I knew I was in trouble when I grabbed my empty suitcase back from the homeless man in Venice Beach.
The long-haired guy was dragging a duffel down the alleyway past my garage, where I was trying to get rid of eight years’ worth of my belongings. I’d moved back to my hometown of Manhattan three years ago when I met Solomon, but I’d never given up my California cottage.
“Need anything?” I called out to the vagrant. He looked about my age, early 40s.
“That rolling backpack sure would help,” he said. I handed it over. Then I gave him a sleeping bag. And a ski jacket. And some books.
Even though I wanted to clear out my garage so I could give up my L.A. house and really settle back East with Solomon, giving away these few items I felt a mounting panic.
Breathe, breathe, breathe, I told myself as I surveyed the towering chaos — the rusting antique bed frame, the bags of audio and video cassette tapes, enough moisturizer to slather a herd of elephants. None of which would fit in our 900-square-foot apartment in South Harlem.
Besides, Solomon hated stuff. That was one of the things he liked about me. When he first visited me here in Cali, he was impressed with how empty my cottage was. I dared not show him the skeletons in my garage. He loved his Big Apple clutter-free lifestyle. I’d feared he wouldn’t want to be with someone who didn’t feel the same way.
“Don’t you just love getting rid of things?” asked my Venice neighbor, who was also working in his garage next to mine.
“Actually, I hate it,” I replied, trying to explain to him how much effort it had taken me to decorate my first real home, pointing to the crystal vases, the shabby-chic rattan chairs and blue flowered lamp. He looked at me blankly. Nobody cared about my stuff or why I was so attached to it. They just wanted me to toss it, the way they rooted with a bloodlust akin to a bullfight watching the TV show “Hoarders.”
I looked at my piles: throw, donate, keep, probably keep, maybe keep, possibly keep, could-be keep. The “keep” piles kept growing: the books on documentary filmmaking I never read, the jump rope workout I hadn’t started, the pastel charcoal set I’d drawn a few pages on.
My garage was like “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” getting fuller as I hid my failures, my unfulfilled dreams. Giving my belongings away would mean I’d never learn Spanish or become an illustrator or a surf instructor.
Sitting there, I felt deep shame: I never used this stuff, never became what I’d set out to be. I had left my New York roots, hoping to morph into a calm, detached Californian — surfing in the summer, camping in the fall, skiing in the winter, sipping wine and discussing Oscar hopefuls on the rare inclement days.
And in some ways I had: As a West Coast transplant in my 30s, I’d learned to surf, do some damn difficult yoga poses, integrate with a slew of ethnicities and religions, and not overreact to every mishap like it was a catastrophe (the way my family tended to do).
And yet, when I met Solomon on a visit back to New York, I decided to leave. Sunshine was so lonely by myself. I was at an age where you take possible soul mates where you can get them. And Solomon was in New York, the place I’d left, not California, the sunny state I always thought I’d call home. This home’s contents embodied my L.A. self: athletic, creative, open-minded, single, carefree. I wanted to bring her with me.
That’s probably why I tried to take my suitcase back from the homeless man. He was stuffing the sleeping bag it.
“Wow, this is great,” he said. It was such a cute, compact piece — perfect for an overnighter. I really needed that bag.
I walked over and touched the handle. “Wait up,” I said.
“What is it?” he asked, alarmed. He put his hand over mine.
I looked at his ragged fingernails, his stained teeth and matted hair. There were worse things, I realized, than having too much stuff. This man didn’t have a home. I had one — with a man, in an apartment that had Central Park as our backyard. We spent the changing seasons in it: biking, leaf-peeping, ice skating and swimming.
I had so much of a life with Solomon. It was time to let go of my old house. My old life. My new self would still be a part of me. Part of us.
I took my hands off the rolling suitcase. “Oh, nothing,” I laughed shrilly in the fading light, “I just wanted to show you how the handle opens.”
“Thanks,” he said. “This really will change my life.”