There are times when I really do miss my Midwestern hometown. I miss being able to climb a hillside on a warm summer night and see a sky with no city lights to obscure the stars. I used to ride my bike from my parents' house to Prospect Park, a generous square of green a few blocks away. The park had a pond where folks skated in winter. I never could skate (which meant I always passed on the pizza and rollerskating birthday parties at SkateLand) - at Prospect Pond, I just sort of skittered and fell and then crawled back to the pavilion. I'd nurse my wounds by the fire pit while my sister or my friends glided over the pitted, bumpy ice.
The public school band program held concerts in the park on summer evenings when the community musical theater guild wasn't performing in the converted roundhouse on the opposite side of the pond. Once, that building had been the end of the line for the trolleys that ran down the brick roads of Moline.
That was long before I was born - decades and decades before. But when I was a kid, there were still a few brick side streets that hadn't been paved over. The worn trolley tracks and faded cobbled blocks were fascinating to me - I loved the sensation of riding my bike over them. My tires would hum on the bricks as I rode to my friends' homes or over to the thrillingly steep hill that led downtown. I'd fly (dear god, I can't believe how fast I'd be going) down to the Mississippi and catch the bridge to the Rock Island Arsenal, in the middle of the river.
I used to ride wide laps around the arsenal, where my father worked. It was also where one of my mother's Alabama relatives was buried in a Civil War cemetery of Confederate prisoners, lost to yellow fever or spotted fever - I can't remember which. The tidy lines of white stones in the adjacent national cemetery - where, now, my father is buried with a measure of my mother's ashes - meant little to me then. I was just a fat kid on fast bike, zooming past the dead, past the park where officers' kids played on gutted, decommissioned tanks, down to Colonel Davenport's house and back home. I remember making the ungodly steep trek up 16th Street, walking my bike back to uptown Moline, past the five and dime where my sister and I once bought a huge bag of small rubber monsters and plastic banjos to decorate our Christmas tree (don't ask.) Past the VFW and the funeral home (where I held my breath as I peddled by, ridiculously afraid I would smell the dead), through the alley by the seed and feed and the elementary school, over the singing bricks again, back to my neighborhood and the park with the pond and the roundhouse.
When I was a teenager, Prospect Park became a place of mischief and make-out sessions. I recall one night when some of my friends - a year ahead and already off at college - came home and hunkered down by the roundhouse, looking out at the lights of Southpark Mall. One of them had procured some really awful weed and they tried to smoke it, using a birthday card envelope as rolling paper. I passed, thanks. In retrospect, it's hilarious, especially that they're all now college professors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, parents - pillars of the their communities. (Okay, one of them is a personal shopper at Marshall Fields, last thing I heard.) They were the best and the brightest our high school produced, and there they were on an old swingset, lighting up a pink Hallmark envelope - and failing miserably. Mostly, we'd just sit in the swings or ride on the little "spin it yourself" merry-go-round until we were hideously dizzy, yammering away and wondering what life would be like once we really left town.
Some of us landed in New York. Others, Chicago or the Twin Cities. I ended up in London, then Moscow, and now, DC. Others came back home to nest, getting married, raising kids. They found contentment back where we started.
My high school boyfriend (himself now a respected scholar at one of America's finest universities) and I would have rather innocent make-out sessions on that roundhouse hill, kissing, snuggling, watching the stars. Of course, finding out he was having less-innocent make-out sessions in the same place with a guy when he wasn't with me did put a damper on my feelings about the park. My older self tells me had I not been so naive, I might have noticed some things back then - like the fact that most straight high school boys wouldn't have been satisfied with such innocent stuff after a year of dating. I was a rube when it came to romance. Still am.
Did I mention he's now married to a gay square dance caller named Chi Chi? Yeah. For real. He married a guy named Chi Chi. Go figure.
I wrote this, by the way, in the parking lot of a strip mall in Gaithersburg at 9:45 at night. I should have been home, doing laundry, doing dishes, working on my book. But I'm not. I felt acutely alone last night. Afternoon thunderstorms gave way to a cool summer evening, and it made me think that I should be on a hillside somewhere with friends, talking about the future or just shooting the shit. Or maybe, on a hillside with a straight boyfriend. Not just shooting the shit.
Truth is, I'm growing ever more hermit-like as I grow older. I just don't have many friends here in the DC area. Initially, I did, but most moved away. I have friends scattered around the globe, and I keep in touch with them through the Internet. I check my blog stats and see what friends have come by to visit. I see Madame Ambassador dropping by early in the morning from her Central Asian enclave, along with friends in Australia, with a jump on my day. Friends in Norway and Germany swing by, and, following the sun, the East Coast rises, the Midwest follows, and dear friends Way Out West join in. Some I've only seen once or twice in a decade-plus online.
It's okay, I suppose, to not have a core group right in town. I know my being broke is a bummer for anyone who wants to socialize with me. I feel bad for the Sasquatch, for instance, having to hear me whine, gripe, and fret (mostly fret) constantly about my finances - or my health, and I don't like being a burden - socially, emotionally, or financially.
But sometimes, I miss having people to hang out with on the merry-go-round or watch stars with me on a grassy hill. (Eating DQ Dilly Bars and drinking ice cold water, of course.) Then again, around here, I'd have to find a park that was safe enough to sit in at night, and far enough from the lights of the city to actually enjoy. And I'd like a straight boyfriend, please?
For last night, the strip mall parking lot was okay. It was well lit enough for me to feel safe (except I did move when I saw a well-fed rat running toward the Boston Market outlet.) I had a big Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee. I was fairly certain I could see a star (unless it was actually just a light from the lot over at the Burlington Coat Factory), and the train whistles were dopplering from the tracks behind the fairground.
And I guess, some days, train whistles and a cup of joe is all you need.