“NASHVILLE — I thought I had escaped the beautiful, benighted South for good when I left Alabama for graduate school in Philadelphia in 1984, though now I can’t imagine how that delusion ever took root. At the age of 22, I had never set foot any farther north than Chattanooga, Tenn. I was so poorly traveled — and so geographically illiterate — I could not pick out the state of Pennsylvania on an unlabeled weather map on the evening news.
When I tell people, if it ever comes up, that I once spent a semester in Philadelphia, a knot instantly forms in the back of my throat, an echo of the panic and despair I felt with every step I took on those unfamiliar sidewalks, with every breath of that heavy, exhaust-burdened air. In August I moved into a walk-up on a main artery of West Philly, and I lay awake that first sweltering night with the windows open to catch what passed for a breeze, waiting for the unfamiliar sounds of traffic to die down. They never did. All night long, the gears of delivery trucks ground at the traffic light on the corner; four floors down, strangers muttered and swore in the darkness.
All around me were metaphors for my own dislocation: a homeless woman squatting in the grocery-store parking lot, indifferent to the puddle spreading below her; the sparrows and pigeons, all sepia and brown, that replaced the scolding blue jays and scarlet cardinals I’d left behind; even the first deep snow, which all my life I had longed to see, was flecked with soot when it finally arrived. I was so homesick for the natural world that I tamed a mouse who lived in my wall, placing stale Cheetos on the floor beyond me, just to feel the creature’s delicate feet skittering across my own bare toes.
Winter break came so early in December that it made no sense to go home for Thanksgiving, no matter how homesick I was. But as the dark nights grew longer and the cold winds blew colder, I wavered. Was it too late? Could I still change my mind?
It was definitely too late. Of course. It was far, far too late. And I had papers to write. I had papers to grade. Also, I had no car, and forget booking a plane ticket so close to the holiday, even if I’d had money to spare for it, which on my graduate student’s stipend I most certainly did not. Amtrak was sold out, and the long, long bus ride seemed too daunting. I would be spending Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, a thousand miles from home.
“I don’t think I can stand it here,” I said during the weekly call to my parents that Sunday. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Just come home,” my father said. I was crying by then. “It’s too late,” I said. “It’s way too late.”
“You can always come home, Sweet,” he said. “Even if you marry a bastard, you can always come on home.”