Coming home (Part 2): Living in Pittsburgh

I moved to Taiwan in 2004 after I graduated from college. I was going to teach English for a year and then come back to the States to find work. One year turned into five, and then I moved to Shanghai to work as an editor. After a year there—and three years without going home—I moved back to the States to start all over again. This series of posts was written in commemoration of the anniversary of my life in this new town.

One word I would banish from the dictionary is ‘escape.’ Just banish that and you’ll be fine. Because that word has been misused regarding anybody who wanted to move away from a certain spot and wanted to grow. [She] was an escapist. . .You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right, too. . .I think we have a right to change course. – Anaïs Nin

I don’t know exactly what I was thinking when I moved back to Pittsburgh. In retrospect, the whole mad dash to get away from Shanghai was too hasty, even for me. Not that it wasn’t a good move, but I could have been more graceful about it.

Thanks JBlough!

Two weeks after I’d left, I showed up back at mom’s house with three suitcases and no money. My sister was also living upstairs. By the third day, my ex told me that I had to stop calling him because it was too hard to talk to me. I was crushed. I wanted to go back, but I didn’t want to hurt my mom or leave my family when there was so much work to be done. And I was certain that once I got a job and a place to live, he would come to me. We couldn’t be happy apart. 

His absence was a weight that I dragged around everywhere like Jacob Marley carried his chains. I cried in the morning, I cried at night, and then I cried between meals. And my misery made me irritable. Merely being civil was too much for anyone to ask of me. I felt like getting out of bed was an accomplishment and I didn’t want to interact with anyone. 
My mom’s house was all but trashed. The giant old place was packed wall to wall with the detritus of twenty-five years spent together as a family of six. We’d all stayed there at different times during our late teens and early twenties, and as adults, we used it as a storage receptacle for our childhood memorabilia and all the junk we never bothered to get rid of. On top of that, the house was falling into disrepair and my parents were at an impasse in their divorce negotiations. The only thing we could be sure of was that the three of us would have to find new places to live by October.
Broke and heartbroken, I tried to spend as much time as possible hiding out in my room with all my childhood knickknacks, much as I had as a mopey teenager. My mom fell back into her role as the primordial mother-figure that creates and controls lives. She barged into the bathroom or the bedroom at will, turned the channel on the TV as the mood struck her, and demanded we perform chores at her bidding, all the while insisting on cooking us dinner and helping us pack our lunches. Every interaction became a battle of wills, each one more outrageous than the last. 
At first, my sister and I had a pretty solid united front. We agreed that the house needed to be purged of all the clutter and junk, even if it we had to surreptitiously pack black garbage bags full of stuff and take them down the Goodwill while my mom was at work. But the more time we spent together, the more obvious it was that she and I had grown in very different directions during our years apart. As a rule, I could guess her perspective on any issue from salad dressing to politics so long as I could imagine whatever stance was the exact opposite of mine. It was the kind of variety that’s fun over long-distance phone calls and at little cousins’ birthday parties, but up close, it was as irritating as jeans that no longer fit. 
Finally, everything broke. My sister and I started arguing and then my mom and I had it out. With everything I owned packed into my car, I drove to a familiar parking lot down the street. I called my brother and told him I was homeless.

“Can I come stay with you?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure. I mean, I have to ask my girlfriend. But you can stay for at least a little while. It’s just that I can’t make a decision like that without asking her. But sure, you come here, we can get you some work,” he said.

I told myself I could always go back to Shanghai or Taiwan if things really didn’t work out, but I didn’t want to leave before I knew I had exhausted all my options. Knowing that I could go back if I wanted to made me feel stronger and more confident than I had in ages: I was finally making a decision about where I wanted to be and what I wanted I wanted to do. I didn’t feel like a victim of circumstance; I felt like a woman with a plan and a backup plan, even if that plan involved sleeping on my little brother’s couch.

Has running away ever seemed like a better plan than “sticking it out”? What did you do? How did it work out for you?


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