Five-minute memoir: The art of losing

The burglar took almost everything – even the bed sheets. But loss felt good to Andrew Porter.

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The Independent Culture

When I was 26 and living in Houston, Texas, I came home from a friend's house one night to discover that my apartment had been robbed. Practically everything I owned had been stolen. In fact, the only things the burglars hadn't taken were my books and a few pieces of furniture. They'd even taken the sheets off my bed.

I can still remember sitting in my empty apartment that night, waiting for the police to arrive, and taking stock of everything I'd lost. There were the material things, of course, but what bothered me most were the personal things they'd taken: letters from friends, boxes filled with family photographs, journals I'd kept since college.

Most devastating of all was the knowledge that I'd lost my computer and backup disks, which contained all of the drafts of all of the stories I'd ever written, including the 12 that were to make up my first book. I'd been living off a fellowship that year and working tirelessly on that book and was, at the time of the burglary, about three weeks shy of finishing it and sending it off to my agent. That it was now gone, along with any hope of ever publishing it, was almost too much to digest. So instead I just sat there and waited for the police, who eventually showed up and explained that there wasn't a whole lot they could do.

Two months later, after my fellowship money ran out, I packed what was left of my life into the trunk of my car and headed out to Oakland, California, where a friend of mine from grad school helped me find a part-time teaching job and offered to put me up for a few weeks.

Even now, it's hard for me to describe my psychological state at the time. I know that on some level I had accepted what had happened, but, on the other hand, the enormity of the loss was so great I don't think I was truly able to wrap my mind around it. I couldn't process that, at 26, I had virtually nothing to my name, that everything I owned could now be fit neatly into the trunk of my car, and that even though I called myself a writer, I no longer had any evidence to prove this.

My friend in Oakland was also a writer, and I think he understood how devastated I was, though he never pressed me to talk about the burglary. Instead, he drove me around the city, helped me find leads on apartments, and listened patiently as I talked about starting over and how maybe losing all of my writing was actually a blessing, a chance for me to write a better book.

I have no idea what he must have thought of me at that time, but I remember very vividly the expression on his face when, a week or so after arriving, I came home one day to explain that my car appeared to be missing from the street outside his apartment. His eyes widened for a moment, as if in sympathy, or perhaps disbelief – disbelief that this could have now happened to me twice.

"It's gone?" he said. "Was anything in the trunk?"

"Yeah," I said, "you know, like everything I own was in the trunk."

He looked at me plaintively.

"I need to go for a walk," I said.

I didn't know Oakland very well and had no idea where I was going, but I walked for a very long time that day – down to the lake, then up through the hilly neighbourhoods that surrounded it. I knew that I'd have to go home at some point and call the police and file a report, but at that moment I didn't care about anything but moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other and not giving into hopelessness.

I wondered what I'd done to deserve this, whether it was some type of karmic payback for something I'd done years before. All I really knew was that I now owned little more than the shirt on my back, and though I probably should have broken down then and started sobbing, I didn't. Instead, I felt something strange. I felt what I can only describe as complete and utter numbness, a sort of cool and peaceful detachment. I remember thinking to myself, you've lost everything now, and there's nothing else that can be taken from you.

A week later the cops would call to tell me that my car had miraculously shown up at a metro station in Berkeley with the keys in the ignition and all of my possessions still in the trunk. But I didn't know that then. All I knew at that moment was that I had lost everything. I had lost everything I owned, and I was okay. I was still alive, still moving.

'In Between Days' by Andrew Porter is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99 hardback