Establishing Personal Boundaries With A Hand Vacuum

Establishing Personal Boundaries With A Hand Vacuum

Soek Fambul explores living alone

In the summer of 2018, I moved from Northern Virginia to South Florida with a car full of books, clothes, and the inability to say “no”. Of course, I didn’t recognize this at the time driving down I-95.

There was no moment of clarity during the overnight in Savannah. Instead, I held unrealistically high expectations like a weighted blanket against my body – with the superpower of causing me even more anxiety. Back then, my high tolerance for discomfort was what I thought would make me a successful writer in my Fiction program down South. Oh, the irony.

This would be the first time I was living alone.

Initially, I romanticized my new tropical surroundings. Palm trees that waved at me when I went outside. The breezy aroma of jasmine and dracaena flowers in the night wind. My tiny home underneath a coconut tree. I tricked myself into believing I loved the unknowns of my life.  Iguanas as big as my thigh skittering by. Neighborhood cats embroiled in a bitter turf war every night in my backyard. The tell-tale patter of cockroaches. You call it hell, I call it home. South Florida presented me with an entirely different set of circumstances. Some beautiful, some brutal. Almost every day, I was left exhausted.

Yet, it was not my first stint in the tropics. There were school break summers spent with family in Ghana and Sierra Leone.

I vividly recall seeing a spider so big during my first hour in Sierra Leone I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to fix it a plate for lunch or return to America on the next flight out. In West Africa, I was the entitled, annoying American-African child who asked too many questions and had to be reminded not to drink the tap water.

My girlhood kept me safe. I was only a visitor, a temporary nuisance in box braids. But this was South Florida. This was my new home.

And when a coconut tree fell on top of my house in the middle of the night, if I was the only one who heard it, did it even really happen? These were the questions I asked myself when insomnia gripped me night after night spent working as fast as I could on endless assignments and readings. Exhaustion left me in a state of constant panic. I was always wired. I feared burnout in my first semester.

I kept a list of things I needed to do on a wide yellow post-it. Tasks that loomed over me like a gargantuan palm tree outlined in haunting black ink. I had been living alone for a few months now and I still had not figured out how to prioritize my needs. Did I really need to exercise to relieve my anxiety or did I just need to continue speed reading the last two hundred pages of this novel? And in those moments of stifling indecision, sweaty South Florida days rolled on. The rain fell, the sun shined, and the cockroaches skittered by. I had to do something about those cockroaches. I didn’t need a post-it to tell me to utilize common sense.

What I’ve learned in my on-going stint deep in the South Floridian tropics is this: Cockroaches do not pay rent. Cockroaches come inside when they feel like it and do not leave when you ask them to. When I went to sleep, I strained my ears to hear their tell-tale skitter, like an ex creeping back into your life through casual likes on Facebook and not so casual “wyd” texts. Most nights, they did not come. Most nights, a hard, brown coconut fell on my roof and my heart would roll out onto the cold, white hard floor, a startling reminder that I was still very much alive.

Oh, but when those six-legged moochers came next I would be ready.

For the sole purpose of evicting my honorary roommates, I purchased a $20 hand vacuum to touch them because I most certainly would not. My secret weapon, a sleek dark-gray Black and Decker hand vacuum, I snatched from the shelves of Target with the intensity of a whole-30 dieter eating bread on the 31st day. I had finally made a decision and it was that I had finally had enough. And also, that I probably needed some hobbies if I was looking forward to suctioning cockroaches.

In the meantime, I continued the scheduled programming of my life. My people, friends and family, from back home had been diligent about checking in on me. I told them only the objective positives of my life. My neighbors left me alone.

There was a Cuban bakery nearby where I was slowly working my way through their extensive display of pastelitos. I did not tell them that I was drowning in work in my graduate program, a program I had dreamed of attending for years. That I had not written a single sentence in weeks. That anxiety gripped me like a bodycon dress after three weeks of pastelitos de guayaba y queso indulgences. What I did not tell them was that fear snuck up on me right before bed, the same fear that told me the insects were coming.

My constant worrying and tense shoulders were urgent reminders that I needed to better establish personal and professional boundaries.

And when la cucaracha dance became a survival mechanism rather than a jovial social activity, I knew I needed to make some serious changes in my life. Evicting cockroaches was the first step. I needed help.

I had once been advised to think about the worst possible scenario that could happen to me as a way to deal with my anxiety.  If the bugs were on my mind, I imagined that they grew larger than Andre the Giant, slapped me in the face and told me to move out. That the lease was in their name and I had overstayed my welcome. It hadn’t occurred to me that that would be a hell of a short story to write until now.

The point of the exercise was to remind myself that the worst possible scenario was often the least likely to happen. I was not going to be a failed writer, I was only just starting out. I would write stories, I would collect rejections, and I would get a life outside of grad school. My health demanded no less.

I started to rely on people more. My preferred method of asking for help when it was too late had long lost its stubborn juvenile cuteness. I called my parents to see how they were doing and to tell them that I felt overwhelmed by what was going on around me. I sought professional help. I reached out to friends who moved to the area. I began to go to a salsa school weekly to make friends with people who didn’t know a thing about my writing life and didn’t give a damn about it either.

You learn a lot of things about yourself when you live alone. You learn even more about yourself when you decide to live alone in an entirely different ecological zone on a shoestring grad student budget. And I may not have been able to afford the cooling omnipresent whir of Mayfair (no higher than 78 degrees when inside thank you) but I most certainly wasn’t gonna have no cockroaches in my house and anxiety taking over my life. Reading and writing, my lifelong passions, were not supposed to be detracting from the quality of my life, but adding to it. I may not ever be in control of what life is going to throw at me, but I can be in control of how I respond to it.

I carved out moments regularly in my daily life where I demanded small joys.

Singing my favorite song for a few minutes as a study break. Finding new recipes to try out. Swimming.

Moments to remind me that I had a body and I needed to take care of it. And certainly, there have been moments when my anxiety resurfaces, when a big change in my life requires much more from me. I am not always the best at recalibrating my life. The coconuts will fall.

The cockroaches will come. And I will be waiting, vacuum in hand, ready to go.

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