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Illustration of person looking at a motel in the desert.

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The ghosts of our motel

A bell was always ringing. A tenant was always asking for something. Money was always short. How could this place be home?

I didn’t realize that growing up in a motel was unusual until my senior year of high school, when all my peers were agonizing over their college entrance essays.

After a dozen fruitless attempts to explain my uniqueness in 500 words, I went back to the beginning. I thought I’d cross out most of what I wrote, but I had no other ideas about how to start.

“I was born in London,” I wrote. “But I grew up in California, in the desert, at a motel.”

That sentence was the moment my childhood became a story instead of a haunted room in my head. A lot of writers know this moment; many of us need it. It can help us make peace with whatever monsters rampage through our memories. It can help us turn something painful into something useful.

For years, the motel occupied one of those two spaces. First, something painful: a place where a bell was always ringing. A tenant was always asking for something. Money was always short. Our brown skin, Muslim faith, and immigrant status meant we didn’t fit in.

And then I wrote that college entrance essay, and the motel became something useful.

I thought that’s all the motel would ever be. After my parents sold it in the early 2000s, it was personal legend material, the source for a useful passel of ghosts I trotted out when people asked about my childhood.

But recently, the motel became something more.

My parents didn’t tell me many stories of their young lives. Probably because they were so busy surviving, it didn’t seem like they had time for stories. My father was trained as an engineer. My mother, after two years of college, got married and held secretarial and retail jobs. They ended up in the Mojave desert after an oil job my father had been counting on fell through, and a fellow Pakistani convinced my father that flipping a business would get him back on his feet.

Did my dad research the business? Not really. He trusted a countryman. When I tell this story, I’ve had listeners suggest that my father was naïve. This is a comment that usually earns my quiet and undying enmity. I always thought of my father’s decision as brave. He needed a path to move to America for opportunities that were scarce elsewhere. The motel provided it.

A few months later, my mother arrived from Pakistan with her three kids and found herself driving through the barren wasteland of the Mojave, unaware that it would be the backdrop for her children’s entire childhoods and 20 years of her own life.

The motel was in an unobtrusive grid of a town that sits just off a long and especially desolate stretch of Highway 395. It had a central building with a cinder-block wall painted cream, and two wings of rooms. It was low and flat and brown. The wings had six rooms and a parking space in front of each. The dust that blew in from the desert was a constant companion. On windy nights, the air tasted of creosote.

My parents never shied away from hard work, but the motel was exhausting. My father became a jack-of-all-trades, building huge signs, repairing the roof, running sprinkler lines and new electrical wiring. Both my parents dealt with a never-ending churn of cleaning rooms, doing laundry, changing bulbs, fixing broken ACs and TVs. Not to mention raising three children with no family to help and no money to pay for child care. My parents didn’t rest or vacation or go to a book club or the gym. They worked themselves to the bone through the 100 degree summers and the bitingly windy winters.

In the beginning, they were hopeful. But little incidents took their toll. My father hired a couple of journeyman carpenters to help with a building project. They stole all his tools. My mom rented a room to a woman with a baby who didn’t have enough money. She and her boyfriend stole all the furniture out of the room. My father came to America with a deep belief in the goodness of people. But the motel taught him — and all of us — better.

The town itself is isolated. At night, the lights sparkle like stars, and it seems bigger and more promising than in the daytime. You can guess the name of the town if you really want to, but I try not to use it too much. Partly to protect the privacy of the people who live there now, people whose story intersects briefly with my own. And partly because for me, the name is laden with frustration, sadness, and, above all, loss.

Loss of family. Loss of health. Loss of years. For my parents, the town — and specifically the motel — was a type of purgatory. Until then, they had lived in huge metropolises, in Manchester and London and Benghazi and Lahore. In Pakistan, they had the embrace of their families: sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles. Even when they left for Europe and Africa, they were always able to find a community. A sense of home.

But what was home to my parents in the desert with no other Pakistanis and few other immigrants? Was it the family they’d left behind? Was it the cities where their children were born? The communities and bonds they’d formed in places they were considered outcasts and unwelcome?

Or was it the place they came to? The home they made at a dusty motel in the middle of a desert? The friends they found amid the vast emptiness, those who said “you are welcome here” even amid the people who said “you are not”?

Perhaps it is their children. Their grandchildren. But more than all of that, I think home for my parents is something ineffable. Home is the past. Not a where, but a when. A when that I will never know or understand and that they will never get back.

