On Leaving

“You have no loyalty!” my dad yelled at me one day while we were riding in his car. I could not have been more than eleven and I don’t remember what precipitated that comment. We could have been having an argument or the comment could have come out of left-field, not uncommon with his ever racing mind and volatile temper. My dad had spewed harsh words before, but none had ever cut so deep or made such a lasting impression in my memories. Those words hurt because I knew they were true.

As far back as I can remember, I was always looking for the road to freedom. Growing up, I felt unsafe and unsettled. I never knew when the bottom was going to fall out and hell was going to break loose in my house. I wanted a home, a place where I felt safe and loved and I was constantly on the look out for an opportunity. I used to watch the Penny and Willona episodes from Good Times, wishing Penny’s fortune would befall me. I watched Matilda and wondered if I needed to start carrying my own set of adoption papers.

One summer when I was around thirteen, a lady at my church asked my mom if I could live with her for a week because she wanted me to be a counselor at Vacation Bible School and my mother didn’t have a way to take me there every day. Mama agreed and I moved in with her. Her family was so strange to me and it turned out to be a really bizarre week. One night, I was lying in bed with her daughter when the little girl started tickling me. I told her to stop in a loud enough voice that it would carry to her mom in the kitchen. Nothing happened. Finally, the dad from the bedroom, lazily called out, “Rachel. Stop tickling her.” “Ok,” Rachel called back in a faint voice. The fear in her little voice must have given him a second wind because in a more authoritative voice, he stated, “No, that’s not good enough. Apolo-” and before he could finish his train of thought, his wife comes flying across the house into the bedroom yelling, “You do NOT discipline her! That is my job!” I knew right then and there I needed to get out of that house, but I didn’t necessarily want to go back to my own.

When the woman was driving me back to my mother’s house, she asked me if I had gotten homesick during the week.

“No.”

“Really? Hunh, that’s interesting. Well, maybe if you had been in California or some place like that.”

I didn’t reply, but the answer was still no. California would be a dream, my dream actually. I used to pray that I would meet Julia Roberts and she would adopt me and we would split our time between her Beverly Hills residence and her ranch in Taos, New Mexico. We would prefer our home in Taos because we could be alone and enjoy our time together, baking bread.

I daydreamed all through seventh grade, fantasizing about attending boarding school somewhere in New England. In ninth grade, a representative from Phillips Exeter came to my school and I felt like he was an answer to my prayer. I started the application process and trying to get my mom acclimated to the idea of me living so far away. She was not pleased and every time I got in any trouble, I was treated to a comment along the lines of, “If I can’t trust you here in Memphis, how am I going to trust you in New Hampshire!” I tried to be on my best behavior and to rally support for boarding school from church members. Most of them were working against me. The pastor felt like God was telling me I needed to stay at home. I asked him to pray again and make sure it was God he was hearing. Another lady at church was adamant that I should not leave. Her son had gone to Exeter and now he didn’t like to come home and he didn’t like her food anymore because he had developed a taste for shrimps and oysters. I pointed out to my mother that that woman was mentally unsound, so her son probably had other reasons for staying away and that there would never be a time in my life that I would not crave her turkey and dressing.

I ended up not being able to go to boarding school for the rest of high school, but they offered me a place in their summer class, all expenses paid. My mom was a lot more comfortable with two months in the summer and let me go, but she could see the writing on the wall as it related to my future. One day out of the blue, she focused in on me and said, “Andre. They say if you love someone, let them go. I’m going to have to let you go.”

And let go she did. The summer after that was spent in DC and another year after that, I was headed to Cambridge, MA for college. Harvard was and is my Hogwarts. I did not visit Harvard before school began and as I was riding through the city on my way to campus, my heart started palpitating ferociously. What kind of idiot enrolls in a college sight unseen? I don’t even remember what it looks like. Yale had been my dream, but financial aid issues had rerouted my path this way. Now here I was about to embark on a new journey with nothing to go on. What a fool. But my fears were allayed as soon as I settled in my room. I fell fast asleep my first night there, completely at home in my dorm room.

I went back to Memphis my first summer of college and I never made that mistake again. By the end of my sophomore year, I still didn’t have a job and I started to freak out. I don’t want to go back to Memphis! My mother called to tell me that my job from the previous summer was still open to me and I started screaming, “I don’t want that job! I don’t want to go back there! I want to stay here!” She said ok and we hung up. She called back and asked if I wanted to pray. We prayed and three days later I had two job offers in Cambridge.

