I am the city of my childhood.
Entering my hometown from the north, the damp fall day seems to brighten, the air changing as it enters through the window, swelling into my arms, my legs, my head. Warmth settles into the very core of me, enigmatic yet familiar. It happens every time.
I tell my children stories about the beautiful and complicated city where I lived until I was 25, but they will never know it as I do. Or as I did.
It is who I am. Or it is who I was.
The familiar skyline beckons as I follow the interstate. The once towering beacon built for the 1962 World Fair is now dwarfed by skyscrapers, but still stands alone as the defining icon of this city. Past the university, lakes embrace the traffic from both sides. I look to the old Gas Works, where we used to climb high on the pipes above a concrete floor in a way I would never allow my own children to do. Memories flood my brain.
There is where Mom used to work.
There is the spot where Dad took us canoeing and a duck bit my little brother’s finger.
There is the parking lot where, on a Saturday night with nothing else to do, my posse of girls from high school opened all the car doors, blasted ‘80s hip-hop and R&B, and danced under the moon.
There is the waterside park where a young man I loved and hated and loved begged me for another chance.
I now live 100 miles away in a sleepy liberal college town. Six degrees of separation was a cliché until I began to meet people and realized that the adage is born from a nugget of truth. Everyone knows everyone else here.
Nestled neatly between mountains, water, and the Canadian border, it is a mecca for outdoor sports. Its citizens are active, traversing the trails on foot, bike, or skis, skimming the water’s surface in kayaks.
It is beautiful.
I want to love it in the same way.
I long for layers of complexity.
Or maybe I am just homesick.
I moved to my current town for graduate school. I would have applied to the university in my home city, but I was hurt and angry and confused and needed desperately to get away from that young man and everything that would remind me of him.
Everything I owned fit in the smallest of U-Haul trucks. My mom and younger brother and I made quick work of the move, and I was left alone on the doorstep of a one-bedroom apartment, my only company a neurotic cat.
I knew no one, but it was fine. I needed to be on my own. Besides, the plan was that in two years I would be student teaching back at home, in the public school system where I became myself.
That was the plan.
For the first six months I spent every weekend driving up and down the freeway. I stayed at my mom’s house, or at a friend’s apartment. I went to clubs, to movies, to the mall, to all of the old familiars.
The challenge with friends you make in graduate school is that they leave.
My first friend here was a smart black woman with whom I shared a research office. She reminded me very much of my friends at home, and for her I began to stay back on the weekends. But after a year, her program ended, she graduated, and she was gone.
My next friend came first in the form of a love interest, but after a handful of dates we realized we were better as friends. With him, I discovered the local nightlife and began to expand my understanding of the town beyond the campus. But he left, too.
Others came and went, but my real life was back home. Even my cat made the trip back and forth in the car with ease, hating more to be left behind and fed by the neighbor who smelled like her Jack Russell terrier.
I filed my internship application, requesting to be placed in Seattle, and counted the days until I could return where I belonged.
Two local guys threw a party. There was barbecue and a lot of beer. I was invited by another tenuous friend from school.
I spent the night laughing with one of the hosts, and within days settled into an easy relationship which lasted into and through my final quarter of coursework.
After extensive internal debate and endless anxiety, my need for love trumped my need for home. I put in for a change with the internship office to stay put for the time being, to see where the relationship would go.
We moved inch by inch down the freeway on the way to an extended family gathering. The drive requires us to traverse Seattle from one end to the other.
“Ugh, I hate this traffic,” he moaned, his knuckles strained white on the steering wheel.
I looked out the passenger window, my heart connected by taut string to the brick houses which line the interstate, the roof of my high school visible only if you know where to look, tall buildings below which all my memories are scattered in the streets.
“When are we going to move here?” I asked, teasing, but not teasing at all.
“Never,” he said. “I could not deal with this every day.” He was talking still about the traffic, but I had moved on.
“You know,” I said, my voice thick with what felt like adulterous baiting. “I could have moved back here. After I graduated last year.”
“What are you talking about?” he said, genuinely confused. “I didn’t make you stay.”
“But I wouldn’t have stayed if it wasn’t for you.”
“What do you want me to say to that?” he asked.
I didn’t know. I sighed and looked back out the window as we inched along.
We talked last year about whether we should sell our house, where we’ve lived together now for close to two decades. I meandered through other neighborhoods, eyeing old Craftsman-style houses which creak with history and stories of families that lived there before, scouting for For Sale signs in their tiny yards.
We disagreed on these neighborhoods for one simple fact: the houses are too close together for my husband’s liking. He preferred bigger yards, more space, room for our children to roam free like the backyard chickens that populate this town.
I dug in my heels. This is what I want.
Because they remind me of home.
In the end, we decided not to move. But still I drive by those houses, longing.
In the pockets of time between passion and apathy where the true work of a marriage lies, I have fantasized about returning home to Seattle, settling back into my old life with a community of friends and family to wrap around me like a thick blanket.
But my hometown is the one who talks me out of this. It reminds me that I look different now, and so does it. None of my friends live in the city proper anymore. Nor do my family members.
The cost of living there is far too high.
On a summer morning, I take my two children on a road trip. We visit the old Gas Works park and explore the concrete shelter, only to discover that it is mostly used now by some of the thousands of homeless residents of the city. I steer my children around a hypodermic needle lying on the ground and we return to the car. We visit the bagel café where I worked for a summer in high school; they prefer the bagels at the shop near our house. So do I, if I’m honest. I drive them around my old neighborhoods only to discover that my elementary school is being torn down and the restaurant my family frequented for breakfast is now closed. The pool where I lifeguarded and first fell in love is gone.
“Can we be done with this now, Mom?” my son says. “I want to go home.”
The nooks and crannies I remember don’t exist anymore, having been absorbed by upscale retail and business and technology conglomerates.
My memories only exist in the deepest places, excavated when I need comfort.
Which means that my hometown is not a place anymore.
It is me.
My daughter and I are en route to her school on a Tuesday morning. It is a straight line of road three miles or so, passing apartment buildings, houses, and a small strip mall. We joke about the six stoplights between our house and the middle school; all green lights predicts a good day, all red means doom approaches. On this day she is grumpy and we are late, and being stopped by a red light is almost more than she can bear.
“Why does there have to be so much traffic?” she complains. “It’s taking forever!”
I reflexively bristle. This isn’t traffic, I think. Back home…
But this is what she knows.
This is her home.
And so it is also mine.
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