I am eleven years old, and it is nearly summer still, the September light crisp and warm. I am not sure my feet touch the ground when I dangle them from beneath my chair.
For a couple of hours, school is novel again, and so we sit – quiet, good. Shy, if only for a moment. It is Spanish period, the first one of the year. I know the teacher – I’ve had her before, in pre-school. I do not remember much about her. Her name – Señora Garcia. Her voice, maybe.
She is asking us to introduce ourselves: name, age. What we want to become when we grow up. The question isn’t yet terrifying at eleven – we don’t yet know that it doesn’t mean anything, don’t yet know that grown-up isn’t an endgame but a process; a muddy one at that. It is a tedious question, rather. We’ve been asked the same thing before. Only now we’re halfway reasonable, and it’s been some time since my best friend’s answered that with a pirate.
It is my turn. It is my turn, and looking back on it now, I cannot for the life of me remember my answer. I cannot. Something easy – rolling smooth off my tongue, carelessly offered up without really knowing what it means. Something expected. A teacher, perhaps? An astronaut?
I remember this, though: how she looks at me. How she is quiet for a moment, her face thoughtful. And then, almost offhandedly: how funny. The last time I asked you this question, you were five years old and told me you wanted to become a writer.
I am twenty, and my flight is scheduled to take off in a handful of hours. I am terrified and exhausted and elated, all wrapped into one. I don’t yet believe that I am doing this – that I am going to build myself a life one country removed from everyone I love.
I know nothing of Berlin – the name of it feels foreign, unpractised in my mouth. I haven’t read the books I’ve bought, and the only thing I’ve Googled is how to find my way from the airport. I have drawn a pink star on the map, where my apartment is supposed to be. I check my bag again and again to make sure I do not forget it; it is already creased.
My father is holding me goodbye. He is being brave for both our sakes – reminding me how I chose this, telling me he is proud. Whispering you will do so much living there. I stay quiet, nod against his shoulder, face muffled against his chest. I am anxious to be there already, and want nothing more but to stay in with them.
Leaving is always the hardest part.
Suddenly he asks, you have packed things to write and paint to bring with you, haven’t you? And the question is so unexpected, so very sincere, that I want to laugh and cry at the same time.
For the better part of the past year I have been digging myself out of what feels like years of self-numbing – of carefully burying the most important parts of me, in favour of doing the reasonable thing.
It has been a year of quietly sitting with myself and getting to know who I am, and what makes me. Of thawing and unearthing and accepting.
I remember choking up on the phone that summer, telling my mother I don’t know if you understand how far I’ve come. How much growing I’ve been doing. And her voice, so steady and strong and reassuring, so full of love: we do. We do. I remember sending them one of the truest e-mails I ever wrote, full of trembling hands because it felt like the first time I was letting myself be raw, telling them writing is the single thing that makes sense to me.
I am not sure they replied, then. But my father’s last minute question, so urgent and careful, while my mother waits patiently by the car to drive me to the airport – it fills me with the certainty that I am heard. I am understood.
Yes, I tell him. I have.
I am twenty-one, and Paris feels familiar, almost small – filled with old ghosts and daydreams. I learn to fall back in love with it, slowly, one piece of graffiti art at a time. Find my way near the water more often than not, nestle in the coffee shops that have opened while I was gone, learn the bartender’s name. Hold my people close.
The summer is stifling – my shirt sticks to my skin, sweaty and warm, my hair curling almost wet at the nape of my neck. I weave my way into the crowd, see her before she does me, and we smile, because it has been so long. There are so many stories to tell each other.
So, she asks, crossing her ankles, settling into her chair, taking a sip from her latte, her smile kind, her eyes on mine. What have you been up to?
I breathe. I’ve been writing.