Growing up, I loved going to the grocery store with my mom. It was a place full of excitement – the endless aisles were filled with so many things to be discovered and they were all lined up neatly and within my reach. I had most of our local store’s layout memorized, yet there was always something new to find even in the aisles I passed through weekly. Every section held comfort, familiarity and possibility. It was a place I felt comfortable in because I knew my way around and my mom was nearby if I needed anything. I enjoyed spending that time with my mom and, if I played my cards right, I could pick out a candy bar at the checkout. I happily tagged along on those grocery trips at least once a week until I moved away for college.
Coming to college changed everything. I had to create a home for myself in a new city, which is challenging considering I’ve moved four times in my three years of college. Before college, I lived in the same house my entire life where I’d created a safe haven for myself in my room. It was a sanctuary covered in art: posters and books lined the walls and paint stains made splattered patterns on the hardwood. I painted the walls myself at least four times, so there were paint splatters of various colors on the ceiling to balance the ones on the floor. I spent countless afternoons thinking, reading and making art there. I’ve worked to recreate that sense of sanctuary in each Chicago bedroom I’ve lived in, but it never quite sticks since I know that in less than a year I’ll have to pack it all back into boxes again.
Returning to my childhood bedroom brings waves of emotion. I spent so much time in that room, yet it doesn’t feel like it’s fully mine anymore — it belonged to who I was growing up, not who I am now. When I lived in that room, I was a queer person who thought they may never come out and never find community. Now that I’ve come into myself and built my own community, it can feel like stepping backward to enter the place I lived while I was in the closet, even if the space was one of the only places I felt I was truly myself. As it was a place I spent great lengths of time in, I invested time in making it mine. I loved decorating and redecorating my room by painting the walls and moving the furniture around in every configuration possible, much to my parents’ annoyance. It was a space of my own and I relished being able to do whatever I wanted with it.
Since leaving for college, I haven’t changed anything about my childhood bedroom, so walking into it feels like entering an exhibit of who I was the summer before college started. This is the longest it’s gone without being rearranged or repainted and it’s sparsely furnished now, as most of the books and posters have moved to Chicago with me. It’s no longer the same room that was my home for eighteen years. My bedrooms in Chicago haven’t replaced that home because I know they’re temporary. Though it can be nice to settle into a new apartment, it lacks the permanence my childhood bedroom held even with the continuous redecorating.
Despite having trouble finding a feeling of home in the place I live, I’ve found a home in the group of friends I’ve made. They accept me for who I am even when I have trouble accepting myself. As a genderqueer trans person living in a body that doesn’t match my gender identity, my own body doesn’t always feel like a home. I remind myself that we’re all just brains and bodies moving through the world trying our best — but that doesn’t stop my body from feeling like a cage sometimes. Okay, maybe a lot of the time.
Society has told me that my body parts mean certain things about who I should be and how I should exist in the world. I don’t want people to expect me to be quiet and want flowers on everything because I was assigned female at birth. I want people to learn about who I am by getting to know me rather than basing assumptions on my body. What they’ll learn is that yes, I am quiet and I want flowers on everything I own. Flowers are pretty and I’m introverted and that has nothing to do with my gender.
In my head, I’m an amorphous, genderless being, but as a culture we put so much emphasis on appearance that I question the validity of my own gender expression. Much like my childhood bedroom, I’ve redecorated my body numerous times to make it a home; trying out all sorts of hair colors, clothing styles and makeup looks. At this point, it feels strange to not change things up every few months. It’s exhilarating to be able to change the way I look. It gives me control over something when I often feel I’m not in control of: how people perceive my gender.
I’m in a constant search for spaces where I can feel comfortable and free regardless of my disconnection from my body and my house. About a year ago I noticed that I often walk to the nearest grocery store and wander the aisles absentmindedly. At first, I didn’t realize why I went. I would think of something I needed to pick up, then stay for longer than necessary. Eventually, I figured it out: when I walked down those aisles, it felt like all those trips to the store with my mom. It’s eerily familiar, even if it’s a store I haven’t ventured into before.
Few places in the city look like the town I where I grew up, but most grocery stores look the same. The layout rarely varies: produce is near the entrance, dairy products are on the back wall and pantry items fill the center aisles. There’s comfort knowing where to go and knowing I’ll find what I need and maybe something new, too. Going to the grocery store never fails to make me think of my mom and all the time I spent in similar stores with her. I’m comforted knowing that no matter what city I’m in, I can find the nearest grocery store and feel some semblance of home, even if it is wrapped in the same bittersweet nostalgia I feel entering my childhood bedroom. Now, when I go to the grocery store, I make sure to give myself time to look around and a few spare dollars to pick out a treat at the checkout, preferably something with chocolate and peanut butter.
Header illustration by Jenni Holtz.