“We’ll have to get you an air mattress,” my mother had told me on the phone. “There’s no bed for you. We set up the TV and furniture in your old room.” Why? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t need to question her when I already knew her answer. You don’t live here anymore. You’re not eighteen anymore. Fend for yourself. Instead, I should have turned my thoughts to the truth: my mother and step-father Mike had let the house become such a mess that the first floor was virtually unusable.
We had a shit room – it was literally filled with dog shit – and the hardwood floors were soaked in urine. In the afternoon, the sun would hit the the entrance to our deck, warming the surface and releasing the smell of dog piss. There were less heinous and more common problems, such as the filthy kitchen, but they had essentially lost the first level of the house to animal neglect.
There’s still time to turn back, I told myself, looking down towards the train tracks. Empty cups and cigarettes occasionally appeared between the rails, carelessly thrown by passengers who didn’t bother to walk to one of the several trash cans on the platform. What exactly did I expect from this trip? Part of me wanted to see my family before I left for India with my boyfriend, as I’d be gone for several months. At the same time, I had such a poor relationship with my two younger sisters that we said nothing more than “hello” when I was home. (Unless, of course, we started to fight about something completely absurd.) I was also becoming increasingly aware that both my mother and Mike had very little interest in my life. Philadelphia wasn’t extremely far from Rhode Island, but in all my years at Temple University, my parents visited me twice: they moved me into my dorm room my first year of college, and they came to my graduation ceremony.
“I’m getting an award,” I recalled telling my mother months before. “The ceremony’s the day before graduation. Maybe you guys can stay in one of the hotels nearby—”
“I don’t want to stay overnight.” My mother was both brief and honest. She offered no congratulations or explanation.
Many of the soon-to-be passengers on the platform were clearly college students, or at least young women and men who appeared to be traveling home for a visit with their loved ones. There were many families as well, children and parents alike with backpacks and luggage, huddled together. I wondered what kinds of situations they were destined for. Did the college girls return to doting parents who asked about their studies? Who were proud to have daughters who won awards, or made the Dean’s List? Did the mothers and fathers feel a sense of joy in showing their children Philadelphia (or, alternatively, New York)?
I wondered how it felt to have a mother that cared about you, or a reliable father who didn’t so easily become enraged that he was terrifying to be around. College, in a way, had been a double-edged sword. I was able to get away from the neglect and abuse, but there was a separate and extremely sharp pain in realizing how abnormal my upbringing had been. Often, I found myself extremely jealous of others, their parents coming from the far end of Pennsylvania to visit them in the city. I also experienced amazement in the number of people who had college educated mothers and fathers. How foreign a concept that was, when my parents didn’t even graduate high school.
Don’t go was an intrusive thought; it followed me into the train and accompanied me on the trip to Rhode Island.
This was the second day I spent on a beige couch that smelled faintly of urine, watching my mom view episodes of Maury and Jerry Springer. (Attempts at conversations were met with, “Jesus, you always interrupt me at the end of my shows.”) I briefly turned my attention to the repetitive narratives of cheating and paternity tests, and wondered what compelled people to seek something outside of their self-described committed relationships. Why bother? Sex is sex, right? Mom focused intently on the television screen, her cigarette dangling in her right hand, absorbed by the drama.
The day I arrived, my mother took me to Benny’s to purchase the air mattress. She knew I was coming, but claimed I hadn’t given her enough notice. There were no air mattresses to buy, so she resigned herself to letting me share her bed. Mike’s sleeping in your old room, she said, he can’t sleep on his back after his gastric bypass, and he needs the recliner.
This was the homecoming I expected, but not the one I wanted. Neglect didn’t harden me – it made me even more desperate for love and acceptance.