Okay, so Iowa is actually right outside the middle of nowhere.
And it took less than a year for me to start romanticizing it. (It was one thing to romanticize Seattle, a place I’d never visited, a city shown on screens; but I’d lived in Iowa for twenty-two years of my life.) Hemingway (allegedly) advised, “Never write about a place until you’re away from it, because that gives you perspective.” I have to wonder if there’s a rule about how far away. Distance isn’t just geography; it’s time. And I’m not the same person who left. Not to say that I’ve become someone else; if anything, I’m more myself.
On my first ever road trip, my best friend Christine and I stumbled upon a restaurant/music venue where the owners of the establishment encouraged writing on the bathroom walls. Eighteen-year-old Anika wrote in blue Sharpie, in cursive, “Life isn’t about finding yourself; life is about creating yourself.”
After our trip, I moved to Ames, IA for the next three and half years, and Christine moved to Boston, MA for the next four.
She told me once, sad and sick for home, how much she missed trees.
When I moved to Seattle, I thought that I’d never seen trees before in my life.
It took me just over 15 months to return to Iowa, and fewer than four days for reality to kill most of my romanticism about things I thought I missed most:
humidity at nighttime (isn’t exactly an invisible warm sheet straight out of the dryer)
lightning bugs (are dying off in early September)
driving (at nighttime in a rainstorm and through construction squinted into oncoming headlights all along the interstate only to be greeted by flashing lights and pulled over for going 71 in a 55 once I’ve merged back onto the highway)
seeing for so many miles in every direction (lulls me into highway hypnosis and I end miss whole songs on the album I’m listening to)
thunderstorms (okay, thunderstorms are still pretty fucking romantic)
Many of the places I loved have been replaced by literal piles of dirt (yes, dirt, the derogatory name for soil, as any agronomist will tell you): most notably the original Aroma’s coffeehouse, where I used to exclusively order hot chocolate until the owner talked me into trying a mocha, where friends lounged often and for hours, our own version of Friends’ Central Perk; and the high school tennis courts, where Katey and I ended up the first time I ever got drunk, where I spent hours hitting tennis balls against the splintered, green backboard, knowing no matter how good I got, I’d never be better.
Fifteen months was long enough for the friends who knew to forget to warn me.
My last night there, Iowa was so quiet that I could hear: my dad’s breathing from the bedroom, while I sat on the couch at the farthest end of the living room, which I at first mistook for Jack, my cat, asleep near my feet; crickets, of course; and the sound the keys on my touchscreen phone make even though my phone’s set to silent.
The four of us — my parents, my brother, and I — stopped at Perkins to eat on the way to the airport. I slumped down in the booth across from my dad and cried with relief to be on my way. I cried more when he told me not to feel obligated to come home for Christmas. “No offense,” he said, “but I prefer it when we come to see you. Don’t get me wrong, we love having you here, too, but there’s so much more to see and do, and you’re happier there.”
At the airport bar, I ordered a tall glass of Shock Top (Midwest, wheat beer, is anyone surprised?) on a mostly empty stomach. It sounded better when the man beside me ordered it in his Scottish accent, and we went on to lament about the cost of living out west, because San Francisco is even worse off than Seattle.
I’m a transplant.
The thing is that sometimes plants need repotted: it hasn’t grown in years; the soil is drying out; roots are growing out of drainage holes; the pot’s breaking from root growth; and now it’s all roots and no soil.
I outgrew Iowa.
When I returned to my studio in downtown Seattle, I noticed on the fridge below the Scrabble magnets I’d arranged into the Halsey lyrics, “Don’t belong to no city,” my friend Lisa, who’d been apartment/cat-sitting for me, had spelled out, “Welcome home.”