There’s a popular song that has made its way onto greeting cards and memes and plaques printed in the loopy calligraphy that seems to be everywhere these days. “Home is wherever I’m with you.” I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it. Because there’s one thing I know for certain. People who hang those plaques and send those cards have never been in love with a city.
I fell for San Francisco gradually, over years of family vacations and trips up North. My heart beat faster the minute our car would crest the hill, catching a glimpse of the moody bay, dotted with ships and dipping white sails. I loved the way the fog slipped its arms around me as the sun’s rays began to bend toward the horizon. The beauty that spilled out into an ordinary day; painted ladies all in a row, lanterns swinging from Chinatown storefronts, singing cable cars, bridges like fine jewelry linking rocky beaches over the choppy sea.
Growing up in the heart of California, surrounded by cows and country music, my house was just like everyone else’s. I went to school in blocky new buildings and to church in an auditorium that seated a thousand. I never really fit in, always longing to be somewhere else. The highlight of my year was our trip to see Aunt Penny, a tried and true hippie living in a crumbling Spanish mansion surrounded by eucalyptus trees deep in the Oakland Hills. She rented it for a song. “The owner is ninety, she likes us,” Aunt Penny would laugh as she grilled veggies on an ancient kettle bbq in the middle of her bumpy brick patio.
For years, I thought the house was a castle, with its grand fireplaces, arched doorways and turreted stairway. There were windows with slits every three steps that seemed perfect for shooting arrows down into the wild, brambly back yard. Aunt Penny shared the house with two roommates, a serious Berkeley law student who kept her door shut all the time and a buttoned up accountant who lived in a room wallpapered from top to bottom in cabbage roses woven with strings of pearls. I snuck in once when the door was cracked open, and found an armoire filled with the most beautiful shoes and gowns I’d ever seen. I found out later that the shy accountant performed as Treena every weekend at a cabaret down on Turk street.
Compared to my dusty suburban life, San Francisco sparkled like a diamond ring in a locked glass case. In my dreams, I wandered through hilly streets to beachside paths, arriving at Fort Mason as fog began to roll in from the Bay. I would climb the cold, salty stairs until I reached open air, the sturdy red steel of the bridge towering into the mist. My beanstalk, my escape.
I moved to San Francisco with the sound of Pomp and Circumstance still ringing in my ears. Years went by in a blur. College, internships, an endless string of tech jobs at companies with names that sounded like they came off the shelves at Toys R Us. Bibbi , Meequ, Zipta. Companies came and went and I rode the ebb and flow with the ease of someone who is young and hungry, maybe even charmed.
When I met Travis, I was living in a fifties-era apartment building in Daly City with mid-century letters swirling across its bland, blocky front. The Capri. There were six of us crammed on couches and futons in a two bedroom apartment. Our laptops littered the kitchen counters.
I caught rides into the city with different friends every night. We would disperse, moving from one stuffy, crowded bar to the next until the sun grazed the horizon and it was time to go to work. One Tuesday, I spilled out onto Polk Street at two a.m. and bumped into to a broad shouldered bro balancing on the red-painted curb. My friends were long gone. Fog wisped on a stiff breeze, the sidewalk was damp in splotches. I shivered. He offered me his hoodie. “Where are you headed?” he asked. So polite. Always so polite.
“Daly City,” I replied, too tired to be clever.
“You’re kidding,” he laughed. “Me too! We’re neighbors! I’m Travis.” It was the kind of coincidence that can turn strangers into instant friends on the sidewalk in the middle of the night.
“Francesca,” I extended my hand. He reminded me of boys I knew in high school, the nice ones, funny and polite, with wide open faces, easy grins. We shared an Uber and walked to a convenience store for coffee that turned into breakfast at a diner that smelled like syrup. Travis had moved here after four years at a Midwestern college near his home town in Illinois, hopping from startup to startup with big dreams of starting his own. I can’t remember a time after that when we were apart.
We got married at the Boathouse in Golden Gate Park, where my parents lost me once when I was three. They collected families and paddleboaters with their cries, fanning out around the shores of the lake until Aunt Penny found me looking for pollywogs, right under everyone’s noses. The story wove its way in and out of the reception, ending up as a punchline in the toast, champagne glasses raised, the room ringing with laughter.
The first years of our marriage felt like that champagne, sparkly, bubbly, light. The city was a part of us. We walked hand in hand along the bay, shared oysters on hot October afternoons at wooden tables glowing with shellac. We huffed our way uphill to the neighborhood market, skidding home with organic produce and artisan cheese swinging between us in French string bags.
