I grew up somewhere perma-green and humid and spent the whole time wanting to be gone. I was a high school misfit and was sure it was the city’s fault. I sent mental wires out to imaginary nodes of good weather and grown-up success. Geography, the future, and my own desires got tangled so closely together that it got hard to unknot them, like long hair.
When I was sixteen, my parents, my brother and I moved from our house to the house next door to it. I looked after our new neighbor’s twins a few times in my old room, repainted. They tore down the abandoned guest house where my brother made short films about things he hadn’t lived, lighting the walls purple by taping bent scraps of red and blue plastic over a Goodwill lamp.
High school ended– at a graduation party a drunk popular girl told me I turned out to be cooler than she thought. I left for Ohio and spent a windswept, flat year at a school I decided to leave on the first day. I met people, but not enough to convince me I was worthy, well-adjusted. I was sure everywhere, everyone I had ever known was going according to plan except me. I spent purgatorial Friday evenings waiting for new friends to call and invite me out, while my roommate put on ripped tights to hang out with upperclassmen. Fields froze over in a single night, ice casing individual blades of grass, still green inside.
Somewhere else, I was sure, I could be happy. The grass melted, turned into a slick, matted mess and the dirt overflowed like a vase that was too full. The transfer admissions lottery sent me to Missouri. I came to St. Louis in blistering heat, and stayed.
And for a long time, that was all. Being anywhere was just standing over a lake, seeing myself. I came from Ohio smarting, feeling like a failure at something edgeless, unsolvable– looking people in the eye, getting close. Geography, the future, and my own desires were like power lines downed after a storm, crossed and sparking blue in the street.
My parents sold our house and left the south. I flew back one weekend to help them sell out of our open garage what they couldn’t carry. I haggled with early-morning joggers over plastic animals from my old room bundled wholesale. Back in St. Louis, I shut off part of myself. I studied half-heartedly and thought forward a few years, to a bright apartment somewhere else filled with friends– home. In the meantime, people invited me to tag along to parties with their inseparable group. I was quiet while they took shots and laughed about late nights they spent together as freshmen.
Then, this summer, after graduating I did something I didn’t expect– I chose to stay where I was without really knowing why. I wanted to learn how to be still, to open myself up to somewhere. I had spent so long thinking that there was something mystical to place– that, magnetic, I would stick where I belonged. I had pushed myself across state lines, looking anxiously at everything like iron shavings, waiting for it to tremble and cluster. There wasn’t a pull and I felt bypassed, empty.
I feel the urge to apologize. I came as a locust, the last person you’d want in your hometown. I arrived by accident and came to use the city for my own gain. Like most of my classmates, I never really went more than ten minutes from my apartment and complained about how small the city was. I bought into the brochure. I thought St. Louis was summarized in Forest Park. When I said I was staying here after college, family members said really? and I felt ashamed.
And so I apologize. When I called family and said St. Louis, I meant me. When I said It’s grey here, I meant me. When I said it was fragmented, lonely, dark for too much of the year, I meant me. I was living in college housing that was never allowed to be more than a few years old, in a city hundreds of years old. I’ll admit, when I stayed, it was mostly an accident.
Then, I moved across town to a wide street covered in trees, with neighbors that have children, full, sometimes hard lives, and a boisterous German Shepherd puppy. I drove further than ten minutes. I’ve started finding favorite restaurants, live music, street poets. The details of my new apartment calm me at the end of the day– the pumpkins my neighbors carved decaying slowly on my porch like someone let the air out of a tire, the thick pile of gold leaves that every passing car upsets, my back porch on dark purple evenings crossed by power lines like the flaws in a stone.
Meanwhile, one by one, the people I knew in high school are returning to my old hometown. I see them online, taking the same posed pictures together in the same basements they used to throw parties in, drinking the same beer. The only thing that has changed is the threat of someone’s parents calling the cops. I can’t imagine myself with them, in those pictures– but they can talk to each other about continuity, being a child and now, how unsure it all is.