A Love Letter to My Hometown
“It’s clear how much you love Sacramento.”
“...I guess I pay attention.”
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?”
Before Thanksgiving, I watched Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird. It’s a painfully accurate portrayal of teenagehood in the 2000s: the first thing one of my friends said after we watched it was, “I feel personally attacked.” It was delightful.
All this to say, mild spoilers ahead.
The wonderful thing about high school romance is that it’s just practice. There is very little at stake—it’s not like you’re going to marry them—but everything is at stake because what is your self worth if they don’t like you back. It’s peak Melodrama, but it’s also real in a way that shouldn’t be diminished.
We see this with Lady Bird’s two senior year flings, each lasting a couple months, tops. The senior year of high school is inevitably a year of forced growth and reckoning with impending adulthood. A couple months, in this context, amounts to a significant amount of time. When the relationships crumble, her pain is palpable. (The theater kid! The privileged, quasi-anarchist pothead reading Howard Zinn! It was so accurate it was offensive.) Even though Lady Bird is not Catholic, she goes to a Catholic high school, and you can tell that she’s absorbed its values. Love is Special and Sex is Sacred, which makes the betrayals of these boys all the more painful.
If you asked me who my First Love was, I couldn’t tell you. I have loved many but I don’t know what is to fall in love, not really. Falling implies an accident, something that is nonexistent one moment, and all-consuming the next. I have been coaxed into love, pushed into love, grown into love, consumed by love, chosen love, but fallen doesn't seem like the right verb. I can point to significant points in my education on Love in all its many forms, but Love is something that has opened itself up to me slowly over many years. It is still unfolding.
My First Boyfriend was (is) a Good Human, but was also as volatile and immature and dramatic as I was at fifteen. Our first kiss (for both of us, ever) was to “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith at the homecoming dance. I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend years undoing what we did to each other in the span of a few short months, but I would also be lying if I didn’t mention that he is now, somehow, one of my best friends. Some people know you so well—the good parts and the bad—that you cannot help but love them. It’s physically impossible not to. We were never in love but we slowly learned to love each other as something undefined. He is one of my most treasured friends. (First Boyfriend, if you actually open your email: Hi there. I am so proud of you. I love you.)
Then there was the first boy I said I love you to, weeks after he said it to me. I never fell in love with him, although I tried and learned to love him in my own way. It was not enough.
There was the boy I loved who was perfect on paper. He was not perfect in real life. He was the first Catholic boy I dated and my mother found him to be a massive disappointment. There will always be others, she promised.
My mother was right. Soon after that boy broke my heart, I laid eyes on the most beautiful human I have ever seen. It was cliché as it gets: the first boy I saw on campus, who moved me into my freshman dorm. It was not Love at First Sight, but it was certainly Want at First Sight. He would become much more important later in my life.
I share this incomplete history of my teenage love life because it’s funny and absurd in all of banalities, but also because I remember how much heartache and grief I went through with these boys. I remember making sad mixtapes on CDs for my other heartbroken friends, capturing the story of our angst in bad pop music. I remember sitting in the median of a highway on an overpass above a railroad in the rain with my best friend and spray-painting Sylvia Plath quotes on abandoned buildings.
I was the most painfully basic Seventeen-Year-Old Girl.
I was just back in my hometown of Midland, Michigan. It was the first time I’ve been back for Thanksgiving in five years. It’s a small, weird town, with its own weird culture and idiosyncrasies. It’s full of white, evangelical engineers of the Republican variety, all things which I am not. It was an easy place to leave and I continue to feel out of place when I visit my parents. I hated growing up there.
Even so, the town transformed for me when I learned to drive. At the end of Lady Bird, the titular character reflects on the awe of navigating through her hometown by car for the first time. Driving is a massive rite of passage in my hometown; it was really the only way to get around. Driving is more than a mode of transportation for teenagers. It’s a form of entertainment and therapy. The world is different behind the steering wheel. It becomes yours.
We do not choose our parents, our siblings, or the cities we grow up in. The most formative periods of our lives are shaped so much by chance and circumstance. For all of the resentment I have held about my hometown, it is still the Place Where I Came From. It is as much a part of me as my parents’ DNA.
We do choose who we love, but even then, it is so much shaped by happenstance and timing and where we meet people on their journeys. As we grow older, we choose our places where to create our own grownup homes and where to leave our hearts. To choose to know a place, a person, a thing, is to love them. It’s impossible to do one without the other. Whether I like it or not—and liking someone or something and loving someone or something are two very different things—I love the town that raised me and I love those boys who helped teach me how to love. They are a part of me, and to reject them would be to reject a crucial part of who I am.
I don’t really know how to end this letter, but I know it’s on the longer side, so if you’re still with me: thank you. Thank you for seeing and knowing and loving me. I can never pay it back, although I try.