When I was in college I read about pioneer women. My family teases me about this because for two or three years I was obsessed. I read books about the trails heading west of Missouri, fascinated by the risks men and women took to stake a claim or meet a spouse or carve a house into dirt when the chance of finding gold or growing a crop was about as good as dying of cholera or going crazy on the prairie. I loved the women. I read their diaries while huddled in a dark booth at the back of the campus coffeehouse, scratching notes in my composition book and flagging pages. I color-coded entries. Like red for illness and death, blue for family or marriage, green for wagon trains. One of my writing professors encouraged my idea to write poetry and narrative based on these women’s experiences so I spent a semester putting together a portfolio Chasing The Sun.
I romanticized the freedom I imagined pioneer women must have sensed, cutting ties to a familiar place. That was very much what I wanted when Justin and I moved abroad. I remember envying pioneer women: they had no Skype.
Now I better appreciate invisible tethers to home. I feel pulls to Wisconsin, Colombia and occasionally Italy, where I was born. But I also feel pulls to places I’ve been only briefly, like Vienna or Budapest, Nairobi, Wadi Rum in Jordan, and imagine this is being a pioneer woman. The belly stir of guessing where we might settle next, connections we rope around the world.
But here is something else I read about the pioneer woman, that when she left a homestead she might first sweep or dust, closing the door to a tidy room, or she might climb up the wagon wheel to join her husband on the buckboard, leaving behind crumbs and a burned skillet on the sawhorse table.
Our last spring in Colombia I came home one afternoon to see a spare apartment. No pictures or mirrors left on the walls, no candles or cloths on end tables, no knick knacks or postcards on the kitchen counter. I found our “us clutter” in a suitcase, breakables wrapped in newspaper or dish towels. I put everything back in its place. We were only in Colombia for two years and clearing the walls and tabletops of stuff took a couple of hours. We’ve been in Kuwait nearly eight years. I might leave a skillet on the table when I go.
We bought our dining table at the end of our first year. I was proud of its sturdiness and shine. I liked sitting our family at one end for dinner or having friends fill the chairs for weekend breakfast. We spend a lot of time at this table. One spring break we turned the table into an art studio, leaving paints and brushes and papers out all week, drifting to and from the watercolor and India ink. Justin and kids construct Lego scenes on the table, each of them working on a different part until the restaurant, bank and pet shop line up. I write at this table sometimes, at night, under the shadow of bad overhead lighting. Justin spends the weekend typing work for his masters classes. During Christmas, this table fills with cookies cooling, icing setting. Lately, we play Uno, crazy eights or Qwirkle with the kids before bed.
I have pounded my fists on the dining table too and sat slumped over its cool shine. Justin and I argue across from each other. We get up and leave, go to another room. The kids refuse to eat what I fix at this table. I sat at this table one morning, holding Grant to my breast, and asked Justin to please not go to school today, the sky outside just lightening to another long short day. This is the table I drop my bags on, when I come in. I leave my jacket hanging over a chair.
More stuff to sell: shelves. A lot of Ikea. (I repeat the store in my mind as E-kay-ah, after our British friend Harvey). Dark brown, black shelves. The cubes make 5×2 for a long low room divider or 5×5 for a giant catch all against one wall or 2×2 for shoe bins that were supposed to solve our where’s-my-shoes problem.
Ikea is one of those brands that barely depreciate in expat hands. At the end of our first year here I was excited to buy a butcher block island for our tiny kitchen, the smidge of extra counter space I needed. But the butcher block I bought didn’t match the stock photo on the sale flier. Many somethings had been butchered on that block. Still the price was set, half what I’d pay for a new island, and I’d already said yes so I wheeled that chunk of bloody wood to the elevator knowing I’d never cut a vegetable on its surface. Justin flipped the top so it looked new, though warped, but its spent seven years parked in laundry room collecting bulk packs of toilet paper, tissue boxes and paper towel rolls.
Free stuff: a lot.
For years we’ve opened our apartment door the day after friends’ flights out to find a box of toys or baking supplies. One family left us their toaster since their daughter and Claire spent a lot of afternoons buttering toast together.
At the end of our first year in Kuwait, another couple with kids invited us to say goodbye the night before they flew out. I’ve said many goodbyes like this, an apartment empty except for school provided furniture and the odd pile of clothes or snacks meant for a carry-on, a line of suitcases at the door. That first year we knocked and the family was sitting on the tile floor. We talked only briefly, thanks for welcoming us to Kuwait, best to you in __. They had books for us, for Claire. They weren’t sure where the books were right now but they’d find them, leave a stack in the living room. Just come by tomorrow, she said. The next morning I opened the door (it felt like trespassing) and heard the couple’s nanny crying at the back of the apartment. I walked across the too big space and said hello, hugged. She helped me find the books and then said to take what I wanted. She led me through the couple’s bedroom. Bed linens, bath towels, furniture. I started to say I didn’t need anything but she picked up a stack of sheets, handed them to me. I understood then she was dispersing everything left behind.
