The universe has shuffled a few comically bad cards at my blackjack table of life lately (hit me! I mean, really hit me in the face with an aluminum bat now, please), and because of some unfortunate gambles, I now find myself crashing at Casa de Las Parents — with my fiancé –- presently sitting in the Starbucks of my microscopic hometown after nearly a decade spent away in other cities, shorelines, and mountain villages. A fellow latte drinker across from me is a guy who used to be a true banger in high school (Skeet Ulrich meets a young Jack Nicholson) –- but it appears that overnight he has morphed from the dreamy babe we all put in the Husband category in our M.A.S.H. games (“You’ll marry Jimmy, live in a purple shack, your pet will be a marshmallow, you will have 11 kids, he will cheat on you with Mandy, your honeymoon will be in a dumpster”) to someone’s creepy fat uncle who gives you the heebies and smells like Parliament after-smoke and mothballs.
He’s only three years older than I am, a girl in a faux-fur Topshop coat and choppy short sleep-hair googling LARGE TATTOO COVERUPS and CAN YOU BECOME BISEXUAL AT AGE THIRTY, so it sort of confuses me as to how I merely appear to be a slightly more self-realized, crinkled version of my young self, and he managed to go from Varsity Blues to bloated forgotten Belushi in a flash. “Where does time go, who is he now, who am I now” are all questions that explode in my brain. In my recent week spent here, I have often thought lots about the glaring range of sentiment, rage, amusement, and confusion that goes into returning to your hometown for anything longer than a brief holiday with a departure date.
These feelings are as follows:
1. Somehow, You’re Now An Outsider.
Arcade Fire says it in The Suburbs, “My old friends, they don’t know me now, my old friends are staring through me now.” I think this is a pervasive feeling of separation, or even superiority, for people who have fled their small town for new ventures versus ones who’ve stayed there continuously after high school, and in some ways, it is very valid – not in any superior sense, but in that sense of the great divide. I always return for visits with my enduring high school friends with the same amount of love I’ve always had for them, but then I continue to find I can solely relate in full to the ones who have traveled, relocated, met and bonded to a wide variety of types of people since high school. An estrangement grows out of diversity of experience: when you go somewhere new and have to re-craft your identity, change is inevitable, which is not to say you CAN’T change in your hometown, merely that you aren’t immediately forced to. It has to be a more active effort when you continuously remain amongst your same family, friends, and that world which defines you, whereas when you’re displaced, you are on your own. When you depart your surroundings, you become wholly dependent on the person you are at root and core, you’re reliant on creating yourself. When those parameters of identity are removed, it is terrifying in ways, but also fascinating because it compels self-reliance and sometimes even evolution –- which, I’ve found, is often preceded by total crushing devolution. Personally, I’ve had to tear it all down in order to build my true self from scratch, and that has been the most incredibly raw, pure, and painful personal journey I’ve embarked on — not by choice, but by complete and total necessity. “Nothing gold can stay, PonyMeg,” I have always told myself, like a loonY on the train talking to herself in my oversized cat-lady sweaters.
2. You’re Struck By Moments of Sheer Nostalgia
Rage Against The Machine came on DC101, my old favorite radio station, while I drove down the main drag I once took daily from home to high school, and I instinctively sang along like I was a high school senior again (there’s no reason for me to be so rebellious at thirty-one, though I feel like “f* you, I won’t do what you tell me” still applies to my present credo in life). Certain smells, houses, faces, voices, roads, apartment buildings, landmarks, restaurants, even certain angles of sunsets and sunrises feel astoundingly like a surreal dream with Virgin Suicides-type cinematography, like the past jumped uninvited into your eyes and ears and soul whenever you rolled into town. It’s surreal because it feels almost too real; the startling familiarity after so much time away is jarring, unsettling, it feels like a movie you’ve seen so very many times that you’re not sure if you love it or despise it.
3. You’re Shocked That Certain Things Are Still There
The sandwich shop where I went on my very first “date” at 14 (he was 17 and way out of my ninth-grader league) and I got a fountain root beer and I joked with him about wishing it was real beer and I laughed too loud, then he stuck his big teenager tongue into my mouth and put his hands on the butt of my Adidas tear-away cheer pants and I just stood there unmovingly like an awkward giraffe.
The brick rambler house I passed on a jog yesterday — where I casually dropped my v-card at seventeen on my Dawson’s-Creek-style guy friend. I even peeked in the window to see if that plaid pull-out #doubleentendre couch is still there (I’ll save you the suspense: it is).
Even the fact that my small-town high school is still standing there looking exactly the same by that same old highway overpass — something about leaving things always leaves me stunned with surprise that they’re still there when I come back after a lengthy absence. It feels like it should have fallen like Rome on the day I graduated — I’m sure I wouldn’t feel this way if I saw it regularly, but after two full years away, I pass it and cannot believe that new young kids live their adolescent lives there, and you long for it, and you feel bad for them, and you kind of get a hankering for smoking a Newport shouting along to your Ma$e CD on a joyride with your best friend Sally in her blue Del Sol on the way to cheerleading.
