written June 2010
In my Navy days my home was the size of a pine box. I know what you’re thinking; I’m slyly comparing my past shipboard sleeping arrangements to the grave. But in this case I was envious of the dead- at least they did not have to endure other sailors’ toxic socks and sleep farts.
My cramped quarters consisted of a fraying sleeping bag past its expiration date, from which a maximum of two (2) restful positions could be achieved (hence the term “rack,” a strange torturous synonym I could never bring myself to use). The compartments underneath happened to contain all of my worldly possessions: some yellowed, seawater-washed t-shirts,ubiquitous uniforms, and postcards from Crete I hadn’t gotten around to mailing home just yet. I occupied a bottom bunk, with two more directly above me;such weight suspended above was nothing compared to the queasy knowledge that I slept beneath the waterline. Three more beds were just of the left me comprised our damp little nook, just a small appendage to the larger, 70-something capacity of the berthing.
From beyond the flimsy border of my ratty, blue, drawn curtains newly awake men damned their coming shifts, while those they replaced cursed the comedy of sleep they were about to get. Occasionally the rusty, fuzzy voice of God came over the 1MC, who informed us of either mealtimes or fires.
I was lucky enough to know a few civilians during my time in Norfolk, Virginia, and from them I soaked up what it meant to be normal. I marveled at the small, rented apartments and homes I occasionally stayed at. Kitchens became not simply a place to prepare food, but a sign of independence and creativity. I longer for bathrooms not made of metal. Walls with paintings and other signs of humanity. I basked in the simple. Space itself became sacred, and for the rest of my naval duration I ruminated in my future abode.
In the time being I created a few places to stow away in during the odd slow moments at sea. I made a home as well as I could, and to me this meant books, as both intellectual rope and a silently protested line drawn in the sand. In my work space, where sonar manuals should have resided, literary works like John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Elie Weisel’s Night, and Dave Eggers’ A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius took precedence. If nothing else, one day I would have a proper library befitting the mounds of tired, dogged novels I had bought on the cheap.
It’s funny, I feel like a dead beat sometimes in my happiness. The apartment of my post-Navy dreams is a gorgeous, crumbling thing with tacky brown paisleys swarming the hallway wallpaper and a community set of washers and driers in the basement that like to half-ass it. When I first moved here to Esic Drive in Edwardsville I lived in a single on the first floor for three months. Inquiring people who walked by could peer through the window and see a guy sitting in an office chair, watching a battered TV, in an otherwise completely barren room.
Yes, I did get greedy, and went for the open two-bedroom unit above me, which has been my castle for nearly three years. During that time I have made it my home, taking small liberties with the rental agreement, knowing that my plans were so good the landlord would give her blessing if she ever once came around. Two large, Wal-Mart-sturdy bookcases now display my history collection in the small living room, while a third in the bedroom holds the fiction, carefully alphabetized by author, so far amassed.
I wonder if I could simply live in such a place forever-isn’t this type of home supposed to be temporary? To the revolving roommates it has been, the one constant being myself. The Big Big Labor Day Sale micro-fiber set that nicely takes up space in the living room; they give me comfort as though its understood they need me, a second-hand owner probably not in their future.
“Aren’t you looking to one day get a house?” goes a current summation of the standard question my Dad asks when I happen to speak to him over the phone or even more rarely travel north to visit home. I ask why,and although I turn the query over in my mind every time, its blandness makes me spit it out without much chewing. “Seems to be the thing to do,” is the fatherly, bewildered reply, the probing answer to all the other items on the American Must Do List. One piece of old sage advice says that home is where the heart is, but hearts now-a-days want a three-car garage and walk-in freezers.
Last year I decided my home is big enough for a kitten, so I brought home Payton, but now he spends much of his days racing around the perimeters of the rooms like he’s daring the apartment to keep him in. But I suspect its home to him too, as this morning he was protecting my bedroom window from the resident squirrel we’ve come to call Bucky. And I think this rodent likes the place too. Squirrels can be finicky, and Bucky could very well have chosen any walls to live, but he chose mine.
The neighbors are as content as I am. An 85-year old woman who can recall sharecropping in 1930’s Mississippi lives beneath me, and I have yet to smell socks or farts emanating from below. And a nearly adolescent girl has two children of her own all live across from me. Rarely does mother, toddler, and infant either stagger home from the bars or curse about the comedy of sleep they are about to get.