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By Ren Martinez
My life has been a series of increasingly successful efforts to live in a pop punk song.
You know, those anthems that shout that they’re going to “leave this town” or “run away from this place” or any other variation of there being a location that must be immediately vacated.
When I think of “this town,” I think of a typical suburbia just outside of Richmond, Virginia. Technically, it’s called Midlothian, but no one’s ever heard of it, so it’s easier to say I’m from Richmond. When I was a child, the landmarks of note were Cloverleaf Mall and the Regal Cinemas just beside a used car dealership. As I grew, so did the suburbs, a stuttering pubescence that saw the rise of sprawling shopping centers dotted with Starbucks coffee shops, a number of neighborhoods with “Fox” all in their names, and the sad announcement that Cloverleaf Mall was riddled with asbestos and would be closing down. My high school, once surrounded by trees and a few fast food joints, became a central hub of activity, with a oft-visited Tropical Smoothie right down the street.
It was positively hateful.
I have always been restless, and as the newest chain store rose, so did my need to escape. My family was always incredibly tight-knit (my Puerto Rican heritage demanding close contact), and I loved them fiercely, even as I was slowly suffocating. Weekends were expected to be spent at home, every practice or rehearsal was attended by all four sisters, and family dinners were required, even if they were in front of the television. College seemed like the best way to escape such a fate, but when the nearby university, VCU, offered me a full scholarship, I figured twenty minutes was at least a head start.
A small town city full of pretentious hipsters and beer enthusiasts, Richmond settled in my bones. I loved being able to walk outside my apartment and have to choose between the vegan cafe or the cheap Thai place. The streets were always busy but never packed, and I knew where to find superior dive food (Village Inn) and the greasiest pizza (Piccola’s). But, it was only a year or two before I felt that familiar stirring in my gut, the need to wander itching beneath my skin.
So, I ran away to England.
It was only for a year, a study abroad with my Forensic Science program, but it was glorious. I fell in love with the soggy green, the neatly cut hedges, the gray skies and the polite greetings. My best friend, Kate, and I would ride the bus into City Centre and say “Cheers!” to the driver when we departed. Just down Gloucester Road was the Jolly Fryer, with by far the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, the kind that had oil bleeding through the newspaper the second it was handed to you. I could imagine myself spending the rest of my days there, with the smell of heather in the air and breakfast tea every morning. It felt like home in a way that home never did, and it was with heavy steps that I traveled to Heathrow in June of 2010 to return to the States.
Since then, I entered grad school in Northern Virginia, where almost all Central Virginians seem to end up after college, and, because it still wasn’t enough, made the split second decision to follow Kate to Colorado. Denver is like a bigger Richmond with even bigger beards and a lot more flannel. Everyone drives a Subaru and rides a bike, and everyone most certainly has their favorite brewery. I quickly came to adore the mountains to the west and the minty-clean air without a hint of humidity, the rustic food and relaxed atmosphere.
When my first year passed, I wasn’t even aware of the ache in my gut, so soft it passed unnoticed. But, as the days once again became crisp with the scent of dead leaves and oncoming winter, the ache eased in like the tide, each oncoming wave rising ever higher. There were days when I looked out at my beloved mountains and felt none of the joy they had first brought me. I was recalling all this to my sister, Sarah, who has the patience of a saint and the tongue of a sailor (when she’s stuck in traffic).
“It sounds like you’re homesick,” she told me.
It wasn’t until she said the word out loud that I knew it was true. I missed home, and it was utterly confusing because I felt nothing when I thought of Midlothian. There was no nostalgic pang when I remembered the teenagers loitering outside of Barnes & Noble or the bar, Taylor’s, where my dad and I would grab nachos while we waited for my mom to meet up with us after her work. These places were just places, locations in which memories occurred.
Discoveries, I have found, are rarely monumental moments. Most of the times, they’re like waking up after a long sleep. And, this one was no different, sneaking up on me while I drove home from work one night, the mountains following me outside my window.
My home is not a place. It has never been a place. It’s people.
Right now, I’m making plans to return to Richmond. I’ll admit, I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my old haunts, to see whether Elephant Thai still has the best drunken noodles or what’s playing at the Byrd. I want to finally go to the Poe Museum and briefly consider before deciding against buying the over-priced merchandise at the Carytown boutiques.
My life is no longer a pop punk song, running away forever from that town so many yearn to escape. For the first time in my life, I’m looking for a place to put down roots. I’m looking for fertile soil in which to grow.
Richmond (alright, alright, Midlothian) happens to hold the hearts of those I love most. With the wind against my back, this runaway is finally ready to return home.
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