by Nicole Wilkinson, illustrated by Rachel Fischman
My home was in boxes by the front door. My home was sitting on the couch as two of my close friends and I started moving my stuff out to the car. My home was on the other side of the threshold. I turned the key in the lock and slipped it through the gap under the door. I could no longer enter what was once our home—her home now. I looked down the hall of the apartment. There were so many doors, and for a moment, the only one I wanted to enter was the one door that was now shut to me forever.
This is not about an ending. Let’s start from the beginning.
From the moment I got here three years ago, CC had never felt like home, and I never felt like I was a part of the “CC Bubble.” My life, my home and my partner had been in Denver. I would study here, do my best to work hard, but my weekends and breaks were reserved for Denver, in an apartment I shared with my partner. I went to church in Denver. I spent my Sunday nights at poetry slams in Denver. The cafes I knew and loved were in Denver. I had no doubt what my life would be after I graduated: I’d live in Denver, my partner and I finally together full- time. We’d get a house. We’d have cats. It would be a lovely, queer household with rainbow flags in the bedroom and a kitchen with a blue accent wall (at least, that was my hope; I could’ve settled for beige).
My friends had different reactions to the nature of my life between Colorado College and Denver. Some thought it was nice that I’d travel so often to be with my partner. Some would ask if I wouldn’t rather just spend my time here. Some would ask if I felt like I was missing out on the “college experience.” I never really questioned my life–I was happy in Denver, happy with my partner. Denver was where my home was.
There’s nothing to prepare us when we lose our lives as we know them. There’s nothing to prepare us for when we lose our homes, wherever we might identify them. Regardless of whether your definition of home is the place where the walls tallied up each inch year after year or if your definition of home was within the confines of someone’s arms, it isn’t ever easy to depart with these spaces.
This is not about an ending. This is not about regrets.
What I mean is that people have asked if I regret what I put into this life and this home that eventually didn’t pan out: the time, the effort, the miles on my car to make that weekly 100-mile drive to and from Denver. I don’t.
I will say that life, any part of it, is something that can’t be half-assed. It is impossible to live in two places at once full-assed. I would not know this if not for the experience of spreading myself over that expanse of I-25 again and again. Unfortunately, this would eventually lead to me spreading myself too thin, too thin in my life in Colorado Springs, too thin in my relationship.
I don’t need to tell you what happens when one isn’t fully invested in a relationship. We’ll skip the gory details and hop to the aftermath.
There’s some shit in life we can’t make up. Like how after moving all of the boxes from my ex’s apartment, I went to my parents’ house to drop off a few things I knew I wouldn’t need anytime soon, my friend Nate in tow. I walked inside the house–my mom said she’d be back in 10. My childhood dog was nowhere to be seen.
If you’ve seen enough coming-of-age movies, you know where this is going.
When my mom got home, she explained how my dog had died a day ago. We cried. Eventually, we were done crying.
She said to me: “It’s just good to have you back home.”
These words hurt, because I didn’t know how to tell her I wasn’t home. This was a new house my parents had moved into recently—not the one I grew up in. I never slept a night in that house. It wasn’t my home, but I couldn’t say that. I smiled and said it was good to be home, when I really didn’t know where home was. Nate and I left—we needed to move my cat into his apartment, since he would now be taking care of him. I couldn’t bring him to CC.
Breakups are tedious. So many ducks to get in a row. In the midst of it all, there’s hardly any time to be sad. Along with moving my stuff and my cat, there were so many other little tasks to do. I needed to change my emergency contact at the DMV. I needed to remove the music from the mixed CDs she and I shared from my iTunes library (they’re currently sitting in a folder to be opened on another day). I still have things I need to move out of her apartment. It’s a pain in the ass more than anything, but eventually, we reach the point of total freedom from the past.
That night, my cat was settled in, my boxes were in the trunk, my dog was dead, my relationship was over, the place I considered my home was no longer mine, my future was one big question mark. I had class the next day, so I was on my way from Denver to Colorado Springs.
I had to focus on driving. In that moment, I didn’t feel like crying, but I worried that if I hit on the wrong thought, like a frayed wire sparking, I’d start. So I turned on music in the hopes of avoiding inconvenient feelings.
The first track that comes on shuffle is a favorite spoken word poem of mine—Horsehead by Buddy Wakefield. Buddy’s voice resounds through my car, all warm like the rays of the setting sun trying to blear my vision. The first stanza goes:
“When I rode off into the sunset
there was no blackout
or camera behind me.
I did not recede into the distance.
I was still very much present
with what I had left behind.
My horse was thirsty
from how far I ran him.
And your God as my witness
I ran him
until I rode into town here and realized
I am not the end of a movie.”
So much for not crying.
I’ve had my share of break ups. However, I have never had a breakup that involved me losing a place I called home. I never had a breakup that left me wondering whether I’d ever be able to dislodge the pieces and memories out of the walls, the bathroom drain, the rough fabric of carpet coffee stain.
In that moment, I was seized with a terrible thought, an unreasonable thought, but a terrible one: what if I never get all the pieces of myself together so I can move forward?
I say unreasonable because as I was driving south along I-25, past yellow fields, past headlights rushing in white and red trains of thought, past Pikes Peak’s darkened silhouette. Against black sky, I was moving forward. I was riding into the sunset. And while I didn’t recede into the distance, and while I wasn’t fully absent from what I had left behind, I knew I was somewhere brand-new. Somewhere I’d never been before.
This is not about losing a home. This is about creating a new one.
I know one way to deal with big, scary, life-changing heartbreak—it isn’t crying with a bunch of ice cream and Netflix. I don’t need heartbreak to do that. For me, that’s just a Tuesday.
