“Listen, could I just…walk around the community for a few minutes?” She gestured toward the gated community they stood in front of. The security guard turned down the music emanating from his booth and looked at her, brow furrowing in some combination of confusion and skepticism. She couldn’t blame him—anyone who wanted to actually live here would’ve called the leasing office. And she wasn’t trying to live here. She already had.
Twenty years had gone by since she’d last seen it, and the place looked exactly the same. At least, she thought so. To be honest, she didn’t remember the details of the life she’d lived inside that community. After all, she had been only twelve when her family packed up and left the island for their shot at the American dream.
She did remember the island in visual and emotional snapshots: As a bright sun, a clear sky, banana leaves, and happiness. Or at least freedom. Happiness was never constant, but the island had been a time before the baggage and pain of life had set in.
She had probably always remembered the island in that way but only realized it consciously when her therapist of late asked her to conjure a memory of feeling light. Without hesitation, she had skipped back past two decades of her life without a single pit stop, and thought of a moment on the island. She had been reading that day, on their back porch in the late afternoon sun. Beyond the porch was a grassy expanse with a badminton court off to one side of it. It was a peacefully still afternoon in her memory, but as evening arrived, the children of the community would come out to play. And she would join them as she always did.
The guard’s voice brought her back to the present. Blinking to refocus, she saw him peering curiously at her. With an apologetic smile, she hastily reached for her phone and scrolled through, looking for the faded photograph she had taken a picture of. Holding it up to him, she explained, “I used to live here. Uh, in 1998.”
She pointed to the little girl in the front, her dark hair braided on either side of her head. Behind the girl and two other children was a large pool, and behind that the two-story buildings of the residential complex they were standing outside of. To be fair, it looked like any residential complex in any number of countries, with a banyan tree in the background perhaps suggesting a tropical locale. But showing him this picture was plan A through Z, so it had to work.
She hadn’t planned to come here and had made no prior arrangements to get into the gated community. Not even when they announced that this year’s company summit would be on the island. But when her plane landed and the balmy island air touched her skin, some new emotion stirred and she knew she couldn’t leave without seeing her childhood home.
The security guard finally relented—after she gave him all the American dollars she had on hand—and let her go in with a warning to leave as quickly as possible. She agreed easily, her face spreading into a relieved grin. How terrible if she had come all this way and been turned away! ‘Next time, make a better plan!’ she chastised herself.
With some strange sense of muscle memory, she made her way past the first row of houses and straight to the swimming pool that had housed many of her childhood waking moments. Her feet carried her with a buoyancy she did not recognize. It was around lunchtime and the pool was empty and quiet. She sat down on the ledge surrounding the pool area and let her mind reach back into its arsenal of memories.
The memories were all of play and pranks under a blue sky. Making up elaborate stories of mermaid kingdoms in the pool, writing secret admirer notes and noisily running away as the recipient opened their door, or playing hide and seek in the vast recesses of their little residential community.
She knew there had been unhappiness too. And outside the gates of this little community was an often harsh, less-privileged world, a fact that the younger version of her had been oblivious to. But in the context of the next two decades of her life, she knew the time on the island had given her something special: A visceral memory of what it meant to be light. To be free.
She was just beginning to understand how much she had lost her way in the years since that time. She didn’t know how or when the burden had lowered itself onto her shoulders. Perhaps it was the first time she looked at herself and noticed she looked nothing like the blonde, straight-haired girls who got asked to the school dances. Or when she wrote about her island origins for her diversity college essays but never mentioned it once during her college freshman orientation. By the time she was a management consultant ordering fancy French wines on the client’s tab, her island origins were just memories of a dream she’d once had. They had no place in her quest to become as American as possible.
And yet, in the last decade of high-functioning distraction, the exhaustion at the end of the day seemed a little deeper, a little more existential. She was living some version of the American dream, but the person she had very deliberately become was unraveling. She was unbecoming everything she’d carefully constructed. And she did not necessarily know what was left after it all fell away.
But now she was back here on the island, every little thing seemed bathed in the childish lightness of twenty years ago. As she sat there among the trappings of her childhood, the psychic burden that had become hers over the years began to loosen. So much had happened since she’d seen the island last. And yet, even today, it seemed to bring out the truest part of who she was.