Search for Myself in the Suburbs

by Albi Jae

On two wheels, I sailed down the street, smiling triumphantly, the wind in my hair, feeling the thrill of riding a bicycle for the first time. Except I wasn’t reallysailing; I was moving forward quite slowly, painting wobbly ‘S’ shapes with the wheels of my tires, and stifling panic about how any limb from my body could slip and cause a catastrophic accident at any second. Despite this, I was positively beaming. I had just conquered my fear of getting my feet off the ground, and made it from point A to point B riding a bicycle. It doesn’t matter that those points were only a few yards apart. I yelled for my mom to look, hoping she wouldn’t miss a spectacle of this magnitude. A momentous achievement in the life of any child! Only I wasn’t a child. I was 31 years old.

 

***

 

I spent my 20s being afraid of bicyclesseeking greater meaning in my life, but lacking the confidence and introspection to unwrap my own identity. One excuse was that I lacked the time. Another was that I lacked life experience. The most obstructive was my denial that anything could possibly be wrong with my own mental and emotional health. My contradictory, at the same time fulfilling and soul-draining, work as a public school teacher kept me occupied while capitalism used its controlling power to keep my life on autopilot. Then, like a tidal wave consuming the Earth, the early quarantining effects of the pandemic did a number on my comfortable but vapid life. My routines were shattered and my relationship broke down, but this ultimately allowed me to finally understand myself through months of learning, introspection, reflection, and tears. Today I live with intention, proudly identifying as a nonbinary, trans, asexual, lesbian. A nonbinary, trans, asexual, lesbian that finally knows how to ride a bike, no less!

 

In true millennial fashion, I’ve found myself living back in my childhood home with my mother in Henderson, Nevada, a sprawling city occupying the southeast portion of the Las Vegas Valley. Living in the modest, labyrinthine suburban neighborhood where I grew up socialized as a boy, life feels surreal. Now, instead of being a confused, captive youth of suburban despair, I’m a returning visitor with a critical eye and a traveled outsider’s perspective. I live in a world full of nostalgia, trying to unwrap the layers of suburban isolation, uniformity, authority, patriarchy, and heteronormativity that cover my past. I’m searching for clues about my earlier life buried underneath these layers. What tricks did this place play on me? How did I live here until my early 20s without ever realizing my own truth?

 

***

 

I use my newly learned mobility to ride around the maze of single-family homes, subconsciously searching for clues. Around the first corner, I find a home flying a thin blue line flag. In the most direct loop around my home, there are a few more of them, nearly one on every street. I scan the streets for Pride flags, but find none. I ride past the homes of childhood friends and think about their families. While they certainly had their own working-class struggles, every family I knew heavily fostered outdated gender roles. I reminisce about impressionable moments and where they took place. Embarrassing memories of prepubescent romance with both boys and girls resurface. I pass the roads where I walked home from school, often alone, hoping to avoid harassment from other students. I try to remember seeing any signs of even the slightest queerness around me, but I’m grasping at straws. Is it any wonder I always wanted to stay invisible in such an alienating setting?

 

When I entered my pre-teen years, I started to see that the world seemed to make sense to those around me. This environment, this way of living, the larger American society it all fit into-- it seemingly worked for the other kids in the neighborhood. They had sports, they had widening social circles, they had routes to grow and live “normal” lives. Why wasn’t it working for me? I couldn’t understand and certainly didn’t have the vocabulary to figure it out. In retrospect, the naivety of my misled, closeted, queer, assimilated Asian-American self is painful. American suburbs weren’t built to work for someone like me.

 

This alienation carried on into my teenage years, but I began retreating to the safety of my bedroom to lose myself in digital worlds. I gravitated toward worlds that were as different from the real life as possible. Through technological expertise, I had a semblance of control while online. With physical anonymity, I could be myself in this place where things did make sense to me. My attachment to digital self grew while my physical self remained stagnant and slowly forgotten. By the time I was finishing high school, I all but gave up trying to make space in these suburbs for myself. Luckily, my home life with family was always comfortable (albeit emotionally distant), and these digital diversions carried me to early adult life, where I finally got the chance to leave this neighborhood behind in a hazy cloud of estrangement.

 

***

 

Nowadays, a victim of perpetual wanderlust, I thrive while roaming without an ultimate destination. I embark on long, unplanned, meandering road trips, taking care to go off the beaten path and take the scenic route. I’m particularly excited that my next journey will include a bike! I find solace in being a vagabond, moving from city to city, camping in remote locations, backpacking through the forest, and couchsurfing with others, hoping to learn how they have managed to find comfort and happiness in their own chosen homes. 

 

Perhaps this is because my ‘comfortable’ life in the neighborhood I grew up in betrayed me in the past. The layout of the seemingly never-ending, winding roads and dead-end cul-de-sacs, lined with houses bearing only slight aesthetic differences, manifests the ideological maze of conformity that American suburbs trap us into. As I stare at the face of my home, I can’t help but envision myself, caught up in the anxieties of my mind, trapped in the wrong body, hiding behind a glowing computer screen in a locked bedroom, inside of an insular home in a sea of identical homes, far on the outskirts of a city which itself is isolated within a ring of mountains in the middle of the Mojave desert. Perhaps I fear ever getting trapped in that isolation again. 

 

***

 

I’m unsure how long I will stay in this old, wistful place, and I have no idea where I will go next, but one thing will remain: this house, in this neighborhood, in this sprawling city, will always be here waiting, shrouding mysteries from my past, and inviting me to come back home.

Albi Jae (they/she) is a queer wanderer from the deserts of Las Vegas. She can be found online at www.albijae.com and seldom hints of her existence are posted on Instagram at @trans_vegas. Her physical manifestation can typically be found outside with her poodle, Otis.