I would wait in the car for my dad and my sister to return with the remains of other lives: dog-eared pulp fiction, a drum kit, and once, a prosthetic leg.
My dad and Punzie, then seven, would often trespass into abandoned buildings. Once in Kentucky, where my dad spent his adolescence, they rooted through a deceased neighbor’s collapsing house. It was here that they found the prosthetic leg, which they claimed proudly like a trophy.
In Virginia, my dad found a faulty lock on the door of a run-down, whitewashed church — an easy entrance. I sat in the grass outside, age ten, quietly splitting blades and observing ants. It wasn’t that I wasn’t curious — I was. But a nervous loop would run through my head — one of caved-in walls, tetanus, and ticks lurking in high grass — making me pick at my skin.
Crickets buzzed and the sun softly fell around me: Nothing about the scene suggested an act of breaking and entering. I had cautioned them to be careful, but I was immediately quieted by my dad’s reassurances. Once they left, I imagined myself standing guard against an approaching mob of nosy neighbors, demanding an explanation. I drafted elaborate excuses, wanting to take part in the drama without actually participating. I fell into the older sibling trope: quiet, bookish, parental. I was a collection of my countless fears and entering unknown territory would make that identity precarious. I didn’t know who I would be if I crossed the threshold into long-empty buildings — a rule-breaker, a bad kid? So I stayed put.
With a clatter, they returned, arms full of church fans printed with the faces of MLK Jr. and JFK and a snare drum. I helped them load their treasures into the car and listened as they detailed the church’s interior, its velvet carpeting and rodents nesting under the pews.
By age 13, as my body began to mutate and evolve, my identity loosened. It was terrifying: As I sprouted pimples and boobs, my habits began to change. Everything was in flux, so I wasn’t bound to the same things anymore. If my body could decide to change after years of sameness, so could I. Suddenly, I found myself scaling the fire escape ladder out of my window to the off-limits roof, unsure where my responsible self had fled to.
The ladder was decades old and rusted over. It clung to the side of the building; I had nowhere to fall except the neighbor’s backyard, five stories below. I’d weighed the risk and reward, and decided the roof was worth it. With each rung, I broke from my responsible identity and tested my potential for a new, daring self. From above, I could see the tops of oaks and passing cars, neighborhood babysitters with their entourages, and the nearby high school. If I squinted, I could see the Statue of Liberty. I would move across the roofs of the conjoined buildings, peeking into my neighbors’ lives. Some roofs boasted gardens of tomatoes growing alongside weed, others discarded lawn chairs and cigarette butts.
I had discovered the world of Places I Was Not Meant to Be. But with that came the question of who I was, an identity crisis of pubescent proportion.
When I was thirteen, my closest friend sent me a story by Philip Roth, “The Conversion of the Jews.” A middle school-aged boy named Ozzie finds himself on the roof of his synagogue, threatening to jump. The jump wouldn’t kill him, but it would cause a scene. Ozzie looks down at his worried mom, his rabbi, his friends, and asks himself: Is it me? Is it me? This was a question I found myself asking constantly, as I dared not to look down from the fire escape ladder: Is it me who climbs up the side of a building on a rusty 50-year-old ladder? In the story, a conclusion is offered by sheer action. There he is, on the roof: Suddenly, it is you.
Being both the responsible one and the building-scaler, I found, wasn’t a choice — maybe that’s why 13-year-old me loved that story. Ozzie ends up on the roof by accident, but once he’s there, he has already become the kind of person who would end up on top of a synagogue, making a scene. Before I could decide if I was the kind of person who would climb up the side of a building, I had already done it.
My friend had sent me that story without knowing my roof-going crisis. She too had been sneaking onto the roof of her thirty-story building in the middle of Manhattan. I didn’t know about her habit until the last day of eighth grade — “our final day trapped in middle school,” we’d say, posing as angsty teenagers — when she brought me there.
As I stood on her roof, I looked down at the people below, milling, strutting, padding, iridescent in the June sun. Most, I thought, were probably sweating in the heat. Some were exiting the same train station I’d exited earlier. Then, I had been one of them; later, I’d enter the same station, rejoin the pack. I had been there, I was now here, I would be there again. I could go where I wanted, roofs and sidewalks and train stations.
— Magazine writer Olivia G. Oldham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @allpalaver.