It was the blue heavy heat of a late summer afternoon in August when I stepped out of the car. Me standing there got me thinking are the reasons why I left my hometown 20 years ago improved?

Covid had me breathless after months alone in the city, running on exhaust fumes of taxis and woken nightly by the sound of sirens.

I drove to the small town I was born in, the one I fled from as fast as I could, into the great wide open, barely out of high school. I felt like there was nowhere to go but there, like gravity, “Come home”. I hadn’t thought of it as home in twenty years. I packed for a two-week break. I ended up moving there for half a year.

Can a place love you, I wondered six months later, back at my desk looking out at the lights in the city towers, my face reflected in the window, changed. Can a place love you — so you start healing?

Why I Left My Hometown?

There wasn’t a time I could remember when I didn’t hate the town, its narrowness, its narrow-mindedness.

  • A square, a strip street, some sprawl, you’d know the center by a random statue with barely any historic significance.
  • A squat mall, tired, clinging on. No one ever left, and the postcard lakes, rivers, and mountains around it made it easy not to — “we have everything we need, why would you even go somewhere else?”
  • Try being the scrawny gay kid in a town like that. I knew I was gay before Nirvana’s Come as you are hit the charts. In the community of church-going Christians, hushed character assassinations came with Sunday service. Preaching the love of God to couples that had stopped speaking to each other years ago, a God that punished for the wrong kind of love.
  • I had always been hiding, hidden and unseen, raw and exposed at the same time. There, I never knew what feeling safe was.

Through my nephew who’d grown up there long after I’d gone, I made new friends when I had visited before.

They welcomed me, gladly, with a warmth I’d forgotten existed in places like this. One gave me her apartment, “stay as long as you need, I’m happy you’re here,” handing me her key, wheeling out a purple plastic suitcase of her own clothes to her boyfriend’s.

The first four walls to be myself in there. For the first time, I felt safe.

The Subtle Changes that Triggered My Curiosity

Work was remote; my nephew gave me a desk in the office next to his saw shop; my work got tough.

Layoffs, restructure, my boss fired at a day’s notice; a new one, “So I get your job is essential for the future of the company, but do we need you to be doing it right now?”, all work soon to be paused.

  • It was my nephew’s colleagues, handling heavy machines, drilling, dust-covered, and with the warm smell of fresh wood chip that would welcome me each morning, with wide-open faces, interested life in the city, a country away.
  • Their world wasn’t the imagined life I ran from twenty years ago; it was as small as it had ever been, but they were world citizens, with a curiosity I’d never seen when I grew up there. They wanted to get to know me, far removed from them, and yet, children of the same small towns are extended families, with ties that bind you — but no longer tie you down.
  • As weeks stretched into months and I was extending my stay again and again, the blue heat of summer let in amber autumn. I’d became a fixture in their tight circle of few words: “Still here then?”
  • From when I was small, I remembered the sharp-edged sword of judgment for anybody new: “When they come here, they always think they’re better than us.” I’d gone back on a whim, expecting to have my memories of small-town life cemented, piled up like weathered timber of years gone by. Judgments made long ago, with the absolute certainty of the young.
  • The winds coming down the mountains in golden fall light blew narrow-mindedness in my face like leaves that had turned. This was not the small town I’d left, this generation made a different life for them, they weren’t as quick to judge, an outside existed, outsiders were let in. “So tell me, what’s makes living in the city so great?” Just genuine interest from a welder who also loved to spray graffiti.

I had no ready answer to give myself; and curiosity made me look at people again. If my view on them hadn’t shifted in so long, had I been at a standstill too?

The Memories of People and Life I Used to Know

Once you get in the habit of examining, it’s hard to not follow the rabbit down that hole. Another habit I’d picked up was a bottle of wine a night.

Most often, more than that. I’d work on my addiction on and off, regretting the drinking already while filling a glass, wishing it to magically be different.

“So, let’s examine why you’re doing that, what pain are you trying to numb,” the blonde therapist said, adjusting her glasses and readying her pen. I didn’t examine, I was in the blame game: infallibly the overly restrained and frosty parents, and being forced to live in a place that threatened who I was.

As I started to look at the town with kindness, I was viewing myself through the same, softer lens.

Memories of a small-town kid rushed in like a mountain river, determined and cold. I thought I had already boxed them, filed, categorized, and stored them away; photo albums, fading snapshots held by yellowing sticky corners.

I didn’t look at them with nostalgia, or love, they didn’t show me someone worth loving in return.

The past doesn’t change for anyone; but what we can see looking back is malleable, shaped by who we are able to be when we turn our heads to look.

Feeling at Home

What is love if not safety and belonging, and a calling card of growth? Fall fought with a never-ending white fog before winter’s black and grey took over.

Christmas came and went, passing me by. Our family didn’t have Christmas traditions other than drunk shouting.

My mom and dad had passed some time ago, both of few words, much left unsaid. I drove by the house I grew up in a few times, empty except for echoes — a memory palace.

After my mom’s funeral, I’d gone in every room one last time, looked in, and closed the door; left, never went back.

I’d been back four months at this point.

An otherwise unremarkable cold Winter afternoon was the day I put down the wine bottle and picked up the pen again. While the ink dried on page after page of words filling an unlined notebook, both became possible again.

I bathed in a pool of peace. The pain had stopped just long enough.

I’d been there long enough to think of it as home, a new home I belonged to, one I’d never had there before.

A home that I’d slipped into choosing because it had chosen to show me love. I’d come home to a place of love, not to a postcard-perfect small town, but home to myself, at last.

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