Nine years one month and one day ago I graduated Cottage Grove high school, 13th in a class of 154. I wore the shortest dress I owned, paired with fishnets and black strappy platform shoes, because the administration tried telling us that girls were required to wear dresses. My class fought – successfully – to be allowed to toss our caps, and mine was somehow lost and never recovered, despite my name & phone number written inside.
Less than two months later, I boarded a plane for New York and, in the nine years since, have lived in progressively larger and larger cities. Alfred to Monmouth to Eugene to Seattle to Portland. Nine years, and I haven’t been back to Cottage Grove for more than a few weeks at a time. Even breaks were spent at friends’ houses in Eugene, and when I was in town I kept a low profile.
It’s hard, you see, to avoid people who ignored or taunted or were fake or cruel to you in a town of approximately 9,000. Going to the grocery store (the ONE grocery store in town, I might add) means people in your graduating class are now working the register, or picking out fish and getting bagels at the deli counter. It means going to any of the three book shops and running into the guidance counselor who told your mother you weren’t college material. It means, on the other hand, that those who loved you welcome you back. That those who loved your mother (may she rest and her name be for a blessing) love you, unconditionally.
Coming back means having to put aside all the hurt and the anger and the anguish and the angst, whether you’re ready for that or not. Because this isn’t a quick visit. This is me, living in the house we moved into on Tara Hammerberg and Derek Myers’ 14th birthday (May 13, 1996). This is me, living in the house my friends and I got caught playing spin the bottle with a twister board in the backyard at my 15th birthday party. This is me, living around the corner and down the street and a few blocks away from people who were part of my life for 13 years, people who in large part I put behind me because I put the town behind me.
Someone, two people in fact, two people I hadn’t seen in nearly six years told me I’d be welcome back down at the community theatre, one of my old haunts. They’re doing The Miracle Worker later this year and I should audition, one of them said. I used my old standby excuse – I got tired of being told I’m talented but just don’t look the part – but that’s not the whole truth. It’s part of it, don’t get me wrong, that is a very hurtful and not helpful thing to be told. But the truth is, I don’t want that kind of attention anymore. That kind of public recognition. If I could blend into the wall, that would be awesome. That sounds odd, given how gregarious I am, but notice when you’re with me that I’m not that way in large settings anymore. I’m loud, my laugh is loud, my stories are large, but only when I feel safe. I don’t feel safe out in the open anymore.
I’m back, and I’m back in a place that holds nearly every experience I had from age 5 to age 18, minus a few weekends with my dad and a few trips elsewhere. My first kiss in Calleena’s barn attic (Garrett Hill, the end of 6th grade), getting called Ralph for an entire school year after I puked in science class (fuck you very much, Carl Dimmock), skipping school assemblies to develop photos in the B&W lab. Learning to drive. Getting my heart broken. Being proposed to at 10 p.m. a few days after making out for the first and only time with a friend who I wasn’t even technically dating (I said no and we never made out again, though he did bring me Midol one afternoon when I thought the cramps would kill me). Walking home after making a homecoming float, trying our best (and failing) to stay ahead of the storm clouds, calling Mom from every pay phone we reached, trying in vain to ask her to come get us.
Three proms. A dozen theatre shows. Boyfriends. Parties. Heartbreak – mine and others’. Fights with Mom. Burning rice on the stove. Little Brother puking all over the POGs a friend/boyfriend/friend/ex-boyfriend/friend brought over. Cutting Aaron’s hair as he sat on the curb. Weddings. Funerals. Birthday parties. Life. Here.
And every time I go somewhere, a new memory comes back. And I have to reconcile the woman I’ve become with the girl who’s still inside me, the girl whose heart was broken by the guy who lives around the corner and is now a man and is now responsible and kind. The girl who dealt with the suffocation of Small Town Life™ by running as far and as fast as she could to…a small town…in upstate New York…for a year…
oh shut up.
Or laugh. I do. I laugh, in between ducking behind Entemenn’s displays to avoid eye contact with the girl who laughed at my hairy legs every day of P.E. in 8th grade.
And in my less than stellar moments, I break down and call The Princess and wail about this “backwoods redneck podunk hickville” that doesn’t have any coconut oil in its ONE grocery store. Or I cry to Llamaface because the only place to buy diapers without breaking the bank, because I’m not even attempting cloth right now, the elastic has given out in our Fuzzi Bunz and we don’t have the cash for a new diaper stash is The Place where Evil Dares not Tread™. I sold my soul for $20.47 the other night – the cost of an 82 pack of diapers & a 30 pack of pads. I am so ashamed.
Welcome home, right?