A high school friend of mine once described our hometown as a place with no places.
I think I learned at some point she’d taken this phrase from a book—I don’t remember which one—and that this was a common descriptor for the sort of town we grew up in, not an original thought from an unusually perceptive teenage girl.
A place with no places, now over a decade on, remains the best description of our hometown that I’ve ever heard. We grew up in a constellation of artificial downtowns and strip malls, gated neighborhoods and residential pods with cookie cutter, zero lot-line homes. Walgreens and Eckerds’, Publixes and Whole Foods.
There were no independent coffee shops, restaurants that weren’t chains eluded us or were quick to go out of business.
Where do people go? We didn’t know. We lived there and we didn’t know.
At sixteen, I would often beg this same friend to drive us further out, where the “riff raff,” as our parents put it, lived. I dreamed of neighboring towns where things felt more real. In these outer banks Mom-and-Pop shops could thrive, there were real people, people with accents, who grew illegal orange trees and smoked pot, who went to the beach and didn’t wear sunscreen or eighty dollar swimsuits, who felt more tethered to whatever I believed the real world was.
We were aliens, and I knew it.
Even the chain stores these other towns could support had more character, Hot Topics and Spencer’s Gifts in lieu of the predictable line-up of high end stores, which felt sterile, alienating. I yearned for something dirtier, for something other than fluorescent lights and white interiors, for something DIY and imperfect.
But we would drive and drive and never know where to stop. And when we did, it felt empty, like we’d wandered onto a stage where real life events played out, but weren’t happening then.
It’s been a long time since I lived in an environment even approximating the one I grew up in. I often forget who I used to be, or how out of place I felt, or how often I found myself searching for some other place. A place with places.
I remember being twelve years old and standing in the library.
Two classmates—Natalie and Sam—were talking to each other about they wanted to go to Harvard and Yale respectively. How important it was to them to go to a good college. How did they know, I remember thinking. It wasn’t that I vowed I’d never become like that, it’s that I recognized I was cut from a different cloth entirely. That even if I wanted to be like them, I would never be like them, that it was too late.
I remember being confused.
There was some life path everyone knew about that I didn’t. I didn’t know how to access it, either. Everyone knew they should go to or aspire to go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale. Stanford, if you were a contrarian. Failing that, there was always Dartmouth, Penn, Michigan, and the University of Chicago.
Everyone knew that they would go into finance, medicine, or law, and they knew this from very young. A few would go into tech, but just a few, the kids who were outliers to everyone else, but still overachievers to me.
Even those outliers who would go to California and not New York, who would found a company and make a name for themselves, somehow had this decision pre-ordained for them. Fresh-faced Floridians who attended Stanford as though with the intention to drop out, and many did. Everyone knew that these were keys to living the good life, just like their parents. Keys to continuing their parents’ legacies. To me, anything could happen— I’d go to college or I wouldn’t. It’d be a good school or it wouldn’t be. Whatever it was, was up to me.
There was other secret knowledge too, it wasn’t just the big picture stuff. What music to listen to? What TV shows to watch? What clothes were hip? This was before the internet; after magazines. How did they know?
I remember being weird, weird in that way no teenager wants to be weird. Trying in vain to capitalize on this weirdness. Maybe I’ll be the kid who’ll say the things nobody else would say, believe the things nobody else is willing to believe, talk to the people nobody was willing to talk to. I was a witch; then a conservative; I orbited the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Islam; I threw discus, I did Irish step dancing; I dabbled in chess and Biblical Greek; always hoping to find myself in one of these niches.
I started writing stories about these communities I played tourist in, exploring the contours of what I thought life was like for other people.
I remember moving to New York at eighteen, a place with over abundance of places, what I thought the real world was, hoping things would finally be different. And being confused again, but now confused across multiple dimensions.
Friends sneaking me into night clubs that didn’t want to let me in because I didn’t have the right look, then being ignored at these night clubs. Not feeling comfortable with the arts kids I went to school with, the kids I was supposed to relate too, but instead, feeling like they could pick up something about me that made me different and not one of them.
I remember thinking in no uncertain terms: How did they know how to be like one another?
I remember feeling this way again when I entered the workforce.
I remember sitting in a big magazine’s office, yearning to succeed but not knowing how to make a good impression, thinking, your hometown’s always going to be there, isn’t it? Even after you’re gone, you’re still there.