If I hadn’t taken the bed linens (the nicest ones I’d slept on yet) someone else would’ve. Didn’t I do that when I left Colombia, calling a taxi to pick up Patricia so we could pack the trunk with an area rug, throw pillows and a box of kitchen supplies? Take this. And this. You need another cheese grater?
At the end of every year, teachers cull their apartments for junk they don’t need but can’t sell (five year old blender goes for what these days?) and give it to our new hire orientation coordinators for a giant free market. For a few years during the first days of summer break, Justin and Harvey would scavenge after teachers moved out, occasionally at a coworker’s invitation, but usually just pulling useable goods from trash bins in the stairways. They’d find bath and beach towels, double wash them, give them to the orientation coordinators.
You don’t have to wait until the end to empty your apartment. While I’m not taking the drawings down from the walls or unhooking hanging plants yet, I’ve been going through the apartment by shelves and drawers. Over winter break I filled bags and boxes with stuff to toss or give away. I remembered my brother telling me how his wife, Joie, was careful with this process, thinking precisely who might be able to use what they weren’t packing in a suitcase. I’m trying to do that, some. But I also indiscriminately stuff junk in bags to leave on the bench in our downstairs lobby. That bench is magic. The stuff goes away.
When people find out you’re leaving they look at your stuff in a new way. Justin and I still joke about another couple’s raised eyebrows and nod toward a piece of furniture in a friend’s apartment. They’re not taking that to Cairo, are they? I did the same thing though, eyeing a teak staircase shelf, asking how much, a little embarrassed after when the answer was it’d be in a shipping container home. When Jamie left I was still setting up our apartment. I wanted two things she had. Bunk beds and a long kitchen counter with drawers and shelves. No one is looking at our bunk beds with envy. Claire and Grant graffitied the pine with hearts, stars and math problems. But after a neighbor laid a hand on that counter and looked at it the way I once had in Jamie’s kitchen I said, You know we still live here, right?
A couple of months ago I asked Pamela how they moved here from Tanzania. Two cubic meters and suitcases, that’s how they moved. What can you fit in that space? I pull bins from under the bed or boxes from the laundry room, open the lids and find tiny sweaters and our kids’ first pairs of shoes. We have a cupboard like an archaeology dig of school work and art projects. I ask Pamela what she did with all the kids’ stuff and she looked blank for a moment and then said, We don’t have it. She chose a couple of items for her daughter and son and gave away the rest. The next time I rummaged through our wardrobes I thought of Pamela shearing the unnecessary.
In February, Alex posted her entire apartment for sale. She talked with me about having the document ready for months before sharing it with our community. Shedding stuff was uncharacteristic. Through childhood and young adulthood, she stashed treasure in cardboard boxes, plastic bins, carting possessions and memories from one place to the next. Things get heavy. There’s something wild and unsteady about letting go so much stuff at once. Alex stared at the list on her computer screen, kept her finger above the touchpad for a few minutes, thinking if this was crazy. She posted. Within hours her apartment was sold. She felt light.
She might regret it. I already miss a set of three end tables I picked up one weekend at the Iranian souk. Sturdy, patterned with white dots and waves over turquoise, yellow and green paint. Those tables remind me of a Saturday spent winding between vendor stalls, the dresses and colors, ottomans, shelving and tea sets, tiny turtles in plastic aquariums the size of lunch boxes, a display of incense sticks like spaghetti just dropped in a pot. We sold the tables before I realized we might have just shipped them. I might have set that Saturday at the end of a new couch.
We have a heavy sideboard left to us by a couple who said they wanted it shipped to the States when we left Kuwait. I messaged a picture and shipping quote. Is this worth a thousand dollars air freight? She messaged back she couldn’t imagine what she was thinking, to want to bring furniture to the “land of plenty” and blessed its trip to Korea with us.
Tara, who handed me throw pillows and hand weights and wicker baskets on my way out her door, who opened her apartment to staff to take take take, told me she wished she’d kept more when she moved to Saudi. They had an established home in Kuwait. And they started over, nearly completely. She still remembers something she wants and doesn’t have. A blazer, cookie sheets. I think of one of Jack Kerouac’s writing rules: Accept loss forever. Before Justin delivered Claire’s dollhouse to a younger girl here, I said get Claire so she can say goodbye. She ran from wherever she was playing and said goodbye before running back to wherever she was playing. I wonder what she will miss next year, what she’ll remember having and want.
There isn’t a right way to do this. I think of pioneer women and their covered wagons, Pamela and her two cubic meters, Joie and her eight suitcases. I think of Alex who loosed her furniture and household goods in one go. I think of me, leaking stuff for a year until a day in June when the cubic meters are on their way to Korea and our suitcases are lined up at the door. In my mind, that day is like the midnight we first walked into our apartment, standing in its absolute quiet, the tile floor and concrete walls cool to touch, our living room set an island. Except that day I will already know the rooms at the back of the apartment and scuffs on the walls. I might look around and see where everything we don’t have belongs. All year I am saying these are things. Haven’t I cornered memories here? All year I am saying I can let go things. All year I look at things and feel a little ridiculous how choked I am to say we don’t need this small table and chairs anymore. We’ve had our tea parties. They were lovely tea parties.