I have a complicated relationship with my hometown. It’s hard to even call it that, because I only lived there for three years. I’ve been coming back to it for eight years, though, for summers and holidays and weddings and all the thing that drag you back to places you would otherwise never willingly go on your own. For family. When I say, “I hate it; I could never live here,” my family hears, “You hate it; you could never live near us.” I reassure them that the things I hate have nothing at all to do with them, but I know it still hurts to hear. Because they’ve chosen to stay. And nobody want to listen to someone talking smack about something they chose. Especially if they love it, but even if they don’t. [Note: this is why I can’t stand it when people criticize the Big Law life.] We just want to share the things we love.
My family’s visit to Chicago earlier this month threw this into sharp relief. For a year I wandered around this city and racked my brain for ways to show them what I loved. So they could see that it’s not stubborn spite keeping me from Arizona, but the thrill of living that’s keeping me here. So they could see that I am happy. But then they got here, and it hit me: how do you show someone a life?
I took my family on a boat tour of the bay at sunset, but I couldn’t very well drag them all on my morning run around Belmont harbor. And so there was no way to impart the expanding feeling in my chest that comes the moment I circle the harbor and run to the end of my favorite dock and into a Lake Michigan sunrise.
I took my family on the El and watched my Dad’s head move back and forth, taking in the tops of the trees and the brownstones whipping past, but I couldn’t very well show them my commute from the summer I worked on the South side, over an hour each way, on four buses, passengers filtering on and off, and buildings falling apart faster as you go until you step out into a veritable wasteland of foreclosures and the juvenile detention center. And so they don’t know how I feel, navigating two words, and feeling peace in both.
I took my family downtown and pointed to my building (“That’s where I work! On the 39th floor!”), but I couldn’t take them to my office to watch me work late into the night. And so there was no way to let them watch a storm roll in after dark and see lightening stretching between the sky and the metal rods on the building right next to mine.
I took my Mom to my favorite diner and we ate french toast with the breakfast crowd, but I introduce them to the Romanian waitress that works the night shift. And so there was no way to impart how it feels to take a break from bar study to talk to this woman who went to some version of law school in her home country and is already planning an even bigger future — business school and a well-paying job — for her 18 month old daughter.
I paraded them up and down my beloved city, and hoped they saw past the sweaty, crowded inconvenience of city living; I tried to make them comfortable in the apartment I adore, and hoped they weren’t too distracted by the sinking air mattress and lack of central air; I let myself imagine a life where the people I love join me in the city I love, and my heart broke when they drove away.