the past is another country

I’ll be boarding a plane in a few hours to San Francisco. My company is sending me to a week-long conference that regularly draws over 20,000 attendees. I’ll be very busy, and it’s tremendously exciting of course, but it does feel a bit strange to be going to a conference and not be presenting anything — usually I’m involved in some form of public speaking or teaching, so I’m feeling a little at loose ends about it all.

I’m feeling a lot of things about it all. Especially the “flying to San Francisco” part of it all.

The last time I flew to San Francisco, I was 23 years old, and my heart was breaking apart.

It was a year since I had graduated from college, and I had spent the last 12 months getting ready to apply to grad school. My preference, if you had asked me, was to find a science writing program somewhere in California, and become the next John McPhee.

As it turns out, nobody did ask me my preference.

Sometime around May of that year, my college sweetheart and I broke up. We had been together for almost three years, which is practically forever in 23-year-old terms, and it was awful and painful and tremendously sad. We kept trying to make it work — I remember one evening of reading love poems to each other on a mountaintop near Northampton as a meteor shower blazed overhead, which really should have worked, right? — but it just ended.

My sweetheart flew out to San Francisco a week later. I mourned by falling immediately into a relationship with somebody I worked with.

Seemed to make sense at the time.

Three months later, I found that I was unable to stop the sound of weeping that seemed to be coming from somewhere inside my chest, which only I seemed to be able to hear. So I sold my car and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, ready to give it one more try.

I got bumped up to first class and was seated next to Lily Tomlin. We didn’t speak a word to one another the whole flight. They served us mahi mahi, and I felt inexpressably sophisticated.

My old flame was willing to give it a go as well, but we spent a very sad autumn together. Jesus Christ, did that autumn drag on. It didn’t help that it was my first autumn outside of New England, and I had been utterly unprepared for how much I would miss my home state.

Utterly unprepared.

I started listening to Car Talk episodes on NPR in secret, just to hear the accent.

I started cultivating a Boston accent of my own, although my mother and grandmothers were all teachers and had raised us to speak without such a distinctive regional accent.

I despised the palm trees in my front yard.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, the guy I had hooked up with at work — remember? back in Northampton? — showed up on my doorstep. He had driven across the country, with the same purpose in mind that I had had several months earlier — to patch things up. With me.

Now I was in an intolerable position. I needed to get out of there. Nothing good was going to be achieved by my staying.  I started applying to grad schools for early admittance in January, and Syracuse welcomed me with open arms and a full scholarship. It wasn’t science writing, it was a straight up master’s program in geology, which turned out to be not so great a fit for me, but it served its purpose.

It got me on a plane back to the east coast on January 4, 1995, and I have never been so relieved in my life.

I remember sitting on the tarmac, looking out the airplane window at those hateful, hateful palm trees swaying in the unnaturally warm January sunshine, and wondered when I would ever come back again to San Francisco.

Well, here I come.

I do not have any plans to reunite with the other two sides of my tragic little love triangle while I’m out there. I’m there to work, of course, and all that ridiculous business was so incredibly long ago that it seems like it happened to another person, or like I made it all up.

Me? Live in California in a cold, unfurnished attic apartment? Me? A central player in a hilariously badly written soap opera of young adult fiction? I must be remembering that wrong.

When I moved back to the town where I grew up on Cape Cod eight years ago, I felt constantly like I was going to run into myself at 12 years old, or 8, or 15.

And I wouldn’t know what to say.

Now, on my way back to San Francisco, I have that same feeling again. Like I’ll run into me, 23 years old, working in the Sun Valley Mall and living in an attic with just a futon and the old sea chest my Dad gave me. I’ll turn a corner and there I’ll be, broke and homesick and lonely.

If that happens, I think I know what I’ll say this time.

Get out. Go home. It will be better — unbelievably, much, much better — in snowy, cold, gothic old Syracuse.

Make friends. Keep them.

And don’t, for the love of God, ever stop writing.


Image by Michael Lokner

5 Thoughts.

  1. I just love this story. It gives me hope that maybe I didn’t pull my life straight out of one those badly written YA fiction novels after all… maybe these things really do happen in real life to normal people and I’m not as ridiculous as I thought!

    And I’m right there with you on the hatefulness of palm trees.

  2. Alas, I am no longer a part of the geology world, so I don’t go to the conferences anymore. I was a paleontologist anyway, and so I don’t think I ever hung out with the cool folks at AGU anyway — totally soft rocker here :)

  3. love this post! i too moved back to the CC town where i grew up. i think old friends think we ARE constantly running into our old selves around corners. but in fact, we get to make new memories in this gorgeous landscape. of course we have all the old good ones too, but they take on a broader scope. i hope getting to meet SF was great in that way too, it won’t always hold sway with that YA drama (oh how we’ve all been there!!) now you have new memories of SF, too :)

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