Travis brought up the idea of moving home over Thai food in SoMa. “It’s a new company, they want me,” he said, his eyes shining with excitement, the brick walls of the tiny restaurant closing in. I felt hot. “They’ll pay me to move, and babe, it’s home. We’ll know people.”
The cost of living, the tiny apartment, quality of life. No more traffic, no more homeless in front of our doorstep. No more Farmer’s Market, no more nosebleed seats at the baseball game, no more concerts, no more Sunday walks along the Marina, no more fresh seafood. No more salty wind in my face.
“You’re right, this is an amazing opportunity,” the words tumbled out in a rush, “We have to go.” The reality was stark. We were barely getting by. I loved him so much. My heart thrummed along. “No, no, no, no, no.”
With each day, something new fell into place. The landlord let us out of our lease. A young couple was interested in moving in right away. The new company paid for our move, got us a house. My boss happily agreed to let me work remotely. Our vintage furniture sold for more than it was worth. “Isn’t this great?” Travis repeated over and over. “I’m being erased,” I thought, hating how the stars had aligned.
We drove away from the city on a rain-slicked Friday. Travis couldn’t wait to leave. My heart broke a little with each mile. We arrived in a tiny town in the furthest corner of Illinois on a Sunday. I had heard all about this place where Travis grew up, so similar to my own home town, and yet so wildly different. As we drove down Main Street, church was just letting out. People clustered around the white clapboard building, with its quaint steeple and stained glass, clutching bibles in zippered leather cases. Small children ran around in circles as adults hugged and headed for their cars. Travis shouted and waved from the window. Faces turned towards us, surprised hellos, hands in the air. How I could know someone so well, and yet not really know him at all?
Now I live here, tucked in the crook of the shimmering river. If I stand on my tiptoes, I can see Kentucky from my kitchen window. People are so nice. They arrive at our doorstep every weekend with casseroles and cookies and curiosity. Football buddies and their cardigan-clad wives, old girlfriends who flutter like moths, college roommates. Travis is at the center of it all, gesturing with his craft beer. Laughter floats, our big new house smells like a Pottery Barn. I’m on the fringes, a goldfish flopping, gasping for air, smiling politely, reaching for another cheese ball.
Travis is right. The job is amazing and he loves it. He’s never home now, working hard to make up for all those perks. It’s just what you do when a company pins you as its next superstar. I’m adrift in a house with five bedrooms, in a planned development with three different home styles, a grand entrance made of sandstone bricks the color of putty. “Deerpointe Estates Welcomes You.” Right now, my coworkers are hurrying down the Embarcadero, grabbing poke bowls and a breath of fresh air in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. They’re goofing around before meetings, exchanging gossip at the cappuccino machine. I’m part of the team but outside the circle, hoping, hoping they’ll fly me back, even for a day. Travis’ cousin Shelley is having a home chef party next week. I RSVP.
I’ve started venturing out to Main Street, where the faded charm of this town is slowly waking up from a deep sleep. I like it here among all the old buildings. There are stories here. A grand hotel under renovation, due to welcome guests next year. A charming little park, a Denny’s. In between the shuttered car dealerships and empty storefronts are a plant shop dotted with hanging succulents in tiny terracotta pots, a coffee shop with trendy wood walls and fair-trade beans that help a family in Ecuador with every purchase, a crafts boutique run by an old friend of Travis’ who went to Coachella twice when it wasn’t so commercial. I can’t feel any disdain. We’re all trying. I wander into an antique shop, the owner knows me by now. Mrs. Wilson. She taught Travis when he was in kindergarten. “Such a nice boy. We’re all so glad to have him back.”
I wander to the back of the store, picking up china teacups and putting them down, feeling the weight of an old glass paperweight. I’m just about to leave when I spot a glimmer on the bottom shelf of an iron baking rack. I bend down for a closer look. It’s just a piece of junk, a snow globe with a resin base, not old. But there it is, the familiar swoop the Golden Gate bridge, Coit Tower, a tiny cable car. I shake it and watch the snow flutter down, feeling a bubble of happiness in my chest, my square edges starting to soften, just a little. I cradle it in my hand and turn towards the front of the store. Give it some time, I breathe. Give it some time. Mrs. Wilson smiles from her perch. I set the snow globe down gently onto the formica counter. I smile back. “This will be perfect for the baby’s room.”