I was born a mile down the street from where I went to college.
It’s a factoid I like throwing out there from time to time. One of those cute coincidences that shows life has ways of coming back full circle, albeit temporarily.
I was born at Brigham & Women’s — and 18 years later, I’d be a mile up Huntington Ave at Northeastern University. Even though I grew up on the South Shore, I’d proudly point out that I was actually born in Boston. And when I moved to Boston proper, I was more than happy to call myself a Bostonian with a little more surety than before. A title, like the city itself, I would keep in some way, even as I moved across state lines and into New Hampshire.
My main tie back to the city was my modeling agency — a place I am still signed with even as I gradually kept moving more and more north. The agency would contact me about castings in Boston — an activity that takes maybe five minutes, minus any wait time — and I would use that as an excuse to spend hours in the city.
Manchester, New Hampshire is on high alert on the morning I plan to drive into Boston for a casting. Two officers have been shot. The area two or so miles down the street from where I taught my morning yoga classes that day has been shut down.
“It’s almost a story out of Roxbury or Mattapan,” I remark. And, I think that’s part of the reason why I love this city. In some weird way, Manchester is a lot like a few of the neighborhoods in Boston. A quilt, a stitching together, a peculiar patchwork of some of Boston’s more notable parts.
The day I plan to drive into Boston for a casting, I park just outside of the city and take the T in. I’m one stop down from where I used to live: my apartment during my final college years and my first few years of the real world. An abode I lived in for as long as I have lived in New Hampshire all together.
“Rent has doubled since you moved out,” I remind myself. “And I doubt conditions are magically better.”
I wait at the platform and I listen to the rumbles & clacks as the orange line train pulls in. Its gentle rhythm makes my heart swell.
“Remember all the times the T was delayed,” I remind myself. “How crowded it gets during rush hour. How terrible people can be when it comes to basic courtesy on public transit.”
My agency is just off the green line. Instead of switching lines, I deliberately stay on the orange line and walk the distance between the closest orange line stop and my final destination. I walk through Back Bay, past the BPL, down Newbury. The casting from beginning to end is probably quicker than the time it took to walk from the T stop. In many ways, it had been an exceptionally long walk for a short drink of water, but I linger around to quench my thirst.
Whether the agency trip was an excuse be in Boston, or the need to be in Boston was an excuse to go to a casting in the heart of Boston, I’m not sure. All I know is I take off after my casting and wander around like I did as a college student.
The Esplanade is alive with runners and dogs and the smell of the Charles. People are milling about the Hatch Shell, preparing for some event. A few benches down, there’s a cyclist with his bike against a tree, jamming out on his harmonica for no one in particular. Another man is giving a Buddhist monk money, all the while asking, “And you’ll take a selfie, right? Selfie?”
“You just don’t get this in the mountains of New Hampshire,” I tell myself, acting like I didn’t spend the previous morning trail running down one of the most scenic paths in my little mountain town. Acting like, not even weeks prior, I was remarking on the effortless vistas you get while driving through New Hampshire, the kind of views you just don’t get in Massachusetts.
Off to my left is the Mass Ave bridge I would walk down my freshman year on my way to the dorm halls of MIT. A memory so seemingly innocent and simple that it makes my heart break in hindsight.
The traffic on Mass Ave — the traffic on every street that day — is terrible. The city was made for walkers, made for wanderers like me, making their way to wherever they’re going with long strides.
A pedestrian town. A place where you can tell the Bostonians at heart based on how recklessly they step out into the street, or how slickly they maneuver around the slower people on the sidewalk. The Pedestrian Death Wish, and I practice it with pride, stepping out into the street like two tons of steel could never harm me.
I play with the all reasons why my move away from Boston is not necessarily final, throwing lofty plans into an increasingly uncertain future like pebbles into a river.
“Boston has a thriving yoga scene…BU has a great physical therapy doctoral program…perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…”
It’s graduation day for a few of the colleges. In two areas of town, I use my slick pedestrian maneuvering to dance around crowds; huddling families and emotionally exhausted graduates with their gowns unzipped and their phones pressed to their ears.
