The Invisibility of Place

A cable coming out of my living room wall

We’re moving.

We’re moving and I’m filled with excitement. Also melancholy over leaving the apartment that has been our home for the past three years. We moved in when my son was three, just before he started kindergarten. We moved in when darling girl was sloshing around in my swollen belly. Nikola painted the apartment and moved the last of our belongings while I was in Varna, waiting for baby girl to shoot out.

We’re moving, and I get a house. With a yard. A house that is mine. A place that I can finally sink some roots deep into. A forever home.

We’re moving, and I’m leaving behind the stores beneath our apartment, morning sandwiches from the deli, the expanse of a public park as our back yard.

We’re moving.

And my son cried.

For all the conflicting emotion I feel, I can understand the columns of plus and minus. I can make sense of this. I can see a better future.

My son is six, in his last year of kindergarten, and he cried those honest, quiet tears of true grief. Because we’re moving.

We’re not going far. He can still go to the playground. He’ll stay in the same kindergarten. His friends are just down the street. But we’re moving.

He cried for his imaginary friend.

When we moved in, he found a cable that stuck out of the wall. He pumped it up and down, as if it was someone’s arm, and said hello. For the first year, he would greet his imaginary friend almost every night. Then once a week. Once a month. Occasionally. He hasn’t said hello to that cable in months. He never got around to naming it. But he cried for it.

Beneath the tears, I see him crying for something more. These walls that have cradled him. The ones that heard his screams during night terrors, the ones he drew maps and plans for spaceships on. He cries for the long, skinny bathroom that fits our wading pool perfectly. The drain that is always clogged, so he has to empty the pool slowly. He cries for the step in the living room, where he has sat and built train stations out of Legos. He’s crying for the pale purple of his wall. The lamp he shattered. The office he used to do puppet shows in.

He can take these memories with him, as well as a six year old can, but it isn’t the same. Cradling in the memories is different from holding them within a fragile brain.

And we’re moving.

I’m excited for it. I try spark excitement in him. Children are elastic. He can hold pockets of grief alongside joy. I hold him, and he sparks grief in me. Because this apartment has been more than place. It has been like a mother to us. It has warmed us in the winter, fed us when we were hungry. It has held our scents and tastes. It has held our love. And no transplant is ever clean. Yes, we’ll take some of this apartment with us, but we’ll leave some of us behind.

We’re moving.

Place As Character

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about place as character. A lot of agents say they’re looking for stories with place as character. So do several magazines. I’ve always agreed making a place one of the characters in a book is interesting, but my own writing has failed to do that. I tend to write stories that could take place anywhere. For me, the people have always been more important than the place.

But the other day my son started crying about our impending move, and something changed in me. I won’t say I fully understand place as character, but it definitely makes a little more sense to me. Before, I was thinking of personifying the place. But it is something deeper than that. It is expressing the will and fate of a location without giving it human traits. I feel like In the Dreamhouse by Carmen Maria Machado had a unique exploration of place. Of course, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, too.

I have to wonder why my first novels that spring to mind when I think of place as a character are about houses. Part of me feels like in the surrealist realm, trapped so deeply in the psyche, that the larger the space, the more difficult it becomes to contain as a character. Even looking at the Nigerian novels I’ve been enthralled with lately, the country is not a character.

Do you know of any surreal/weird books where the city/country/world is a character as opposed to smaller, more contained spaces? I’d love to read some more.


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