I have never quite understood this element of the human condition that often has the city or town you live in viewed in a kinder light the closer you get to leaving it. Barring places of great violence and danger that you escape from, non-traumatic departures generally have this going for them. Or at least they do for me. Nothing’s different, save the departure of my sorry behind. What then gives? There is this vague sense of sigh-inducing finality, usually accompanied by moderately maudlin memories of good times, whenever I leave a place, especially if I know I’m leaving it forever. There is the feeling, to some degree or the other, that a chapter in one’s life is over, and a feeling of sadness (albeit usually accompanied by exciting anticipation of the next destination) simply because of that closing.
Now, when I left Erie, Pennsylvania after a brief semester in that lakeside town in 2003, all I felt was pure unadulterated joy during my last few days there. The thought of leaving the place made me happy as fuck. Which was hardly surprising considering I had spent the semester dealing with irritating housemates, weird forms of American chauvinism, and tiresome Bible thumping, while making sure I got decent grades, sustained myself on part-time minimum wages, and did what I had to do to get the hell out of there to my next port-of-call. There were many days where I coasted on nothing more than coffee, cigarettes, and the odd banana or bag of peanuts.
Being a middle class kid from Bangalore, I really wasn’t too happy about roughing it out to the point of messing up my health. I was keen on pulling myself up by my bootstraps or whatever (you know, with sizeable help from my parents, a gift from my rich uncle, and plenty of family networks in the States), but was also keen on being moderately happy and healthy while doing so.
So I was pretty chuffed that I was heading to my next destination.
But that curious element of the human condition when leaving places for good came to the fore again. It was manifesting in the way I was seeing the place. The happiness stemming from my impending departure was tinting the glasses with which I was viewing the town of Erie, some of the people I had met in Gannon University, and, hell, even my god-awful housemates, Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynists. People who irritated me ceased to do so temporarily because I knew I didn’t have to deal with them anymore. And with that change in attitude, came the ability to see some of the nicer qualities in that person.
Dr. Richards complimented me with genuine warmth when he found out that I was transferring to Hopkins.
“One of the finest universities in the world.” he said, shaking my hand vigorously. “And I’m sure you’ll do very well there. After all, you Indians have a long legacy of hard working people, so you should have no problems.”
(With the headspace I was in at the time, I was happier dealing with positive stereotypes rather than negative ones.)
Even Large & Shrill, that giant pile of holier-than-thou pomposity who irritated the crap out of me during our Spring Break volunteer trip, was visibly happy for me when we met during a reunion of all the travellers.
Though I secretly wondered if her joy was more at the thought of seeing one less heathen in her town.
My elation at leaving had also opened my eyes to hitherto unknown little delights in Erie – things that I had not noticed before when I was feeling miserable. I saw that it had some gorgeous water bodies. Beautiful creeks and lakes, including the town’s eponymous one among the Five Greats, provided breathtaking scenery. As winter melted away, I also noticed that it was in fact a really stunning place in the sunshine. It had lovely hiking trails that I had never traversed before.
So I decided to traverse one with my fascist friend.
A couple of days before I had to leave, Murali and I took a walk along one of the more beautiful trails on the outskirts of town. He was visibly upset that I was leaving. Despite my inability to look beyond his beliefs, he still thought of me as his best friend in that place. He said that he had never connected with anyone there the way he did with me. It was a little unnerving, but for a moment I decided to forget about his political beliefs and just let him be in our friendship.
“You’re the only one I could talk to about India and politics Sri…all the rest of the Indian crowd here are only interested in materialistic things.” he said as we walked along the rocky path.
“I understand man.” I said.
He nodded with a forlorn look on his face.
It was an interesting moment for me. The fact that we had polarizing political views was not the issue for him. It was for me. I could never be friends with a fascist. He viewed it differently. The very fact that we had political views was what made him feel sad about my departure. We were on opposite sides of the spectrum, but I was the only person he could speak to about the spectrum itself. Maybe at that moment my differing political views didn’t matter as much to him. Most of the other Indian grad students he interacted with didn’t relate to him at that level, and were primarily focused on getting a job after grad school. I was the only one he could talk to about anything other than the material sustenance that consumes the thoughts of all new immigrants.
As we hugged goodbye, for the briefest of moments I actually felt like I was going to miss him. I was going to miss the temporary friendship of convenience I had cultivated with a fascist. This departure was opening my eyes to more things than just the landscape of the place I was leaving.
I packed my bags the day before I was scheduled to leave. I didn’t have to. I was only taking the late afternoon bus the next day, but packing made me feel even better. Slovenly Misogynist came to bid me farewell. I was so happy that I actually hugged him goodbye, somehow managing to get my arms around his pudgy midriff.
“Where are you staying now?” I asked. I had completely forgotten about him soon after he had left the house in a huff following his blowup with Fiefdom King.
“With a couple of Indian guys from class.” he replied with resignation. “It’s not great…they keep asking when I’m going to move, but where do I move to in the middle of the semester? I won’t find any roomies and all the other places are too expensive.”
I nodded awkwardly, not knowing what to say.
There was a pause as we looked at each other uneasily.