4. You’re Saddened By What Isn’t There Anymore.
The pizza place where you had all your softball and basketball league team parties is abandoned, just “Anthony’s” writing on smudged storefront glass with nothing behind it but dusty booths and memories. The post office got moved to a strange new location so now you don’t know how to send mail. There are gigantic condos and so many hip breweries and yoga studios to accommodate DC’s latest white-flight sprawl where there used to be only a shitty strip mall with a shitty video arcade along an expanse of vacant lots where you could once play Eminem lyric-based drinking games (“Drink whenever he kills Kim” #alwayswasted).
Your best friendship with Sally is long gone and you don’t really know how you went from being essentially one girl divided into two bodies to this strange adult distancing that happens all too tragically and naturally. You glimpse certain places (the “cut” on the bike path where you used to drink vodka, the cul-de-sac where you first crossed the street without asking and felt triumphant in your newfound disobedience, THAT 7/11, the empty lot where Chinery’s party house used to be and the memories hit you all flood-like) and you feel inexplicablly longing for what was, partly because you know it will never be again, and partly because those days were so free, so funny, and so easy –- easier than we ever could have realized at the time.
5. You Occasionally Regress To Full-Blown Teenager.
I have lived many years without having epic childish temper tantrums that spawn from absolutely nowhere, yet I have somehow managed to throw multiple hissy fits in the past week. Finding myself in my childhood bedroom sitting under the ceiling fan that boasts all of my old best friends names written in Sharpie on Glo-Stars from Spencer’s, I manage to shift into rare form. There is a Freudian burst of regressed behavior – I suddenly don’t take the trash to the curb or put my dishes in the sink (things I do at my own apartment without thinking), I whine about being hungry and just expect dinner to appear in front of me, I burst into tears over completely silly things that I would resolve without a peep on my own. Being around my parents in my childhood home places me in a snug child role, no matter my age, and sometimes, I act accordingly -– like a total fucking brat.
6. You Loathe Being Reminded Of Your Unpleasant Behaviors Of Yore.
Whenever I visit, I find myself getting profoundly irritated by the anecdotes of when I was sluttier and drunker and stupider. No one is rubbing it in my face; to them, they are just stories and memories. I always laugh along half-heartedly and try to change subjects about things I would much rather forget -– that one summer I slept with the really old bartender, the year I was really chubby and insecure and stoned all the time, the following year when I was devastatingly anorexic and quarantined myself in a bedroom with no food or friends, the time I drove my car off of a bridge completely wasted and totaled it and had to walk to my shitty chain restaurant job in the suburban snow — all of the forgotten bruises and pain that I brushed beneath the rug of time’s passage when I left years back crawls out like a slithering monster and you try to kick them back under there, but it still peeks out a lot. Some of those bruises that should be healed by now never were, they’re still bright black & purple, and you erupt with a startled OUCH when someone touches them all over again, which invariably happens when you are reminiscing with old besties. And, okay, maybe the past is not something to be ignored, but maybe it is something that can be, in part, left behind you, like an already-dead body in the road that you run over, which is just increasingly disappearing in the rearview mirror instead of resurrected and shaken awake like a zombie who was actually fine just laying there dead in the first place.
A strange devout loyalty comes along with your hometown, even if you abhor it in most ways. It is an integral part of you. These are the streets that made you –- you didn’t choose them, they chose you, like family. So as much as I often want to bash it, I will swiftly come to its defense. If I say “it sucks here,” then my friend from NYC says, “yeah Virginia does suck, it is all malls and weirdos,” I’ll be like, “hey, no it isn’t! Who doesn’t LOVE malls and weirdos?!” And she’s like, “you think Virginia sucks too” and I’m like, “oh, right. I do feel that way.”
It’s one of those situations where you can only insult the place if you’re a part of it and it’s a part of you. Otherwise, it feels assaultive and unfairly judged, and I clearly listened to too much Eminem in my youth, because I find myself asserting to outsiders that YOU DON’T KNOW FURRFAX COUNTY YOU DONT KNOW WHERE I’M FROM. (Notation: zero credible rap groups are based here for a reason. There is, categorically, no street cred available — only beautiful homes, wealthy families, sweetgreen, froyo, and an overemphasis on excelling in higher education. And that, my people, is word). I mean, it’s not like Eminem loved 8 Mile. He just had no choice but to rep it accordingly.
8. Lastly, You’re Grateful.
You spend an evening watching SNL with your parents and you laugh and bond and reminisce and drink a few beers together. You get to see them as people, not as godlike figures that once knew it all when their opinions were fact, and their values, ideas, and goals were your own. You appreciate them now in ways that you couldn’t before because you were too caught up in your own youth, your developing identity, wondering how you would ever physically and emotionally be able move away, you were too focused on those things they fucked up and the things they’ll never understand about you. It’s okay that they don’t understand you — you don’t understand parts of them. You are able to see life’s hourglass, timeline, whatever you want to call it, so you viscerally cherish moments that you used to eye-roll about. You find bits and pieces of gratitude in a sea of childlike confusion, and you know it’s because you are starting to see how lucky you are to have family that loves you like they do. And at the end of the day, that’s why your hometown doesn’t suck — your family, your friends, and this little piece of land that gave birth to you.