Monday – Friday at 5 p.m. I climb up the stairs to apartment 282. You can see the exhaustion that droops below my lashes. Like millions of other Americans, it’s the end of the work day and I have nothing left to give.
I jiggle the house key into the lock and when the door swings open, I rest in the solitude of the quiet I left after breakfast.
I slam the door behind me and the echo ripples through the small puddle of milk leftover in my cereal bowl from that morning. Delicate towers of dishes from last night’s dinner and coffee cups from breakfast stand tall in the sink beside a counter top dusty with bread crumbs and coffee grounds. The walls are colored with the cool of early evening. I set my bags down and breathe. The glass of the back door glows with blushes of yellows and soft pinks as the fading sun sets outside.
The four walls of apartment 282 contain within it, a dwelling place I call “home”.
I did not grow up here. I grew up 3,000 miles away. The roots of my girlhood lie within the southern soils of sunny central Florida.
Everyday when the rock and rattle of work and errands and e-mails quiets down and I am free within the four walls of apartment 282, I look for something.
I look for roots.
They’re hard to find in a place with no familiar playgrounds or schoolyards. There are no memories around my California home. The breakfast diners and big backyards around my neighborhood all belong to someone else’s memory.
The grass where I skid my first knee, the bar where I bought my first beer, and the pancake house where I skipped 1st period with friends, are all a part of my girlhood roots and as much as I wish I could have them here, I know they’re forever far away.
My business now means I must bunch my hair into a bun, slip on my browning, beat-up sneakers and plant new ones.
I’ve already seen a few sprouts. They pop up where I least expect, in the smallest of places.
She stands outside with her baby pressed against her house dress. Her eyes are hardly noticeable, they bob like tiny black beads above washed-out, colorless cheeks. When I look down to the walkway where she totes her toddlers I see flecks of gold sun reflected in her smooth, black hair.
She lives in the apartment below me. I don’t know her name but no matter what time of day I can always smell her cooking. At twilight the stovetop light glows against her kitchen curtains. Whiffs of buttery rice and spiced meats whistle like October ghosts through the open square of window as I walk by. It was late one night when it hit me. I sat on the stairs outside before bed and below me I could see her shadow by the stovetop. I could hear the purring of the kitchen faucet and the ding of dishes being piled atop one another. The hot scent of beef and vegetables had risen up to where I sat in my sleep shorts. It was 1 a.m. and she stood by her stove. I found comfort and peace in this. While most housewives were tucked asleep after a long day of dirty diapers and dishes, my neighbor below stood over her stove.
On Thursdays, the frat guys a few doors down flip smoky burgers like pancakes on the grill outside. When I see them with their tray of slimy beef patties and bucket of beer, I know the day has come to it’s lazy end. The community grill in the courtyard snaps and sizzles with sausages and steaks close enough below our balcony that I can almost taste it in the barbecued air. This always woos me into the nostalgia of Fall weekends and backyard cook outs back home. I smell the charcoal as it burns into swirls of smoke curling into the dinnertime sky. I hear the waltz of leaves stirring in trees and along sidewalks from my bedroom chair. I sit with the back door open beside me while these smells and sounds create the perfect autumn cocktail with the taste of ‘home’.
Then, there are the lights at night. On long work days I drive down Lincoln Avenue on my evening commute. The dry winds of the West ruffle my shirt sleeve as I steer my Nissan with the window down. My eyes glisten with silvery sprinkles of faraway lights that blink along the blackened hills of Orange County. I drive into this evening sky of distant hills, dotted with white lights and stars, as the autumn night whistles through my hair in the front seat of my car.
Florida flaunts a distinct beauty with its’ dewy grasses and salty coasts, but the hills of California have begun to haunt me in a way I’ve never known. Shadowy mountains that mask the faraway places I’ve yet to explore with quiet lights that twinkle below the starry sky, it hits me like an old song I forgot I loved; the harmony, like a drug I can’t get enough of.
These are the parts of my new life which I’ll always remember; the sensations of existence that pump the blood through my veins and inflate my lungs with air.
On Mondays through Fridays I jiggle the keys to apartment 282. There’s not much to find within the four white walls of this apartment. I’ve look for roots in the quiet details of my dwelling place but instead, I’ve found something greater – the lush green colors of new life.
I tilled the soils of my youth back in the South. My first skid knee and first sip of beer happened to a girl on the east coast. That’s where my roots are.
3,000 miles to the west, in Anaheim, California, life as I know it know has budded into something beautiful.
The lady in the apartment below me who cooks into the morning, the beefy frat guys grilling burgers at twilight, and the lights and hills over Lincoln Avenue, are the beginning buds of a life with its’ roots deep beneath the soil. And at the end of the work day when I have nothing left to give, I step outside. With its’ every sight and smell, the world gives back to me. As surely as the lady downstairs stands over her stove.