Last Word: Delicate Cycle

WHEN I WAS 10, I sat on the cold tile floor, hunched over a red plastic tub between my skinny legs. It was December, and it was cold—as cold as it can get in Africa. My fingers worked the clothes I was washing, making them writhe and squirm and make funny noises in the milky water. I rubbed the fabric against itself, looking up at my mother, who was doing just the same. “I hate this,” I told her. In fact, I hated it so much that in those days, I would avoid washing clothes until I ran out of them, or at least until my mother ran out of patience. It wasn’t a life lived in poverty, just in sheer, old-fashioned inconvenience. She looked at me and said, “You’ll have your own place someday when you’re in America, and then you’ll have your own washing machine,” or something to that effect. I don’t remember her exact words, just the weight of them. I thought of what she said again that day staring at the sleeves and legs of my clothes dancing on the washing line on our balcony whenever the wind picked up.

In 2011, I decided to pursue an education in America, leaving Giza and the apartment I grew up in behind. I’d lived there in Apt. 5 for 16 years, and there’s nothing I remember quite so vividly as its little quirks. The Michael Jackson stickers on my free-standing closet, which the previous tenant’s daughter had left behind. My mother coated it entirely with a layer of pale blue paint, but the bumps from the stickers never went away. Someday, I’ll have my own closet, I’d tell myself. The magnets on our fridge, which my mother used to tack up important things like receipts and bills. I remember the sound they made when they plopped to the floor from the weight of the papers. I remember the bamboo beaded curtain in the hallway, a strip of which was missing from when it caught my hair when I was a child running around, runny-nosed and full of misplaced energy; the curled edges of the post-it notes I wrote in hurried, childlike script and left on my computer screen long after I needed the reminders.

I remember leaving a big part of me with Apt. 5. Residues of memories smeared across the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room, my mother’s art studio. A chapter of my life frayed, all loose ends. Someday, I’ll have my own place. A better place, I thought, justifying to myself that breaking up with Apt. 5 was OK. Someday, I repeated that same year in Ohio, staring defeatedly at a pile of my half-wet clothes that someone had removed from the dryer and thrown into a corner on the floor of my dorm laundry room. Someday, I said, eyeing my roommate’s wall of posters of musicians I didn’t like.

That day came in Arkansas, where I moved for my first real job out of college. My journalism dreams ahead of me, I signed the lease to my first apartment, Apt. 1733, in Little Rock. On a sweltering day in the heart of an Arkansas summer, my fiance and I unloaded the Penske truck, lugging Ikea furniture, boxes of books and clothes and whatever else up six flights of stairs. When we were done, we sat on a mattress, sweaty skin sticking to the plastic cover, faces flush from exertion. There was an echo that came with the empty apartment that was now missing. We’d only been there for two or three hours, and the place was already so full of us.

A couple of days later, I bought my first car, and the washing machine—my very own—was already thumping with a load of laundry. A year tumbled by, and I introduced my first puppy to the 908-square-foot space I called my home. It was the safe, warm cocoon I returned to every evening after work, where I celebrated a promotion and baked my first cake from scratch. It was where I matured as an independent individual, which made leaving Apt. 1733 even harder.

It didn’t come as a shock to Apt. 1733 when my fiance accepted a job offer in California. We’d been acting strange for a couple of months—refusing to buy new things, even though 1733 knew how much I loved decorating. Selling furniture. Posing questions like, “Do we really need this?” Deciding against hanging up a shelf that had been leaning against a wall like a stranger’s umbrella for weeks. In a month, we found ourselves in a situation that was too familiar, but so vastly different—our things packed in boxes, us groaning and tired from hauling our belongings.

Needing a break, we sat on 1733’s carpeted floor, two heaping paper plates of scrambled eggs in front of us on a U-Haul box we temporarily used as a table. Our arms were sore again, unable to do the little it required to bring a fork to our lips. “Wow, it’s like we were never here,” I said and waited for the echo, which hit with the force of a freight train.

I was wrong. Breaking up with a home—no matter how temporary—is much like breaking up with a person. It’s never a clean separation. We didn’t realize it until we left, but I’d forgotten my magnets on the fridge (a collection gathered from every country and state I’ve been to). There’s an extra wire shelf in the closet that my fiance installed because my clothes didn’t fit on the two that were already there. A gooseneck faucet mounted on the deck of the kitchen sink, which used to filter water back at my fiance’s childhood house in Ohio. Nail holes that peppered the walls where I hung my mother’s paintings. Leavings of a small and plain existence, but also of a big promise my mother made to me almost 14 years ago. A promise I still think of when I toss my worn clothes into my washing machine, hear them spin and watch them come out as new, but just a little changed.

A former associate editor of this magazine, Mariam Makatsaria is a native of Tbilisi, The Republic of Georgia, but now lives and writes in Santa Clarita, California.