America whispers, “Leave,” and I understand
We are ready to move on. Our roots wouldn’t latch on, wouldn’t take to the soil
Author Sarah Maria Griffin who returned to Dublin from San Francisco in 2015
Author Sarah Maria Griffin recently joined Irish Times Abroad for an audience discussion about the experience of moving back to Ireland from overseas. She read this essay, ‘Deconstructing an American Apartment’, originally published by Midnight Breakfast.
During the storm, the age of the flat starts to show itself.
First, the ants: a sheet of live black hail with tiny legs and sugar-hungry mouths, leaks in from the window, the wall. They make their home in a bowl of wrapped candy – a sudden vortex of insect life. Tiny things, deaf to our shrieks of disgust and horror over the heady rainfall outside.
The cat, Moriarty, watches in horror as they swarm his food. My husband, CB, stands with the bowl full of kibble, and in despair yells, “Don’t take the cat’s food, just please don’t take the cat’s food!”
I am from Ireland, so it is not that the storm feels unusual to me. The rain is a cleansing relief from the strange, dry year that had, until this particular month, spun out all disconcerting and yellow.
I am used to the rain; it is my favourite climate. I tell people this all the time. Those four sounds out of my mouth over and over: I am from Ireland, I am from Ireland. A shield, an identity, most definitely a crutch against parts of this new culture I am still baffled by.
These rainy December weeks in San Francisco, I stand outside in the air and inhale it, fresh and familiar. The water tears lumps out of my apartment, but I love it because it feels like something I recognise in the tapestry of this city, otherwise composed of so many things that I do not.
The mould appears all over a soft bag I keep full of nylons, hanging from my dressing-table chair. It has spread from the base of the fire-escape door and has started to eat my clothing. I notice it on a slim briefcase I keep full of stationery, the dull sheen off it sickly.
When I show the exterminator the mirror, he says he can’t help. It has started bleeding black water at the height of the storm. A thick goop seeping from the bottom corner, like drool from the slack jaw of a beast, like something terrible and unnamable manifest.
The exterminator is just like every exterminator from American family movies: gruff, grey-haired, loud. He drills holes in our walls and fills them with poison.
CB suggests I ask the plumber to take a look at the mirror when he comes to fix the kitchen sink. I tell CB it is goddamn Lovecraftian, and I feel like I’d nearly be better off buying some sage or sacrificing a small animal.
The plumber, eyebrows raised, wrench in hand, says there must be a pipe back there somewhere, something gone a bit wrong. He reassures me it looks worse than it is. There is no flood threat. “Looks pretty grim, though,” he remarks, before leaving.
I stand in the kitchen, using a middle-of-the-road brand electric mixer to make meatloaf. This quintessential American dish, almost mixed up, almost ready for the decrepit oven (two of the hobs on top have fallen in on themselves, but they’ll still boil a kettle). Beef, egg, cornbread, oregano, caramelised onions – terrible mush until it is baked and becomes a hearty companion to roasted sweet potatoes, to rainbow carrots under honey.
Then, in my hands, the machine becomes suddenly hot, then smells like fire, then a plume of grey smoke erupts from its motor. It is scorching to touch, for a moment, but still the blades spin – it keeps going, even though it has mangled itself. I plug it out and place it in the back of the kitchen press, a cursed thing.
I have not thrown it out yet. I will.
There is defeat in the moment when you realise a relationship isn’t working – a flicker of raw failure. Something, I suppose, like heartbreak. Our roots wouldn’t latch on, wouldn’t take to the soil.
All of these ailments come down, one after another, shortly after CB and I find ourselves agreeing that we absolutely have to leave this country. That we got whatever we came here to get, some ineffable experience, or adulthood, or courage. That we are now ready to move on, and away. That there is nothing keeping us here any longer.
The first sign came when they left: there had been an exodus of friends unable to live in the Bay Area any longer. Visas, the cost, family. We’d said goodbye three heavy times in August, September, October, and by the time the last farewell hit in November, we were bled dry.
The world felt quieter, in the way Dublin had threatened to become the year we left. Without the tapestry of our hard-won American friendships, we were starkly different again. We watched the exit lights rise on the horizon. And almost as if the apartment knew, it lurched beneath us. Became something more than just the first apartment that accepted our application, something more than our rent-controlled haven in this city of gold.
It is hard to say you are finished trying, or that the fight is not worth continuing. It is harder still to admit exhaustion. That you never fit in. How is it that the simple wear-and-tear of a rickety apartment built sometime in the 1970s suddenly becomes lived metaphor? When the pipe under the kitchen sink went, it was not just an average, almost inconsequential household misfortune. It was a personal slight. Hostile, rather than inconvenient. America whispers, “Leave,” and I understand.
Over miserable iced tea against the storm one afternoon, I sit at Roe’s kitchen table to lament the crumbling flat, and she raises her perfectly sculpted eyebrows and says, “Poltergeist.” She is studying here, and her alienation towards this new country matches mine blow for blow. I tell her I wish it was a poltergeist, but I’m pretty sure it is just America.
The day after Christmas, I clean out my untidy wilderness of a dressing table. The dresser was among the first things we put in this apartment, a Salvation Army miracle: a huge, round mirror with dark wooden drawers, set low to the ground. It remains the most beautiful thing I’ve ever owned, the most majestic. I will be sad to leave it, but I will leave it.
I sit on our creaky bed and heap out my knotted, cheap jewellery, expecting to spend hours throwing out useless things in some vain attempt at moving out, long before any flight is booked, or any destination really set. I thought I had gathered more things from thrift stores and art fairs, thought I’d be admonishing myself for being so greedy – but there is very little.
A handful of two-dollar chains, some earrings. Beloved but broken presents from Christmases gone – jewels without chains. Labradorite from Galway, glass from the Flea up beyond Christchurch, an emerald from Jeweller’s Alley off Grafton Street. Hard, sharp items from home, from CB, warming in my hands. I lay them out.
I slowly untangle the five or six necklaces I’ve amassed from one another, from pieces of sewing string, from the knots they became since I stopped wearing them. The greying metal of them softens against my fingertips as I pry them free of one another. I manage not to snap a single one.
I fold the jewellery away into a thrift-store case. It leaves my hands leaden, picking apart the cheap metal and seeing the mess for what it really is. I place the gifted broken stones without chains into a box of their own. They might not be wearable anymore, but they are still priceless. They might be broken, but I wore them and they were gorgeous around my throat. Just because they’ve fallen apart doesn’t mean they were not precious. Just because they failed doesn’t mean they weren’t worth having.
Just because it is over does not mean it was a waste. Or that the time here never shone, or that this apartment was never Our American Home – a wonderful thing, a prize, a privilege. A gemstone on a broken chain.
After work the next day, I look down at my left hand. My wedding ring is set with five opals, and one has disappeared. A punched tooth, a shock of a hollow against the fire-blue stones set in bright gold. My stomach lurches in that particular shallow grief you only feel when something shiny that you love doesn’t work anymore – but I listen to that empty space.
Every day I fold more clothes for donation, throw out another faulty thing, mop up the rainwater, spray soap on rogue ants. The mirror keeps seeping eldritch black, but I will stare it down and brush my teeth there regardless.
I will fix the wedding ring. I will clean up the mould.
Soon we will book our flights out, and when we look back, California will still be golden over our shoulders.
Sarah Maria Griffin moved back to Dublin from San Francisco in 2015. Her non-fiction book about her journey to America, Not Lost, was published in 2013. Her debut novel, Spare and Found Parts, was published by Greenwillow Books in 2016 and will be released in Ireland and the UK in 2018 by Titan. She tweets @Griffski