February 5, 2021 | Narrative
3000 miles from my heart
on missing hometown comforts
At dusk, the sky in Palo Alto turns pinkish-purple, a sort of hushed shade that makes the world feel softer. At home, this is my favorite time of day: the quiet, distinctive glow in the moments between harsh daytime sun and darkness enveloping the streets like a warm blanket. It’s been four weeks since the last time I’ve seen a Palo Alto sunset, and there’s a purple-tinted spot in my chest that hurts every time I think of it.
I’ve always thought that I wanted, more than anything, to get away from home. Applying to colleges, I dreamed of escaping the sun-baked monotony of California’s one-story cement buildings and endless brown grass. I romanticized the East Coast—real seasons! Brick buildings! Museums and architecture and functioning public transportation! When COVID-19 postponed my departure for Providence, I resented the delayed start to my independence. I longed for a fresh start, idealizing the chance to build my own identity in a place where no one knew me, far away from the influence of my past self. The freedom of being alone in a new place enticed me, and I gave little thought to the loneliness that would come with this freedom. More than ever before, the pandemic made home a place of restlessness and boredom. I felt trapped in a place I thought I’d outgrown. Of course, I knew I would miss the people I’d have to leave behind, but the town itself seemed inconsequential.
And yet, I’ve come to miss it.
Here I am, in a new corner of the world, grasping at the lukewarm coals of memories I keep stored away in my pocket—fragments of my heart scattered throughout my hometown. A set of strings ties me to each piece, stretched to the breaking point across 3000 miles.
The coffee shop I’d walk to every couple of days throughout quarantine for my takeout caffeine fix, with its colorful mural and obscure drink names, where I always knew exactly what to order (an iced New Manhattan in the summer and a hot Philharmonic in the winter, both with medium cream and medium sugar). It’s the same place I spent countless hours studying in my junior year of high school, alone or with friends, half-listening to the conversations bubbling around me.
The Sunday farmers’ market on California Avenue—the routine of walking through the stands, admiring the flowers and succulents, smiling to strangers as they shop for vegetables. Then, getting a sundried tomato bagel with chive cream cheese from the nearby bagel shop and sitting down to enjoy the sun.
The route I would drive down every day on my way to work, following the same path I used to bike to my high school. The familiar turns, past the public library where I once got yelled at for sneaking food in during finals week, past the park that was perfect for picnics (if I felt daring enough to run the risk of bumping into a high school classmate), past my old elementary and middle schools.
The boba place where my friends and I inevitably ended up for almost every birthday or celebration. Eight of us crammed together at two tables, sipping black sesame milk tea, overdressed and getting weird looks from the other customers but not really caring, annoying the owners with our laughter. It closed for a few months because of COVID, and reopened just two days after I left for Providence. It makes me sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I miss the smallest pieces of home. The way I was just a ten minute drive away from my friends’ houses, knowing that I could be near them at any time. The smell of the dry, wind-tossed air. The specific background noise that became my own silence—the soft hum of cars, the train in the distance, the whistle of the wind in the trees. The things that made it feel comfortable and familiar, a place I knew intimately, a place I belonged in. Now, with 3000 miles and a three hour time difference between me and these comforts, I’m acutely aware of how much of a luxury they were.
But I feel myself losing these pieces of home—the glow of their coals dimming as I replay the memories in a dorm room on the other side of the country. Every time someone asks me where I’m from, I say “San Francisco” and mentally apologize to Palo Alto for the betrayal. San Francisco is a place for day trips, a hill-studded getaway, an acquaintance I smile at once in a while—hardly home. But it’s well-known, easy to place on a map. Even if someone would happen to have heard of Palo Alto—“Oh, that’s where Stanford is, right?” or “Oh, Silicon Valley!”—they still wouldn’t really know it. The contrast between how special my hometown feels to me and how inconsequential it is to everyone else makes the distance, and the ache that comes with it, more real.
A few months ago, some of my friends and I drove up to the hills to stargaze. From up above, I could see my entire hometown as a series of specks—glowing fireflies I could hold in the palm of my hand. Watching the cars crawl along the streets from up above, I felt my heart squeeze for a moment, rising to my throat—a flash of the nostalgia I’ve since come to know intimately. I wanted to hold that moment forever: sitting next to people I love, looking down at a place I called my own.
Perhaps I’m romanticizing my hometown in the same way I once romanticized the East Coast, looking back at Palo Alto through the soft glow of its sunsets. But I miss having a corner of the world to myself. Oddly enough, many of the things I imagined Providence to be actually came true. Last week, I stepped outside to discover a world transformed into a powdered sugar wonderland of snow. It’s beautiful, but it just isn’t quite mine yet. Walking across campus, I still feel like a lost high schooler on a college tour, in awe of the college students with places to go and things to do. Hiding from a pandemic in my dorm room, I haven’t yet had time to find new places to call my own—corners of Providence which might one day hold fragments of my heart. For now, I’m left wishing for a left-behind place.