1. You know exactly where your friends will be at any given time.
Well, it’s 8:30 PM on a Wednesday night. You can be sure, without a doubt, that the same group of people is going to be sitting outside that cafe, grazing over coffees, hot toddies, and maybe some light snacks. They’re going to be talking about the same things, making the same jokes, and — if you’re not there — occasionally asking where you are. Unless one of them is sick, in which case you imagine they’re huddled around his or her bedside, grazing over coffees, hot toddies, and maybe some light snacks. If it’s Friday night, you can be almost certain of the bar they’ll be at, the shots they’ll be doing, and the songs they’re losing their minds over. And though said bar has absolutely stellar hotwings and dollar domestic nights, it’s certainly not where you want to die of a heart attack at age 43 when you realize you never tried anywhere else.
2. It’s like a merry-go-round of people you’ve been with.
There comes a point in any tight-knit social circle in smaller towns where, aside from gossipping about everyone’s latest conquests like a bunch of bitchy old ladies over a game of bridge, you have all been with each other at least once. Whether a drunken makeout, one night stand, long-term relationship, or handful of misguided dates — there is no escaping the feeling that this pond is small as hell, and you have been doing laps around it for the past five years. You may also find yourself, at one point, at party where you turn around to find several people that you have been with in some form or another, all together, getting along splendidly. After you swallow the overwhelming urge to vomit, it is essential you realize that a) yes, they are talking about you at a certain point and b) this is a feeling you’d like to avoid in the future.
3. Everyone talks constantly about how much they want to leave, but never does.
Certain towns are small enough to feel claustrophobic, but yet big enough to be a black hole for those people who want to get out — and likely would benefit from doing so — but for whatever reason, don’t. It’s not the one-horse setup in the middle of Iowa where, if you want to do anything besides chill in a corn field and hang out with your cousin, you’re going to have to leave. Instead, it’s the deceptively big little town that is filled with just enough distractions, options, and other people to lull you into a false sense of security. You will often find yourself over drinks listening to people talk about how they want to pursue a career that is clearly not possible in said town, how they’d like to move to New York, or just a simple “I’ve got to get out, man.” Eventually, this will become the endlessly-repeated mantra of nearly all the town’s youth.
4. You find yourself looking at pictures of other cities the way some people look at porn.
Entire folders on your computer are dedicated to these beautiful, panoramic shots of the cities that hold the dreams you can’t quite fulfill where you are. Whether it’s the one town in particular you’ve always dreamed about, or simply a few desktop wallpapers of the bright lights in places you hope you’ll get to see someday, you stow them away fervently like a squirrel and take them out when you’re ready to let yourself think about the inconvenient and the romantic. Yes, rents are expensive. Yes, it’s noisy. Yes, it’s hard to find a job. And yet, like a naive pre-teen harboring a crush, you’re intoxicated by the thought of it. Everything you can know about your potential new city is essential in painting the picture of the place you want to be — and the person you want to be in it. A new city doesn’t just represent different places to go out or nicer architecture, it’s also the place where you can wipe the slate clean and be who you could be once you escape the social quicksand.
5. You have already started to give up on your dreams simply because of location.
There are dreams that we all have, dreams that often develop in the murky waters of adolescence and grow within us until they are consuming and almost painful. We start to create an image of what our lives would look like if we only had the courage to pursue it, and regardless of how improbable it may be, those potential lives invariably look so much better than our own. But with the limits of where we live, we begin to realize that it’s just not likely an option, and little by little, we chip away at the things we want most in life. “Well, that’s not going to work, so maybe if I just did that….” Before we know it, the dream that we’ve had for so long has been turned from something that makes us want to get up in the morning, to something we actively try not to think about because when we do, we feel the sharp pang of regret and defeat in our stomachs that reminds us on what we gave up for a little bit of comfort and routine.
6. You’re embarrassed to say that you’re still there.
Perhaps the most unmistakable sign that you have overstayed your welcome in any particular city is when, upon being asked, you hesitate slightly before saying with a resigned sigh, “same old, same old.” You feel like everyone around you has taken these exciting, terrifying, necessary leaps into their future and you are still shuffling around the launchpad, waiting to get up the courage to join them. Though this town will always have a special place in your heart, you want to be able to miss it sometimes. You want to be able to look back on it fondly and visit it often, but at least at this point in your life, you don’t want it to define you — and it does. The fact that you’re still there means you missed out on something, and no one knows that better than you do. When you think about all the things that are waiting for you, and how much you want to see it, you can’t help but feel a wave of embarrassment when you have to admit that to everyone else. You know that you have outgrown the place you’re in, and nothing looks more uncomfortable than a big fish in far too small a tank.