In college, I never understood why my friends always wanted to go home. I had friends who were home every other weekend. I was confused. Why would you ever go home if you had another choice? It wasn’t until I was in law school, spending Thanksgiving with a former co-worker at her parent’s house in Rhode Island that it hit me. I was sitting on a couch in their living room, reading a book as soft jazz played in the background. It was so peaceful. Reminded me of that passage from The Screwtape Letters where C.S. Lewis describes the protagonist’s girlfriend’s home as a place where “all that is not music is silence.” Friends went home because they were at peace there and they could recharge. Maybe I never went home because I didn’t have a home; maybe I was one of those girls that Ludacris rapped about.

Stuck up in the world on her own, forced to think that hell is a place called home. Nothing else to do but get her clothes and pack. She said she’s about to run away and never come back.”

But all of my friends didn’t live in the Garden of Eden. Some of them went home and faced the same, if not, worse demons than the ones I grew up around. And still, they went home. I hated going home and I only went because I didn’t want to look like a monster. Besides, being away sometimes deluded me into believing that I missed it. My memory played tricks on me all of the time. All I ever remembered was the joy and then as soon as I got home, I started drowning in all of the issues that I had run from. One year, I was running low on funds and couldn’t go home for Christmas and three of my best friends purchased my ticket home. It was a great gift until I spent most of the break standing outside of my mother’s apartment complex, sobbing to one of those friends, trying to waste the hours away.

I hated being there and I hated myself more for my feelings. I would stare at the calendar in anguish, counting the days, hours, and minutes before I could go back. What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I like going home? It wasn’t all miserable. I love hanging out with my sisters – the three of us are like the real life Joseph sisters: Maxine, Teri, and Bird – and I delight in making the visiting rounds to relatives on Christmas, but if I was home beyond a week, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. When people would ask me if I would ever move back to Memphis, I would say, “No, because when God sets you free, you’re free.”

Nevertheless, I interned at a firm in Memphis the summer before my last year of law school. I was offered a full-time position post-graduation and I accepted, but I was worried. The summer was bittersweet to say the least. Working for the firm gave me an opportunity to overlay certain traumatizing childhood memories with adult victories. I experienced Memphis in a completely new way because I had money and I was socializing with a completely new crowd, a fact that led to interesting interactions.

One day after work, the firm hosted an event at a baseball game. They had rented a skybox for the event. It was my first time attending a baseball game, much less in a skybox. When I walked in the stadium, I headed towards the suite elevators. Two black women were standing by the open double doors, one was a janitor and the other was the usher checking tickets. They watched me stroll towards them and both of them looked at me with an expression that said, “Pleeease don’t try it.” When I reached them, I started searching in my purse for the ticket and with each passing second, their breathing got more impatient and the smirks grew wider. Finally, I produced the ticket and the janitor yelled, “Where you get that from?!” I refused to dignify her amazement with an answer, choosing instead to glide on past and relish in the fact that I had destroyed her expectation of what was possible for this little black girl.

I experienced so many moments like that the entire duration of my time with the firm. Whenever I walked in the courthouse in a suit, I would see the other black people, waiting on their cases to be tried, watching me with confusion in their eyes. I was constantly fighting back the urge to explain how I came to be on this side of the legal process. After work, I would stand outside of the courthouse, waiting for the bus to take me home. I relished the warm sun on my face and thought back to the days when I was a child at the courthouse, waiting for my parents to fight out their child support issues or that night when my stepmother and I drove around downtown until three in the morning, trying to make bail for my dad. I have always hated that part of town. Nowhere in Memphis did I ever feel more unsettled and isolated. I had watched my family fall apart in that courtroom time and time again and finally, I had the opportunity to reclaim my joy in that courtroom as a law student on the rise and not some ward of the state.

For those experiences, the entire summer was worth it. But, I didn’t find a lot of kindred spirits when I was home and it didn’t seem likely that I would. One day I was reading, Kindred, by Octavia Butler at the courthouse when this flamboyant judicial clerk walked up to me and asked what I was reading. He snatched the book out of my hand, read the back cover and said, “As soon as you realize you ain’t black, the better off you will be.” What is this nonsense? What does that even mean?

