Monday, January 05, 2004

Right Back Where I Started From

In my early twenties I lived a happy, carefree existence among the redwoods in Humboldt County. I wore long hair and faded blue jeans, showed up to work when I wanted, and spent my weekends lazing at the river or curled up in a corner of the rambling used bookstore. Each time I made the long trip back to visit my parents, I passed the squat concrete buildings and chain stores and endless parking lots and said a silent prayer of thanks that I had managed to escape the confines of suburbia, never to return.

A decade later, here I am. I work in a sprawling office park, shop at Target and own a home mere blocks from my parents. Most surprisingly of all, I love it here - I love running into the yentas from synagogue at Whole Foods, and reminiscing like an old geezer about the glory days of Affaggatso's Pizza and Lippert's Ice Cream and the old ice skating rink at the mall. Mostly, I love the random memories that are evoked during the normal course of my day. Passing the curvy sidewalk by Applebee's reminds me of bike rides with my friend Martina to the orthopedic shoe store her parents owned in Burton Village (now an upscale shopping center), and every September I remember the thrill of my first date at age twelve, a trip to the annual Walnut Festival with Brett Sanders from French class. Twenty years' distance has allowed me to conveniently forget that my friendship with Martina devolved into an ugly and depressing feud (over what, I have no idea) or that I have never completely recovered from the humiliation of waiting eagerly for Brett at the big Thanksgiving dance, only to learn that he was busy making out with Tina Buschiazzo in the band rehearsal room.

Sadly, my good memories of growing up here are few and far between. I was an outsider from the moment I transferred from an ethnically diverse, rough-and-tumble elementary school in San Francisco to lily-white Castle Rock, filled with perfectly groomed, savvy suburban kids. The people here joined swim clubs and soccer teams at birth, and the girls feathered their hair and wore Alligator shirts and tight jeans with tubes of Bonne Belle lip smackers stashed in the back pocket. I was a misfit with no athletic ability, a thick pair of glasses, and clothes ordered straight from the Sears catalog. I wanted desperately to belong, to be confident and popular like the girls I envied, but it was hopeless from the start. Bookish, shy and awkward, I spent most of my school years gazing wistfully at the inner circle from afar.

Returning to the scene as an adult was hard at first, especially the way Chef and I started out - jobless and broke and living on my parents' futon while we tried to scramble together a new life for ourselves. Early on, we went to a gathering at the home of an old aquaintance of mine, hoping to jump-start our social life by making some new friends. The party guests were perched on stiff oak chairs around a formal coffee table, earnestly discussing 401ks and stock options. Their conversation was continuously punctuated by the bleeps and buzzes of cell phones and pagers. It was a far cry from the mellow backyard bonfires we were used to, where people drank homebrewed beer and sang along to Van Morrison tunes on someone's acoustic guitar. Once again I began to despair of ever fitting into this place where I always seemed to be so different and out of step with others.

There were certainly a lot of frustating times and false starts, jobs that didn't work out and friendships that fizzled, and the baggage I carried from my past made it that much harder for us to make a fresh go of it. But somehow it happened - our careers slowly got underway, we made a few friends, and then some more, and here we are now with jobs and a house and kids and and family and friends and a solid life that we created together. And the fact that it happened here, the last place I ever thought I could succeed, is a personal victory.

My little demons from the past do crop up from time to time. Just last week I stammered painfully through a simple conversation with the rabbi's oldest daughter about various brands of diaper rash ointment. Why? Because although we are both in our mid-thirties, I still feel inherently unworthy to speak to the woman who was once the immensely popular captain of the cheerleading squad in high school.

I've realized by now that I'll always be an anomoly in this town - I don't scrapbook or manicure my nails, I have never joined a gym, I would rather search for treasures in a musty old thrift store than shop at Nordstroms. In many ways I am as different and out of step as I was in junior high school. But I have made a place for myself here, and this will always be where I belong.


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