The city is electric that day. Life and lives of all varieties are around me. It’s a city awake and vibrant. A city that has been painted in blue and yellow for the last 3 years. Even with the cloud cover, I am energized, as if Boston itself is the cure against being seasonally affected.
“This is not your city anymore,” I remind myself.
The secondhand and consignment shops I once loved are so much posher than when I was last in them. Everything is so much more expensive and I leave all of them empty handed.
“Told you this isn’t your city anymore,” I say.
I round out the day with a stop off down Huntington Ave — to Northeastern University.
I wander down the stomping grounds of my freshman year, deliberately retracing steps I used to take when I was 18 years old. The parking lot where I unloaded my things for my first-year dorm room. The alleyway that connected that first dorm to Huntington. Red and grey brick paths that wake up a flood of emotions — memories so seemingly simple and innocent and beautiful that it’s almost too much.
But, just like other freshman-year memories that had been returning that day, I’m quick to shed light into the darkened corners. Those weren’t simple times. They were rough and complicated times. Sad times, with plenty of tears. Plenty of bad things and frustrating things and things that simply went awry.
But they were transformative times. Times of great evolution and adaptation and change. And it is those very difficulties that allow such a flood of outright gorgeous emotions to return. It is that intensity of the past that makes its surreal in its beauty in hindsight.
“You’ll look back on this time in the same way, someday, too,” I tell myself.
Before I leave Northeastern — before I board the orange line T stop that rests right at the base of campus and I leave the city completely — I stop off at the infamous Husky statue just outside the auditorium.
People rub the husky’s nose for good luck. I remember coming here on a campus tour in high school, knowing within five steps that this was the college for me, and rubbing that statue’s nose for good luck. Three months later, I’d be accepted in on a substantial scholarship. Since then, I’ve given reverence for something others would consider crazed superstition.
Besides, these days I could use a little good luck.
The drive through and out of the city is horrific. For miles, I barely touch the gas pedal.
“This is just people’s commute, on a daily basis,” I say. And this is the reality if you actually moved back. Living just outside of easy public transit. Dealing with a backlogged commute.
Because, again, this just isn’t your city.
And it isn’t my city. Not anymore. With each passing year, it gets just a little tougher to come down, even for agency-related matters. I already pass on so many castings due to time constraints that it’s only a matter of time until my agency drops me. And I know deep down I’ll never be a Boston resident again. Not just because the rent has skyrocketed and the T is unreliable and the traffic is terrible and all my favorite shops have abandoned their bohemian feel for something more upscale. I simply look at the path I’m on and the paths I’m attempting to carve out and I know a return is highly unlikely.
Knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
It is simply not my city anymore.
It’s a bewildering feeling, loving something so deeply, but also being so separate from it. When something is that much a part of you, but not part of your day-to-day. That tightrope of carrying something with you everywhere you go, but going places that have nothing to do with it. Or perhaps everything to do with it. Who knows. Perhaps all of my exploits, in some way, could be traced back to this profound little love.
I’ve already likened loving Boston to being a pragmatic paramour. But perhaps it is something more. Something a little cleaner, but a little sadder. A bond, a love, a loyalty that has to coexist with reality. Not as a mistress in the shadows, but as captain leaving shore.
My beautiful little city. Cuidadcita mia. A place that still, after all these years, puts a smile not just on my face but in my soul over something as simple as the skyline coming into view from 93. A place that shaped and defined me in little and big and irrevocable ways. A city I love so deeply that I doubt I’ll love any other city in the exact same way again.
And maybe that’s okay. Maybe the role of Boston — my city, but not really my city — now is to anchor down deep into my heart as I set sail from the shore, to wherever the rough seas take me. Good luck and Godspeed.
When you’re in love with dirty water, you can’t help but get a little muddied up in the process. But you wouldn’t trade the markings in for anything in the world.
1 thought on “When You’re In Love With Dirty Water”
Great story Abby.