I snarled with contempt when I talked about those poor kids who "lived at home." (As in, "You’re going out with the guy from the bookstore? He lives at home!" The absurdity of this expression—to say nothing of the cruelty with which I flung it around—wouldn’t dawn on me until much later.) It was a point of pride for me: I was going to pay rent on my own apartment with the wages from my first real job. I wanted to decorate as offensively as I pleased, smoke cigarettes with abandon, or have overnight male visitors if such a situation were to present itself. (It didn’t, much.)
I wanted my own place.
A few months into my job search I began to understand, deep inside, that The New Yorker was not going to seek me out for a staff writer position. Much soul-searching and Smiths-listening took place. Then I accepted a perfectly decent staff writing job at a local university. My best friend, Kristen, and I snagged a little two-bedroom in downtown Philadelphia, a posh neighborhood that thankfully included a few dumpy blocks in our price range.
The place featured an abnormally long, narrow hallway that squashed average-sized visitors as they entered and eventually spat them out into our living room, which we’d transformed into a pop culture shrine. We hung an irony-laden Spice Girls poster in the bathroom; at 10 by 14 inches, it took up all the available wall space. The kitchen was so small we had to take turns standing in it.
Kristen and I lovingly referred to our building as "the tenement slum." True to form, the other residents seemed to have hundreds of crying babies, loud music, loud, disturbing-sounding sex, and perennially overflowing garbage bags in the hall. Yeah, it was gross. But it was ours. And we decided we had the best deal on the block: The residents of the adorable colonials across the way paid astronomical rents for a view of our squat little apartment complex, while for a greatly reduced price we could imagine ourselves a part of their chic existence just by leaning out the window! For nearly a year the two of us lived it up in that apartment, raptly following stupid TV, trying halfheartedly to start a zine, stalking every boy in the building under the age of 30, and stumbling home in the wee hours from the hole-in-the-wall around the corner.
THEN MY DAD died, and my new life came to a screeching halt. Well, not so fast—he’d been ill for years, and once the end was undeniably near I started moving back home, bit by bit.
I did double duty that spring. Half the time I had to play it cool for my friends and tried (and sometimes failed) to keep it together at work. The other half I spent with my parents in the house where I grew up, watching a horror story unfold. I felt guilty whenever I wasn’t there. I’d start out some evenings rolling from bar to bar with Kristen but end up so overcome with anxiety that I’d catch the last train home, claiming I wanted to sleep in my old bed. Every time I got there to find my dad in his chair in front of the TV, a large black blossom of dread bloomed inside me, uncurling in my middle and spreading throughout my body with a little shiver. He didn’t look right; he looked less right each time. His face had a grayish cast that was somehow also green. The chemo wasn’t working and, even though nobody would say so, I knew our time with him was limited.
After learning how to fake it like an expert, it didn’t take long for me to feel quite alone in the world. And I certainly was alone on the train headed home every couple of days, thinking and crying in those straight-back seats while I stared out the window. Having my own place was no longer the freewheeling single gal’s adventure it was supposed to be, but moving back home would be like saying what everybody had deemed unsayable: that my dad was going to die.
As is the case with many fretted-over decisions, this one was made for me in the end. Dad died in June. The very next day I dragged myself to my apartment to retrieve my beloved cat and on the way back it dawned on me: I was going home. Home was home again. I couldn’t believe it. Half-crazy with misery, I didn’t bother bringing any clothes back with me. I just went to work every day for the next month wearing the same black T-shirt and flip-flops. In fact, I didn’t fully move the rest of my things until the day before the lease was up. I was emotionally crippled, a zombie, grieving so hard my chest ached for weeks, but still it felt like another defeat to peel the posters off the walls of my first real place. Life had challenged me to a battle and tromped me.
THIS ALL HAPPENED a year and a half ago. Sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago, other times like it’s happening all over again. Such is the nature of grief. But I’ve been healing all this time, getting little bits of myself back. And there have been a few pleasant surprises along the way, too, like rediscovering home.
I sleep in my old bedroom and eat dinner at the kitchen table with my mom every night. But Mom and I are different than we used to be. Plus, home isn’t just the place where I live anymore. Six months ago I quit my stinking rotten day job and started working—I mean, "writing"—from home. When I first joined the ranks of the self-employed, I joked to friends that I would emerge at the end of my tenure as a freelancer like Grizzly Adams, completely desocialized and speaking my own guttural language. This hasn’t quite happened. But something has changed within me, a change that didn’t take place when I was living with friends and spending all my available energy "discovering" myself. When I was 20, I needed to become myself the only way I knew how: by leaving. Now that I’m back, I think I’ve begun to learn what independence really means.
I am, after all, an adult now, capable of having a grown-up friendship with my roommate—er, mom. Last weekend she and I went for Chinese. After stuffing ourselves full of fried gooey stuff we broke our fortune cookies, and here’s what mine said: "There is a true and sincere friendship between you both." You both? Who ever heard of a fortune cookie that addresses more than one person? When my mom opened hers, it was empty. Sometimes something spooky has to happen to make you notice what’s good in your life.
What’s good is my friendship with my mother, and something more. A greater good has come of the loss of my cool downtown existence. When I traded in my independence for a little bit of comfort, what I got in return turned out to be worth a lot more. These days I very closely resemble the person I’m supposed to be, and that’s a homecoming many people never get. Wherever I go from here, I’ll be at home with myself.
From Here (#5), a zine presenting essays about people and places (www .heremagazine.com). It was nominated for an Utne Reader Alternative Press Award in 2000 for best new title. Subscriptions: $10/4 issues from Box 310281, Red Hook Station, Brooklyn, NY 11231.