figuring out hometown
There’s something comforting about being home, and I’m reminded of that this week. My spring break is being spent mostly in my bed, or talking in the kitchen with my parents, or watching “The Office” with my brother. I hate myself for this laziness. I should be at the gym, or getting on that huge list I made of the readings I need to catch up on (reading catch-up lists are silly and will never amount to anything, but that never stops me from making them).
And then there’s the larger environment I’m in. This is what makes me feel lazy and trapped: I’m in a small town, and all of these people know far too much about me. I know too much about them. It’s suffocating. I go to the grocery store and see my ninth-grade English teacher and a girl I used to work with at the movie theater in town. I avoid Mrs. White, but the girl is harder to evade. She checks me out at the register, and we engage in polite conversation. I ask her how the theater is: she tells me it’s fine and fills me in on some gossip on the new management. I tell her I’m happy that things are going well for her. Are things going well for her? I wonder if she’ll be working there next year. I wonder if we’ll still have stuff to talk about then, when she checks me out at the Price Chopper again. A few preppy college guys are in line behind me making a beer run. There is a part of me that doesn’t want them to associate me with her. I made it out of this town, I want to say. I hate this part of myself.
I drive home and listen to shitty radio. On the way I pass the movie theater and see the people I used to work with on the bench outside, killing time between showings. I was never really a part of that, never really included. I remember how tired my exchanges with them made me. Each of us was somewhat jealous of the other’s side of things, but also somewhat justified in their dislike. After all, there were moments when I thought of myself as better than they were. I’m sure there were times when they thought that they were better than I was. They were probably right. One of them sees me, and I wave at them from my car. I don’t look to see if they wave back.
Once I get home there is a safety. My parents are on the couch, each reading, and my brother is in the dining room doing his homework. I sit with him and watch his pencil move over paper. He’s sleeping in my bed this week, and has been for some time since I left for college. I take my sister’s old room, while I wonder if being in that room is the same for him as it was for me when I slept there. It’s at the southernmost point of the house, and the sun hits it first in the morning. It’s the warmest, brightest room in the house; in the spring it’s filled with ladybugs, drawn there by the sunlight. I’ve always hated them, the way they smell and the way they fly around, but my brother isn’t like that. He doesn’t like it when I kill the ladybugs. When he sees one he’ll leave it be or bring it outside, so it can crawl around in our backyard. My sister and I always joke that he’s the only good one of the family. Every night when I’m home he comes in and gives me a goodnight kiss on the forehead. He did that every night when I was still living here. I hope he’ll do it forever.
I wonder if he wakes up everyday to the sun and is excited to go to school and see the same people over and over again. I wonder when he’ll get sick of his life here, like I did before I left. Maybe that doesn’t have to happen. I watch the deliberate scratching of his pen and his concentrated focus on the paper beneath him, and I realize that I never want to see disillusionment on his 14-year-old face.
I am being selfish. Maybe I am the only irreverent person in this town. In my time all I heard was people gushing about what kind of a community we had here. A real family. I don’t know if I can really believe in this anymore. Most of the time I wear that badge with pride. I don’t need this place to feel whole. But that is a fiction I’ve carefully crafted when I feel that I have nothing to hold onto in a town that’s supposed to feel like family. I can tell myself that this environment simply isn’t for me. But I’d be lying if I said that I understood how this place could be for someone. I want to ask the check-out girl, the kids on the bench, my little brother, my parents: Is this it? Are you okay with that?
And at once I am everything I hate about this town. Sure, I concede that I was born in the position to be able to question my environment and to want to eventually move on from it. I have a family who cares about me and the means to get an education and find a career that I love in a different place that I love. This is a privilege that is not available to everyone here, and it divides me from others. But I just I can’t fathom a life here, just like they can’t fathom my disappointment with town in which I grew up. This gap will never be reconciled it seems. I see two halves of the whole of our town floating apart from each other, both shrouded in misunderstanding. Can’t anyone else feel this?
I walk outside and up the hill of campus. This is a college town. To most people in the town, the students are a source of income and resources, but also of annoyance and disdain. They’re typically wealthy, from larger towns, and immediately leave town upon graduating. To them, this town is only a pit stop for now, and later a place to reminisce with nostalgia on their college days. The people here recognize this fact and use it to discredit these students as disconnected from a true way of life. Is that what they’re going to do to me? Wipe me out, as if I never really lived here? Am I allowed to see this town as anything more than a place I’ve lived?
The view from the top of the hill is comforting. The green folds of land on the horizon are crashing into each other, while the sun sinks complacently into the mix, perhaps in the hopes of quieting the conflict. These hills will always be at odds with each other. But the sun’s effort is successful, and as shadow falls on the valley, they resolve into each other, silently coming to rest on the backs of each other. The angry orange of the trees dotting their surface is dull now, only to be awakened again tomorrow with the arrival of the sun. But for now, all that is left of the struggle is a silent and single strip of quiet black hill. A few lights dot the hill, but otherwise the town is asleep. I think that this is what defeat looks like.
The next day is better. I find myself trying to remember things about this place before I head back to school. It’s nice to look out my window and not just see buildings but trees and hills, to leave my door unlocked, and to have pleasant conversations that don’t mean anything when I pass someone I know on the street. I know I’ll miss these things when I’m back at school.
I won’t be coming back here this summer; I jumped at the chance to stay and work in Providence rather than spend more time on the bench outside the movie theater. I’m going to spend time in a town that feels more freeing, with people who have yet to really understand me. I know that I’m a different person now that I’ve spent time away from this place, but I don’t know if I could come back here and risk slipping back into whoever I was when I lived here. I know that I’m not free from all of the blame, but being here makes you concerned with a lot of things that don’t matter. It makes you talk about people and things that you don’t or shouldn’t care about. It makes you wonder what other people are saying about you, and you stay up at night wondering if you’re even coming off in the right way. Who do these people think I am?
That last question is one that followed me here, and I’m afraid I’ll never really be able to shake it. Sure, it’s freeing to move to a new place and have a clean slate, but the pressure of the creation of “who I am in college” is what I wasn’t prepared for. It’s the weirdest thing to keep living as you did in your hometown but now with no one knowing your family, or your brother and sister, or what you like to do or talk about. When I met new people I felt it necessary to share with them that I grew up in a town of 4,000 other people, that I graduated in a class of 48 people. I’m out of my element, was what I was confessing to them. In the moment I saw it as a cool fact about myself. I’m special, I thought. No one here has a claim to my experience. I offer a unique perspective. What I was actually saying: I’m scared. I’m still scared.
I imagine I’ll have something new to say about my relationship with this place every time I come back. With each passing month away from this place I am more different. That’s natural, I get that. All that I can hope for is a better understanding of what it is about this town that makes me react with such a confusing blend of suffocation and comfort, disdain and nostalgia, longing and contentment. But until then I’ll be floating away from here. Not forever, just until I can offer my town something new.