I was newly married, then a young mother with a baby I walked to sleep on the streets of the city. That baby became a little boy who studied bus maps at the age of 4. For entertainment, I took him on the crosstown bus, where he happily told strangers how to get from any one location to another. He played T-ball in the living room of our apartment; a home run was hitting the wood of the china cabinet. Once, when visiting my parents in Memphis, he looked at the grass and asked if he was allowed to walk on it. We had another child, whom I strapped to myself as I pushed his brother in the stroller to school through rain, through snow. I was not going to move, not ever. One by one our friends with kids peeled away to the suburbs. I was still not going to move. Our apartment grew smaller. The city was too expensive. And there were other problems: a husband’s job that required him to be in his office at all hours, a growing feeling of something not right, and the strain of trying not to know that. We had to move, but where? We ruled out large swaths of the New York area. Anyplace felt random: a town in New Jersey — why there?
Boston started to creep into the conversation. This was the city my husband was from, the city he loved, the city where his family lived. He was tired of being a Red Sox devotee among Yankees fans. He loved the Boston architecture, loved the intangible qualities that make a city itself. More than anything, Boston was his home. After 13 years in New York City, I, too, was ready to again feel a sense of permanence. I agreed. If not Manhattan, I thought, then anywhere else.
We strapped the kids into the back of a Volvo station wagon, our first car, and drove to the blue-shuttered white Cape we’d bought in Newton. We would have a yard. Our sons would play in Little League, not in the living room. Most of all, we would create the sense that we, together, were from somewhere. I watched how at home my husband felt here, and I hoped for vicarious belonging, a Bostonian by marriage. “What brought you to Boston?” people asked, and I would say we moved because my husband is from here, because he loves Boston, and I, a writer with a transportable career and no other place I wanted to live, could go anywhere.
All these good intentions, yet it caught me off guard how foreign Boston was, how decidedly not-from-here I felt. I spent my first few months going back and forth to New York. “How often do you go into the city?” someone here asked me, and I said about once a month — until I realized they meant Boston, not New York, which for me is still and always the city. Still feeling like that kid who’d asked the waitress to hold the Boston, I secretly rooted for New York sports teams, purposefully read the Times, not the Globe.
More than anything, driving was how I knew I was not from here. Bostonians were a different breed of driver than the deferential Memphians I knew, where the only time you honked was when you were passing a friend and wanted to say hello. Here, there is no mercy for the tentative driver. What am I doing here? I asked myself again and again. I had foolishly decided not to buy a GPS, so I studied the maps, trying to take hold of the city in my mind, to grasp its turns before I set out in the car.
Months passed, and years. I made some friends, found things to like about living here. But still, I knew that this would never be where I was from. One day, I thought, we would move, not back to Manhattan or Memphis but to some other place where I would feel less of this sense of dislocation. Before we moved here, we had agreed that if I didn’t like it after three years or four years, we would leave, though that possibility was quickly lost amid the realities of jobs and mortgages and children. I begrudgingly learned to shovel snow and barrel over snowbanks at the foot of the driveway. I feigned good feelings toward the sports teams, though I quietly hoped for playoff losses so the kids would go to bed on time. The highways were still the stuff of my nightmares — I was terrified of making a wrong turn and somehow ending up on a bridge that would take me to some unknown highway, with no exits and no way back.
After almost nine years of living here, we got divorced — this in its own way is to be from nowhere, cut off from your own past, every day unrecognizable, as you search out the most basic of landmarks. Gone is the idea that you know where you are headed, that you know who your friends are, that you know who you are. To get divorced is to feel entirely lost on streets that you could once navigate with your eyes closed. The past feels cut off, across a divide, barely visible behind you.Continued...