An apartment is not a house. There’s no backyard. No front lawn, no picket fence. No long driveway for my father to park his car when he’s come home from a long day at work. Instead, there were dirty stoops, and elevators that went out of order. When the elevator went out of order, we had to trudge up five flights of stairs. No fun when you’re carrying groceries, let me tell you.
Instead of a backyard, we had a fire escape. And metal shutters. This was a rough neighborhood. Parts of Queens, New York either toughen you up, or turn you into dog meat. You decide which is which.
I would hear the neighbors talk loudly, or fight with one another. The smells, oh, the smells. The smells of bad cooking flooded the hallways. It could be hard to navigate those hallways with all the rotten odors.
I didn’t know better when I was twelve. No one I knew lived in a home, a home with a backyard and a fence around the lawn. If you owned a home, you must be rich. That’s what I believed. We weren’t rich. My father worked two jobs. My mother worked part-time. Neither made great money. But they provided my sister and I with everything we could possibly need. Inside that apartment, we were safe from the outside world. We weren’t safe from each other. We were never safe from my mother’s mania. My father’s indifference never helped. The streets below could be on fire; inside, in that apartment, it was like trench warfare: tedium followed by pure terror.
When the terror stopped, the lecturing would continue. I learned to ignore it. It was okay to just hide in my room. Wait for the noise to die down. Eventually, my mother would calm down. And I’d walk on eggshells.
Don’t piss your mom off, my dad would whisper. I wished he’d grown a pair. Stand up for yourself. Back then, no one called it “bipolar disorder.” It was just Mom being Mom. Inside that apartment. In between the shuttered windows facing no backyard. I wasn’t allowed to complain. There was food on the table. Clothes on my back. Whatever I wanted, I got. Even if I had to hear about it endlessly.
This was the home I grew up in. This was where I lived when I was twelve years old.
An apartment is not a house, but it’s a home. Home is what we make of it.