My brother and I never learned how to unpack. Even now, if you walk into the room in the apartment where I sleep, you will find things tucked in corners, organized in such a way that could easily be boxed back up for when I’m meant to leave again. I imagine in his dorm room he still pulls clothes out of his worn Adidas bag to wear that day, not bothering to put them all in the dresser that has held hundreds of other students’ clothes. Twenty years living and we never learned how to settle in.
The last time we had a singular home was in 2001. We lived in a duplex right across the street from Side Street Pizza in Tryon, North Carolina. Cole is only 18 months older than me, and ever since I can remember we have been dubbed “the kids.” And what ridiculous, hyperactive, silly kids we were. Even now, we love asking our older relatives to tell us stories about ourselves from when we were younger. The stories are always the same: the kids at bath time, climbing up the wall to the ceiling and sliding down into the tub, waves of bathwater soaking our grandparents’ carpeted bathroom; the kids at nap time, working together to push Cole’s mattress off the side of his bed in order to slide down, collapsing on the floor in a fit of giggles; the kids waking up before the crack of dawn to sneak into the kitchen and gobble down all the Neapolitan ice cream — Cole loving the vanilla, me preferring the strawberry — leaving a perfectly untouched pillar of chocolate resting in the center of the carton.
Since our parents’ divorce, Cole and I have been packing bags. Pack to go to Mom’s. Pack to go to Dad’s. Pack to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s. Pack to go to Nana’s. Pack to move. Pack to move again. And again. And those laughing, bright-eyed, rambunctious kids became quiet. We were polite. We said “please” and “thank you.” Our friends’ parents would report back that we had been such wonderful guests and were welcome in their homes any time. We had plenty of practice; we were guests everywhere we went. Guests at Nana’s. Guests at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Guests at Dad’s. Guests at Mom’s. And just as we never learned how to unpack, we never learned to love without distance. We never learned how to be still, how to not fade into the wallpaper. We had been folded into neat squares, our surfaces so nice and presentable. We always sat in the corners of rooms, stripped and washed our sheets before we left, made sure not to leave a trace of our ever being there. We lost the force of gravity that came with one home. So we clung to each other instead.
For this reason, I’ve always assumed the events in our lives affected us the same way. It only makes sense; we had been standing side by side for each one of them. And even if it grew differently, I thought it was the same seed of sadness we shared. His growing slowly, quietly enough not to raise suspicion so that onlookers could easily make excuses for it. “He’s just moody,” they would say “He’ll grow out of it.” It grew so slowly that maybe even he was deceived by it, convinced it was normal, that everyone has this sort of thing growing in them, that it is a simple symptom of being a living, breathing, beating heart human being. Mine grew hidden, like a weed amongst flowers that suddenly hit a growth spurt and wrapped itself around the surrounding foliage. It suffocated them until they lost their color, wilted, and forgot how to grow at all.
I have not yet found the words to write about the details and events of my childhood. But I have thoroughly explored the lasting effects of them: of having a scattered family, of missing far too much time with my father, of my growth of identity stunted by a home environment that was all wrong. I have found that when I do this, I always use the word “we,” speaking on behalf of Cole and me, “the kids,” the unit as which we were always treated. I think about how “we” feel and what “we” want. And I will go in-depth, insisting that in our perfect world, we would want people to ask us the hard questions. We want them to look into our eyes and see memories of upturned roots being played backwards. We want them to tell us that we are not okay. And more than that, that it is okay to not be okay. That what happened to us isn’t fair. That it was the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone. We want permission to break down and truly feel the sadness that grows in us, to get a free pass from life so we can drown in it, quietly, as we like to do. Everyone would notice us and forgive us and teach us how to be the people we might have been. They would give us space, but never too much, always waiting outside our rooms, ears pressed against the door in case we have had enough. And we wouldn’t even need to call to them. They would just know to run in and hold us and not say anything other than to comment on how soft our skin is or laugh at something a character said on a TV show we are watching together or tell us they love us, and then also mean it, and then also make us feel it.
But maybe the gravity we found in each other does not connect us in this way. Maybe Cole did not experience the same events the way I did, isn’t left with the same sour aftertaste of a past of which I cannot let go. Maybe we are not the conjoined identity we had been made to believe we were.
In truth, even though our shenanigans were always a joint effort, never once did Cole need me. The adventures were always his, I playing the role of Pesky Little Sister, constantly slowing him down. It was me who often needed to borrow a pair of his boyish tighty-whities when all my undergarments fell victim to a child who still wet the bed. Me who needed help with my homework, spending days trying to memorize definitions it took him a glance to master. Me who needed him to take verbal blows that came my way, pulling the attention towards him. He did that for me, filled my needs until they were satisfied, and this harvested within me a sense of security, of belonging, of undying loyalty and love. But perhaps, on the reverse side, I was too heavy a burden for him. When he finally escaped, working diligently to land a full ride to a renowned university, with no intention to look back, perhaps it was a great weight lifted to not have to take me with him. In this thought, I find myself an astronaut clinging to nothing, praying for gravity, unable to reach any stabilizer about me, floating alone forever. Luckily for me, they make a pill for that.
I think of how wonderful it might be to live life backwards. To come to this world old and broken and wrinkled and weak. To have already seen its horrors and be desensitized to its wonders. We see the world brighter and younger each and every day. We become stronger, more energetic and youthful. We are swimming in lakes bare. We are climbing trees and skinning our knees. We are mending hearts we had once left broken. We are feeling excited simply by holding someone’s hand. People we love are returning from the grave. Our parents are brought back together, falling more and more in love. And towards the end of our lives, we become “the kids” again. It is a time before anyone told us they hate us, that our insides are ugly, that we are ungrateful and worthless and cruel; a time before anyone had given us an evaluation that asked questions such as “In the last two weeks, how often have you been troubled by the thought that you would be better off dead?” We are pure and we are unbruised and we are whole. Finally, we have lived so long that the slight jingle of a set of keys can set us into a fit of giggles; that when our fathers throw us in the air, we feel on top of the world; that we have no concept of words like “divorce” or “loneliness” or “broken.” And the newness and curiousness and unsayable beauty of the world are so unbearably exciting that we simply vanish into the warmth and solitude of a mother’s body. We have a home there and no belongings to unpack.