It will happen slowly.
You will go to college only one hour away, and on the first day, people will point out your tongue when you speak. They will make you say
There’s a mowse in my howse
A baeh-throom tal
Wut claehsses are yous taking?
just for their own laughter, and you will comply. You will laugh, too, and feel a pang below your sternum. This, you will learn, is how betrayal feels.
You will learn from your suitemate, who is an acting major, that one of the first rules of the stage involves stripping your tongue so that the audience can view you as being from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. It makes you more relatable and likable, she says.
You will become an actor, blanding your speech in claehsses classes and social circles and campus job interviews. You realize you sound more educated, more respectable, even more wealthy without the nasally “A”s and hard-ass attitude. Like you were born in an unidentifiable elsewhere.
But when you talk to your Mom over the phone or come home to Mayfair, you are back to saying things like
Shuddup, no he din’t
I hafta go
because you miss sounding and feeling like yourself.
But this longing is fleeting. You will go back and forth between roles all four years. You are on campus much more than you are home, and the line thins and thins until it vanishes.
You go to grad school and stand in front of your own classroom and don’t need to switch tongues for the first time. You do not even recognize yourself speaking. Maybe this is your “teacher voice.” But your practiced sounds permanent to the point that when your students and your colleagues and your professors find out where you’re from, they don’t believe you. “Northeast Philly!” / “Really? You don’t even sound like it.”
You will revel in this. In the ability to be both insider and outsider, local and visitor. To say and behave and act like I was born there, but I made it… always followed by the unspoken ‘out of there.’
You will fasten on this mask and take it off for no one. You relish in the taste.
It is why you will deeply hate moving back into your childhood home with your parents after getting a job in South Jersey. Your Dad wants you to stop wasting money on rent. You know he is right, but you will feel a tinge of resentment for those days, that house, even them. For three weeks, you will drive down to Center City after work and look at apartments behind their backs. You will sign a lease for a 450-square-foot studio and tell your parents that night that you’re moving out of the howse house.
You will forget what the pang below your sternum feels like.
In the city, you will give off an air of champagne, even though you wear cubic zirconia. You will take pleasure in knowing that you made it [out of there], that you are living outside of the bubble of broken-down rowhomes, shitty dive bars along Frankford Ave, and your grade school clique. You will pursue as many men as you can solely because they will take you to whatever restaurant you want, burn holes in their wallets for you, all because your tongue is charming, crassless.
It is how you will end up wearing an oversized diamond from a rich suburban boy from an even richer suburban family. How you will say ‘class’ with a long, sophisticated “A” as if you are taking a drag, as if there has never been any other way. How you and your parents will speak on different registers, and you will feel—with the faintest of pangs—estranged from them.
With every open mouth, you will sound like a traitor.
With every softened vowel, you know you are.
Laura Brzyski serves as the health and wellness editor for Philadelphia magazine. She lives in Philly (not a suburb of) with her husband and their dog, Bogey, and always has at least one Stock’s poundcake on hand in the freezer.