Just returned from an all-too-brief trip up to the Bay Area, my childhood home. These trips are always bittersweet - a reminder of the life I’ve chosen, and the one I left behind.
Excluding college, I lived in the same house in the same neighborhood in the same suburb from the time I was 4 until I turned 23. I went to school with the same group of kids from Kindergarten through high school
In hindsight, I can see that I had a fortunate childhood. Growing up, I knew nothing of crime or poverty. I received a terrific education at excellent schools.
But throughout adolescence I resented living among people whose opinion of me had been set in stone long before. Knowing that nothing I could do would ever break the preconceived notions people had about who I was. I desperately wanted a fresh start, to live someplace where nobody remembered the humiliations of my youth: The thick, nerdy glasses I wore up until high school. My lack of athletic gifts on the basketball court or the soccer field. My embarrassing shyness.
I think this is why college was such a great experience for me. Free from the burden of living among the ghosts of my past, I was able to live out the fantasy of starting anew. In college I was a popular member of the wildest fraternity on campus. I was never lacking in female companionship. I was surprisingly outgoing, with a full and fulfilling social life.
With no clear post-collegiate career plans, I moved back in with my parents following graduation. While they were great at treating me like an adult, I detested having to move back to my old city. I hated that I couldn’t do something so basic as rent a movie from the neighborhood Blockbuster without it turning into a mini-high school reunion, where nobody was even remotely aware of my more exciting college self. Only that I still lived with my parents and had a crummy, entry-level job well below my level of education. I felt I was doomed to never experience life beyond the small corner of the word I grew up in.
When a sales position arose at my company I jumped at it, as much for the chance to transfer far from home as for the promotion. The job required that I move to Orange County, 400 miles south.
I took to Southern California immediately. In addition to the thrill, which took years to wear off, of living mere minutes from the beach, an old college buddy of mine lived in the area, which provided a jumpstart on my social life. My company’s Orange County office also had far more employees within my age bracket than did my former office in the Bay Area, providing a whole other social outlet.
I stayed in close contact with my family and friends back in the Bay Area I talked to my parents weekly and also had a regularly scheduled Tuesday night phone call with my sister, where “That’s why I’m glad I moved to Southern California” became my stock response whenever my sister would relate a horror story of running into a long-lost nemesis from her past at synagogue or around town. I visited home often, rushing around, trying desperately to fit in activities with the many friends I still had in the area.
I always had the idea that I would someday return to the Bay Area. My sojourn to Southern California was meant to be temporary, a chance for me to gain life experience and to prove that I could survive on my own, beyond the same city block I had spent so much of my life on. I came from far too close a family and had too many friends in the Bay Area to not ultimately move back. As much as I liked Southern California, I had no ties there. I couldn’t help but get both depressed and envious when I’d hear one of my friends casually mention having dropped by his sister’s house over the weekend or watching my roommate run off to his parents house for a quick home cooked meal. I got tired of being the sympathy invite at big holidays, always the outsider at somebody else’s family gathering.
Making me feel even more isolated, I began to slowly drift apart from my attachments to Northern California. I still talked to my parents regularly, but brief weekly conversations couldn’t alleviate the feeling that they knew little about my life (who I was dating, who my friends were, what exactly I did for a living). My contact with my sister faded dramatically, not due to any falling out, but to her starting a family of her own. My now infrequent visits to the Bay Area allowed for a lot more free time as I gradually lost contact with all but my closest friends in the area.
Looking back, there have been times over these past few years where a return to the Bay Area would have made logical sense. By 1999, three years after my initial move, it was obvious that the changes at my company following a merger with a large, national corporation made any chance of upward mobility nil at best. In 2002, an internal power struggle at the company led to the firing of my boss and the majority of his team, myself included. Since that job is what brought me to Southern California in the first place, it only made sense when it ended to look at it as a sign to return.
But the joke of my adult life seems to be that I make an “I’ll Never” comment, only to immediately do the exact thing I’ve sworn never to do. Following college, the only thing I was absolutely sure of was that I didn’t want to do anything involving sales, which has led to a professional career of nothing but. This includes, along with my former boss and a couple former coworkers, starting my own local business two years ago. I used to tease my old roommate, Scott, mercilessly about his propensity for dating women with children, only to fall in love with and marry a woman with two boys. A delicate and potentially volatile custody agreement would complicate any long-distance move. I used to never understood why anyone would bother to live in Southern CA only to voluntarily choose to settle in the drab Inland Empire
, a seemingly endless maze of tract homes and chain stores, and an hour away from the nearest beach. But slightly less ridiculous home prices and the chance to live in a quiet, safe neighborhood filled with other young families proved too hard for me to pass up.
Circumstances now keep me tied to Southern California for the foreseeable future. Still, whenever I make the journey up North, I can’t help but wonder about my other life, the one I could have led. What if I had stayed in the Bay Area and quit my entry-level job after a year to look for something more interesting, as I was planning before the opportunity for promotion came up? What if I hadn’t been so impatient to enter the workforce and had instead continued on to graduate school? What if I had stuck with my original plan of avoiding the rat-race altogether by earning my credential and teaching high school English?
Other questions nag at me as well. Living 6-7 hours away, will my son, due in 8 weeks, ever have anything resembling the same relationship with his grandparents that my niece and nephew who live right by them have? With my parents getting ready to turn the corner on 70 in the next few years, am I going to someday regret spending so much of my adult life as a twice a year guest star in their lives as opposed to a regular cast member like my sister? How could I have let so many valuable friendships fizzle just because of a little distance?
I wasn’t a big fan of The Prince of Tides
, but there was a line at the end of that book that I thought was just great. I don’t remember it verbatim, but it had something to do with wishing that two lives could be granted to every man. What I wouldn’t do.