I have a relationship with your apartment.
I was fifteen hours old when my parents brought me to the playground next to the building where you now live. My brother zipped around the jungle gym while my dad followed at ground level with arms extended, ready to catch him if he tripped. My mom settled into a bench beneath a tree with me in her lap. The four of us spent a lot of weekends that way, and as soon as I was able to use a plastic shovel, my mom and I were in the sandbox making castles and cakes.
Your living room, back when it was our living room, was another kind of playground for me. I amused myself quietly on the floor while my mom read a magazine. She was still reading when I slipped a hand under the carpet, dug out the clumps of the dust that had accumulated there, and stowed one in my mouth. My mom turned the page and looked up.
“No, Samantha! No, no!”
In a sort of reversal of a mother bird depositing food into her baby’s beak, my mom inserted two fingers into my mouth and extracted the soggy mess.
I learned to handle a crayon, and little marks began appearing on the moldings of your living room. A yellow dot, a green line. No one noticed. The marks climbed up toward the television. Then as high as I could reach. ƧA M appeared on the wall in number two pencil. My first grade teacher told my dad I had developed outstanding handwriting. He was very pleased, until he spotted a waxy blue backslash over the couch.
“Sam,” he said, kneeling to make eye contact. Every so often, he tried to reassure himself that he was in charge of your apartment.
“Come on,” he said. “You know better.”
I resisted smiling until he walked away. A few days later, there was a fresh sprinkle of unseen graffiti on the wall of your larger bedroom, the place where my parents slept.
My brother and I shared your smaller bedroom. My bed was against a wall I had plastered with stickers from an aquarium gift shop: seashells in cream and pale purple, swaying foliage, and mounds of glitter-flecked sand. At bedtime, when the room was washed in syrupy light from the street below, the seascape glowed a hypnotic, phosphorescent green.
On Friday and Saturday nights, laughter and the echo of footsteps leaked through the closed window. Outside, for me, represented everything that was unsafe. Like the walk home from school on a September morning, when my dad borrowed my pink camera to take a photo of the smoke blooming on the skyline. Like the walk to the West 4th Street subway a few days after that, when my mom made us hold napkins over our mouths. Like the subway ride that followed, that would take us to a basement in Long Island. Like the week we spent in that basement, where I lay awake on a fold-out couch and worried and worried for your apartment.
At night in your smaller bedroom, my brother and I crawled under our respective blankets. When the laughter and footsteps leaked through the window, my tired imagination filled in the scene. In my head, a mob was gathering in the street, brandishing pitchforks and lighting torches, preparing to burn the city down. I would understand later that the sound outside your window was regular migration of N.Y.U. students to the bars. But at seven years old in 2001, I heard them and my mind illuminated a view into Hell.
My dad sat by my brother’s bed while my mom sat by mine. After a few minutes, they switched places.
“Hug,” I commanded each parent on their turn with me. “Hug. Hug. Hug.”
In my mind, fire ravaged the streets. I continued my metronomic request until the parent at my side set a hand on each of my shoulders and leaned down, pressing the blankets between our hearts.
Those nights ended just before my tenth birthday. I was sitting on the couch in your living room when my parents announced we were moving. My feet were dangling over the same carpet I had once dug beneath for dust clumps. I could have leaned over and touched the waxy blue backslash that hadn’t faded.
A few months later, I stood in your living room and watched unsmiling men lift furniture onto dollies. There was an island of boxes where the couch had been. All around me, the bare planes of wall and ceiling stretched on and on and then disappeared into unexpected corners. At eye level, the beige paint bumped and dipped in a way that made it seem like it was still wet, but over the doorways, in the places I had never stained with the oil of my hair or skin or with the wax of a crayon, the paint was light and chalky. I was suddenly noticing the jutted lip around the front doorway, the accordion fold of the closet doors, the sudden way the hallway opened up into the living room, the white cords stapled along the molding. On the ceiling, freckles of shadow clustered around the light fixtures and windows.I was looking at the inside of the strongbox that been home to my most creative and destructive urges.
When I played in the sandbox, I knew that my creations were temporary. The most I could hope was that after I left the park, my works might survive a few hours before they were flattened under some other kid’s sneaker. But when I crayoned over your walls, I never imagined my name would be made a fossil under a coat of beige paint. I tried, vainly, to claim those walls as mine forever, and in the process, I emblazoned the image of your apartment’s skeleton onto the inside of my skull. Those scraps of detail would have to sustain me for a lifetime of remembering.
I watched one of the movers hold an open-faced box of books while another passed a roll of packing tape over the top, directly onto a book jacket with a cartoon of a child on a candy-colored mountain. Oh, the Places You’ll Go. In a few days, I would sit on the cement-colored carpet of another living room and peel the tape slowly from the open-faced box. Apartments, I now understood, weren’t much safer than sandboxes. They would only hold their form only for as long as I stayed in them. These new walls offered no insulation against the outside world and all its dangers.
Slowly as I peeled the packing tape, I would lift away the book’s gloss and ink, ripping the jacket, and then the child’s body would be suspended over not a mountain, but a chasm.
Samantha Steiner is a visual artist whose paintings and drawings have garnered international acclaim. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brown University. In 2017, she served as a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina.