This piece was written in February of this year, and I’ve been debating what to do with it. I considered sending it in to literary magazines, but I also didn’t really want to work on it any more (I know, sounds awful, but there’s a lot of emotion in this piece, and coming back to it was extra work). Some of the feelings in this piece have shifted (the house is no longer half under construction, we’re starting to settle in, things are getting better), but a lot of them are the same. Still don’t like it here very much. Still feel my heart ache when I think about our old home. Still don’t know when or if we’ll ever make it back to the PNW.
“I’m looking for lucky money envelopes? The red ones. For the Lunar New Year.” When the woman stares back at me blankly, I sigh. “Chinese New Year?”
And suddenly the woman at Hallmark knows what I’m after. She leads me to the tiny (four slots, two rows) section, and explains that another woman came in and cleared out their greeting cards but left four packs of the money envelopes.
I hate this place.
Well, no, that’s not entirely fair. I hate living in this place. I liked it just fine when I was visiting a couple times a year and could just laugh at how backwards it could be for such a large city, how deluded the city council was about the area being “metropolitan,” and how it was so removed from everything I’d come to love about my home near Seattle. My home that…is now someone else’s home.
So here’s the deal. In the summer of 2020, amid the pandemic, my husband and I decided that we would sell our house, which had more than doubled in value since purchase, and move back to Colorado. We didn’t really want to leave Washington, but the sale of the house could be life changing. And there’s the matter of my step-father. Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease. I recognize him less every time I see him. My mother is his primary caregiver. I want to help. I want to be there in the end. I want my kids to have some more time with their grandfather while he still knows their names.
We told ourselves that it wouldn’t be too bad as we reached out to a realtor and made plans to move in the late summer of 2021. Might even be fun. We still had friends there. Neither of us could get out of Colorado fast enough back in the early 00s, but it’s been years. Thirteen years is enough time to grow, yeah? Colorado has that new governor that isn’t a complete disaster. They voted blue in the last national election. It’ll be fine, right?
The first month, almost every day, I stood somewhere in the new house and cried because it wasn’t my charming old mid-century modern, set in the middle of a lush lot in the far back corner of a very private, wooded cul de sac. We were in that house for seven years, the longest I have lived anywhere in my adult life, and honestly I thought it was the house we were going to spend the rest of our lives in. Sure, it needed some hefty renovation (which we couldn’t afford), but the location and the lot couldn’t have gotten better, shy of being able to afford a place right on the water. This 1970s split-level ranch, on the arid plain, where all my neighbors can see everything I do, doesn’t fill my heart like that last house did. By the end of the first month I wasn’t crying anymore, but I do look around and sigh, and wonder if I have room to plant trees. Something to block out the nosy boomers on all sides and bring some of that old neighborhood charm to this generic suburb. I know this house has potential, but right now it feels like a poor trade for what we had.
I’ve also been fighting a hard case of FOMO since we arrived as I keep up with friends back in Washington and see what all they’re doing. I’ve found some small ways around this. There were streaming options for many of the live holiday shows that all came back this past year. I kept my job at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival since it’s all zoom meetings and emails now anyway. I even flew out for the festival in October, though I sobbed like a child as I hugged everyone and said goodbye before heading to the airport.
Yes, we still have friends in Colorado, but a lot of my Colorado friends have younger children or are pregnant, and not terribly interested in museum trips or cocktail nights. My kids are grown(ish), I’m not interested in parks and playdates. The ones that don’t have kids have careers. My best friend moved from Colorado to California in January of 2020, transferring departments in her international company (she’s hoping to transfer to Seoul in 3-5 years). I pointed out that I had been trying to get her to move west for 13 years, and that her timing sucked.
But you know what the worst part is? As strange as it may sound, the worst part is the shopping. Like standing in front of the woman at Hallmark who doesn’t understand what Lunar New Year means, and whose store only carries three different hóngbāo, one of which has a turtle on it despite it being the Year of the Tiger. Or when I roam downtown, and find that my old favorite places didn’t survive the pandemic, and the shops and restaurants that have popped up to fill the empty storefronts are distressingly suburban and generic.
Grocery shopping has become a weirdly emotional experience. I traded QFC for King Soopers – both are Kroger stores, so the basics are similar. That helps. The basics aren’t what break my heart, though. It’s when I ran out of garam masala, and couldn’t find it anywhere, even after going to four different stores. It’s not finding my favorite ramen (Ichiban Tonkatsu), and you can forget finding fishcake (the local Asian market way down south has one variety, and it’s not great). I stood in the produce department of King Soopers last night, dejected, because I couldn’t find golden shiitakes, which every QFC within 10 miles of my old house had. There is not a Scandinavian food store in the city, nor does there seem to be one in the state, and if I want Beauvais pickles, I have to order them from the shop I went to in Seattle and have them shipped to my house.
My preferred brands just don’t exist out here. No one carries Darigold sour cream. No one has Ellenos greek yogurt. No one has Franz bread. And every time I stand in the grocery store and reach for the most acceptable substitute, something in my brain says, “You left the place you loved and you may never make it back.” Dozens of times over the span of an hour. By the time I get back in the car, I am exhausted and fighting tears.
Look, I don’t regret moving back. Well, all right, I regret it a little, but for the most part I still think it was the right thing to do. My children are happy. They’re close to their cousins and their grandparents, got new, bigger rooms with new furniture, and are slowly making new friends. My husband and I aren’t happy yet, but I know there’s the potential to get there as more things work themselves out and we get used to this place. The adjustment period has been rough for different reasons – work, school, the repairs the new house needed that still aren’t done, half our lives still sitting in the boxes that are currently behind me – and the persistent unsettled feeling makes that adjustment harder. That doesn’t mean it will be rough forever, though, and objectively things should get better soon.
I just never thought it would hurt so much. I never thought going grocery shopping would feel so much like emotional labor. I didn’t think it would feel like a knife in the heart every time I look out at my dead, brown desert brush backyard and remember the lush forest I left. Washington is where my children grew up, where my husband and I got married, where I came into who I was as an adult out of the shadow of my family and the expectations built in my youth. Where I made friends who wanted to talk about what the future looked like instead of what we all did in high school. It feels like a piece of myself is still sitting in my old house, tucked away on the top shelf in the bedroom closet, or down in the office basement where I used to sit on the couch with my laptop as my husband was at his desk, or on one of the high shelves in the kitchen that I couldn’t reach without a stool where I spent hours cooking and laughing with my kids. And I just don’t think I can get that piece back.