** Content warning: This story contains what some may consider a gay slur. While referenced as a term of endearment — or, a reinvention of the word — some readers may find it to be offensive. Please take care of your heart.
I’d like to share a short story with you today.
About seven minutes (or, two Katy Perry songs) up the road from my neighborhood in the Hudson Valley sits a small abandoned house.
It’s two stories, no bigger than 500 sq. ft. each floor. It sits next to a beautiful white house, fully lived-in, and both sit on a winding road that follows the backside of the northern Shawangunk Range. My friend Isabel — who you met once before — clued me into it.
We visited the aging house together, but our stay didn’t last long. Not because we were scared or intimidated, but because there wasn’t anything to see. Just — a house, with furniture and tools and appliances, covered in dust, like someone gave up on a reno job decades ago. I left feeling underwhelmed.
It’s not as if the space is ugly by any means, or unappealing — it still has that decaying beauty — but something was missing.
And then, one day, I drove by the house, a common occurrence when I decide to take the long way home from the NYS Thruway New Paltz exit to my house on the other side of the ridge.
I wound down the sharpest curve in the already twisty roadway, a small but robust, single-lane mountain highway, and there it was, and boom, passed it, there it wasn’t. At the bottom of the short hill, I suddenly slammed on my breaks, unintentionally, and flipped back around, my hands taking over the wheel, and I went back to take a closer look at the house.
Sometimes a second visit sparks the imagination better than the first.
And when I walked inside this second time — at dusk, the golden hour, when the sun is the kindest version of herself (to that particular geographical plot on the globe at that particular time of day) — I still felt nothing. Just — a house, with less furniture, probably robbed; less tools, probably also robbed; less appliances, again, say it with me now, probably robbed, and more layers of dust. I stood in the silence of this late moment in July, soaking in the thick, wet atmosphere that is a New York summer, hoping to hear something magical pass through my brain and this expedition to find the heartbeat of this abandoned space — but again, nothing, except the sound of summer in the mountains.
Moments later, I pulled up to my house, and from my car, stared at every inch of my one-story, 1100 sq. foot slab mini ranch, watching the smoky summer air swarm the outside of my tiny ecosystem. I cracked the car window and listened to the summer, the symphony of lawnmowers, crickets, cicadas, children playing, a radio playing Bruce Springsteen in the garage, my own heartbeat trying to ground itself in this dumbfounding moment in my life where I’m suddenly afraid of everything and find little-to-no joy in anything. This feeling hasn’t lasted long, but it’s been like this, yes. I can admit it.
I can late-preface this by saying that, yes, I suffer from mental illness, cyclothymia, and yes, I am an addict, clean and in recovery for almost ten years. I’ve wrestled with my own mental wellbeing and have been ever since I turned 12 and tumbled into puberty while simultaneously battling the secret I was keeping from my conservative christian upbringing — being a fag — and trying to escape the trauma of familial sexual abuse that happened the summer between 7th and 8th grade. I started a downward spiral of drinking at 16 and didn’t stop until months after I’d fallen off a roof on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, when I was drunk, of course, and even then it took me another seven years just to realize that sobriety didn’t just mean “don’t drink” but that it meant “be the version of you that whatever higher power you believe or don’t believe in wants you to be.” And that takes time, glorious time, and rigorous honesty.
And it’s been hard for me.
Needless to say, I’ve worked through all of it, slowly, one day at a time, and I’ve come to live in the present again, to accept the oxygen being handed to me in any given moment and enjoy what’s happening now. And I gotta tell ya, after three years of getting to really focus on my own spirit inside, and these abandoned spaces, I’m having a hard time assimilating back into “what was.” And what’s more is that I’m having a hard time pretending that I’m not having a hard time assimilating back into “what was.”
Because I am. I am having a hard time pretending like the past three years didn’t happen.
I can’t understand the sense of urgent eagerness, but this comes from a distinct place of privilege, and I know that, and so I can 100% let it go because my way of thinking is not the fucking answer. It’s solely my experience. I don’t get to tell people who to be or who not to be. I don’t get to force anyone to live or breathe the way I do. But I do have to respect my own feelings, and I am having a hard time, coming back out of this. Because I don’t know what to come back to.
The whole world feels like we’ve reemerged and are living inside abandoned buildings where we used to, places we can’t accept aren’t there anymore. Things have changed.
The ether has changed. It all has. It just… has. And I can’t plunge into it that quickly. I don’t know that landscape yet, I don’t recognize it, and I’m a slow learner. And recently, I’ve been sitting in my house, staring at the walls, slowly working through this tough moment I’m in, and I’m reflecting on death — like, a lot. More so than I usually do. Actually, out of the billions of things that were perfect about Barbie, one of them was that moment when she stops the party by asking the group of Barbies and Kens if they’ve ever thought about death. It was a brilliant moment. Because I felt like Barbie at that moment. Because recently, I’ve been thinking about death.
But I don’t think about how I’m going to die or wonder if it’s going to hurt or even dream up where I’m going to go after, if I go anywhere at all, except into the ground where I dry up and turn back into the stuff I came from.
What I’ve been thinking about is: what would I leave behind?
I’m not talking about a legacy, necessarily, but what version of me would I leave behind? What version of me would people find if my house was abandoned?
When I get home from that most recent visit to the small, two-story, abandoned house on the winding mountain road near my own slab, one-story, lived-in house, I sit in the driveway and stare at the house in the evening light. It looks nice. The garden looks hearty. The flowers in the front that my boyfriend trellaced over top of the mailbox look really sweet. The lawn needs to be mowed, but all in good time.
Gazing up at the tiny home in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the swampy New York summer, I fall into a haze and begin to imagine what my house would look like if it were abandoned.
I can see the unhinged side door and the broken windows and the “Fuck the Police” graffiti on the side of the house that faces the main road in my neighborhood. I see empty pantries, save the untouched cans of store brand chicken noodle soup and forgotten packages of ramen seasoning, and shattered dishes, knocked-over tables and chairs, a really moving poem scribbled on the wall in the back hallway next to the washer and dryer which, for some reason, remain unabused, still in their exact spots where I left them, clothes still in the hamper sitting on top of the unit. Picture frames are beaten down and shattered, and photos have been ripped from the albums in my bedroom closet and placed delicately all over the house by some artist who did a tacky photoshoot of my life, without my consent, then didn’t even bother to repackage and store it, just leaving them all there to fend for themselves against the elements.
I start to get angry as I see how my life has been discarded, how my proof of existence has been looted and tossed aside like a defunct cigarette.
I start to cry because I think about all the color in my house and how it’s been destroyed and just when I start to lose faith in everything, the sun hits the middle window of the house, just right, and I peer in from outside and see the beautiful mural on my living room wall light up, ablaze in the early evening. It cuts through my dark fantasy and brings me back to the present.
I can see my mural wall, orange and green and blue and red and black, a gift from my friend Sharone, an artist based in New York, and it’s me, a version of me, the version of me before a pandemic put me inside to learn about the real me, the way I’m supposed to be, and evolve out of the version of me who I still like and love as much as I like and love myself now, just differently, not really more or less.
It’s beautiful to see an entire wall, top to bottom, full of your color and your light and your joy and your story. And in the reality, in the present, this dark fantasy shifts, and I see a new version of my abandoned house, still very much bruised and battered, but that one colored wall remains unbothered. In fact, it’s guarded by instructions written on the adjacent wall, penned by some of the earliest explorers of this All-American Ruin, and they politely ask folks to please leave this one wall be.
Because it tells a story.