There’s a mannequin staring down from the second-floor window of the Lock Up Self Storage on Lincoln. She has a blonde wig and a stoic demeanor—the sort of world-weariness that comes from being frozen in one spot against your will. When I moved the bulk of my earthly possessions into an eight-by-ten-foot storage unit in early 2020, I was comforted by her unblinking attention. She would protect my stuff while I could not.
I was in between apartments and floundering in the early days of the pandemic. My boxes were supposed to live in the unit for six months, tops. The truth is that it is scientifically impossible to only use a storage unit for half a year; 18 months later, I had already retrieved the clothes, books, and kitchen gadgets I needed to use in my daily life. Most of my boxes remained in temperature-regulated solitude, sapping $135 out of my bank account each month.
If I wanted to end my lease before my two-year anniversary, I had to get serious about the task. I needed to get rid of the storage unit—and to do that, I needed to get rid of a lot of stuff. So first I needed to convince my friends with cars that helping me move boxes would be totally chill and fun.
Why are humans such magpies, clinging to objects for their sentimental sparkle? A lot of my boxes were full of childhood artifacts like old report cards, drawings of first-gen Pokémon, and Breyer model horses. Other boxes were even more emotionally troubling, like the ones filled with my dead mother’s things, shoved to the back of my closet for years. My dad sold my childhood home almost a decade ago, so I lost access to a possibility of roomy suburban storage. I started seething with jealousy for people who still had access to their childhood bedrooms, sitting empty like a shrine to their former selves. I had to carry it all with me, and fit it where I could.
The truth is, even considering getting rid of those boxes felt like a betrayal. But who was I actually betraying? I didn’t want my life to become a museum to my past, like a career retrospective when I’m just getting started. I wanted more space to evolve, expand, and surprise myself.
The vibes at the storage unit were always strange. Very soft pop music was piped into the building’s common speakers. It often sounded like Kelly Clarkson was humming from two rooms away. In the long, fluorescent-lit hallways, the effect was haunting. I rarely saw other people, but when I did, they seemed just as addled as me. Masks on their faces, boxes in their arms, just trying to find the carport before their strength gives out and they perish in Storage Wing B-200.
I saw one man multiple times, sitting in a folding chair in front of an open unit containing more Funko Pops than you could ever imagine. I don’t trust a Funko Pop’s soulless eyes, and so, by extension, I didn’t trust this man. Surely, he must have been involved in some seedy underground market, trading limited-edition Doctor Strange figures on the dark web.
One evening, my sister pulled into the carport next to an empty SUV. Next to the passenger door, a gigantic teddy bear (easily the size of an eight-year-old child) slumped on a dolly. I related instantly to his dejected position and unceasing grin: my spiritual twin. But where was his family? We took several trips to and from my unit and never saw another person. Did the bear drive the SUV?
Trip by trip, box by box. I brought bags of clothes to Brown Elephant and stacks of paperbacks to Uncharted Books. I recycled old college reports and consolidated boxes of yearbooks. Some boxes were full of actual trash: half-empty Advil bottles, mismatched socks, promotional tote bags, and busted lighters. What possessed me to keep these things in the first place, let alone pay more than a thousand dollars a year to keep them boxed up?
The thing about going box by box is that eventually you do reach the end. When I lugged the final Rubbermaid tub back to my apartment, I thought I would feel relieved. Instead, I felt a strange aimlessness. The storage unit had been a lingering anxiety in my life for years, a literal representation of my mismanaged nostalgia. I needed to let go of some shit, sure. But I think I mostly wanted to let go of the idea that my memories needed to be tied to physical objects in order to survive.
Of course, there are still boxes tucked into the corners of my closet. I have some coffee mugs I hope I can use in a bigger kitchen someday. Some novels I’m going to read, I swear. I had to keep the Breyer model horses. I’m not ready to sort through my mom’s old college papers and magazine writing—and even when I do, I bet I’ll keep all of it. The point of emptying the storage unit wasn’t to get rid of all my things. It was to stop feeling flattened by them.
Turns out that officially ending the lease on your storage unit is actually pretty anticlimactic. I emailed the office. I dropped the key in the front door slot. And I saluted the mannequin who’d been standing at the window, watching me come and go for the last two years of my life. She didn’t wave back, but I think she was sorry to see me go.