In the face of heartbreak, my way of dealing is doing. When my high school girlfriend broke up with me, I worked on starting up a queer arts and literature magazine. When my middle school boyfriend and I broke up, I worked on the whole “coming out as gay” thing. We all have our own ways of keeping busy.
My project became creating a new place. This proved easier than I could have thought.
I have one other mode of coping, and that is through online dating. I will admit it—I love online dating. By typical online dating standards, I’m an online dating pessimist in that I’m not really expecting to get much from the people I meet, romance-wise. I don’t ever really plan on pursuing anything serious with them (or anything at all.) But I love it, and here’s why: when you go on online dates with people, people who are hopefully not serial killers, they always want to show you their favorite places. Places they love to go and think, talk, places that hold fond memories for them.
In Denver, I had a map of time and space. There were spaces I could go at certain times. One of the true tellings of how I felt at home was that at any time I could pick a place to go and have fun, be it a park, a café, a library, an open mic. There was always a list of somewheres, and I would internalize that map of places that became moments that became memories.
By going on online dates with people, some of whom have lived in Colorado Springs all their lives, I get to discover new places and create new memories with strangers who, by the end of the dates, hopefully don’t feel so strange at all. Then, whether or not I ever see them again, I usually come away from the date with a new place to add to my map of places that make up home.
The day before I had to move my stuff from my apartment (a week after the breakup), there was a “Hear, Here!” slam. I signed up to compete, as I do every month. It had been a week since the break-up, and I had yet to cry. Naturally, my mind decided the best time to cry is before I’m supposed to go on stage. So, I cried. I cried when I was sitting in the audience. Then I’d go up and perform a piece, sit back down, and keep on crying. When it was the intermission, I was outside crying. I was thinking about moving my stuff out of the apartment the next day. I was feeling like my life had ended. Like the freedom high I’d been riding since the breakup had come crashing down.
What I have found in my lucky young life is that no matter how hard I have ever thought I was falling, there were always people holding me up. There I was, crying outside of the Cottonwood Arts Center, when my friend Susan walked up to me and pointsedout the moon. That night, it was a crescent, but the shadow of its dark side was still completely visible. Mars and Venus shone brightly beside it. I’d never seen anything like it. In that moment, everything was okay. I was right where I needed to be.
There’s a term in the poetry slam world: slamily. Slam-family. While it’s a term used in fun, there’s a truth to it. It’s impossible not to get close to people when we make a point of spilling our fears, memories, secrets in front of them. Despite everything I’d said on stage in front of them though, I’d never been so naked and vulnerable before that night, and to be met with so much love was the first step in my healing. The learned art of knowing this: at any moment, we are right where we need to be.
This proves true as I’ve continued to view myself not just as a CC student, but as what some CC students deem “a townie.” I’ve filled my time with exploring the city, looking for new places to hang out, new events to go to. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with all of the aspects of the city I overlooked in my half-assed experience of it. From cafes and bars to amazing parks. There’s an open mic in this city nearly every night. I’ve seldom had a dull moment.
It was the night after that slam that I went to Denver to collect the rest of my things. To go move my home, box by box, into the car. When I closed that apartment’s door, and slipped the key underneath it, there was a moment of fear, of wanting to turn back, of not wanting to even explore the row of doors in front of me.
As I move forward, I open doors. I explore and enjoy the newness of the places I chose to overlook in this town. I now know that it is in this exploration that I am doing what I have never done before: I am creating a home for myself—not my parent’s home, not my partner’s home. My home.
It feels more like a settling in than a settling down. I’m exploring and learning about Colorado Springs, and also myself. Then, next fall I’ll be in Minneapolis. And I hope to spend a few months travelling in the near future. My life feels far from stagnant, and even if I end up living somewhere else, or not living in any concrete place at all, Colorado Springs will always be a part of what home is—a definition which can stretch between square feet and a few hundred miles, which can shrink to the space of comfort within one’s own skin. To go from the process of being a half to being a whole: this is a form of home-making. To view ourselves with enough kindness to let ourselves move forward: this is a form of home-making. If we want to ride out of the flood, we have to be kind to the parts of us that want to help us move forward: a horse beaten will run, leaving us in the dust. The parts of us that need to be carried, the parts of us that can carry ourselves forward, they need to work in tandem. Creating a home is about moving: saddle up, get on (full-assed), hold on. To ride into the sunset is to perpetually confront endings as beginnings: can we ride fast enough that the sun never sets?
Can we make it so life is never about endings?
In Horsehead, Buddy talks about riding a figurative horse out of crisis – a horse with a typewriter buried in its neck. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from poets like Buddy, it is that any crisis can be ridden or written out of. So these days, my late nights are filled with driving through the city, seeking new places, meeting new people. There are so many doors I have not opened in this city. There are so many doors I can’t wait to open.
“I’ve been typing my name
on a horse I drove
through the desert as sure as a river he ran
and I swear on my shadow
he wouldn’t turn back
no matter how much slack I typed into his neck.
Not everyone wants to go home.”
I remember my apprehension that day, that row of doors lining my path down the apartment hallway. I remember being glued to the spot, wishing I could turn back into the safety of the home I’d come to know. Eventually, I knew I had to take a step forward. Another. Another. The memory of that home never fades. I’d be lying if I said that my heart didn’t still ache, that there weren’t thoughts I kept from my mind, that there weren’t exits on I-25 that made my heart tug towards the direction of the past. I can say this though: with every step, the pain of a home lost is eclipsed by the constellation of places, people and memories, all of which make up my new home.