There was this lie a friend of mine would tell. I’m a D.C. native, she would say, when people asked where she was from. But her family hadn’t moved there until she was three. Well, no one’s actually from D.C., she said, when I brought this up.
I was born there, at George Washington University Hospital, across the street from the hospital where my father was born 44 years before me. We lived in the city for only four years before my parents bought their first house and we moved away to the Virginia suburbs, so my memories of the city are glancing and fragmented. But four years was long enough for some malarial vestige of that time and place to enter my blood, where it still circulates and surprises me now and then with rusty little mirror shards in the back of my eyeballs: unnameable faces, and the dust in the corners of the rooms.
My parents were renting a small apartment above an awning shop on 18th Street, in Adams Morgan. To protect me from the shadows at the dark end of the hall outside my bedroom, my mother painted an enormous tiger on the wall, copied from a book we’d read together. This wasn’t the only feline who watched over us: one day a stray cat arrived across the rooftops, accepting our offer of milk and an indoor bed and later returning the favor by warning my father of a burglar. In the mornings, the gray carpet in the living room was spotted with the cat’s overnight cockroach kills, golden-brown and smashed flat, like raisins from the bottom of the box.
My mother brought home stacks of books from the library where she worked, and we kept them as long as we wanted. My father’s Royal typewriter was stationed on a makeshift desk, a door laid across two filing cabinets. I ranged my toys on a forest-green wooden bench that was rough at the edges where it had been sawed too quickly.
Outside the apartment were careworn streets and dirty sidewalks, blocks of old row houses and fragrant little stores where the lights were too dim and the linoleum was turning gray. I stole a birthday card from the Koreans and was made to apologize, the shopkeeper leaning down toward me, the strange face a different color and shape from my parents’, hard to sex, impossible to read.
I didn’t know what heart attack meant but I knew it was strange that a grown man was lying down on the front steps of the building across the street from ours. People stood near him, touched him, placed a folded jacket under his head. We watched until the ambulance took him away.
My first snow was a blizzard that left towering drifts, and I was too short to see out of the trenches where the sidewalks used to be. In spring and summer we climbed the long hill to the playground in Kalorama Park. Rain formed wide puddles under the swing sets and tempted me away from the swings. I slapped the water with the palm of my hand and watched the shockwaves spread, the mirror image dissolve into shimmers.
The Showboat night club burned and the firemen stretched their hoses back and forth across the streets and along the gutters, grey and fat and ponderous like elephants’ legs. Sutton’s first fire, reads the caption in the photo album, but all I remember is stepping over the hoses.
My mother was away on an overnight trip for the first time in my life and I jumped from a ladder and broke my leg, the ankle bent ninety degrees inward like a twig that is too green to snap. It didn’t hurt until I was in the car, wrapped in the scratchy afghan that had belonged to my grandmother. Flashing red lights and my father’s eyes, big in the mirror. The policeman just waved us on to the hospital once my father explained.
The cat should have been safer in our apartment than in the alleys, but he misjudged a leap from the high windowsill in the living room and pulled our television down on top of himself. I was in school when it happened, and had to have it explained to me. They put him to sleep, I repeated to my teacher the next day. They had to put him out of his misery.
Now the awning shop sells name-brand lamps and ornaments, now there is a James Bond-themed martini bar across the street. A year or two ago, I read that a social club for rich young Republican men organized a party in an Adam’s Morgan nightclub for 500 of their class, and the Bush twins were among the 800 too many who had to be turned away.
By now the apartment will have been renovated, the tiger hidden behind washes of white paint. The catacomb is sealed and I can never enter again.
The place I’m from.
But sometimes I can remember how tall the buildings looked from down there, a grownup’s hand arching upward and a kind voice telling me to look.