For myself, home has always been people, not a place. I call my hometown a hometown, but it never felt like one, other than within the walls of the motel where I lived with my parents and brothers. That was the place where my name was said correctly, my spirituality was a boon instead of something to condemn, and my skin color was reflected instead of rejected.

It was also a place of adventure. Endless games of hide-and-seek. Roller-skating on cracked parking lots. Hiding from the ghosts in the shed. Late-night cops and robbers with neighborhood kids. “Be on my team,” one of them once said to me. “You’re harder to see in the dark.”

The author at age 6.
Courtesy of Sabaa Tahir

Some things made the desert feel like home when I lived there. But I also let the town warp my brain. It’s an old story for so many immigrant kids. In the ’80s, when my family moved to America, many people in small towns hadn’t met an immigrant before. We were otherized because we looked and sounded and acted different.

I thought I was ugly because people told me I was. My name was mispronounced my entire childhood, and after a few failed attempts to correct it, I stopped trying. I thought I was stupid, careless, and spoke poor English because my very first teachers, for kindergarten and first grade, told me that. I and my family were harassed, profiled, attacked. I wish this type of stuff didn’t stick, but it does. Long into my 20s, I devalued myself, my experiences, my culture, my beauty.

This isn’t to say that everyone in the town was bad. I had friends. Adults I trusted. Teachers who mentored me. Their kindness meant all the more against the backdrop of not belonging. But it wasn’t enough to make the ubiquitous demands to “go back to where you came from” fade from my mind.

When I left at 17 for university, I felt like I could breathe. I could acknowledge how lucky I was to have parents who wanted me to get out — who helped me find ways to do so via college, scholarships, and the FAFSA form. But I could see how bad things had been. After leaving, I resolved that the motel would be nothing more than a story. That’s all it deserved to be.

In my late 20s, I had my children. As they grew older, they began asking me about when I was little, as I had with my own parents. The motel featured heavily in my stories: the haunted shed behind the north wing of rooms. Climbing to the roof with my brother — their uncle — during hide-and-seek. Riding bikes in the desert.

But the motel was, of course, more than that. It was also the alcoholic tenants who’d piss in our bushes, the guest who’d scream racial epithets at the TV, the abuser who threatened my mom if she didn’t tell him what room his terrified ex was in.

I don’t share those stories with my kids, so they’ve lurked in my head, misting into spirits, walking with me through relationships and friendships and therapy sessions and the books I write. Unpleasant at times. Scary. But still, just stories.

Then, at the beginning of this year, my family took a road trip. We hadn’t gone anywhere for a while because of Covid, but with three members of the family vaccinated, we figured it was time to get out.

We were driving south through California, and I mulled over whether I should show my kids where I grew up. Part of me wanted them to retain the image of the motel I’d given them: a periwinkle blue pool, beautiful sunsets, interesting and strange people. Not a tired building on a dusty street where you could crunch the dirt between your teeth.

Even as we approached the turnoff to Highway 14 that would take us past my hometown, I began to waffle. I didn’t want to go. I really wanted to go. I couldn’t go! I had to.

“Just forget it,” I blurted out. “Let’s head to LA,” which was our next stop.

Fortunately, my husband was driving for that leg of the trip. “I think we should go,” he said, glancing over at me, eyebrows raised, well-attuned to my indecisiveness. “I think you need to see it.”

“Nah, I’m okay,” I said, wishing quietly that I could get out of my own damn way and admit that I wanted to see my old home. That it was okay to want to see it. “It will take too long.”

“We’re going,” my husband said, and took the turnoff. Strangely, in the back seat, my kids cheered. I didn’t think they cared one way or another. But I guess they were curious about this place they’d heard stories of. As it turns out, so was I.

As an adult, I’ve had friends tell me I’m observant. But I must not have been as a kid because I had no idea I lived in an isolated town until college, when I casually mentioned to a friend that I hadn’t been to a real mall until I was 13.

“Where was this mall you went to?” she asked.

“Palmdale,” I told her. “Civilization!”

She laughed. “Palmdale is the edge of the world, Sabaa.”

I remember thinking that if she thought Palmdale was the edge of the world, what would she make of the motel?

Now, as my family and I traversed the desert on a cool spring afternoon, as I watched my kids’ eyes glaze over at the endlessly flat land, broken only by tumbleweeds and the occasional distant hillock, I started to understand why that old friend thought the desert was the back of the beyond.

