Published on January 20th, 2022 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura and Ro Agents-Juska0
Though I’ve lived, mostly happily, in the same apartment for seventeen years, I spent this past September and most of October 2021 scrolling through rentals on Zillow and StreetEasy. Every Wednesday after I dropped my kid off at school, I couldn’t get further than the corner before taking out my phone to check the weekly culled release from the Listings Project. My partner and I had talked of leaving before, of untangling ourselves from the web of extended family strung through our home, but those conversations as often ended with, “Or, we’ll just stay here forever.”
We rent from my mother-in-law, who I like. She bought the brownstone in 1968. (The daughter of poor Polish immigrants yes, but not redlined.) It is my partner’s childhood home. I first stepped into it when I was sixteen and he seventeen. I was newly in love with him and then I fell for his house. The couch was velour, I think, the cushions collapsing into themselves and in the potholes of the soft blankets two white Siamese cats curled liked currant buns. Paintings on unframed canvases hung on the walls. The big living room with tall, molded ceilings led to a big kitchen with windows that rolled up on chains and looked out over the back garden. Along one wall, a row of shelves was lined with dusty knick-knacks, all chicken themed. (Chick salt and pepper shakers; rooster sculptures, and so on.) My boyfriend and I were welcome to linger, but usually we climbed the two flights to his bedroom at the top. Records in crates on the wooden floor. Mattress by the window. No screen. I leaned my elbows on the sill and smoked cigarettes over the backyards and huge magnolia tree.
When first his brother, and then my boyfriend, graduated college, their mother added a small kitchen to the upstairs, making the top two floors into an ad hoc duplex. (There are four brothers in all; the two eldest were adults with children of their own by this time.) My partner and his brother each invited a friend to move in and when I graduated college I did too. It was glorious; creative and chaotic, our friends often on the couches. And it was affordable, a rare chance in a city that was pricing out so many. As the decade of our twenties passed my boyfriend became my fiancé and then my husband. The roommates and his brother moved out, one at a time. I birthed our babies in an inflated tub in the room next to the bathroom, the first in 2015, the second on the eve of Covid erupting in late 2019. His mother left muffins in the foyer and came up to watch movies and presidential debates. My mother and stepfather came and went through the week, helping us with childcare. On this house, we built a notion of family that felt right.
And yet…it could be hard. We lived in walls saturated with family history. Some days the emotions seemed to seep in through the vents like the smoke of my mother-in-law’s illicit indoor cigarettes. When my partner and I spoke of leaving it was for a chance to re-position our= spot on this map of familial relationships. The conversations became an attempt to define home in the first place. Was it rooted down in family? Was it where we were in charge? Was it where we felt safe? Was it where we felt free? Was it square footage? Location? A block for our kids to play with ease? A neighborhood with people to whom we felt affinity? A backyard?
And then this September the needs of his family crested. It was a crisis born of the pandemic that had nothing to do with the virus and everything to do with trying to care for each other in a time of virus. The details of it are not mine to tell here. What is mine is that the crisis overwhelmed me. I wanted to be steady and tough, but all I could feel was how much I wanted to smoke and sleep. I cared for the kids. I tended to my work. I drank three, four, five cups of coffee a day to keep me awake enough to do it. I peered into the photographs of staged, empty rooms on my phone, wondering. I toured tiny apartments with exorbitant rents owned by predatory management companies, wondering. I searched the internet until I’d memorized the landscape of rentable places.
I was born into movement, of parents and grandparents who had fled—metaphorically and literally—places that were not safe or welcoming. My father’s parents were political exiles of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. My father was born in Mexico City, their place of exile, and after his childhood there, he never stayed one place for long. Caught, I think, between his brown skin and European roots and by his own behaviors—the alcohol and anger that tore attachments he nevertheless formed wherever he paused. My mother’s parents could have stayed in the small Midwestern city in which they were raised, but my grandfather led them away, trying to get out from under his father’s preeminence. And he too, was fueled by alcoholism. After their divorce, my grandmother kept moving—for jobs, to be near her grown children, once to fulfill her own dream of living in Manhattan. My mother left home at fourteen when her parents separated and did not settle for long anywhere. After I was born our early travels took us to New England, the Midwest, and Mexico, where my parents had thought to raise me but, in the end, didn’t. They split up when I was four. My mother and I moved in with her mother in a studio apartment in the East Village and then to a Brooklyn railroad unit where we settled, my mother laughing, “I never expected to raise a New Yorker.” There was one more bout of moving after an incident that is mine to tell, but a story for another page, that had us leaving that apartment abruptly. I was eleven. For a few seasons, we did not have a place of our own and stayed with my grandmother who was now in New England, and with friends and family of friends in the East Village, the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights and Garden City, Long Island. We ended these adventures with the rental of a tiny apartment on the top of a five-floor walkup in a fancy neighborhood near my high school. I lived there until college and until I moved into my boyfriend’s home. The apartment felt like a treehouse, and we tucked in. But it was also too small for the roving of teenage-hood and I claimed favorite stoops as my own, building walls around me with words on pages and smoke. I believed then that I carried the makings of home within me and that I could make it wherever I went if I had the right people with me. The home was not the place, but us together, everywhere we chose.
