Issue No. 4 || CERTAINTY
Where You Want To Be
ON MY LAST trip home to DC, I sorted through what was left of my childhood belongings to make space for a guest bedroom. My teenage bedroom walls, once covered floor to ceiling in cutouts from Nylon and Spin that signified my self-perceived edginess, had been replaced with soft floral prints and framed mottos. My colorful Wu-Tang poster, bleached by the sun coming from my bedroom window, had disappeared. My drawers, formerly stuffed to the brink with journals and old iPods, were now empty, save for a lone senior yearbook. Its inner covers were lined with notes from high school peers. It was the year of budding friendship, the year of fumblings with boys in cars and flying the coop for new cities. I have not called this room or this house home in over ten years, but I welcomed familiarity’s settling.
Before this trip, a typical day in my Chicago apartment, where I have lived for seven years, was spent with my partner and my cat, each of us going through mundane routines and trying to forget the struggles around us. It felt impossible to ignore the weight of the world’s bleakness. I fumbled through rituals, pulling tarot cards and journaling sporadically to make meaning. For the past two years, I’ve struggled with feeling distanced from previous versions of myself. My life reached an unrecognizable point, and I pined for the familiarity of my past selves. My trip to DC was long overdue and so I returned to my city to reconnect with myself and my loved ones. Recently, I made a work-related decision that led to a significant drop in my income. My anxiety told me every decision I made was the worst possible one, and the intricate network of bad decisions was the cause of my current financial and mental struggles. It’s the persuasive lie I’ve battled every day, a lie that stung a little less during conversations with family members during my DC trip. “Things are not easy, but you’re making it,” my mom assured me in Krio one evening. I fought against believing her words all night until they won.
My family is more than big: it is a country. Visiting the DC area means traversing a constellation of homes, each distinct in decor but marked with the same domestic touches. My aunts’ and uncles’ homes all boast walls covered with portraits of cousins lined up during Eid, each of us donning sparkling hijabs and towering kufis. There are school photos spanning four decades, my baby-faced cousins now parents of their own. In the corner sits a framed portrait of Barack Obama, a cringeworthy but expected staple in a Sierra Leonean household. The scent of cooked rice and stew wafts from the kitchen. I never leave empty-handed.
It’s been two years since I set foot in DC, and even longer since I’ve seen my favorite aunties, but sitting in their presence feels intimately familiar. On this trip, one aunt presented her love with a request. She had me rummage through her closet to grab a pair of shoes before leaving. They were a little snug on my big feet, but I indulged her and took the shoes anyway. When I left her place and returned to my mother’s home, I was greeted by a flock of cousins assembled in my living room. The sound of their exaggerated stories floated to the top of the staircase long into the night, but my stepdad is practiced at sleeping through our noise. Here, I was the version of myself living in this body who found ease in our jumbled voices, all vying for prominence in our collective narrative-making that evening.
Late at night, my mom arrived and joked about being exhausted from the mosque. “They had that imam that always does the long prayers. I was standing for hours.” My brother and I snuck glances across the kitchen island, eyes screaming in laughter with our shared thought: our mom is so dramatic. Her exhaustion evaporated when I pulled out old family photos. Together, we pored over each album, pointing out family members who had since passed and the uncles affectionately known as “the sweater gang” thanks to their exaggerated winter wardrobes. Most of the photos were snapped in my dad’s basement apartment, the same one he’s been nestled in for almost thirty years. So much has changed in my relative’s lives, but the constants remain: the parking lots crammed with too many cars, the blood-red carpet in my dad’s apartment, the living rooms packed like sardines, the potluck-style gatherings that held our families down when dollars were low, the stories from harder times. Each of the stories, as hard as they were to stomach, were soaked in gratitude. Yes, we didn’t have much money, but we made it. Yes, the pain of the ocean’s distance on an immigrant is deep, but look at the connections that kept us alive. Look at the food trade routes we’ve built from DC to Virginia. Look at the babies we’ve raised into adults, collectively. Look at how we are still here.
Coming back to Chicago after this DC trip placed a gap in my heart because it was a reminder of the community I’ve distanced myself from. Since moving out ten years ago, I’ve bloomed into a more confident version of myself. I recognize there are parts of me that my family will never quite understand, like my queer identity and my buzzcuts, but there are other parts of me yearning for the comfort of their presence again. My full self is made up of puzzle pieces, and so many of those pieces were placed lovingly by those whose hands carried me from living room to living room. These were the spaces where I’d sit cradled between my aunt’s legs as they braided my hair, the rooms my cousins and I scrambled to clean up after hours of playtime. Each living space welcomed me, invited me to leave my worries at the door, to stay a little longer.
There is much to be said about the narratives we carry concerning whether or not we are good enough. During my lowest points, I’ve self-isolated, worried that people will abandon me after seeing my worst parts. My aversion to going home was rooted in that deep shame, and the trip opened my eyes to how quickly this shame spread to my communities in Chicago. Combatting this shame has meant urging my anxious self to answer past text messages from friends and release the fear that I’ve fucked up for good. It required the deep, dirty work of looking to the shadows and tussling with feelings of aloneness. My time in Chicago has taught me the importance of chosen family, the people who keep me tethered when I feel myself floating away.
When I arrived back at my Chicago apartment, I unloaded my new album of family photos. In it were two pictures holding the most importance to me. The first was a photo of the grandmother I am named after. She was my father’s matriarch, a survivor of war whom I only met once before she passed. She sits unsmiling, dressed in a white gown, her head wrapped in a white handkerchief. I am two generations removed from someone I share a name with, and I cling to our small connections to remind myself that no suffering is permanent. The second photo shows a toddler me, my face and body mostly concealed by family members who surround me. The only part of me that is visible is my profile, my head held high, my hands tightly grasping a Sunkist can. I look directly at the camera, caught in the act, daring the photographer to challenge my three-year-old self drowning in sugar. It’s a self-assuredness that I often forget I’ve had, even in doubt’s loudest moments. In all the constant change, I’ve been surrounded by people who want to see me.
FULLAMUSU BANGURA (they/she) is a writer originally from Washington, D.C. currently residing in Chicago, Illinois. They are the author of the essay-book “...Considers Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core.” Their poems have been published in New Delta Review and Apogee Journal, and they were a 2020 Best of the Net Poetry finalist. Their personal essays and culture writing can be found in Catapult Magazine, Bitch Magazine, and The Gumbo.