I used to hate my hometown. I thought it limited me. In some ways, it probably did. Growing up in a predictable white, suburban town tends to suffocate you in all the ways you would expect. The streets become ingrained in your memory because the buildings never change. You see the same people every day, everywhere, all the time. Those people always smile and wave, and you smile and wave back because that is the Midwest-etiquette thing to do. Sometimes, you try to look into their eyes, in the Kroger aisle or at the gas station, to see if they get tired of this town the same way you do.
On my trips home from college, I am starting to realize that I probably don’t hate my hometown the way I thought I did. I hated the way it used to make me feel. When I return to my hometown, I feel every belittling, painful moment of my adolescence. Growing up breaks you down, especially as a person of Color in a white town that fails to offer you any ounce of grace. It’s painful, uncomfortable and exhausting, and returning home is a constant reminder of that. At the same time, when I return home, the air feels crisper, the sounds of the 4 a.m. trains that I dreaded growing up are now comforting and when my neighbor’s eyes meet mine, it is oddly warm.
All I wanted was change. However, in a new city filled with opportunities for reinvention, it is the reminders of home that I intentionally seek out. I tried to make the same Tamil food in my college kitchen that I refused to eat when I was 13. I have a playlist of songs from 2014 because those were the same songs that I listened to on my iPod touch on the way to school.
When I returned for the holidays, I faced conflicting emotions. I am determined to decipher my tangled feelings of regret and nostalgia. So this time, I wrote down two special places in my hometown and what they mean to me now.
- The eyebrow threading place in the mall
A sacred relationship exists between a brown girl and her eyebrow-threading salon. Mine is called Brow23, and it is sandwiched between Macy’s and a Francesa’s that has been shut down for three years. The mall hasn’t been renovated since the early 2000s. It is not sleek; it feels confidently loud in a cheugy, funky pattern aesthetic.
I have been going to this eyebrow threading shop since fifth grade. In fourth grade, a boy told me that I had a unibrow, and it took 200 days of begging and bad razor cuts to convince my mom that I should get my eyebrows professionally threaded.
It has been 10 years since I started going there, but the service is consistently the same. There is a long blue couch with the same archetypes: Indian aunties, broke college students, white moms with crying babies. I ask for the same aunty to do my brows. She’s never told me her name; it feels weird to ask since she doesn’t know mine. I tell her, “Keep them thick; just shape them,” and she nods as if she hasn’t done my brows dozens of times before. She tells me that I don’t come in enough and that maybe I should think about threading my upper lip and face, and I nod as if I haven’t heard this dozens of times before.
Sometimes she asks me about college; other times, we sit in silence. She must notice that I bite my lip and press my nails deep into my skin to distract myself from the pain, which feels like sandpaper scraping against my skin with each fine movement. Some people say the pain gets better but it doesn’t – it will always hurt. I think those people just get used to it or accept that beauty is pain.
Threading only takes 10 minutes, and only costs 10 dollars. She always offers me rose water to soothe the stinging. One out of three times, she compliments how thick my eyebrows are, and the compliment feels earned because of all the teasing I have endured about my unibrow. I leave the store to get Auntie Anne pretzel bites in the food court, praying that thin brows never go back in style again. I check myself out in the reflection of the glass on a closed down store. My brows look good – Aunty always makes them look good.
- The blue swing set at my elementary school
I had the same best friend until eighth grade. We had the exact same sense of humor, probably because we developed it together. We communicated with mere looks, whether it be across the playground or lunchroom. Just by smirking, I could tell her a joke, and with a slight look in her eyes, she would riff a joke back.
We created our humor on the blue swing set. It was situated in the back of the playground, the perfect spot for people-watching. We didn’t play four-square or capture the flag; instead, we swung for an hour and a half, creating backstories for kids we barely knew. Of all the people I have known, I laughed the hardest with her, to the point of clenching my stomach and crying on the floor.
I think we swung on those swings every day for four or five years. We talked about what we thought middle school would be like with each other, how we would one day go to college together, how our lives would be forever intertwined.
I barely talk to her anymore. Sometimes, we text around birthdays or catch up at graduation parties.
We went to different high schools and tried to keep in contact, but it is hard when you live two hours away. I used to resent her for not trying hard enough. But how could I when I barely tried either?
As I moved around schools and to different cities, I realized that not all friendships are supposed to be a permanent fixture in your life. I like to think the universe works with us, placing people in our lives when we most need them.
So, instead of feeling bitter about a friendship that grew apart, I think of our days laughing on the blue swing set. I think about how we shaped each other. And when I laugh at something, somehow I always think of her. I wonder if she would have found it funny. I think she probably would.
This holiday season, I am going home again. I will try to avoid eye contact with people from high school. I will complain about how there is nothing to do. I will walk around Target for two hours to buy a book I probably won’t read. I will contemplate how I lived here for 16 years of my life. I will promise myself that I won’t settle down in a suburban town like this once.
But I will come back to Ann Arbor and miss it. Because despite how much I really want to hate my hometown, I can’t. Because it is filled with special places that I shouldn’t be attached to but I am. Because it isn’t just my eyebrow shop and my elementary school playground, it is the park I always went to with my dad and the bagel shop we went to on Sundays and hidden rooms in the temple.
So, I guess I am a product of all these relatively mundane places. I found that hometowns are not defined by the buildings or the people. It’s defined by all your memories that form a complex mosaic of your adolescence. It’s defined by you.
MiC Columnist Maya Kogulan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.