I learned that my babies had a similar notion. I felt how I could bring them anywhere as long as I was there. I remember reading that a newborn does not understand that their body is an entity apart from that of the parent who birthed them. It can explain their howl when separated from that physical presence: They find themselves in a body all their own and they don’t understand. Put another way, for my babies, my body was home.
But I think with my second child this includes her father and brother. As a Covid-era infant, she spent most days of her first years with all of us always together. When we get ready to nurse (she is now almost two) she runs through her roll call.
“Daddy,” I answer.
She was eleven weeks old when the schools closed. The mayor called it sheltering in place, but all I heard was “lock down.” A week later we leased a car before all the businesses shut down too. I did not look at the contract. I just wanted the keys to a vehicle that moved.
We did not have anywhere to go at first and nights when our big kid (then four) was asleep, my partner and I sat on the couch with the baby asleep on my breast, wondering if we should just drive and figure out the destination as we went.
“Is that what we’re supposed to do?” I asked him. “Is that how we take care of our children?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
We could not see his mother downstairs because she had what felt like every risk factor. We spoke on the phone. We checked on her supplies and needs and she seemed reasonably OK. My mother and stepfather were sick with what we now know was Covid, mercifully not sick enough to need hospital care. We checked on their supplies and needs and they seemed reasonably OK.
After three weeks, we joined the exodus out of the city, accepting an invitation to share a home with friends in the woods. We thought at first it would be a week-long reprieve. We stayed two months. It was not until the end of summer that we returned full-time to the brownstone. But I don’t feel like I’ve stopped running.
In Covid, home became walls, windows, doors. The metaphors for home did not survive lockdown. “Home” was a physical place in a physical structure located on a block in a neighborhood in a city in a state in a country. A continent. If the air of an entire planet could be a risk, then to where could I flee? I discovered that I lived in a place. It felt like a crosshairs of coordinates.
I’d forgotten until exactly now that during those first months out of the city I scrolled a different set of listings, not for apartments, but for land. I discovered that we could afford small plots covered with trees and no infrastructure, water, or sewage. I dreamt aloud with my partner of a communal plot with friends. We would build small houses and a big communal kitchen and living room in the middle. We wouldn’t live there full time, always I longed to get back to Brooklyn, but if it ever happened again…We’d be ready. We would do it even better next time. We would never have to spend days again trapped in our apartment, unsafe, unable to protect our kids or meet their needs. We would never have to feel that way again.
But do you see it? I looked for land to recreate what I had indeed received. I did get to live with friends in the woods out of the city. We did find refuge for ourselves and our children. We were able to keep them safe and meet their needs. Our family in Brooklyn was taken care of; not ideally, not as I would have liked it to be, but enough to be sustained through those brutal first months.
I long for the before days and mistake it for a problem that can be solved with a backyard or a deed with my name on it.
“I want to live here forever,” my now six-year-old says. I know that “here” is something other than the rooms in which we abide. I also know that he will lose this version of forever no matter where we live because that is what happens and that he will mourn that loss because that is what we do. “Our baby,” as we call her still, though less frequently every day, seems to understand it better than the rest of us. When she wakes she calls to us one by one, palming my face and then her brother’s and then her fathers with her fingers spread wide. Once satisfied, the day can begin, and she slides out of bed feet first and runs out of the room in search of the cat.
I’ve gradually stopped looking. I quit one realty site at a time. By late October, I realized I’d made it to Wednesday evening without remembering to check the Listings Project. (I tell myself it was not all a waste. I now have a thorough grasp of the current Brooklyn rental market.) The needs of my partner’s family eased, were met, everyone is settling.
But I have not made it all the way back home. Not to this one and not to many others. My grandmother’s apartments where she, my mother and I curled up on couches sipping coffee and reading the paper. A hammock on a beach in Mexico where I once slept for three nights transfixed by the shape of the palm leaves above me in the moonlight. My bedroom in the railroad on 7th avenue with its fire escape and the play of lights from passing cars. This very house, in my twenties, where I realized my own dreams of what an adult life could be. This very house, in the winter of 2019 when our second child was born and I, for a brief time, felt as snug and secure as I had ever been. These homes held me in those coordinates of time and place and they still do.
I don’t know if a move is on my horizon. But I feel the urge for flight undergirding every thought. I continue to be tense, coiled. The movement, the change, is that I understand that there is no listing, no address, no amenity that will release it. For now, it is in my body. The only place I will always live.
Words by Jade Sanchez-Ventura / Images by Ro Agents-Juska
In the series “Home is Where We…”, two women artists, raising children in Brooklyn and Detroit, consider the domestic spaces in which we’ve sheltered.