purchasing power. I worked on a car assembly line for a week so my dad could show me what could happen if I didn’t get a college education even though I was accepted and going to college at the end of that summer. I worked 10 hour shifts with three breaks totalling an hour. I spoke broken English with my Chinese co-workers. They all had college degrees and were paid $150 a month.
I broke my arms hanging on a basketball rim for while coaching middle schoolers. I flew 2.5 hours to have them surgically set in Hong Kong. I had broken arms for 16 hours.
I came back to America for college. I was born in America and had an American accent but with British spelling and writing and lingo sensibilities. I was a foreigner in disguise. No one knew.
Any time anyone would ask me where I was from, I took a deep breath before I answered. Then, once answered, what was my favorite place? The answer: all places are interesting in their way, but it’s the people. And this was true, but it was actually more complicated than that. And more complicated than this.