I hadn’t been back to the area in years. I’d thought I’d never go back. But as we drove, I felt a weird sense of relief. Familiarity. In relegating my childhood to stories, it lost its sense of reality. But here it was, in browns and taupes and mauves and olives, staring me in the face. This is what I’d survived. It was not just a story. It was my reality. As we neared the town, down a long road that leads off Highway 14 and into the city limits, my husband told my kids all about the community’s origins. He knew enough that I realized he must have read up on it at some point because even I didn’t know some of the facts he was sharing.

My kids stared and exclaimed and tried to find something interesting in the relatively unimpressive surroundings. “Ooh, a junkyard of old cars,” my older child observed valiantly.

I, meanwhile, found myself getting quieter. I thought I’d forgotten the streets, but I hadn’t. I realized I was almost the same age as my father was when he moved to the town in the early ’80s. For the first time, I saw it as my parents must have seen it: a strange and distant outpost. How they must have loved us to try to make a life there, to have not given up.

When we got into the town, I thought we’d do a quick drive-by of the motel where I grew up, just to show the kids the big palm trees in the front and the broad stretch of sand across the street, where my brother would try to catch lizards. But my husband, who could befriend a boulder, stopped in front of the motel and got out. Before I really understood what was happening, he’d walked up to the old center apartment and told the new owners his wife used to live there. A minute or so later, he waved me over, and they ushered us into their home. My old home.

Suddenly, I was inside the place where I grew up, in front of a South Asian family that looked like mine. Again, I couldn’t speak. I was tallying all the things that had changed. A wood floor instead of the ragged, brown-black carpet where my brother and I had had Lego pirate wars. Tall, pale curtains on the picture window instead of the pilled yellow ones where I’d skulk during hide-and-seek.

The big, dark beams above were the same. As was the fireplace with the closet behind it. I tried to look inside to see what the new owners kept in there. For us, it was towels and soaps and TP — the most requested items.

The place felt small. The new owners were a big family. Grandparents, grandchildren, and the two couples who ran the place. I knew they shared a small kitchen with a butcher-block counter. A half bath and a longer, narrower one with a stall shower. A dining room with cedar-paneled walls from the ’60s. Two bedrooms.

Outside, the lawn had been paved over. There used to be three trees out front. The pool in the back was empty and fenced off, the chain-link listing down toward it, pulled by its black hole gravity, maybe, or a jinn.

My husband asked how the business was doing, how the family liked the town, and chatted again about how I used to live there with my parents and brothers.

“What do you do now?” they asked me.

How do you say, “This place you live, where your kids live, put ghosts in my head, and I write to shut them up”?

You don’t. My husband told them a bit about his own work, and I looked at the faces of their kids, these little beautiful brown children. I hoped that things would be better for them in this town than they were for me and my brothers. I hoped they’d come home from college and be happy and not feel what I felt at the time: the intense desire to stay, to live the reality I was most familiar and comfortable with, combined with the desperate urge to leave because I couldn’t get sucked into that dead space again.

We didn’t stay long. After we drove off, I showed my kids my high school as well as the house my family lived in briefly when I was in my teens — beautiful and ghost-free.

As the sun was setting, we parked on the side of the road to watch the sky over the Sierra Nevada turn gold, then pink, then a deep, unforgettable violet. The sky was dusty because the wind had kicked up. I knew that wind so well that it was like an old friend. I could practically hear it asking where I had been, why I hadn’t come back.

The kids, who haven’t met many winds, threw sand in the air and watched as it spun into oblivion. The sun set. There are more stars in my hometown than anywhere else I’ve lived. I drank them in and the taste of dust at night.

As we left, I opened the window and whispered a word. “Home.” I said it a few times, trying it out, to see how it felt. “Home.” Yes. That is what this town was. Not just a story or a source of pain, but home. One I could appreciate now for what it gave me. A desire to belong, which made me seek out stories. A need to contemplate, which lets me sit for months with a character. A passion for work, taught by my parents, which allowed me to survive college, then journalism, then publishing. A love of rain and mountains and the joyful howls of the Santa Ana winds.

A “when” that I can come back to if I ever need to remember who I am.

Sabaa Tahir is the New York Times bestselling author of the An Ember in the Ashes YA series, which has been translated into more than 35 languages. Her new novel, All My Rage, is partially inspired by her childhood in the desert, and will be published in March 2022 by Razorbill.

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