by Tamuira Reid
Go to where the trees are.
This is what the voice was saying. My voice. My real voice. Not the borrowed ones, the kind I try on for size when I can’t find my own, voices I can hide behind. Not those. My real voice likes to shoot from the gut, likes to tell me exactly what the fuck needs to happen and how it will go down. And it was telling me to go to the trees.
I find my son buried in a book in our living room, body sprawled out over the rug. I don’t say anything when I give him the backpack, not the one for school with OLLIE scribbled on the side in sharpie, the one I just found out he’ll no longer need, but the one with a roomier body and hidden pockets inside. The one that he asked for when he was four years old, the “pack-pack” that made him feel like a big boy. He didn’t want Thomas the Train that year; he wanted luggage. Something he could haul around the airport while I got us from point A to B.
I give him the backpack and watch him go to work. Just the essentials, only what you really need, although all he’s ever really needed is me. His nine year-old hands sift through shoeboxes of Legos and Hot Wheels, drawing pencils with chewed-up erasers, key chains with no keys. He begins to make decisions. Sort. Choose. Three big Ziplocs worth of toys because four is pushing it. Because if he packs too much shit he won’t have room for his snacks.
This is number twenty. The twentieth apartment we’ve lived in since he was a baby. In the city, out in the boroughs, across the country and sometimes over the ocean. Subletting, housesitting, visiting, cat-feeding. Staying afloat on adrenaline, on single-mom scrappiness. I want you to see the world, even if it means we don’t always have a place to come back to. There’s a storage locker somewhere in the Bronx full of my stuff, and it’s been sitting there, rotting, for over a decade. We’ve traded furniture for a Target purple suitcase that is duct-taped at the seams.
So when it’s time to pack, he doesn’t ask a lot of questions. He just gets busy. I think we both know when it’s time to leave.
He puts a pair of my thong underwear over his face like a mask.
I stole them. Sorry mom.
Ollie, we’re on an airplane.
I saw it online. It’s a meme. This lady –
I know. I saw it.
You don’t think it’s funny?
I know he’s disappointed so I lie and tell him it is. We hold hands until we can feel the runway underneath us. We can hold hands for hours.
I’m so glad dogs don’t get the coronavirus. Are we in California now or do we take another plane?
All I see is darkness out the window, but I know the stars are out. I can feel them.
No, baby. No more planes. We’re here.
I go to California whenever New York gets bad. It’s full of family and places to crash and cars to borrow. It was the only home I knew until the second half of my life started a full coast away. But it feels different this time, like something put on inside-out.
And when we finally make it to our cabin – the one found through a friend of a friend, the one neatly tucked away in a redwood forest, the cabin where we will quarantine for two weeks until I can devise a plan, the one surrounded by thick damp trees that pulse when you touch them – I know we are in the right place but my body will still buckle. It’s feeling a grief that my mind hasn’t caught up to yet.
New York is dying on the TV. New York, now 3,000 miles away. It is gasping for air in an airless city.
The city that gave me my first job, my first apartment, my first ride on its subway. The city I drank through, drugged in, raged at. The city where my child was born on a hot June morning. The city that held me, time and time again, while I put myself back together. And I left it for trees.
I left my daily commute in a screeching tin-can, people shoving and grunting and opening newspapers in my face. I left my bodega with cheap deli sandwiches. I left bachata music blaring out of car windows. The Brooklyn brownstones with their wide-stooped mouths and swollen windows. I left all the fire-escapes doubling as backyards, and the water towers perched overhead that somehow have always looked pretty to me.
I left the assholes and the misfits and the tender-heartedness of perfect strangers. The guy selling loosey cigarettes to me when I didn’t have enough money for a whole pack. I left secrets shared under the shine of George Washington Bridge, secrets between people that should’ve been home hours ago. I left junky AC’s about to be pulled out of closets. I left seasons about to change. I left teenagers in the park, all lazy swagger, and the fireflies that will soon light up around them.