700 square feet. That is how much space I had for the first 18 years of my life. 700 square feet consisted of one full bathroom, a connected kitchen and living room, a bedroom and a master bedroom that was only a few feet longer — split among five people. The members of apartment 2F included my busy dad, doting mom, brat of a little sister, smiley baby brother and myself.
700 square feet forces you to be creative. My dad was able to strategically fit a baby’s crib, a file cabinet and a three-piece furniture set in one bedroom while leaving a single strip of floor space for praying. Sticky, humid New York summers also meant investing and placing wall fans, window fans, standing fans and tower fans in each room. Those 700 square feet taught my sister how to pick the bathroom lock when I would hog up the only private space in our home. When friends or family came over, we slept laterally to fit as many people onto a bed as possible, with our feet hanging off as we grew taller. My mom shopped for furniture with storage units, and even stacked our drawers to make for more room. Naturally, nothing was set. There were no designated rooms. My socks and computer desk floated around the living room or wherever they fit best at the time. My sister and I slept wherever there was a bed. Neither of us claimed a room as we had guests flow in and out of 2F for weeks to months at a time. I learned how to fall asleep anywhere, to keep earbuds with me always and most importantly: to not be confined to my 700 square feet.
My parents kept my siblings and me busy and out of the house with school, after-school programs and every weekend at madrasa. But these in themselves all felt like work and chores — not a true escape from my bottom bunk. I craved being outside without reason. I yearned for mindless walks and car rides. I satisfied this need every time my mom went out, practically begging her to let me join in on her errands. I’d happily hop in the car on a Sunday morning to play music and offer mindless chatter. Any aunties who’d join would give animated gasps each time they found me sitting in the backseat, but I soon became a regular member on these trips. The route followed the order of errands: first to put in orders at the butcher shop, then random shops and stalls with things to return and only buy if there was a good deal and finally returning back to the butcher and local supermarkets for frozen groceries. I was of no use on these trips as I enjoyed eating Costco samples, wandering through the stores eyeing items and — at my best — reminding my mom to pick up some cilantro. I mainly liked the potential of convincing my mom to pull into the McDonald’s drive-thru or stop at a halal cart before getting back home. I was unsuccessful most times. Instead, she let me pick up light snacks or chocolate at the register — a little treat for doing nothing but being outside with her. I’d set my strawberry-kiwi Snapple and two-for-$1 potato chips on the counter while my mom added, “Take 5, please.”
Take 5. It can be interpreted as “take a break” or even the Reese’s “Take 5” chocolate bar. But it was understood as a one-dollar, small scratch-away lottery ticket. The bright yellow and magenta card could always be found in my mom’s purse or kitchen countertop. It’s an easy game to play: scratch away and get three of the same number to win that amount in dollars. Most commonly, my mom would win back the one dollar she’d initially spent on the lotto ticket. This mostly no-loss trend made it harmless fun. There were only a few times she won anything upwards of five dollars, which would be enough to cover my little snacks. The greatest amount you can win is $5,555. It was not a lot but it was definitely something. A lump sum to ease the pressure at home. Something to make our measly 700 square feet feel lavish. I imagined the $5,555 being put to good use to buy more McDonald’s Happy Meals long into the future. In hindsight, I realize $5,555 runs out quickly.
This weekend, I finally understood the significance of Take 5. The high pressures of raising three kids in Queens, N.Y. have dissolved as my mom now settles into a quiet, suburban lifestyle. The image of her sipping hot tea in our backyard before tending to her small garden fits so well that I’ve forgotten how she’d scratch the lotto ticket against the deli wall with a rusting penny. There’s no more running rushed errands, scrambling for parking or navigating a 700-square-foot living space. There seems to be no more need for Take 5 or lotto tickets. But this past weekend, I learned I was wrong when my mom asked my dad to pick up a Take 5 for her. It was then that I realized the goal was never to win $5,555 (but that would have been nice). Instead, it was to try and test one’s luck. It may bring an extra ten or fifteen bucks, or you lose a dollar. Like many other immigrants, faith in luck is one of the things my mom held on to in starting a new life where she knew no one. In moving across the globe with nothing but hope and luck, you have to trust that things will work out. That’s a much bigger gamble to make than playing Take 5. My mom continues to fall back on pure luck, except now by scratching three-like amounts to see how lucky she might be.
My childhood home might be dubbed as “not so lucky” by others. But I never felt unfortunate, even if my mom lost a dollar that day on Take 5. I never felt that way at all in our 700 square feet. It’s easy to say I felt content because that’s all I’d ever known. But it was my parents who truly made me feel lucky. I was lucky that my mom stocked our snack cabinet with Ferrero-Rochers in secret after telling my sister and me “no” at the store. My dad fulfilled our dreams by somehow making space for a five-foot-tall aquarium with tens of neon-colored fish. We were lucky to have our yellowish-white fridge covered in magnets from our vacations, family photos and messy art projects. Our cozy apartment 2F may not be classified as a house, but my parents definitely made it a home. Every square foot was somewhere I felt lucky to be.
MiC Columnist Zafirah Rahman can be reached at email@example.com.