I was scared. I didn’t really want to move back to Memphis, but I felt like I had to. Maybe this was why I had been offered the firm job in the first place. If I move home, I can fix my relationship with my parents and we can have the kind of relationship I share with others. I was very blessed in college to join a dynamic community of people who love, support and challenge me and I have always felt guilty about that community. One girl in the community thanked me for how I had made her feel welcome in that space and as she was talking, all I could think was, “What is wrong with me? How is it that I can create community with strangers and not the people who gave birth to me? What is my problem?”

And then I got this job and here was my opportunity to fix it. Annnnd, it didn’t work. My relationship with my mom stayed the same and my dad and I had a falling out that left us worse than we were before. Still, I went back to school for my last year, determined to come back after graduation, despite the naysayers. “Andrea, you ain’t never coming back here!” my auntie laughed when I told her I had accepted the firm’s offer. I was puzzled by her amusement. Why was she so convinced of my continued absence? I tried to explain that no, I had accepted their offer, so I would be moving back permanently in the fall. She just smiled indulgently and remained silent.

My friends never gave me the opportunity to convince them of my intentions because they never broke their silence. I remember meeting with my professor for lunch one day, the professor who had doubled as my therapist during college. I told her my intentions to move home and she silently watched me as her eyes made her opinion clear. I knew she thought I was being ridiculous, but I didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like a freak. A freak that cannot get along with her family. I worked in juvenile court in Atlanta my first law school summer and I saw hundreds of kids who had been raped, molested, beaten, and abandoned by their parents and still, whenever the child was asked where he wanted to live, he always chose his parents. I, who had suffered none of those fates, had run as soon as she could and rarely called to say, Hey, just calling to see if you’re alive.”

What’s funny is that my mother and sisters, the members of my family I am most in contact with, have never tried to guilt me for leaving. They have always supported me and my decisions. I was recently watching the episode of Girlfriends where Toni and her sister have it out about Toni leaving her older sister to be the primary caregiver of their alcoholic mother and I thought about my big sister. She is the wind beneath my wings and she has never resented me for flying away. It’s me. I have been beating myself up about this. I hate myself for wanting to be elsewhere, so I go back and then I lash out at them for not being the people I want them to be. It’s not a good situation.

Moving to Guatemala when my firm deferred my offer turned out to be the best decision for me. In many ways, Guatemala reminds me of home. Sometimes, it’s for the better like on Friday afternoons when I’m reminded of elementary school and the joy I would feel, seeing my dad’s car parked across the street, and running to him, giddy with the promise of a wonderful weekend to come. But then there are the days that I feel like my teenage self when I had no friends and I would spend my time in my room, creating friends and worlds in my head. I have had a really hard time building community in Guatemala, which is super frustrating after having lived here more than a year. But in other ways, the isolation makes me happy because it proves that I’m not some weirdo who can build community with every person on this Earth except her own family. I got lucky in college. Cambridge/Boston connected with my soul in a way that Memphis and Guatemala has not.

I’m not moving back to Memphis when I go back to the States in the spring and I’m not going to feel guilty about it. I’m not saying that my choices are right and I’m not saying that they are wrong either. They just are. And they are my choices to make. Life is too short for me to be trying to please other people, even if those other people are the judgmental voices that live in my head.

When I went back to Memphis last Christmas vacation, I was nervous because I had to tell the partner at my firm that I was going to stay in Guatemala another year, so I was not going to take the offer. We met for lunch and while the pleasantries and small talk exchanges were occurring, I was trying to find the words to tell him. I take job offers seriously because one of my first mentors told me that every person who gives you a job is investing in your future. I didn’t want him to think his investment had been in vain, plus I respected him and the other mentors I had found at the firm. But before I could get the words out, he turned to me and said, “Are you really coming back here? We’d be glad to have you, but I think you’re called for more than this. You’d do fine here, but I just see so much more for you. If you ever want to come back, give us a call, but if you don’t, I’ll understand.” His words set my soul free.

When I was at the airport on my way back to Guatemala, I saw this little girl waiting in line with her parents. When they were at the ticket counter, she started running away from them, down the corridor, careful to never let them out of her sight and to not get too far away. I looked at her and saw myself. I had always been a runner and had been running off all my life, but I always made sure to never get too far away, lest I get lost. But I’m not a little girl anymore and I know what I want. I want to run as fast and as long as I can and trust that wherever I end up, I’ll be okay.

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