“So, um…have you been to any more strip clubs?” I asked, trying to shift the conversation to a subject that interested him.
“A couple of times…but I don’t have the money to go all the time.” he replied a little crestfallen.
I actually felt a touch of sympathy for the lout. It was like somewhere deep inside him, covered in all those layers, was a little boy; a moronic, sexually stunted, little boy who deserved a touch of sympathy.
Later on in the morning I finished packing and moved my suitcase and duffle bag to the living room. Fiefdom King was cooking in the kitchen.
“Best of luck Sri.” he said with a slight smile that exposed a dash of envy. “It’s really cool that you’re transferring to a better school.”
“Thanks man.” I said, wiping a drop of sweat from my brow. “I hope everything goes well for you here.”
“Yeah, I hope so too.” he said. “Eventually I too hope to move to a bigger city. It’s much better in the bigger cities.”
It was an insecure side to him I had never chosen to witness before.
I nodded with a smile.
“By the way,” he then ventured, “you…uh, you haven’t seen my camera anywhere have you? I’ve looked everywhere for it, and can’t seem to find it.”
“No idea man.” I said, putting on the most innocent face I could muster. “I didn’t know you had misplaced it. It’s pretty expensive isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is, which is why I’m worried that I can’t find it.” he replied. “Anyway…don’t mean to be bothering you with it. I know you’re busy packing, just thought I’d ask.”
“No problem.” I said with a smile (in the process realizing that there was a tiny little sociopath in me when it came to dealing with assholes). “I have to get going now. Am meeting a couple of friends for lunch and dinner.”
We said our goodbyes and I left to hang out with my closest friends in that town.
Earlier in the day I had dropped by Jane’s office to see her one last time. She shook my hand and smiled, wrinkling her brilliantly weathered face.
“It was a real blessing to have known you Sri.” she said with warmth.
“You too Jane. Thanks for everything…you have no idea how much I appreciate the support and friendship I received from you.”
“There’s no need to thank me…the pleasure was all mine.”
Above all though, there were three people that I wanted to spend quality time with before I left. And I wanted to ensure that they were the last people I would be hanging out with before I went to the Greyhound station. Peaceniks and general rabble rousers, Peter, Mary-Rose, and Anna, had been the biggest reasons for whatever sanity I had been able to cling onto during that semester. It was only fitting that they were the people I hung out with as I reveled in the joy of leaving, so that I could share that happiness with them.
Peter and I met for lunch to say good bye to each other. We spoke about the trip to New York, and his continuing anti-war activism with his church.
“It’s tough in this town, but it has to start somewhere.” he added, wistfully. “Which is why I’m going to miss you Sri…it’s rare to find fellow peace activists like you here. I feel like quite an outcast some times.”
I had never thought about Peter as an outcast. He seemed like the poster-child for the good, pious, small-town, God-fearing Christian. It was a moment when I felt like I should have maybe opened up a little more about my predicament. I might have found a kindred soul.
He hugged me long and tight as we said our goodbyes. It was touching.
“I had a wonderful time with you Sri.” he said, eyes welling up. “I’ll always remember some of the wonderful conversations we had.”
“It was a real pleasure to have known you Peter.” I replied. “And thanks for being my friend.”
Finally, Mary-Rose, Anna and I gathered in their apartment for one last vodka and pot-filled evening of laughter. Anna presented me a book on Martin Luther King Jr. with a lovely note inside it about how much our friendship meant to her and how much she would miss our conversations on political struggles. Mary-Rose gave me a small framed photograph of the iconic Imagine mosaic in Central Park, as a testament to my love for John Lennon’s music.
Drunk and high, we chatted through the night.
“We’re going to miss you, you bastard.” Mary-Rose said loudly in a drunken slur.
“I’m going to miss you guys too.” I said, now inebriated enough to let my inhibitions fall.
“Yeah, right!” she exclaimed in false sarcasm. “The moment you head to Baltimore, you’re going to forget all about this little town.”
I wanted to tell her that it’s what I thought would happen, and indeed was hoping would happen, but wasn’t so sure now.
Anna said softly, “You’ll be really happy in a bigger city I think Sri…I know I will. It’s tough for folks like us here. We stick out too much.”
There was something happening in those last few moments with the temporary friends I had made in Erie. I couldn’t quite understand it, but I was actually feeling a little lucky. I had a path out of this place, albeit a tough one, but one that still got me out. They didn’t have that as yet. Suddenly things weren’t so cut and dry. I had never thought that maybe they too were just as marginalized as I was in that place, that they might have wanted to leave as well. I just assumed that it would be easier for them. This was their home town after all.
I had traveled all the way from India to the realization that I had a ticket out of conservative, small-town America that some of my friends in those very spaces didn’t.
Anna and Mary-Rose came with me to the Greyhound station next day to see me off. They had packed a lunch for me, and hugged me good bye. I saw a tear drop well up in Anna’s eye.
I boarded the bus, and as it trundled off onto the highway, I saw them for one last time through my window and waved at them. And for the first time, I felt a twinge of sadness at the thought of leaving.
I never saw any of them ever again.