Haunting, Haunted, Haunts: On Moving Home
As a senior in college, I swore I would do anything it took not to move home.
I left suburban Baltimore on less than stellar terms. A bad relationship that had driven me away from my family and then left me empty, abandoned, and completely unsure of myself in its wake at the end of my junior year of high school pushed me out of my home in a rebellious storm. I couldn’t wait to leave, and to stay away. And while I grew up and grew past much of that through my experiences away at college, a distaste for the place where I’d grown up stayed with me for four years, and in the midst of a double major and an honors thesis, I pushed myself to apply for dozens of opportunities to have a job anywhere other than Baltimore.
Of course, I was also a coward. And despite having grown from a self-conscious teen into an equally self-conscious but far more queer 22-year-old, when those opportunities ultimately fell through, I couldn’t bring myself to move somewhere new with no money and no prospects. I moved home to search for a job.
It was like walking into a haunted house.
Not just my house, changed ever so slightly in my absence, but the entire suburban sprawl of Baltimore county, each shopping center a double exposure of used-to-be and now-it-is. The parking garage of the indoor mall wasn’t just a place to put my car; it was the structure I stood on top of, half-drunk for the first time after sneaking out of my house with the boyfriend my parents wouldn’t allow me to have. The diner down the street wasn’t just a place to grab pancakes late at night, but the place where I’d slapped him in the parking lot the day he told me he’d cheated on me.
It occurs to me that there is something particularly female about ghost stories; people have written about this before, I’m sure. The best of them (Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, du Maurier’s Rebecca, Hill’s The Woman in Black, to name a few) are undeniably female in style and in subject; in a society in which female strength seems unavoidably entwined with the endurance and survival of suffering and its lasting trauma, women’s bodies are haunted so often that our ideas of horror are entrenched in it. Women haunt these houses and these stories; similarly, often, women are haunted by them.
What makes a woman so susceptible to haunting? I think, perhaps, it has something to do with being asked to give away bits of yourself until all that is left is a specter. I think it’s the genetic memory, passed mother to daughter, of being seen and not heard, of suffering in silence.
I could have become a ghost, in this town. If I’d stayed, I think I would have.
Instead, I am haunted by the memories of the things I gave away before I put my foot down and said no, I need this, I cannot exist without this. I am haunted by the things I sacrificed in order to ensure I was allowed to take up corporeal space.
Was it always a choice between becoming the haunted or the haunting? Growing up female, was I destined to become either Rebecca — the ghost, lingering unwanted and half-hidden, half-remembered — or the second Mrs. de Winter, who cannot escape her influence? Was this place always going to be my Mrs. Danvers, keeping me haunted until I burned it to the ground?
I have been listening to a lot of Against Me! lately; queer political rage brings it out in me, and there has been more than enough of that to go around this year. It’s easier to be angry, sometimes, to let loud music deafen me to the things I don’t want to dwell on.
In her 2016 album Shape Shift With me, Laura Jane Grace understands the feeling of being haunted by something, in that same quintessentially female way, and when I listen to Haunting, Haunted, Haunts, I wonder if she, too, moved back to a place after years and found herself seeing ghosts of what was once there.
Rooms that I once lived in
Rooms that I’ve since left
There’s another life that I might have had
I don’t know what my life would have been like, if I’d never left Baltimore. I don’t know what it would have been like if I’d never moved back, either. Are there ghosts I never would have confronted? Would they still haunt me, having never been exorcised by the light of day?
I am not always a woman, but I was when I lived here before. A girl. And that’s something that will forever be a part of this place, for me.
This was, originally, going to be an essay about being a genderqueer adult and moving back to the place I lived when I was a girl, about navigating that disconnect, about the histories we can never really shake off no matter how much we change, but in the writing I started to understand that that’s not really what this was ever about. I was already queer, when I lived here before; there was never that much difference.
That’s not where my ghosts were.
I wish I didn’t talk so much about a boyfriend I had, once. I wish I didn’t feel like he changed me.
