The First of Firsts
by Emma Kate Tsai
I never knew a home, or understood one. Not until October of last year. I never hung a piece of art in a home. I never bought a plant. I picked out furniture once, in 2004, the year before I packed it up to store in my father’s house. I was going back there again, never meaning to, never knowing what a simple fever could become.
I remember all the conversations I’ve had about it—home, and how the places I lived never were representations of residential comfort. Four walls and a roof were all they ever were. I made sure that every home I lived in after I left my father’s house, during those scattered chapters in my life when I lived without a man, were upscale—places that would brand me well. It was something I was tacking on my status resume. I wouldn’t live in a garage apartment. I wouldn’t live without central A/C. I wouldn’t live in something old, or musty, or tired, or just good enough.
I blame it all on my father. In his home, where I lived for seventeen years, I always felt like I was renting a room. Except it was a room in a house in which the master had the utmost control. He picked the furniture, the effects, the mattress. He made and painted the bookshelf my books and notebooks sat on without any input from me. I didn’t think much of it at the time—that was how we were with one another. Master and servant, in a kind of way. The only thing I had complete control over was the closet. (Of course, that is, when I finally got my own room in the sixth grade.)
Maybe that was why I was always so organized, maybe that’s why my obsessive compulsive tendencies emerged with such brilliance in that little room where I hung my clothes. I arranged clothes according to the color spectrum, I matched the color of the hanger to the color of the garment that hung from it. Sleeves took precedent over shade and went in order from none to short to long. Only underwear, socks, and pantyhose went in a dresser. I hung up everything, even tank tops and camisoles. I wanted everything I owned to get the chance to be worn, to never be forgotten. Like I had always been? I had always felt invisible. Is that why I gave even the shabbiest of t-shirts its moment in the spotlight?
Once I left the closet, I was in my room, but it was my father’s room, really. And once I left my room, I was in my father’s house. A place I never felt welcome in, as if I was crashing my own home. The white walls dared me to dirty them, as did the white carpet. The red accessories painted or inscribed with Chinese characters for words like prosperity, good fortune, luck, and health existed as a constant knife in my side—of the world my father lived in that excluded me in the very words he spoke. I’d walk into the dining room, and cast my eyes on every certificate and award my father had earned in his now twenty years in the aerospace industry—they left no blank wall space for me or any of my accomplishments. Not a single photograph of me hung from the wall. It was as if I didn’t exist. It was as if I didn’t live there.
I stayed close to the closet when I moved from that house to a boyfriend’s house to my first apartment of my own. And even then, I wouldn’t connect with it, I couldn’t. It was as if I knew if I did it would leave me, or laugh at me. But the closet never shut its door on my face. And there I could be as idiosyncratic as I wanted. No one judged me in its folds of fabric, molded plastic, neatly arranged boxes, crowded space. I liked the close-knit feel of that room. It was as if it was hugging me.
In 2009, I met a woman who would become one of those sort of romantic girlfriends all girls must have. We met like two lovers, over email through a mutual friend, sharing our lives with one another through photography. I met everyone she loved, she met everyone I loved. I soon realized that one of the closest members of her family was her home. As I walked into the rooms of her house, all in my own mind, I realized how I would never invite her into a picture of any place I had inhabited. They were never that important to me.
We finally met for the first time in the airport. She was connecting through Houston on her way to her son’s wedding. I parked, I found her terminal, and we held one another for the five minutes she had to spare before flying off again.
When I got to see her for real, in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, I became intimately acquainted, not only with her, but with her love of the home. She called herself a midwife of real estate: as a real estate agent, she said she helped her clients give birth to their new homes. She invited me into her world with a description of the home I’ll never forget. “Houses are important because they represent shelter: in heat, in light, in warmth. The most essential components from which we gather ourselves, eat, make love, argue, and sleep. We enter our worlds from here. They’re our safe places where we don’t have to be anything we’re not. They represent how we see ourselves and how we wish for others to see us, they’re our closets and our mirrors, both metaphorically and literally. It’s where everything happens.” I wondered at that, how true that was, and how much I’d been missing from that sense of home. How much I lost. I pledged to myself that the next place I lived wouldn’t just be good enough, the next place would be me.
I didn’t know what that would look like. I had no idea who I was in a home. I walked into a downtown loft, I felt good in it, I liked its exposed brick and plumbing, its openness. Even the fact that the bedroom sat with no door and no separation seemed to fit. I am open, I am exposed, I am out there, out here, out everywhere. I took it, still not sure anything would happen, not even thinking about it. But when the movers left, and my friend who’d helped hire them had left, and it was just me, all alone, in my downtown apartment, and I sat down, it hit me. I was home. In a way I’d never been.