On March 25, I boarded a flight from Detroit to Southern California, where I grew up. The airport was eerily empty, the Transportation Security Administration workers wore masks and televisions throughout the terminal were broadcasting the latest fatality numbers of COVID-19. Rolling my suitcase to my gate, the few people in the terminal gave each other a wide berth, exchanging nervous yet empathetic half-smiles. This is weird, everyone said wordlessly to each other. Things are not as they should be.
I found my seat on the mostly empty plane, leaned my head against the freshly disinfected (courtesy of my antibacterial wipes) window and queued up Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Cliche? Most definitely. Yet the lyrics, describing leaving behind a lover for some future unknown — “I’m leaving, on a jet plane / don’t know when I’ll be back again / Oh babe, I hate to go” — hit a little too close to home, and I cried, hard, the continuation of the past three days of non-stop tears since I’d made the decision it was time for me to leave Ann Arbor.
As the clouds soared beneath me, I allowed myself to fully delve into the melodramatic-film-end-scene mood of the moment, indulging in feeling shamelessly sorry for myself. This global pandemic has unlocked a whole lot of weird, big-picture feelings — a sense of uprootedness, a floaty kind of dread, grief on a broad, existential scale — all emotions I hadn’t experienced before and didn’t (and still don’t) really know how to put into more explicit words.
In a perhaps futile effort to make sense of it all, though, I’ve come to the realization that many of these feelings resonate as variations on one, nastily familiar one: heartbreak. Leaving Ann Arbor feels, for lack of a better comparison, like a breakup — and a pretty shitty one at that.
Everyone has their own tragedies right now, a friend of mine aptly put it, whether it be a canceled commencement, a postponed performance or a more immediate and life-threatening threat such as loss of a job, a bad home environment that’s impossible to escape or the disease itself. In the grand scheme of people who are impacted by COVID-19, my exodus from Ann Arbor is not a big deal. I know this. Yet, I’m struggling.
I know the virus is all everyone’s writing about right now, in a way that can sometimes feel like a desperate race to draw the proper conclusions or make the most profound creative statement about the current state of the world. Sloane Crosley of The New York Times somewhat ironically warns against this phenomenon, pointing out that “from an artistic standpoint, it’s best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it back into everyone’s faces.”
But while this virus is a big collective experience, it’s also inherently solitary — as from our little self-isolation bubbles we attempt to conceptualize where, as individuals, we stand with this new reality. So this is me attempting not to draw any big picture conclusions or spit in anyone’s face, but rather put words to an experience that — like any heartbreak — is immensely personal. I’m dealing with the loss of Ann Arbor in the way that I’ve dealt with every previous heartbreak I’ve gone through — writing about it, breaking it down, hoping that doing so will help make sense of the current moment in some small way.
Leaving Ann Arbor was a conscious choice on my behalf, which is in large part why it was so difficult to go. Students were urged to leave campus, but I was living in off-campus housing. I had an apartment, I had access to a roommates’ car, I had friends living around me I could lean on in case of emergency. I could have stayed through the summer as I’d previously been planning on. I could have tried to prolong my college experience as long as possible, tried to take in every last drop of Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor has been my home for the past four years. I have grown into the person I am in this city — in fraternity basements and dingy bars, Mason Hall class discussions on the modern political system where I can’t help but be distracted by the orange-hued leaves of the Diag trees outside the window, strategizing meetings with friends from various campus orgs over Espresso Royale’s watered-down Hazelnut blend, late night roommate talks on fraying, passed-down couches in run-down college houses weakly lit by a bulb the landlord insists is sufficient for the space. I’ve met people that inspire me to take action and advocate for others, people that taught me to love deeply, people I now consider my best friends.
This year, my senior year, full of evenings gathered around the living room TV with roommates to do The New York Times crossword puzzle, weekly wine-fueled book clubs with friends, and familiar friendly faces in my regular coffee shop haunts, Ann Arbor has felt like exactly where I needed to be. It’s felt like where I am supposed to be — surrounded by a community that knows me well, that supports me, that sees me for who I am.
Ann Arbor and I have had a good relationship, a healthy one, for the most part. But as in any relationship, things change. Ann Arbor has changed — it’s shuttered, quiet, isolated. It’s not the same brimming, full of energy city that I know and love, with coffee shops overflowing with friends, young parents walking their dogs in the Nichols Arboretum with offspring in tow, flocks of students toting backpacks and bemoaning upcoming midterms crossing the Diag on their way to class. The community, the collective being, has become a shadow of what it once was, reduced to a few solitary joggers and roommates braving the outdoors for aimless socially responsible walks.
Surrounded by the echoes of the past four years of my life, it took everything in me not to play dumb, to let myself be convinced that this new status quo was anything close to what had once been. I wanted, so badly, to believe that the community and support I’d felt in this town was still there. It would have been easier, perhaps, to stay. To prolong the stage of life that was Ann Arbor. But, I quite reluctantly forced myself to recognize that staying in Ann Arbor was hurting me more than it was helping me — it was just a constant reminder of what was and what could have been.
I chose to come home to California. I chose to be with my family in a time of widespread uncertainty, to let myself have some stability for the moment, to spend time in the sunshine, read and wait. Still, though, letting go wasn’t — and isn’t — easy.
Having to make the choice to leave, to break-up with not only this city, but the person I am there, is terrifying. I’ve left before of course, for summers or study abroad, but I’ve always come back. Who am I without even the future promise of Ann Arbor to remind me? Ann Arbor is where I’ve had the space to question who I am as an independent human being, to shape an identity free of the constraints of my hometown. The person I am in Ann Arbor is self-assured, knows who and what she values and is confident in her role in her friendships and her own ability to take on the world. Is that person still there, if Ann Arbor isn’t anymore?
This transition was going to come anyways. I wasn’t going to stay in college, and in Ann Arbor, forever. But the suddenness, the lack of resolution or clarity has made the change hit so much harder. I wanted this relationship to end with some real closure, where Ann Arbor and I could reflect on all the growth and good experiences we’d had with our time, celebrating the end of an era with graduation caps and champagne. I was planning on leaving Ann Arbor with my friends in tow, an entire class of college graduates entering the post-graduate world with each other to lean on. Instead, we’re all scattered back to our parents’ houses, hiding from the shadow of our 17-year-old selves — prematurely leaving behind the city that’s given us so much, the friends we’ve made, the sense of self we’ve forged in this place.
Despite how unfair it feels and how badly I wish I could get those last two months back, I’m trying to come with terms with the fact that it’s time for me to let go. Maybe someday Ann Arbor and I can reconcile — but I don’t know, and I’m not counting on it. So for now, I’m saying my goodbyes, while retaining what I can of the person Ann Arbor has taught me to become.
Now, at home, I’m trying to make sense of what my new role is in this weird in-between stage of life, while the world does the same around me. Unlike most conventional breakups, I can’t really rebound right now. I can’t go out to my town’s movie theater, sit in the square outside the café and have my cup of coffee, fall in love with the laughter and community and collective being of another place.
So I’m doing what I can. Writing, lots. Processing in the only way I know how. Talking to friends on the phone. Trying to not beat myself up for the days when productivity seems near impossible, when I give in to consuming various forms of mind-numbing media from the comforts of my couch. Recognizing that, as with all heartbreaks, I will heal — it’s just going to take some time to get over this one.