I’ve moved a lot, but I rarely go back to places. I’ve visited my old high school once, the summer after I graduated, and I steadfastly avoid going back to see old houses where I’ve lived. It feels somewhat like a betrayal–of what, I have no idea, don’t ask me, that’s just how I feel.
But when I was invited out to the West Coast for a wedding, I decided I wanted to take the opportunity to go back to my college town, see a few people, take a look at the campus. I was hoping the cherry blossoms would be in full bloom, but it had been too wet for that.
Driving into town was uneventful; my mother and I got checked in at the hotel and made plans to meet my old roommate for dinner and just relaxed. The hotel was a bit sketchy, but they spent their money in the right places, like excellent mattresses and 400 channel satellite in every room. However, the halls smelled like bad asian takeout and we parked the car right next to the front door, just in case. I didn’t think much of it since we were on the stretch of ‘highway’ leading into Salem and it had always been a bit run down.
The evening and next day were a wonderful whirlwind of hanging out with friends, seeing old professors, and marveling over the new construction on campus. I have to admit, I was a bit jealous of all the improvements that had been made–new buildings, old buildings completely remodeled. It was impressive. But I also started noticing things, like just how old my favorite professors had started to look. Some of them were old to begin with, but others were definitely softer and grayer looking. You can’t tell how people age over email, but you can’t ignore it in person. I think this is why I prefer email.
And then, while some buildings looked amazing, others were starting to look tired, like the Bistro on campus. The couches were more ragged and even more uncomfortable, if that was possible. It was unnerving, seeing the age. I know it’s cliche as all get out, but I didn’t like seeing my campus change, or my friends actually turn into adults, filling out and settling into their young adult frames.
My rudest shock by far was the town. It was just so…gross. I’d had a car during school, I’d driven around to the malls, the thrift shops, the movie theaters. I’d been off campus a lot, but everything just appeared so grimy and lifeless.
My mother and I were packing up and preparing to drive up to Seattle the next day, picking up my boyfriend on the way from the airport. “I don’t know if I just lived in the bubble too much while I was here, but was the town always this dilapidated?”
“Yeah, it was, that’s why I was so happy when you lived on campus. You were so involved with the Willamette Bubble you never really missed having a functioning town around you.”
It was unsettling, seeing what I’d just missed seeing during the four years I lived at what I now know was the pristine heart of the town: campus and the capitol building. Much more so than the differences in my favorite buildings and people. I was almost disappointed in myself for not noticing earlier what was around me.
I always thought that if a teaching position opened up in the English Department at Willamette, I’d jump at the chance to go back. Not now. I couldn’t stand to live there, or even really have to commute there everyday. It was heartbreaking. It just makes me feel that I’m right to never go back, not see what has become of my favorite places. Email, meeting friends for vacations, this is what I’ll stick with from here on out. It hurts less.