The thing about Rhode Island is that I had romanticized it before ever visiting it, the way many do with places like Paris, or New York, or San Francisco.
It seemed perfect there; an entire state imagined as the set of beloved movie Christmases, what with its twinkly lights and three tiered snowmen who wink if you look at them just so. Surely it snowed exactly one foot each year on December 24th and all lakes froze over for ideal skating conditions. Every home was an ivy covered brown stone with ceilings so high that the holiday’s once-a-year tree could afford to be as a tall as each L.L. Bean catalogue-dad could carry. In the Rhode Island of my mind, fall and spring began on their proper calendar dates with orange foliage for the former and lavender florals for the latter, then summer would come with a resounding splash — a seasonal belly flop into its own idillic water off the starboard side of the sailboats each family definitely owned.
When you’re young, specifics aren’t important, like the fact that Rhode Island is just another state in America with boring suburbs and regular cities, where Providence isn’t just a picturesque town of university students studying art and its history, but also one with economical divides as glaring as the trains that drive down the tracks that separate them. At 17 these things weren’t a reality. Even a rejection letter from Brown wasn’t enough to break Rhode Island’s spell, and when I decided instead on a school in New York the grass remained considerably greener there than at home.
Home was San Francisco. Save for summers spent on the east coast thanks to divorced parents and a bi-coastal upbringing, San Francisco city proper is where I spent the majority of my growing up. The question I always get — first when I moved to New York for college and now that I live here permanently — is: why on earth did you leave?
Why does one leave anywhere? A sense of restlessness and adventure, the need to define yourself, to discover yourself, to prove, especially in New York City, that you can not only make it there but thrive away from the coddling of mom and dad — that’s why. The funny thing is, San Francisco, for many, is what that tiny New England state was to me: a beautifully filtered projection of your best self. Songs have been written about it; Tony Bennett left his heart there, Otis Redding sat on its bay. Who could possibly leave a place where the only mandatory dress code is wearing flowers in your hair?
I could, and I did.
There was nothing pushing me away from the friends, family and all-around comfortable life I led save for that nagging voice in my head that told me I wouldn’t become the person I wanted to be unless I left everything comfortable behind. New York would be my new Rhode Island — tangible, twinkling, full of December snow and intellectuals and promise. I couldn’t wait.
The thing about leaving is…you never really believe them when they tell you that you can’t go home again. “But my ticket is already booked for Thanksgiving,” you may challenge the cover of Thomas Wolfe’s rudely titled novel as you sit cross legged on the floor of your dorm room, attempting to read in tandem with the din of your roommate’s awful choice in music. You do go back. I did all the time for various holidays and summer breaks. But the trips became less frequent as study abroads and a boyfriend in New York grew more enticing than my West Coast house on top of a very steep hill.
Then, after college, life really comes in and grabs you by the ankles. First it shakes you upside down like a freckle-faced bully and makes sure it’s taken all your lunch money, and then it reminds you over and over that you’re probably not good enough to stake claim in yet another new place. Determination, you’ll find, is merely a coping mechanism — but you better develop it quickly before your heart breaks and the city swallows you whole. And you will. We all do.
The funny thing about life is (says the girl who’s 25 and probably has yet to truly experience it) that just when you’ve more than gained your bearings and everything feels perfect, something will come along that shakes it all back up. Like when my mom recently told me she was leaving San Francisco and moving to Rhode Island.
At my high school graduation I gave our closing speech. I felt so powerful and sure of myself as I looked out at the crowd of fellow students and our parents, even with that stupid hat on. “San Francisco,” I spoke into the podium’s microphone — clearly, slowly, because if it sounds too fast it probably is per my English teacher’s coaching — “will always be our home. The city lights will always be our lights. The hills will always be our hills, its bay will always be our bay.”
I texted two of my best friends from San Francisco last night: “I’m going to write a story tomorrow, and I don’t want you guys to freak.” I wanted to tell them first before the internet did that my mom was moving and I didn’t know the next time I’d be home. “This will always be your home,” they both wrote me. “You can come back anytime.” And I will. But this year, as fate would have it, I’m finally spending Christmas in Rhode Island.
Illustration by Charlotte Fassler