We moved in three months before it burst into flames.
It happened on a Monday. I was buried with work at my Silicon Valley cubicle when my roommate called.
“Our apartment is on fire. Come home now,” he stated flatly.
Home I went, contemplating the extent of the damage as I gnawed on my nails in the backseat of a cab – which keepsakes had the fire swallowed as I zoomed down the 101?
I have a canvas covered in turquoise cloth with five words stitched into it. “HOME IS WHERE YOU ARE,” it says in bold white font, even though I don’t consider myself a “live, laugh, love” kind of girl. Don’t get me wrong, nothing feels better than being alive, than laughing and loving wholeheartedly. I just don’t need those words slapped on a poster to keep them at the forefront of my conscience. I don’t need a pillow embroidered with the word “dream” for my thoughts to twist through the deep crevices of my brain as I sleep, or the word “imagine” etched on a plaque above my desk to spur creativity. I prefer to decorate with subtle images that make my mind wander, not cheesy phrases that mandate action. Photographs and vintage maps do the trick just fine.
However, I’ve moved around a lot, so the words “home is where you are” resonate with me. They’ve adorned my bedroom walls in two different Boston apartments, spent four months in storage during a brief stint in Dublin, but reemerged for a summer in New York City. Most recently, they’ve accompanied me on a cross-country journey to my latest conquest: San Francisco.
That canvas knows me more intimately than most people do. It’s watched me transform with makeup before a night out. It’s listened to me on phone calls with loved ones. It’s witnessed me crying after failed attempts at one-night stands. No matter what happens or what city I’m in, it’s always above my dresser at the end of the day, staring down at me and assuring me that everything will be okay – I’m home, I’m safe.
The day that it happened, my canvas was home without me. It absorbed ghastly fumes as smoke crawled through my apartment, turning floorboards and furniture into ash. The basement unit next door was being illegally used as a motorcycle repair shop. An engine had exploded, igniting two residential buildings along with an unassuming Pilates studio.
For those who are not privy to the San Francisco housing market, it is positively miserable. Rent is sky high, and demand far exceeds availability. It’s not rare to arrive at a Craigslist open house, only to see dozens of potential buyers outside, waving checks and bearing bottles of wine to woo real estate agents. It often takes months to find the right apartment, but my roommates and I got lucky with ours. Located in the Mission District and reasonably priced, it made for the perfect post-grad crash pad.
Finally the cab veered off at the Cesar Chavez exit. When I arrived home, all I could do was watch from a distance as the black cloud above Valencia Street expanded like a malignant tumor.
No one was hurt, but the damage was extensive. Our kitchen, laundry room and living room were reduced to dust. The skeleton of our apartment had disintegrated – shelves disappeared and beams dangled vertically from the ceiling, rendering it uninhabitable.
It didn’t hit me that I was homeless until I went back two weeks later to retrieve salvageable goods, my mouth and nose covered with a mask. Though my bedroom was fortunately unscathed by flames, all of my possessions either reeked of smoke or were sodden with water from fire hoses. As I shoved piles of damp clothing into garbage bags, I looked up.
There hung my canvas, untouched by flames.
At this very moment, as I sit on a generous friend’s couch in my very homeless state, my canvas is practically glaring at me, drilling its message into my brain.
Staring back at it, I realize its message rings true. When you don’t have a house to go back to, home becomes a state of mind. As long as you’re at peace with yourself and the people you surround yourself with, it’s easier to come to terms with tragedy. No need to be attached to physical rooms and spaces that no longer exist – home is where I am, and everything will work out just fine.