Near New York.
Whenever anyone tells you he's from "near New York," then you know that he isn't from Connecticut. You know this because people from Connecticut say they're from Connecticut. No, if someone is from "near New York," what this really means is that he, like me, is from New Jersey. I know this because I have been telling people that I'm from near New York for ages now.
It's a weird thing about moving across the country. Where I live now isn't near New York at all. And every time I go east, which I just did to visit family for Christmas, I return to my adopted Seattle home even more vitally certain that I'll never move east again. After living in Philadelphia for almost ten years I really grew to like the place. Flame me if you will, but I wouldn't move back for anything. (Maybe it's something to do with living in a place where the streets don't smell like urine and people are actually pretty nice to each other, but I digress.)
And yet there's something about New Jersey.
It isn't because my family is there. My family doesn't even live in my hometown anymore, except for my grandmother. My husband's family is from the part of New Jersey that people evoke when they describe themselves as being from "near Philadelphia," miles and miles from where I grew up. (When people are from Delaware, they say they're from Delaware, I guess.) I fly back to New Jersey maybe once a year and each visit it takes me less and less time from the moment of stepping off the plane to the point where I'm agitated and annoyed for no very good reason that I can think of.
Maybe it's the Italian food that keeps me feeling nostalgic.
This year I saw more of my hometown than I had in a couple of years, because my grandmother wasn't home the first time we went by her house. My sister and I filled the time by showing my husband the state park that I grew up running and sledding in, and the baseball fields where we played softball games, and the road around the lake where we went swimming. It's all pretty much the same, still no traffic lights for Ringwood, all lakes and trees and convents and botanical gardens. Not so much the New Jersey of Newark Airport or the shore or the Sopranos (not even withstanding the episode where Ringwood got a shout-out).
It gives me this feeling like I can't get enough oxygen. Because on the one hand, it is sort of the travel version of mashed potatoes and down pillows, all kinds of comforting and familiar. There is the high diving board that I finally figured out how to do a flip from the summer I was nine, and the part of the lake club we called the island where all the kids who were cooler than I was hung out. We're passing the Dairy Queen where we went after hundreds of basketball and softball games, every kid and their parents, the whole town pretty much converging on that one place. Neighbohoody, friendly, and also no place else to go. There is the rock where everyone graffitis over everyone else's graffiti, now reading WELCOME BACK FROM IRAG, COLIN! It's the rock where my parents painted HAPPY BIRTHDAY KIERAN when I turned 18, which memory (of my parents being married and doing something like a normal shared domestic activity) is itself comforting and constricting at the same time.
Because with familiarity comes familiarity not just with comfort but with a fuller range of emotions. Wanting to leave. Going to school in other towns and being caught sort of in between friend groups. Listening to my parents argue. Wanting to leave and not being able to. It's still a nice small town, and it's suffocating, taking all the air out of anyone or anything a little different. Where getting a Chili's on the highway five miles away counts as innovation.
Whenever I come back west after a trip east, the air hunger, the feeling of not being able to take a breath deep enough, goes away. Maybe it's the better Seattle air.