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“…You will leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile 
shoots first. You will know how salty 
another’s bread tastes and how hard it 
is to ascend and descend 
another’s stairs…”
— Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradiso XVII: 55-60

When did you first leave your home?

I tried to escape my mother’s womb; I wanted to break out early but the nurses made me wait, mother’s legs forced together, her body tied to the bed until the doctor was ready to do his work. Hours passed; she grew septic. I gave up trying to slip into the world through the red tunnel, thought instead to exit the same way I’d come in, as a stream of vapor, pure idea exiled to ether.

*

The word planet comes from the Greek planasthia—to wander. To wander derives from the Old English windan—to wind, to twist. In Middle Dutch, to twist also means to quarrel, and in Old English, twa means two.

*

I vacated my own body the first time my father’s fist came shuddering down on my cheek. I could not flee the crib, but could forsake inhabiting the cage of bone that held me breathless on the damp stretched sheet. I burrowed so deep inside the container of my skin that I escaped it. Once I’d tunneled deep enough, his blows could no longer reach me.

*

A state of division or separation may lead to strife, which can cause meaning to distort, to wrench and spin, until one’s body or mind begins to drift, to stray, to roam until one has ventured out so far that one cannot return. Thus does one become an exile.

*

I ran away from home when I was five, packing a straw basket with my hoarded treasures: a cheap porcelain figurine of Alice in Wonderland, a scarf the color of sky, a stone found by my grandfather on one of our walks, a fistful of saltines. I made my way to the schoolyard, sat at the concrete base of the flagpole, two blocks from my house, as far as I knew how to go alone.

*

One can become an exile from one’s country, forced to leave or choosing it. Or an exile from one’s family. From one’s cultural group. One can be exiled from oneself, so brutally split as to feel estranged in one’s own skin.

*

Then others left: Grandparents who moved to another city. Parents who’d nightly disappear into the dark environs of a bar. My stepfather moved in with his girlfriend. My mother went to California to ease her broken heart. Others came and went; I stayed, steadfast, unmoving, rooted to the spot.  Still, pieces of the psyche began to drift.

*

Signs and symptoms of dissociative disorder include: feelings of detachment or estrangement from one’s self; inability to remember the past; confusion as to one’s own identity; feeling as though one is living in a dream; impulsive traveling or wandering away from home.

*

At twenty-one I tried to exit this world, swilling a bottle of stolen pills with cheap burgundy wine. I lay on my bed, waited for the nothing to take me. But God is a Trickster, closed the borders, would not let me go. I awoke in a place too small to contain my bloated hopes. Thus I moved to California to become an exile.

*

In one theory of the big bang, the universe is endlessly expanding. The floating galaxies with their masses of rock and fusions of gasses, those planets, whose very name means wanderer, drift forever, moving farther and farther from their source of heat and light.

*

On the streets of Los Angeles: unaccustomed heat. Blinding brightness. The swirl of indecipherable tongues. Desert winds that cleared the sky of industrial smog. Music rising up from car windows. I was different here: in my body, in my bones. In my brain. Exile in a city of exiles. I was born for a life of wandering. A planet fallen from its orbit. Spinning away from my origins, from the lexicon of my birth.

*

Not every exile is the same. Some have left their land of their own accord; others were forcibly removed. There are those who are motivated by a dream; there are those bent only on escape. One adopts the language of his new surroundings; another clings to her native tongue. Some never lose hope of returning from whence they came; others swear they will never go back.

*

To what are we connected now—those of us who have irretrievably left our homes? To whom or to what are we bound? Are we doomed to a lifelong nostalgia, to hunger for a taste we can no longer quite recall, a slant of light lost to us forever? There are so many of us now, untethered, drifting. Listening for a hint of music that has long since ceased to vibrate at its source.

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