Post Road Magazine #10

Unheimlech

by Joseph Salvatore

But it’s not exactly like that either—at least not entirely—not exactly like what you said I just said. But, okay, fine, I could go that far. I could. Since you’re pressing me on what was meant to be a toss-off comment about living abroad, about being a woman living abroad with strangers in a home that’s not my home, that’s not even a home at all. But since living with strangers in a hostel seems—according to your definition—to require a certain level of self-disclosure, a level of self-disclosure that you claim Americans don’t possess, then, fine, I will try to explain. Try to make you understand. I guess what alls I’m saying is that, regardless of your assertion of the quote inherent contradiction in my logic, it does sort of feel that way. Okay? It’s a feeling. I mean, I guess I’ll just put it like that—since you want to nail me down on this point—it’s about the strangeness of feeling at home, at home anywhere, not just here or there—those political binaries you so ardently invoke—but rather the strangeness of feeling at home, a feeling of anti-at-homeness, what I believe you all here call the unheimlech. So, no, I can’t go so far as to say it’s about actually feeling at home, but it was about feeling like being at home, what being home would feel like, but also at the same time feeling a contrapuntal feeling such as This isn’t at all what a home should be, feeling like feeling homey feels frightening, feels wrong, like feeling at home is a bad thing, like a homesickness, a nausea. Something. However, the idea of an actual home, of a space and place constructed from the elements of home—i.e., hard roof, front porch, a cold, damp cellar, a backyard burial ground for our dead—is a good thing. Brings up good feelings. Good home vs. Bad home. But because this place we are presently in isn’t my real home, but a home I live in now away from home, an away-from-home home that I share with other people and yet still is a home that has formed some impression on me, some emotional response that I am able to articulate only barely to you, to you and your prodding, and because you say that this is just quote romantic American female bullshit unquote, all I can say is sorry, but it feels that way to me, okay? So when I say that I dream about being home and that this hostel is starting to feel like my home, I do not mean my actual home, my homeland, my Uber Alles, I mean it feels like I’m at a home—i.e., I see walls, I hear voices, I smell bodies, that suffocating smell of sleeping bodies wafting over these bunks—but I know it’s not my real home, okay? So, no, I’m not trying to export to your great nation whatever the hell you called any quote unquote American Domestic Ikea Policy. I’m just trying to describe how I feel here in this home that’s not my home. Surely, you, an architectural student, a German architectural student, can understand something about that. And, no, it has nothing to do with my dream-home that I made the unfortunate mistake of telling you about this morning, and that you now want me to explain to your satisfaction, because, as I’ve already stated, that dream-home was not even necessarily this hostel; it was just a place that felt and kind of looked like this hostel, a place where we all lived but didn’t live. See, that’s why explaining this is hard, because it wasn’t exactly like that, exactly. We lived here, but I also lived here alone sometimes. Like, as in I didn’t feel the presence of others while those others surrounded me. And it was precisely the living-there-alone-but-with- other-people feeling that the dream was all about. In a way. Okay, listen, I got it, here’s what it is: that the house is my house, but it isn’t my house at home, where I used to live, and where you keep referring to as There. In this dream, I am living in a house, but nothing ever happens. I mean, there’s no story to my dream, no narrative. Although maybe sometimes something happens, like something sort of scary happens sometimes, maybe. But in this house it’s never the type of scary like in a nightmare- scary. This is not a nightmare. More often it’s something quotidian, like there’s no food in the fridge, but then the sight of the empty fridge, the smell of its vacant plastic walls sort of freaks me out, I guess a little bit it scares me, like how I was freaking out after we smoked that guy’s hash last week, and but then for some reason my mother is here, and she tells me that I’m duty-bound as a guest of this hostel to resolve this situation, that I’m to leave earlier for school that day, and that she will give me money to go to the store and get the food that the fridge so sadly lacks, but the thought of me (a me who, weirdly, in this dream, is my exact age today, a girl of twenty-two, but I feel like I’m around the age of nine or ten) going to the store alone before school for some reason scares the shit out of me, maybe it’s the language thing, maybe it’s the foreign geography, I don’t know, but so I’m looking twenty-two but feeling nine or ten wearing a pink book-pack, shuffling down the street in my