But I realize, living here, that it isn’t so much me that he changed as it is this place. Memories play themselves over my eyes like ghosts, like small film reels on loop. The place he kissed me; the place we met when he picked me up when I snuck out; the place I broke down, crying and vomiting mid-panic attack; the place I went when I convinced myself I was worthless for not being able to give him everything he wanted, every piece of me, every scrap of flesh and heart and attention until there was nothing of me left.
My body is not a haunted house; he does not live here anymore, he does not haunt this chest, or this head, or this heart. My hometown, however, is.
I sometimes think I see his car, and then I remember that he crashed that car, my senior year, at a mutual friend’s house; I heard the news second hand, never asked what new car he got, afterwards.
Writing this is not a catharsis, anymore. I have done that, long ago. But it is, maybe, a cleansing, rinsing off what has been left over, like the downpour of a summer storm in Baltimore washing away the thickness of August humidity.
A beautiful girl with a hesitant smile didn’t save me from the trauma of this boyfriend. I had to do that hard work, myself, a tenuous process, part forgetting, part refusal, part acceptance. I had to repair the bonds I’d broken myself, apologizing to the friends I’d half-abandoned on his behalf, slowly mending the ties I’d severed with my family, piecing my confidence and independence back together like a patchwork quilt into something new and something better and something stronger. I had to remind myself to have fun with the time I had left, and to re-invent the parts of myself I’d lost or grown to hate when I moved three states over and started college far from any place he had ever touched.
A beautiful girl with a hesitant smile didn’t save me from the trauma of anything I’d experienced before I met her, before I kissed her, before I took a gamble and quoted Shakespeare outside her dorm-room window, knowing she didn’t like Shakespeare but feeling confident enough that I believed I could compel her to. She isn’t the one who taught me that I was never worthless for not giving him what he wanted of me. But she did help me to re-invent this place.
Things changed, when she moved across the country to be with me: we got an apartment in a part of town I knew but not intimately; I got a promotion that moved me across town to a place I’d never frequented in my youth; I started experiencing the city I’d grown up in through fresh eyes, through her eyes, and understanding things anew. I made new memories, overwriting the old ones, fresh and vibrant like a coat of paint over a half-erased sketch. I told nostalgic stories about my childhood with delight, loving them once more in the telling of them. I learned new things about the places I’d taken for granted.
I don’t see the ghosts as often anymore. They are still there, but now they compete for space with the polaroids on our wall, the feeling of her hand in mine, the softness of being loved by someone who doesn’t expect anything more of you than what you have offered.
I wonder if, without her, I would have come to see Baltimore in the same light, if I could have been mature and self-possessed enough to confront these ghosts alone.
I wonder if it matters.
I still live here — for one more month, now, and I write this while packing up my apartment and looking out the window at this place at its best, in the summer, in the rain — and there is still a melancholic nostalgia to the looking.
I never thought I would be sad to be moving away. When I envisioned myself leaving this place behind for graduate school in another country, I thought it would be a relief, a shrugging off of the burden of a place that has always been tight with expectations, a cleaning-out of the haunted house opening its tightly drawn curtains to stir up the years of dust. A fresh start.
It might be, still. I hope it will be.
But this place is so much more, now, than the place where I had my heart broken. It’s more than the place where I struggle to be a child, and then to be a teenager, and then to be at all. It’s the Japanese restaurant we go to on date night, it’s the sunny walk to the bubble tea shop down the street, it’s opening the windows up to the rain. It’s where my nieces and nephews were born and now are growing. It’s the place I have lived not only as a girl, half desperation and half fury, but the place where I have lived as something more, where I have kissed my girlfriend and watched my family accept her into something I never thought possible, where I have slowly started to mend the things I broke years ago.
There are parts of my girlhood here that I will probably never reconcile. It will always be hard to stand in my childhood church. It will never be easy to stand in the places where I compromised when I should have stood my ground. There will always be a piece of me that hurts, a piece that regrets.
But home is not the complicated and bittersweet word it once was. A haunted house, after all, can still be a home once you’ve made peace with the ghosts who reside there.