Tula H., Junior
The change was something I did not understand. But I did not need to understand it, for everything still happened the same. I was four and learning how to control the world around me. Then my world was taken away. The moving truck left the same day as my preschool sleepover. I had never said out loud that I wanted to spend that night with my friends—I thought about it and thought about it until I was convinced I would. Instead, my family said goodbye to every room in the only house I’d known. We drove until Washington was gone.
Minnesota began to bite chunks out of me until I could not see myself in the vending machine window. I was a carving of a girl, going through the motions of getting older. I roller skated until the place remembered me with dents in the wall. I biked without training wheels and read and wrote but I did not like it there. My world was bathed in beige. All three rooms painted fully and completely. Whoever designed the place wanted it to be forgotten. A mediocre new development in the middle of a bunch of mediocre new developments, shingles stripped by wind and ice. I learned those rooms. Their cheap marble made my skin crack up and my lips bleed and drip. The walls sang back the songs I made up and watched as I cried for my mother, who had left in an ambulance with a freak infection. When she came home three days later with the pink-hospital-gift-shop dog I had bought her, the circles under my eyes lessened. The walls didn’t mock me anymore. Their corners kept some of my voice, and when I pressed my ear close I thought I could hear the ocean.
The house after that was in a neighborhood with big trees. Black tar roads pristinely level and street signs the brightest shade of green. We lived on an avenue. We also had a basement that we’d use when the sky turned pink or green. I always knew there would be a storm because of how still the world became—the birds gave us a moment of silence that always seemed like an apology for what would happen next. Then there was the siren. Something about its relentlessness pulled my nerves taut and braced me for the worst. I was reminded of war I never learned about, destruction in the greatest sense. We kept away from the windows and ran downstairs as the house shook from wind. I took my pink notebook and drew tornadoes: black coils over and over and over.
That summer I collected hockey pucks I found at the park and ate gooseberries with my new best friends. These were the sweet times, so different from our first few months at the apartment. I fished for minnows in Lake Harriet and saw everybody my parents knew from high school. When school started, I copied down numbers in cursive and got wood chips in my sneakers. I threw tree leaves when they fell—Minnesota was deciduous, and I watched winter strip it to the bone.
I got sick when it started to snow. The first time it was a cold, then Influenza B. I sat on the couch and let our TV’s screensaver burn holes in my eyes. The next few months were a blur. I got better but not all the way. It seemed as if my body hated me for staying there—I kept the light in my eyes, but not much else. During recess we went sledding. Over and over we lined up at the top of the small hill, sailing down it on a red innertube until our teacher called time. No one told me I was bleeding until much later. I barely remember crashing—my nose was so numb I didn’t feel the ice break skin. I wore a Hello Kitty band-aid across my face for a week.
Then it was humid. The world had suddenly decided to live, and it did so with abandon. I was awake and alive. My cousin and I waded through the Mississippi River and threw water balloons as summer bloomed. My life was a heat wave of happiness, of camp songs and tie dye and parades.
That July, shortly after I turned six, my family was in a park. It was a school-organized event, some goodbye ceremony for our principal, and my mother was on the phone.
“The sky looks perfectly clear where we are. I think it’s going to pass over us.” She turned to me. “Grandma’s watching the news, and she says there’s a storm right on top of us.” The wind gave me no time to respond. Hail stung my face as we ran for the car. Once we were inside, we sat. Locked the doors, turned the car on, and realized we couldn’t do anything else. The roads were jammed with brake lights and car horns and rivers of hail. It hailed so hard I thought our car windows would break. I said nothing because there was nothing for me to say. In that moment, I realized how little power I had. I was a little girl sitting in a car in the middle of a storm in the middle of the world. I was caught up in other people’s decisions because I had nowhere else to be. I wouldn’t know until much later that my parents had been trying to move back to Seattle the moment they arrived in Minneapolis. I didn’t know that nothing there seemed right to them either. I just felt displaced, away from everything I was raised to understand. There were no oceans or mountains or evergreens, only rolling plains that swallowed everything. I hardly recognized the sun and moon that hung overhead. Everything inside me was trying to get back to where I’d started, but I didn’t know how to explain it. I just knew that change was hard, which is why I cried when my parents told me we were moving back to Seattle.