I am from a place that I do not like to name because it feels so strange to say out loud. I am both proud and self conscious of where I am from for a lot of reasons, perhaps most of all because when I go back I no longer fit—my blood is thinner, my mother lives on a boat—but as I stay away I never fit full anywhere else either—where is the horizon? why can’t I see the stars? I can’t just say, “I am from Fairbanks,” because most people won’t know that by Fairbanks I mean central Alaska, the Yukon River, ice, snow, cold, my father’s house next to the gravel pit, and my mother, not in Fairbanks at all anymore, but in Cordova, not Cordoba in Spain, but Cordova in Alaska, and that is far south of Fairbanks, and a different life and climate, and when I visit my rain gear is never strong enough to keep me dry. I don’t like saying, “I am from Alaska,” because that feels too broad. I don’t like saying, “I am from Fairbanks,” because people won’t know where I am speaking of. I don’t like saying “Fairbanks, Alaska,” because I have been away so long.
I remember where I am from on a cold, clear day when the waves in Lake Michigan are wild, and I wonder what those wild waves will look like frozen, and I imagine a man and the wild wind, wind like I’ve never felt wind before, swept off the shore. His black suit jacket flaps behind him. His foot catches. He stumbles. I think about all the bodies underneath the ice of the rivers where I am from, all the bodies they find and the ones they don’t and what those families think about, when it is most likely that someone they love is underneath the ice but they can’t be sure until spring when the ice breaks up and they can finally dredge the river. A body caught in water vanishes beneath the ice. The wind grabs the man’s jacket and pulls him under. I wonder if the waves in Lake Michigan will freeze mid-crash in jagged stalagmites or layered one on top of the next in an icy quilt. The river that runs through Fairbanks freezes flat, snow-covered, and two-feet thick. Now I am scared to go back to Alaska. Now that I know something else exists, I don’t know why someone would choose to live there. I don’t know if I could survive one more winter even though I have so many winters lived there behind me.
When I go home and confront those who stayed, those who never left and never want to leave, I feel both of that place and not of that place because I still know those people, have known those people all my life, and they are sometimes my oldest friends or ex-boyfriends or my family, but because I left and they never did there is a distance, a body of water, Canada, all the noise where I live, all the silence of where I’m from, between us. There are moments in Fairbanks when I look around, at the snow and the aspens and the cold air and think, this place is familiar, in this place I am known, and in the next moment I feel very afraid that I will never be known again— that Fairbanks will swallow me, that I will drown inside that feeling, inside my own body, blood leaking through the hand pressed against the hole in my chest.
I have been gone seven years now. First I lived in Portland, and then I lived in Chicago, and now I live in Portland again. Though I have chosen to live far away, I still love Alaska, but not in the way one might love other places such as the beach, or Hawaii, but in the way one loves their mother or ex-fiancé. I love my mother, but I don’t understand her. I don’t know what drives her decisions or makes her love me, besides the fact that I am her child, or what she is thinking and feeling, which I imagine to be sad and maybe a little bit frustrated and maybe even wanting. She might want a lot of specific things, but I imagine her wanting to be amorphous and as-yet-undefined, which is to say, I imagine she is just like me and at the same time the opposite of me. I do not want her life—I do not want to live on a boat in the harbor or in a cold cabin on an island—just as she does not want or understand mine—she finds the city cramped, the thought of living in an apartment, one person stacked on top of another, confining—but I am sad just as I imagine she is sad, and also frustrated, and I think we both want someone or someplace to hold on to, and we have tried many times to choose the person or the place to attach to, and many times we have been wrong.
My wanting has a lot to do with my ex-fiancé and the fact that he is not my husband or my current fiancé or the father of my children, but instead, my ex-fiancé. When I run into my ex-fiancé in the grocery store we exchange a small wave and for the brief moment that our eyes meet I see him again, flying off the shore, and I wonder what my life would be like if the wind had not been so strong that day, or if he had had a firmer foothold, more to hang onto than just air. Then he turns, and I turn. He walks into produce, and I pay for my groceries, waves crashing and freezing against the shoreline, and when I get to my car I sit, leaking, feeling the ice and the concrete closing in, but instead of imaginary blood seeping from the hole in my chest it is imaginary steam, and inside the imaginary steam there is the imaginary life I imagined we would live together. Before I am able to drive away I call my mother, who doesn’t say much, but behind her voice I hear the boat knocking against the dock and my brother’s voice asking her “who is it? who is on the phone?” and I am comforted because instead of thinking about my ex-fiancé, I start thinking about the beginnings of things, a time and a place far away from the grocery store parking lot where I am parked.
