For so long, everything outside of your hometown is kind of a blur. You can imagine that everyday life exists in faraway cities, and you can even visit it for a week or so, but there is no real tangibility to them. They could be just as much a figment of your imagination as anything else. No matter how many pictures you’ve clipped out and saved up of your favorite place — the place you dream of going, the place you’ve always felt would understand you better — it is still something pieced together from flattering mental image and things you’ve heard from people who love it. It hasn’t had time to become a real city with problems and exes and tedium, whereas your hometown is nothing short of exhausting in its concrete disappointments.
You know your hometown intimately, and it knows you. It seems that no matter where you go, you are always running into something that you don’t want to see, something that reminds you of how much you’ve already done here. Everyday it retracts in around you until you feel you know it as intimately as you do the layout of your own house. You could walk around it with your eyes closed, never surprised by a single thing. Time has allowed your eyes to be temporarily blinded to every positive quality and linger, judgmentally, over everything you would change. It has become ugly.
And so, whether from the first year of school or just an impassioned decision that you “have to get out,” you make plans to leave. Everything seems to center around the concept of breaking free and starting again, as though every aspect of your life and yourself as a person would change immediately upon changing zip codes. You begin to feel a strange sense of pity for those around you who aren’t leaving — people you imagine, whether or not they actually want to stay, are trapped in the quicksand of familiarity and convenience. There is a tangible feeling of escaping something, that there is a border around your hometown which is difficult but wholly necessary to cross as soon as possible.
But there is always the fear. As the date of leaving approaches, you begin to realize just how much of you is based on this city, these people, the familiar streets you walked over and over without ever checking a map. The slang, the references, the restaurants that served a kind of food that can never be perfectly reproduced elsewhere — these are all things that crafted your history and, more importantly, what you expect out of life. There is a certain comfort to knowing one’s surroundings intimately, a certainty that lends confidence to whoever experiences it. It’s hard not to feel like the master of some kind of domain when there is not a single nook of your territory you haven’t explored. Who are you without such comfort? Who are you when everything is foreign and no one defers to you on a single subject — when you are the tourist, clutching your map and reading street signs with all the certainty of a nervous child?
Suddenly the friends and faces you’ve grown so tired of seeing, felt you understood in a way that rendered them boring and overly simple, seem the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen. You’re leaving them and, though you’ll come back and visit, the moments you had together when time seemed limitless will never be recreated. The evenings that unfolded in unpretentious simplicity — the long car rides, the impromptu parties in a friend’s back yard, the conversations that lasted for hours in a café that knew you all by first name — these will all soon be vague memories of a different era. The sense of belonging that comes from growing up with a group of people, all together, in a town you share so intimately is one that may never be felt again. This is your extended family, your tribe, the people with whom you went from an uncertain child to someone who is ready to spread their wings and make a new home elsewhere.
The day you leave is amongst the most bittersweet of your life, shedding a slightly embarrassed tear in front of those who console you with, “Don’t worry! We’ll visit all the time!” You make plans to call and Skype, to come back as much as possible and walk these same streets. You promise, above all, not to forget them. You are never going to grow so big or so different that you cannot come back and fit the puzzle piece you left when you first went away. There will always be a part of you that is the same, that remembers its roots, that will get the same inside jokes and laugh just as hard as you did the first time. Even the streets themselves seem to call after you as you drive away, “Don’t forget to come back some day!”
And you will, but it will not be the same. The new streets and people will color your vision in a way that you can never fully erase, no matter how many times you visit. Returning to your hometown will, from now on, have a quality of nostalgia to it that prevents you from fully embracing the moment. Sure, you may see your old friends again at a bar someday, but your time will be so limited as to prevent much outside of reminiscing over the times you created. You will begin to see people and things you left as fundamentally different, now that you have a whole new life to compare them to. In the context of your hometown, they make perfect sense. When you see them through the eyes of a visitor, there is so much you don’t understand or relate to anymore. You have all grown up, changed shape, and you no longer fit back into that same puzzle.
There is so much beauty and stomach-dropping thrill in leaving your hometown, in starting everything over somewhere you chose to be. There are so many things you don’t know about yourself, and stepping outside your comfort zone in such a literal and profound way helps to peel back those layers one by one. But there is a you that existed before you left, that is entirely contained in and defined by where you grew up. And going back to visit that person is like trying to grab a handful of air in a burst of wind — you are surrounded by who you once were, but never able to recreate it.