On Monday my mother announced that my existence was her single greatest regret. On Tuesday I attended my stepfather’s funeral in an itchy black dress hastily purchased at Burlington Coat Factory. By Thursday I was heading to Chicago with a one-way ticket, $300 in my checking account, and two suitcases full of clothes and books. My grandma stuffed a fifty dollar bill in my pocket just before I went through security. “You’ll be glad that you did this,” she promised.
And that was how I moved to a city I had never visited.
Still shell-shocked by the events of the week, I struggled to fake a smile when my boyfriend greeted me at O’Hare. I officially had no home, no family, and no place to fall. My brother was already trading my records and books for weed and beer. I would never again see my beloved vintage Schwinn (named Strawberry Julius). I was going to have to make the best of all of this. My boyfriend was all I had left and I knew my grip on him was tenuous. Moping would only accelerate his slow drift away from me.
The long bus ride from the El to his (now “our”) apartment blocks from Lake Michigan revealed a grim assortment of low buildings blanketed in dingy snow. January in Chicago is harsh, probably not the best time for new arrivals. Each stop brought more exhausted passengers wrapped in worn down coats. My faux fur jacket, while stylish, would be no match for the icy wind. Every block was comprised of check cashing businesses, cell phone outlets, and dicey-looking takeout restaurants. The trees seemed to have climbed back down into the ground to wait out the winter. My boyfriend pointed at a vaguely industrial building. “That’s an artificial flavor factory. Some days it smells like butter, and other times cinnamon.” I feigned laughter, immediately deciding that this wasn’t going to go very well if that was the most interesting aspect of my new life.
Thanks to my friend Jude, I found a job just a few days later. Maybe everything was going to be okay. As I trudged through the early AM snow on my way to work, I was blown into a telephone pole. Literally blown. “FUCKING LAKE EFFECT,” I screamed as I inspected my face for splinters. I wiped away the blood on my lip with huge gloves borrowed from my boyfriend. I comforted myself by deciding that a telephone pole was preferable to a bus’s trajectory. Next I slipped on an icy patch, landing in a puddle of filthy slush. I wanted to hate my mom for pushing me to the Midwest, to this city I had never intended to see firsthand. But instead I just found myself sobbing for my loneliness as cold water seeped through my pants and into my dollar store underwear.
Somehow it got better, but the first year was bad. I had no friends, very little money, and I spent the weekend afternoons willing my mother to call me. But she never did. My grandmother sent regular letters, her precise cursive reassuring me that someone somewhere did love me. Friends appeared slowly, creating the cast of characters that still live in my stories. Life really improved when I broke up with my boyfriend and moved to Wicker Park. I still credit that time for making me realize just how much I actually enjoy being alone.
It wasn’t the first time I had moved to a new city I had never seen. I signed my early decision acceptance offer from NYU without ever venturing further north than Cape May, New Jersey. I felt only the tiniest twinge of fear the day my mom dropped me off at my dorm on Washington Square West. I had been dreaming of that day for years. And any time I woke up in Manhattan feeling sad or otherwise miserable, I would remind myself that SOMEHOW how I was lucky enough to live in New York City.
I am a creature of routine. I eat the same breakfast every day (ask my coworkers). I find an exceptional amount of comfort in repetition. But I look to HUGE CHANGE for salvation. It is what saves me from heartbreak and disappointment again and again. I have left town to avoid messy relationships. Going away to college removed me from a very stressful and painful home life. Moving to Chicago rescued me from the heartbreak of my mother’s wrath. And leaving Chicago when my boyfriend died saved me from a certain suicide. I would be lying if I said that I was fearlessly engaging in these adventures. My fear of wasting time in a potentially doomed situation outweighs my fear of the unknown. Somehow it always works out. My friends are an assortment of surrogate family members that I have been lucky enough to collect on my seemingly random relocations from coast to coast and back again.
And now I found myself on the precipice of huge change. Leaving Portland is becoming an increasingly likely possibility. I find myself impatiently awaiting a new road to travel. Maybe I want to finally “grow up,” a seemingly impossible task here in Never Never Land. Sometimes a husband and a house seems like an enticing new path. Never mind the possibilities offered by a fresh start and real career options. More likely I am avoiding my feelings regarding doomed romantic situations and failed friendships. Of course the idea of never running into someone I’ve already lost is very appealing. Other times (approximately five minutes after I’ve decided that I SIMPLY MUST LEAVE THIS PLACE ASAP), I realize that I want to stay here. Because while the past three years have been mostly filled with heartbreak and disappointment, there is something about Portland that has always made me feel as if this was my first and only true home. It’s true that almost every block contains an emotional land mine, but that’s to be expected in one’s hometown, right?
This summer has become an uncomfortable state of limbo for me. I feel as if I can’t truly engage with anyone because I might just leave next week. I’m half-heartedly starting things that I might never finish. Even buying a bottle of olive oil turns into a debate about whether or not to buy the large (but more economical) bottle, just in case I move. The fear of what might happen next keeps me awake at night. I drink too much. I wholeheartedly declare my love to someone and then kiss someone else five minutes later. “FUCKING YOLO,” I frequently command my exhausted reflection. “This might be your last summer here so you should probably really go for it.” Mostly that sort of behavior is just giving me a headache, blotchy skin, and an ever-increasing pile of dirty laundry.
More than anything, I’m impatient for someone or something to force my hand into a decision. Wouldn’t we all like to blame others for our decisions? When I find myself wishing that a supreme hand (divine or otherwise) would pick me up and place me at the next destination, I’m reminded of the powerlessness of childhood. Remember how agonizing it was to go to bed at 8 pm even though you could hear children playing in the yard down the street? Or eating whatever your mom made for dinner instead of pizza (which you really wanted)? Or raising your hand to ask to go to the bathroom? It seems crazy now, doesn’t it? Adulthood is a tradeoff. The freedom of coming and going as we please also brings a great deal of responsibility. When I finally realized that this was it, that there would be no do-overs in life, my fear of making the wrong decision began to paralyze me. And so I will continue to tiptoe through each moment of this summer, wondering what I will do next. Odds are high that I will be wearing shoes that hurt my feet.
My horoscope this week (from astrobarry.com) is particularly accurate.