In many ways choosing to leave Alaska feels like saying, “I don’t love you any more,” even though there is a part of me that still loves Fairbanks, can never stop loving it, can never let it go. I will never be truly comfortable anywhere else because Fairbanks is so much a part of the way I understand the world, and because it is so hard to explain, or share with someone who has never lived there many parts of it, but most of all the feeling of being absolutely cold. Cold that hurts your lungs, cold. Cold, dry, a friend stayed out too long and is now in a wheel chair and might lose his feet, cold. So cold that you cry when you finally warm up because the blood returning hurts so much. Cold that makes me want to roll into myself because the only place that might still be warm is inside my rib cage, or the tongue in the back of my mouth, and I want to be as warm as my organs because I can’t imagine ever being warm again.
I haven’t been back to Fairbanks during the winter for several years now. I don’t visit in the winter, only the summer. When I go back, I tell my mother that as I see the mountains, the snaky rivers, and the horizon, uncluttered, un-peopled from the plane, I am able to breathe again, breathe like I didn’t know I was unable to breathe in the city. The first few breaths of Alaskan air, colder, cleaner feel full and perfect. I don’t tell her that on the plane back to the city I also breathe more deeply, perhaps because I am leaving the place where I don’t fit anymore, where I try to be someone that I was but can’t quite access the person that I was, and because I have been away so long I am afraid of the cold and the shotguns and the wildness even though when I am gone I miss the wildness and see it in everything. I see it in the waves of Lake Michigan, they excite me. Or forty-miles outside Portland, walking through an abandoned campground with fear in my throat and silence all around me. But when I am back in Alaska, visiting my mother’s island outside Cordova with no way out because the weather is bad, or on the four-wheeler with my little brother Soren with the shotgun on the back for bears, I am no longer comfortable with the shotgun or the bear. I am now afraid of the shotgun and the bear because I don’t see how the shotgun can hurt a bear who wants to hurt me. I can only see how both the shotgun and the bear can hurt me—bullets, teeth. And so when I go back to Alaska I often feel uncomfortable and sometimes scared, no longer tough enough to survive. On the plane back to Portland I breathe more deeply because I am leaving the place where I both feel the most comfortable and the most uncomfortable. So perhaps it is not the air that is cleaner or the feeling of space when I am flying back to Alaska or the relief of leaving, but the way that I feel coming and going that makes me breathe more deeply. In between, I am not of anywhere, I am floating, and home is the deep, red well of my rib cage.
I wonder if the reason I don’t feel home anywhere anymore, not when I visit the place where I grew up, or the cities where I have lived after I left, is because I haven’t yet come home into my body. Over the years I think I have gotten closer. I am no longer trying to control or distort my body so that is perfect. But I am still trying to figure out how to make it mine and accept it as it ages. Not as a thing that I can love, but as a container that holds a being that loves. I think I have worn my body as a suit of armor. I have thought that if my body is beautiful—if my house is beautiful—I will be safe. But what could a beautiful body protect me from? Not the cold, nor my ex-fiancé’s addiction to alcohol. It might provide a buffer between me and loneliness. But only temporarily, only in the beginning, when beauty is still something one can see. After awhile, even the most beautiful body becomes invisible. I still armor myself in my body, perhaps we all do, but I do think I am beginning to let the being inside of me peer out, which is like cracking open my ribcage, or unzipping my jacket in the middle of a snowstorm, which is to say that it feels very fucking risky, but absolutely necessary, and that is what I mean when I say my body is my house, a safe-haven, and at the same time a cage I need to figure out how to unlock because I am trapped inside.
When I am scared, driving around North Portland looking for my ex-fiancé’s car, wondering inside which motel, parked in which parking lot, I will find him passed out in a puddle of vomit, for example, I have felt a kind of pain that made me want to roll into myself, perhaps because a place or another person who had once been home to me was no longer home to me. As I drive, I feel the life I thought I had crumbling—brick-by-brick—and I want to reach a safe place, a place that will not, and cannot fall, and the only place like that is inside my rib cage. But rolling into myself doesn’t always work either, because I can’t ever reach the deep, red well. I can’t touch the white bones or feel the blood pumping, not when I am sad, nor when I am cold. I might try to forget the cold and pretend that it does not exist, but it is still there, creeping in. One cannot escape forever, only in little bursts. The blank space between ringing and voicemail is when when the windows shatter, as if with dynamite—outward—he is not picking up, he is gone—and yet I keep redialing. I call and call. Sometimes loving someone feels like leaning back and exposing my long, thin neck to a very sharp blade.
I have come to think that the only home that will ever really be mine is my body, so I better learn how to inhabit it and that all the other external homes might fail and when or if they do, there will only ever be me to bring myself back from this grief stricken place where it is hard to breathe. Which is why, I think, I have survived. Why people survive, after losing someone or someplace that it feels impossible to live without. The other side of grief is not happiness, it is life. It is finding new people or new places with whom, or where, it seems possible to begin to build a new life, a new structure, one with walls that might hold this time. In the time between, the days or months or years of grieving, the only home that can keep us safe is the twenty-four curved bones of the rib cage. I call these bones home, I call them survival, they are painted red. Another word for this might be hope, why we are who we are, getting married and having children and buying homes and leasing apartments and leaving homes and losing loved ones and rolling into ourselves for awhile and then unrolling into the world again.
