There’s a line in the 2011 Death Cab for Cutie song “You are a Tourist,” released at the end of my freshman year of college, that spoke to me in a way I thought it was supposed to at such a time in my life.
“And if you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born then it’s time to go.”
I listed to the song and the album on repeat in my car for a few days after purchasing it that summer, and I felt it should really resonate with me at that time in my life, the first summer I returned to my hometown after a year of school in New York. Of course it’s time to go, I thought, I already got out. Get me out again, please.
There were some flaws in this internal argument. For one, I wasn’t born in Crystal Lake, but for all intents and purposes it was my home. Secondly, there are certainly no tourists in Crystal Lake, no one is that commitably insane. But mostly it was that I never really fit it in my hometown. I always felt different, but this summer I was just a little more shocked at how many places closed at 9 p.m. Most of my friends had all returned home this summer, I still kept in touch with high school acquaintances, and I still very much had a home in Crystal Lake.
I came home this weekend for the 4th of July and to see my best friends from high school — all of us would be home together for the first time in a year and a half, and for the last time for who knows how long. It could be years.
Going to school in Chicago, I’ve come home a fair amount throughout college. I certainly never liked to make a habit of it, and I didn’t, but it of course was always there. All holidays, any time good friends would come home, I would be there. Sleeping on my mom’s couch because my bed had been gone for years.
But something about this time felt different. Something about this one felt like the end.
Of my four friends I keep in touch with from high school, we’re all in the midst of a lot of changes. We have college degrees now, ranging from degrees in theater to hospitality to business and journalism. One of us is engaged. One just started a full-time job. One has been living in L.A. for a year and just produced a web series. One is moving to Guam.
On the one night we all had together, we went to the most horrible of horrible local bars. We did this to ourselves, but we really just wanted to see how miserable it was. We sat in a table in the corner as we competed with each other to point out all the people we recognized from high school. We cringed over and over again.
It was high school all over again, sitting in the corner, firing off snarky remarks to the people who seemed to be having all the fun. We always knew we were the ones having the real fun, and we didn’t mind ostracizing ourselves most of the time.
I brought my boyfriend home for this weekend too. I’d brought him home before, but this was the first time I was able to show him “all of the types of people I went to high school with.”
Crystal Lake is a fine place to grow up. Its town motto is “A Good Place to Live.” That just about sums it up—just good, nothing more.
In watching the throngs of locals spill out of Finn McCool’s on a Thursday evening, just like any other Thursday evening here, as I watched ex-boyfriends, former teachers and ultra-conservatives jaunt around the local fest, I never felt more like a tourist. I was disconnected from all of this, something I was never even connected to in the first place.
I come from a place where people are content with the familiar. At my high school the typical student would strive to attend a state school, U of I Champaign-Urbana if they’re one of the smart ones, or maybe a small private school in Illinois or one of the adjacent states. They return home after, or they never leave in the first place. Of course some do more, some get out and stay out. They’re the exception, not the rule.
This weekend, as I was talking to my one of friends at home, we wondered what it would be like if we were brought up in a place where teachers and mentors taught you about all of the different options and majors in college, small liberal arts schools came to let us know about their school, or students aimed to achieve Ivy League schools.
What would or lives be like if we weren’t brought up in the midst of complacency?
Maybe we wouldn’t be where we are, still trying to shake that feeling of complacent; still trying to ignore the itching feeling of failure of being even within 50 miles of my hometown.
But this was the hand that was dealt to us. We made it through. We made it here. Maybe we would’ve ended up somewhere else, but we didn’t.
At the end of high school, everyone is afraid college will tear apart the friendships you’ve built. The pretty good ones will make it a couple of years, the best ones will last forever. High school ends when you graduate, but it really ends after college. The “real world” knocks, and it pulls childhood friends across the country; across the world. This was the real end.
As I was driving home on my final night, everything felt different. I don’t know what, but it feels like a chapter has ended.
I know what it feels like to be a tourist in your hometown.