The cluster of skyscrapers that define the city’s skyline loom impassively across the river, sparkling glass teeth sprouting from concrete gums under the red tongue of a late autumn sunset.
Sometimes I marvel at the fullness of this city life—opportunities always available in the unknown, absolute freedom in every unfamiliar face, space to pursue passion without personal persecution.
Other times I despair at its emptiness—anonymity dismissing family legacy, unpredictability abolishing comfort, novelty closing the door on community.
I sit on a memorial bench placarded with a stranger’s name overlooking the valley and trace an absent finger over the peak of my burgeoning belly while I ponder to which life to condemn you.
I tossed my tasseled cap into a bright summer sky nearly ten years ago with 22 other graduates.
We started as a tiny flock of tots thrown together on the first day of Kindergarten by parents who had raised hell together in the very same parking lots and school hallways we later grew to frequent. Generation-old friendships and genetically-inherited feuds set the hierarchical stage for our relationships before we were even capable of reciting the alphabet.
If we go home, I’ll be dialed into the babbling parental party line that has eyes and ears in every square foot of the county. You won’t be able to lie about your late night trips to the trestle bridge, the underage drinking that you’ll do there, or the boyfriends (or girlfriends) that you’ll probably settle on at some point.
You’ll be watched over; you’ll be safe—even when you’re trying to be sneaky.
We were so proud of our coy capabilities. I’ll be at Angela’s tonight, just the girls, her parents will be home.
We later learned exactly how much our parents did know. Everything. We met Angela’s parents for wings every Friday until Frank passed.
You won’t get to reinvent yourself after middle school; you’ll have to make do with the people who know you all too well at your awkward adolescent worst. It’ll make dating dreadfully difficult, which is not exclusive to rural romance, but it is uniquely perplexing.
When we got to the tenth grade, Paul Parsons, who was a scrawny, semi-mean nose-picker, suddenly grew three feet and became disarmingly charming. Our moms were close and desperate for us to fall in love, so naturally we resisted.
In the eleventh grade, my first boyfriend Jake Johnson broke up with me because he was in love with Angela. She turned him down out of loyalty. Then the three of us carpooled to Minnie Hansen’s bush party that weekend as if we weren’t all reeling from being freshly heart-stomped.
In the twelfth grade, prom was a tangled web that rivalled even the wildest television soaps. I ended up on Beau Parker’s arm to avoid Paul’s, even though Beau really wanted to go with Minnie, who was matching ties Jake, who ended up spending the summer sleeping with Angela, who later ended up marrying Beau.
I still can’t decide if that was tragically hick or small-town special.
In the end, graduation was an extraordinary high.
After years of navigating debilitating teenage turmoil, we finally stood at the top in collective we-run-this-town triumph. Braces removed, acne under control, immaturity surely behind us—these were my people; the world was ours for the taking.
I was a natural product of my age, brimming with the optimistic philosophy of eternal friendship that is required of all high school seniors in June.
I hope you will be too.
That summer, my mom stopped me on the way out the door for a weekend at the lake, and I braced myself for an embarrassing lecture on the new boyfriend waiting in the truck (who was, disappointingly for mom, not Paul).
But all she said, with a note of nostalgia, was, “Enjoy it. This time. These people. This is it.”
I thought it was a weird thing for her to say—these were my people after all. They were all I’d ever known.
Sure enough, she was right, and the high faded.
Some managed to maintain steadfast friendships whether across town or time zones. Some floated for a while on a breeze of good intentions before drifting into separate spheres of adulthood.
I packed up to pursue higher education in the city, equal parts eager to grow my horizons and determined to remain rooted.
Time and distance had other plans.
Removed and free, surrounded by novelty, diversity, and independence, my homesick ache quickly devolved into active disdain for the limitations that had collared me and condescension for the people who still allowed themselves to be leashed.
Growing into new friends and hobbies, my contempt then dulled into passive surveillance of the small town life that I actively avoided.
Finally, caught up in career-building and flights of first dates, my aloof monitoring faded to a peaceful ignorance only occasionally disrupted by unsolicited online bulletins.
These days they’re no more than an online network of profiles labelled as friends (or ‘People You May Know’).
Their names appear alongside small, predictable bursts of updates that I may or may not deign to double tap—Minnie in Bali, Beau coaching basketball, swollen Angela welling up over the glittering pink shower of a burst balloon, Paul on his knee offering a decent diamond that could have been mine to Jake’s little sister.
They’re the people that I chased in the schoolyard and sat next to in church and drank my first beer with.
They’re the people whose parents patched up my scraped knees and drove me to soccer games and gave me my first job.
They’re the people I hugged and hurt, crossed and kissed, loved and left.
I miss them.
I want you to know them.
I want them to love you like their parents loved me.
I want to be sitting on Frank’s memorial bench.
It is truly a privilege to hold a place in a small town lineage, to be a core member of a community where people know your name, your parent’s names, and your grandparent’s names.
I hope you’ll forgive me for giving up this life to give you that one.