I don’t know if there is any stronger evidence of something divine than the fact that there is a place inside of me that I can always go back to. That people are able to grieve, move on, and live again, time after time. How remarkable, that in the face of any sort of sorrow, I can go back to this place, which is inanimate, but animated by little drops of me, what it is to be me, the me that has been me ever since I can remember knowing or remembering. Which to me is like a belief in a God who will be there even when you forget her, even when you don’t need her, but a God that reappears when you do. This reminds me of the place that I am speaking of; the place that makes us who we are and stores all our consciousness and subconsciousness, what our minds forget and our bodies remember, the times when we thought life would always be too painful to endure and the times when we saw that it would, eventually, get a little bit easier.
There is more to the place inside my body than just survival and warmth, although I think the times when I need to heal or warm up is when I come back to it the most. Inside my ribcage contains the essence of who I am. The long, fingerlike branches reaching from the edge of the driveway, the moose eating out of the bird feeder, the bear scratches on the outhouse door, falling off the hinges. The part of us that is unknowable to anyone but us, the being that is us. Not our facade, what our body looks like, the body that someone can touch and feel and see, the expressions on our face, the way we talk to people, which in my case is sometimes ridiculous and silly and sometimes serious and lonely, but the beginning of all those things, which is stored somewhere inaccessible, inside the body which you are of, but can never quite reach or touch. I think knowing that there is a place inside us that is both the essence of ourselves but also the most mysterious part of ourselves is like believing in God.
Perhaps God is different for each of us because we create her in our image. Perhaps God is a man for men and a woman for women and my God is a woman, my God is the part of myself where I go when I am looking for home—she has the same downturned smile as my mother. So God, like home, is inaccessible but always there, just inside your ribcage, saying things like, keep your arms open girl and your eyes wide. Which I have been hearing the last six months as I am trying to unroll and come back to the world again. I keep reminding myself that I will be okay, that I will always be okay, there is joy in the world and it is coming for you, because I have found a place where I will be safe, where I can always come back to, and this is home, and I call this voice the voice of God.
When she speaks, God sounds like my mother and whispers from my ribcage, Save yourself girl, save yourself. Perhaps, though I am cold and though I can hear the boat banging against the dock and my brother in the background asking his questions, it isn’t my mother or God or anyone but me, speaking from inside my ribcage. Even though I don’t know where these words come from, I am comforted that they do come, because it is a sign that I have remembered how to survive.
Perhaps the only other person who can ever know you is a child, who grows inside of you and is the only person you will ever share your body and inner voice with. Perhaps your mother is the only person whose God you have ever shared because she is the only other rib cage you have ever lived inside, which is why she sees God in her children and why I think God must be a woman. How could God give birth to this world if she was not a mother? But if God was a mother, who was God’s mother? Who was the God inside God’s ribcage? Which are the kinds of questions I begin asking when I feel lost and am driving around after midnight, looking for my ex-fiancé. After midnight life divides into what is known and what is not—black and white—a dark street broken by pools of streetlight. I do not know where my ex-fiancé is, or what exactly he is doing, but I might be able to figure out what it is that moves me to continue driving and calling and staying with him when what I should be doing is hanging up the phone, parking the car, and getting to bed. As I drive, as my heart clenches and my throat constricts, I start thinking about the cold again and all the bodies underneath the ice, all the bodies they find and the ones they don’t because it is easier to see the beginning of things and harder to see the ends, just like Joan Didion said, and wondering what those families think about, when it is most likely someone they love beneath the ice, is easier than finding what I might think about when I realize that though my ex-fiancé is not dead, the person I love has been swallowed, sucked under, and as much as I yell from the shore, he can no longer hear me above the sound of the waves, and no matter how many times I drive around North Portland, or how many times I call, the only thing left is me, my body, and a decision: what next?
To grieve is to be haunted. To miss someone is to still see the outline of them in your life. Six months ago I woke up one morning, shoved a change of clothes into a small duffle, and left my ex-fiancé while he was in the shower, washing away his hangover. A few days later, I called my mother. It was May, so she was on the island. My brother had been hunting, so she was plucking a crane. I heard him talking to her in the background. She didn’t say much, just listened to me cry. “There are times to reap and there are times to sow,” she said. What I didn’t ask, and what I still wonder, is which time it was for me then, which time it is for me now. What next? I wanted to ask her, what next?
Emily Schikora was born and raised in and around Fairbanks, Alaska. She attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she studied History and French, and Columbia College Chicago, where she studied creative writing and earned an MFA in Nonfiction in 2014. She has a chapbook, I thought I was your favorite (Habit Books) and is currently working on a collection of essays about (dis)placement, love, and addiction, tentatively titled, When the Men Come Home. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes, manages a consignment boutique, and directs Show:Tell, The Workshop for Teen Artists and Writers.