Applying to colleges, Leslie and I were given exactly one rule. Unless we got into Stanford, we weren’t allowed to go west of the Mississippi. Leslie headed south for Emory and there she stayed, planting roots and settling in Atlanta. I headed to New England for Smith. Post-graduation I had two offers in Boston but I turned both down because returning to Philadelphia made the most sense, fiscally that is. I could live at home while going to law school, thereby saving a chunk of change. And to reward my thrifty thinking, my parents offered to cover the cost of my car.
In my late twenties, I interviewed for a buyer position at Urban Outfitters. Instead, the person pleaded with me to head their benefits department. With a resume boasting four years as an insurance broker specializing in employee benefits, I understood why she was pitching me the position. But I declined the offer, arguing I had it way too good where I was to jump ship for the same pay in the same sector. Having to start at the bottom with new people, earning respect and backtracking to two-weeks vacation, had no appeal.
A few years later, when I decided to buy a place, I searched the city high and low for a residence. From the Loft District to Old City, the Art Museum to the Gayborhood, if it was in my price range, I did a walk-through. But ultimately I settled on a suburban building down the street from my then-rental. The taxes were cheaper, I didn’t have to pay to garage my car, and it was a steal. Plus it was close to work and my parent’s house, making it easier to help with my dad regardless of the time of day.
“Hey, tomorrow, can you drive me around Atlanta to scope out some neighborhoods?” I asked Leslie as we rinsed the Thanksgiving dishes.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. I mean, I need to leave Philadelphia. I’ve hit my wall with that place. I’ll have my MFA in July and I might as well use it as an excuse to start fresh.”
Leslie squealed as she passed me a dripping plate to dry.
With the kids put to bed, we crowded around her laptop and started perusing the real estate listings. We sipped some wine, ate some pumpkin pie, and gawked at the deals.
“You can’t even buy a parking space in Philadelphia for that price,” I noted, pressing my finger to the five-figure number on the screen. “I want to buy it just to say I got such a crazy deal.”
Leslie leaned back in her chair. “Are you sure you want to move here? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have you nearby. But you can go anywhere.”
That’s when we expanded our search, pricing out lofts in Chicago and studios in San Francisco. We salivated over the idea of a flat in London or Paris. I even pondered storing my essential possessions and just assuming the life of a nomad, hopping from place to place, living hand to mouth, as I experienced different corners of the world. My friend James set out from England in 1995 and has been going ever since. There’s something romantic and enticing about the life he leads.
It was a little after nine when I got home Sunday night, tumbling through my apartment door. I dropped my bags on the floor and collapsed on my sofa. In the distance the horn of a train whistled. An elderly neighbor ambled down the hall, the wheels of his walker squealing as he passed my door. I glanced up at the stacks of books on my shelves. Some of the spines were pressed flat, others creased and crinkled. Then I eyed my treadmill off to the side, the pink yarn and bamboo needles on the end table, the basket of magazines and catalogs on the floor, the watercolors from Ecuador and Nantucket hanging on my walls.
I got up, walked to the kitchen, poured myself some water. I leaned against the counter and took a sip, the cold liquid gliding down my throat. Reaching for a piece of chocolate, I let the sweetness melt across my tongue. Then I grabbed a shopping bag from under the sink, went back out to my living room and started filling it with books to be donated.
I may not know where I am going, or what I will do when I get there, but at the very least I know I can’t stay here.