There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
In May of 2001, my then-girlfriend, Kathleen, graduated from University of Houston. She interviewed with several companies, and chose the Global Information Systems department at ExxonMobil. They gave her the choice of starting in Houston or in Fairfax, Virginia. To this day I’m not sure how much Kathleen wanted to leave Texas and how much I did. I don’t know if she was excited or if I convinced her, but off we went to the suburbs of the nation’s capital. We chose to live in the city of Alexandria (as opposed to Fairfax County) because it was roughly halfway between downtown and Kathleen’s office. I didn’t know where I’d end up in terms of school, so I wanted easy access in both directions. We found a great little townhouse between the Blue and Yellow Metro lines, not too far from The Pentagon……..
The plan was solid in theory. I’d had a full-time job for the last two years, making enough to support both of us. Because I’d done that, Kat said that she’d work and I could go to school. What we didn’t factor in was the cost of living increase. Even with both of us making more than I had in Houston, we still couldn’t seem to get ahead. In retrospect, I think we just aimed too high, too fast. We wanted to live a middle-class existence, not thinking ahead that a savings account might be a nice thing. The conversation in my head runs thusly:
Me: What the hell did you and Kat do with all that money?
Me to me: We ate it.
It takes money to be around people with money and we were too stupid to realize we didn’t have any. Most of the memories I have of that time in my life involve going out with various coworkers to restaurants where the food was forgettable and the tab was expensive. If you are looking for advice on how to spend over fifty grand a year on absolutely nothing, I am an expert. It starts with caring way too much about what other people think if you turn down an invitation. There. The first lesson’s free.
My dreams of finishing school and going on to my Master’s started drying slowly and then the last bit evaporated overnight. Kathleen wanted out of the relationship, exiting in the ugliest way possible. She slept with mutual coworkers so that coming to work was excruciatingly awkward, and then I lost my job and went back to Texas as broken as I’d ever been up to that point.
I attended a grief support group, where I mourned the past and the future I thought I would have. Eight weeks later, I went to visit my friends in Oregon. Two weeks after I got back, I packed up my car and called Portland home. It wasn’t enough to put 1800 miles of distance between Kat and me. I needed the full 3,000 for good measure.
I ran as far from Alexandria as I could get without dropping into the Pacific.
I didn’t remember the good things about Virginia until the day I moved to Oregon. Because I already had friends and a church there, I ditched my stuff at my house and went to the church to socialize as we were stuffing envelopes for some campaign or another. This annoying blonde woman was wearing a George Mason University sweatshirt, the college down the street from Kathleen’s office…. because of course she was.
Eventually, the blonde wasn’t so annoying. I married her…. and had to make my peace with Virginia because her parents’ house was about 30 miles from my old one… because of course it was.
Dana and I talked about moving to Virginia sporadically over the years, Dana worrying that her parents were older than mine and would therefore, need more help. So, moving back to the DC area has been a faint spot on my radar for over a decade. By 2012, it was in the three to five year plan.
Three years, almost to the day, I arrived in Maryland alone. In the beginning, it was a severe emotional handicap. I had imagined everything about DC from our viewpoint, not mine. I couldn’t even cross the Potomac without wincing in pain, so I just didn’t. Dana didn’t have many stories about DC, because she lived far enough out that she didn’t come downtown much. So, I reasoned that DC and Maryland were my area. Anything across the river belonged to Dana and Kat. It was neat and tidy until I went and made a friend…. in Alexandria.
Walking around Old Town brought it all back. I felt joy, but it was quickly drowned in tears. Everything was familiar and, in turn, scary because of the reason it was familiar. I saw the tapas restaurant where Kathleen took me for my birthday on September 10th, 2001, where I ate bad mussels and projectile vomited so much that I had to call in sick to work the next morning, the only reason I heard the plane hit. In fact, I saw all our old hangouts… or the buildings where they used to be, anyway.
What I realized is that looking for the familiar was bringing up emotions for which I was not prepared. Up until reality hit, I’d been genuinely excited. “Alex” had felt like home when I was dreaming about it. I didn’t recognize myself in its reflection anymore. I just saw shards of a twenty-something yuppie douchebag.
Luckily, my cousin Nathan also lives in Alexandria, so after about a year, the desensitization process was complete. The only reason it took that long is that I didn’t have a reason to cross the river very often. It was easier to meet both Dan and Nathan halfway.
Over the years, though, I’ve been coming to Alexandria more and more, because context and I have both changed. It’s not where I used to live. It’s where Dan lives now…. and get this… she lives on Leslie Avenue.
The real plot twist, though, is in fact just character development. I walk everywhere I go unless it’s what I consider “too far” and take the bus or train. I spend less in a week than I used to spend on some days. I am just not impressed with clothes, cars, fancy restaurants, any of it. The Washington of my twenties was a pretty soulless place, because I was not tapped into activism on social justice issues. I was driven to be upwardly mobile without any other purpose but serving myself.
The me of 2001 would have laughed and called me a hippy. The me of now wouldn’t spend time on a retort.