little pink sneakers that I used to love, I’m shuffling with my head hung low, scraping along, mumbling angry mumbles to myself about why there’s no food and why my mother has let our domestic affairs fall to such a reprehensible level, but really I’m not angry at her, I’m just starting to get pissed because I hate to be scared, and yet I’m utterly scared that I’m going to get lost going so far from home, or that something scary will happen to me on the way to the store or to school, even something like getting in trouble for being late to school because I was too scared and stupid to find my way home from the store, a store that all the other kids know how to get to, but a store that to me seems light years away from everything that feels good and safe in my life, like my house at home, like my mother, like my father’s grave in our old backyard in the house we used to live in, the burial site marked by a small stone my mother rolled out there, a stone that, on a warm autumn day, we both painted blue and purple and yellow flowers upon, but then all of a sudden, my backyard is still my backyard, but now when I turn around the house that isn’t my home doesn’t look like this hostel anymore but looks like my old best-friend Jenny’s house, but Jenny’s house isn’t her home, it’s a shopping mall—is, in fact, the shopping mall I used to hang out at near my old house back home, and Jenny lives in the shopping mall now, but they have stores they didn’t have when I used to hang out there, stores with names like Sketcher and Quik Silver and Hot Topic, and I’m trying to ask Jenny if I can just take stuff for free, and then I remember the food I was supposed to pick up before school, and then I touch my pocket, but my mother’s money is gone, but then I immediately forget all of that because when I look up, Jenny is still Jenny but now looks just like the girl I secretly used to have a crush on in my freshman year of high school (a field hockey player with the strongest calves I’d ever seen), and who, five years later, ended up at a party at my college one weekend and whom I kissed all night in my bed and took to the cafeteria the next morning where I got her in for free with my meal pass, and she ate seven pancakes, and no one ever knew—except, I think, her brother, who actually attended my college, and who, I think, suspected something because later that semester at another party, outside the door to the bathroom, he told me that he wanted to fuck me, actually used that very word, leaned against the wall and used that very word, and so I told him to come into the bathroom with me, and we both peed, and then I took my hand and shook off his last drops, but nothing happened to him down there, and he got weird and contemplative and looked away and said he thought it was because I was a dyke, a dyke who slept with his dyke sister, and, you know, I don’t even like girls all that much anymore, and not because I am, as you called me yesterday, a quote American prude, but because I currently happen to be more into guys than girls right now, but anyway so this girl, the one with the calves, it turns out she doesn’t live at the mall that is Jenny’s house, she lives here in Germany, is in fact in the army stationed in Germany, and she sends me pictures and writes e-mails about her small cottage in Andernach, a cottage that she shares with some other people who aren’t soldiers but who are students, German students, who despite being dream-construed as students, actually look just like the soldiers in Iraq—green T-shirts and baggy pants, cigarettes and pointing fingers, and then all of a sudden it’s my old house where she lives, my German dream- house (that term that was so off-pissing to you earlier), only yet now she doesn’t live there, I do, and it’s not in Andernach anymore, it’s here, but it doesn’t feel like here, it feels like the house I grew up in, the house that is my home, and my mother is always in rooms other than those that I’m in, and I can hear her talking and her voice is quiet and old, and she has a shovel and even though she never wears T-shirts, she’s wearing my father’s old sweat-stained T-shirt with the v-neck collar, and she looks older than I’ve ever seen her, and I get scared again, but not like a nightmare-scared, but like something harder to describe, something like the empty fridge feeling, something almost uncanny, something unhomely, but this only lasts a little while, and then I force myself to wake up—an ability I possess that, despite your claiming it to be bullshit, has actually been the very thing that has saved me so many times from choking on the smell of all these bodies.

Joseph Salvatore teaches writing, literature, and cultural studies at The New School for Social Research. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Atelier Abroad, Free Associations, Omnivore, Open City, Pleiades Arts North, Red Skies, Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Queer Culture, Soundings East, and 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11th (NYU Press). He lives in Brooklyn.

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