Storytime: Tenement

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: You can never really return.

“I paid extra for the bathroom” he tells me, pushing open the thin wooden door. I expect to see a bathtub but instead it’s just a sink pushed flush up against a toilet. It’s only a bathroom in the crudest sense. There’s a communal bathroom with a shower down the hall in this building so I feel unconvinced that this “bathroom” is worth anything extra. I don’t even feel comfortable knowing anyone has paid to live in this sad excuse for a building.

The building is three stories tall, mangled on the outside and decaying from a lack of renovation inside. It had at one time been a single house that has now been divided into nine separate “apartments” which are merely rooms carved out around support beams. A communal kitchen and bathroom are installed on the first and second floor and there are two thin strips of land flanking the front and back which could be mistaken for a lawn and a backyard if you squinted.

Nine men live here. Each one in their own little box. My dad’s box is no larger than the bed wedged into the back wall of the room. It’s distorted frame unceremoniously broken so that it would fit in its place. In front of that is a small black bucket chair from a different era, fading velvet cover growing thread bare from use. The other wall has two dressers stacked with a TV from a decade prior on top of that still. The TV has a screen so old the colors warp and fade around the edges. This is “home” now.

The full tour takes 30 seconds and after that my dad opens one of the lower dresser drawers to reveal dishware for the kitchen. Two red plastic plates, two white bowls, two plastic cups, a handful of plastic silverware and a single ceramic mug. All from the Dollar Store. All new.

I want to know where all of our dishes are. I want to know where all of our clothing is. I want to know what he did with the couch and the toys and our TV and where the hell he was for two years while I had to live through all that. Instead I point at the mug and find myself saying “There’s only one mug, what if we both want to drink coffee?”

“Well then I’ll let you have coffee first, and then I’ll have coffee after”

I blink audibly. He says it as if that’s a reasonable and normal response. As if it’s the most obvious solution. As if buying a second mug would be decadent and wild.

I don’t even drink coffee. I don’t want to dwell so I ask if we can go to the movies.

We can’t. We can’t do almost anything. Things were bad before but considering this situation, I assume they are much worse now. It’s impossible to gauge how bad they are because my father will never tell me and he acts like all the things happening are perfectly normal. We have one mug and that’s a thing that happens to people. As if it’s normal that you were a successful man with a house and one day you disappeared yourself and on another day, two years later, you came back different. Stop asking questions when the answers are so damn obvious.

I want to yell at him. I want to ask why things happened like this. Why he ruined everything that was good. Why he always ruins the things that are good but he won’t even answer basic questions so I keep it to myself.

I sleep over there only twice. I sleep on the thick carpeted floor with a blanket wrapped around me, pretending its comfortable when I’m asked. The first time, my father accidentally trips on me when he gets out of bed in the morning and it feels so apropos. My father’s car gets broken into several times while he lives there and my things are taken from the room more than once as well despite I am rarely there.

The second time I sleep over I find myself unable to stand it. Hearing my father snore inches from me is manageable but through the thin floor I hear a rough man upstairs yelling followed by a sharp sound and a woman crying and it’s just too much. I find myself outside, in a “bad” neighborhood, at 2 in the morning before I even think about it. My body curling in on itself wondering how long it would take to walk the 15 miles to my mothers house just to never be here anymore. To never have to question how it ended up this way.

I run down the street, cement and light slipping under me, and find myself outside of a nearby school. I scale the fence, run across the soft blacktop and start wailing. I’m not sure what I’m doing or looking for. I climb to the top of the play structure and sit inside the tunnel right before the slide for a long time just starring at the way the light reflects back on the metal.

My mothers apartment isn’t much better than this. It’s in a building that should have been torn down a decade ago also and there’s only one bedroom for the two of us but we have our own kitchen and our own bathroom and it’s fine to sleep on a mattress in the kitchen, or in the closet. At least it has a closet. Somewhere to hide from the way living makes me feel. How is this any different?

Eventually I hear footsteps and I worry that someone has a gun or drugs or violence or something far worse. Sobs stick in my throat but I feel determined to face what is about to kill me so I let myself tumble down the slide and find my father looking disappointed under heavy orange lamp light.

He doesn’t ask me why I left. He doesn’t say anything at all. We walk to the swings and I sit down and mindlessly kick my feet back and forth, aimlessly trying to escape while stuck in the same place.

“Where is our stuff?” I ask eventually. He doesn’t answer me then either. “Is it gone? It’s fine if it’s gone” I tell him. Even though I don’t care that much about the stuff, it’s not fine. We had a life. We had clothes and dishes and pillows and a coffee table – I know we lost all those houses – those homes – but we had some things. We had stories I wrote and books I bought. We had cat toys and stuffed animals and games. My mother has none of that, we left it with him years ago. And I didn’t care for years but I want it all back now for some reason. I want it so selfishly that I feel like I might start screaming and not stop until he tells me where he put my life.

He tells me he was able to keep some of it with a friend but then amends that it wasn’t everything. I don’t ask which things he was able to keep. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to quantify how much I lost. How much I keep losing.

“Where did you go?”

He leans back in his swing and sighs. “I’m back now isn’t that enough?”

“No.”

“Why don’t we go back to the house now?”

I want to tell him that’s not a house. That’s a coffin. That’s a whole can of worms. That’s a reminder that he’s a liar and a monster who stole from me and just keeps stealing from me but he tells me to my face that he’s not doing it. Or worse, that he’s doing it for my sake. That I’m the reason this is happening. That I deserve it. But I don’t deserve answers? I don’t deserve truth? I want to know why he came back if he won’t even try to fix things, if he won’t even admit they’re broken.

“Yeah okay”

In the morning I make toast and tea and I drink it out of the single white mug that I leave unwashed on the counter. I ask to be dropped back at my mother’s house ahead of time. He does this without question.

He lives in that tenement for nine more months, but I don’t return.

None of my things return. No answers ever return.

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