It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You were supposed to graduate from college and leave this place forever. That was the plan. It was always the plan.
Thirteen years and two cross-country moves later, you’re standing in your airy Bay Area kitchen when your husband tells you his job wants him to relocate, back to the city you both grew up in. You’ve joked about it before, what it would be like if you moved home, one of you always ending the conversation with an eye roll and “No, but really, can you imagine?” You can’t imagine because that’s not your life anymore.
Until one day, it is.
You’ve been in town for a mere 12 hours when you run into an old college classmate at the Apple store. It’s a surprise yet not a surprise. In a city this large, you should be more anonymous, but that’s not the way it works here. You liked being anonymous when you lived in Chicago and the Bay Area. You very rarely had to suffer through awkward small talk in the middle of the frozen foods aisle at the grocery store. Here, that is a thing. You will run into old friends and acquaintances at Costco, the swim club, Starbucks. Some people are surprised you’re not just visiting. Some didn’t realize you ever left. Some people you haven’t spoken to in years reach out to you on Facebook, and you’re pretty sure they just want to know what you’ve been up to for the past 13 years because once their curiosity is satisfied you never hear from them again.
You move in to your new house—almost exactly three miles away from the one you grew up in—a week before your kids start school. You get their class assignments, but you might as well be reading a foreign language, because none of the names on the list mean anything to you. Still, you send them off to school and consider it a success when they come home with new friends and lists of activities and teams they want to sign up for. You sign up to coach robotics, not because you want to, but because they need more coaches in order to allow everybody to participate and your kids want to participate.
You have to get used to living in the same city as your parents and sister again, not to mention all of your husband’s grandparents and extended family. You have to set some ground rules: Nobody is allowed to show up at your door and just walk in.
You’re unemployed and don’t know anybody, so you have a lot of time on your hands when the kids are at school. You spend a lot of time in Starbucks, reading and trying to write, even when the words don’t flow as well as they should. It’s a silly thing, but you miss the way the baristas at your old Starbucks greeted you by name and began preparing your iced coffee—black, easy ice—as soon as you walked in.
You drive by your best friend’s house but she’s not there, of course. She went to college out of town, and her parents sold the house and moved out of state years ago. The new owners have painted the mailbox. It now boasts a rainbow and a tacky inspirational message. You think about how her mom would hate it. You drive by your grandfather’s old house and want to cry. It has been years since your best friend moved away, years since your grandfather passed away, but it feels weird and wrong to live in this city without them.
Your other friends from high school and college, the ones who are still in town, have lives of their own. Some of them are still single, busy with social and philanthropic activities. Others live on the other side of town, have kids who are much younger than your own. Others are single parents. Everybody works, everybody is busy. Nobody calls you or tries to make plans. When you lived far away, it was easy to think that your old friends spent all of their free time together, that there were girls’ nights out and weekends away. Now you realize they rarely, if ever, see each other. That maybe the only reason everybody got together once in a while was because you were the one to organize brunch or coffee dates once a year when you were visiting.
It isn’t until six months after you move, after you’ve unpacked and gotten the kids settled in, after all of the kids’ fall activities and the holidays are over, that you realize you’re depressed. You’ve been unhappy this whole time, but you’ve also been too busy to dwell on it. Now it is real. It is crushing. This is not a terrible dream you are going to wake up from. It may seem indulgent, but you grieve the life left behind.
People ask you if you are happy to be home. How do you respond to that? “No, I’m depressed as hell, and I miss everything about the Bay Area” is too raw, too honest. People don’t want to hear that truth. But lying and saying you love it here is more than you’re able to force out. You talk around it by telling them how nice it is that your kids get to spend more time with their cousins, that they’re involved in some great activities at school.
You drive by your old high school just as an R.E.M. song comes on the radio, and it’s a surreal experience. You are simultaneously 16 and 35, driving these familiar streets in a sensible SUV and not the gold Saturn coupe you drove in high school. Despite the vehicle upgrade, you feel like you haven’t moved on very much at all. It’s fitting that R.E.M. is the soundtrack to your middle-aged angst. Everybody hurts, indeed.
You’re still unemployed. You begin to over-identify with Hannah from Girls. You realize things might be dire.
The hardest thing in a year of hard things is when your son’s old classmates, the ones he had been with since kindergarten, graduate from fifth grade and move on to middle school. On Facebook you see them smiling in their graduation pictures, all triumphant smiles and arms thrown around each others’ shoulders, and your heart hurts in a way you didn’t think possible.
It takes more than a year, but slowly things begin to come together. An old friend invites you to join her running club, where you reconnect with yet another old friend and make new friends who share your interests. Your mom’s best friend starts a book club and asks you to join. Both of your kids, after two years in a good but very traditional neighborhood public school, are selected to attend highly regarded magnet schools for the upcoming school year. You start to get more freelance work, much of it local. It’s enough to make you and your husband consider staying here, just a bit longer, because these opportunities don’t come very often, even in the more progressive city you came from. And hey, the free babysitting from family members is nice too.
The baristas at the Starbucks near your house still don’t know your name. Until one day one of them does, actually, call you by name and ask how your kids are doing. It still doesn’t feel quite like home—not like the home it was when you left it at 21 or any of the other places you called home in the intervening years. But it feels like something solid, and every day you’re one step closer to being able to call it yours.