On leaving home and moving 2,100 miles away

On the first of August, 2018, I boarded a flight from San Francisco, California, to Madison, Wisconsin. Within a few days, I would be starting my first full time job 2,100 miles away from home. That day, at the airport, I recalled driving out of San Diego two months earlier. It was a sunny Sunday morning in June. I got in my car, which was loaded up with all my books and clothes, and got on the highway. Incidentally, the first part of my road trip was the same commute I’d taken to get to school. It could have been any of the past mornings when I was headed for lectures or tests or someone’s apartment or practice. Except this time, the exits came and went, and I just kept on driving straight. Didn’t stop for 470 miles. Not even for gas.

The plane took off at 11am Pacific time and landed at 5pm Central time. I landed the same person I was when I boarded, even though my environment had changed drastically. Inside, I felt like I was still a student. I still felt like I was on a summer vacation headed nowhere.

Summer ‘18 was the first summer that hadn’t ended in a return to school. But I saw summer as also being the dying breaths of school, because the idea of summer vacation only exists in relation to school. So actually it was those sweltering days in June and July that were the last vestiges of college, the last moments of being a student. I spent some of those hot days backpacking through Vietnam and Japan. I tried strange new foods, drove a motorcycle up the Vietnamese coast, kayaked in the monsoon, and saw the sunrise from the peak of Mt. Fuji. It was the end of the only kind of life I’d ever known, and as a proper tribute to my childhood, I celebrated its death by aimless, wide-eyed wondering through the vast, colorful world.

Come September, I wouldn’t be seeing old friends again, I wouldn’t be buying notebooks and I wouldn’t be making personal commitments to do better this year that would never come true. Instead, I was going where not a single person knew I even existed. Except perhaps the HR rep who told me I got the job.

But I wasn’t scared, because I chose this. I wanted to leave home and go far away. It had to be far enough that I couldn’t just drive back when I felt like it. I didn’t want the backdrop of my childhood being the backdrop of my adulthood. If this phase of my life was new, it should happen in a new place, as well.

And so, Madison.

I called an Uber from the airport, which was just ten minutes east of downtown. Downtown itself is a narrow strip of land bounded on both sides by two large lakes. I’d gotten an apartment right where that green square is on the number 2 (see map).

Things fell into place fast after that. Work started in a few days. I got an office, an office phone, an office phone number, and a badge. I shuttled through training with three hundred other new hires. We all went out together on the nights. Turns out whiskey shots are 25 cents Thursday night. I tried macaroni and cheese on a pizza. It was great. I trained for a half marathon and then ran it in 132 minutes. I would’ve gotten under 2 hours if it hadn’t rained the whole time, or so I tell myself. A paycheck came in. Income tax is a mother. The lakes flooded and then drained again, taking a few cars with them in the process. August turned to September.

I made it a point to run every day. I also made it a point to run during sunset, and every afternoon I greeted the orange dying throes of daylight with my bounding legs. I ran along Lake Mendota and through the scenic but empty university campus those humid August days before school had begun. I ran past children, dogs, old men, women, and the trickle of students that soon became a downpour.

Each afternoon the sun would disappear behind the lakeside trees with a warm, pleasant, Midwestern glow, and each afternoon I would chase it on its way out. There I’d be, rushing westward, towards the sunset, towards California, trying to catch the day as it was dying. It would seem as if I was running away with nothing more than the shirt on my back. But eventually I’d get tired and turn around.

I missed home, but more than home, I missed my old life. When we lose money, we think of ways we can make it back. When we lose a valued possession, we try to buy a replacement. But when time is gone, there is not a thing you can do to bring it back.

Or is there?

I looked up flights to San Diego. Google Maps still had my last place there saved as its Home address. I’d look at the little gold star marking 4310 Cozzens Ct for a second too long every time, wondering what was happening there right then. Who was living there? Soon people would be returning for another school year. Professors would prepare the same classes I’d taken. The same haunts would stay open all night, serving California Burritos to drunk patrons. One could almost believe nothing had changed.

The idea returned to me every night, that somewhere out there, my past was still happening. It still existed. That time, that person I was, the way life looked and felt, still existed. Somewhere out there my past was still taking place, and just for the price of an airplane ticket, I could step right back into it. As if nothing had changed.

If it weren’t for the life I living in Madison, I would have actually believed that. But my work was engaging, my roommates were great, my city was interesting, and I was busy living my life. No matter how strongly the past pulls at you, you can’t spend your time looking backwards. You have to be in touch with reality, and reality happens in the present.

Reality is things change.

With that first paycheck, I bought two house plants. I put them on my bedroom’s windowsill. As I stepped back and looked at the room, it felt like my room for the first time. A new home in a new place. And that catches us up with tonight.

Moving out after graduation is space reflecting time. Leaving California was leaving college. Graduating from UCSD was graduating from childhood. But the adventure is not over. Colin Firth said in a movie the following words that speak for this period of life, so I’ll leave you with them:

Double Major, Engineering and Literature, spends his free time flirting with ice cream sandwiches, taking pictures, and writing about himself in third person.

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