I tell people that I'm from Boston, but I actually grew up in the suburbs, thirty minutes outside of the city. And it's the suburbs that I involuntarily recall sights and smells from when I think of home. To most people the distinction is inconsequential. But when escaping that sheltered suburb and making it out in the "real" world has always been a point of honor, the distinction matters. I say "Boston" not only for the sake of convenience, but also because that is where I want to be from.
I do have many childhood memories of being in the city. Watching Barnie in my grandmother's apartment, say, surrounded by potted plants. The smell of boiled cabbage, oil paints, and incense inside of that apartment. Shafts of afternoon sunlight slanting across the green line's faux wood paneling. Prodding crabs in buckets at the Super 88 grocery in Chinatown. Standing transfixed before John Singleton Copley's, "Watson and the Shark" at the MFA. I treasure these memories. They are as real and vivid to me as every memory of my quieter, daily life in the suburbs. Still, they are the memories of a visitor and not of a city-dweller. They smack of anxiety and romance and excitement and, to this day, bear none of the tarnish that comes with habit. Such is the difference that thirty minutes can make.
Last February, I was living and working in Vermont but started driving to Boston at least once per week. At first, out of a desperate need to escape and soon, to see a girl. She lived in a neighborhood that I'd rarely visited as a child, and I appreciated the opportunity to see a new part of the city. Driving so many miles each week was also a unique pleasure and I did so with nerve and verve—like a true local. Boston is a notoriously convoluted city for drivers. But I relearned the streets and highways and tunnels with an ease that my parents never came by. Never mind that I had a smartphone while they had only had a spiral-bound book of paper maps. (I can still see them hunched over it in the front seats, tight-lipped and white-knuckled). I felt proud of my newfound familiarity and hogged the driver's seat all spring and summer long. My girlfriend didn't mind. She drove out of necessity and actually quite liked staring out of the window. I drove, on the other hand, to feel more like I belonged.
What I didn't realize is that while she stared and I drove, we were still experiencing Boston together. As much as I was reacquainting myself with the city, I was also sharing it with somebody else. Boston became our city. Every place that we went to became one of our places. And just as we became inseparable over the course of ten months, the city became inseparable from our relationship. I hadn't realized this by the time I left for the Peace Corps in late September. I hadn't realized this by the time we broke up three months later, on Christmas Eve. And I only gradually began to realize this during the following weeks, when pictures of Boston on Instagram began to fill me with sadness—when I found that I could not look at them without imagining her face at the windows or her footprints in the snow.
I trust that this sadness will pass and that at some point in the future, I will again feel eager to belong. But now, halfway around the globe and very much out in the "real" world, I feel only a neurotic revanchism. I realize that I have little ownership of the city that I tell people I am from. And like any human partner, it haunts my dreams and memories and taunts me with its steadiness, its beauty—with the thought of its life without me. The end result is that I am constantly looking backwards and wrenching myself out of the past and back into the present. I have also grown wary of the very yearning and eagerness that I hope to restore and afraid of the pain that it exposes me to. I think what I have learned is that it is not always a sign of mediocrity or stagnation to have few expectations. That routine and habit can be gifts and solitude and loneliness blessings. That to truly know and love a place is to demand nothing from it and to merely coexist with it—to become as much a fixture of it as its air or its soil. And until I have felt such solitude and routine and habit and loneliness in Boston—until I have learned to expect nothing from it but my daily reality—I will always be its heartfelt, awestruck visitor.