I used to live here. One day I was 21 and I had spent a year taking care of the elderly and flying back and forth between LA and Denver, and the next day I had to decide between going to grad school in Salt Lake City or doing something else in any place other than Salt Lake City. And because of Jake, my mentor, one day at the back of a coffee shop in Denver, I chose grad school and Salt Lake City and that decision stayed with me in a vague way until suddenly I’d visited SLC one July and I’d secured an apartment in a building that wouldn’t even have its certificate of occupancy until after I was supposed to move to Salt Lake City. One night, it was 90 degrees at midnight in a motel parking lot in downtown Salt Lake and I paced around outside in my underwear talking to my boyfriend while mentally preparing to apartment hunt with my mom the following morning. When we went to see the site of my future home, we were told we needed closed toed shoes because it was a construction site, so we went to some footwear store in a horrible outdoor mall built for the 2002 Olympics on the west side of town and each bought a pair of converse on sale. I bought black and white checkered high tops that I never once wore again until a month ago, and which I am wearing at this moment.
When I come back here, I tell people how I was miserable for two years, but how, on my very last day in Salt Lake City, I fell in love with it, and I sobbed on my drive back to Denver the following morning, car packed with my belongings. People ask me, why were you so miserable?
I was miserable because I knew no one. Because I had to move to the twilight zone version of my own hometown, location of the mountains reversed. Because I had to live in a 15 year old version of the Denver I’d just left, pollution and all. Denver was far more polluted when I was a kid than it is now, but walking into Salt Lake’s inversion was like walking back in time.
I was miserable because I lived in an apartment that wasn’t ready when I arrived, so I had to live in an extended stay motel for two weeks. This is something all my Utah friends know but don’t usually remember. What I did for two weeks was feel bad for myself, take a lot of vicodin, and read The Odyssey. When I finally did move into my apartment, I was the first one there, and the place felt like a hospital. Concrete floors. All white walls. Fluorescent lighting. Long, narrow, sterile hallways. I couldn’t get my blinds to close for three days. I called my boyfriend in frustration and tears more than once to tell him how I’d yet again not slept because there was so much light in my apartment all night from the surrounding warehouses and parking lots.
I was miserable because my neighbors were said warehouses and parking lots. Because I lived in the industrial part of town, which one couldn’t really call a neighborhood, but which is now seeing an increase in the presence of coffee shops and the people who go to coffee shops. No such thing existed even three years ago. All I had were dump trucks, a taxi company, and a small music venue called Kilby Court. Kilby Court kind of saved me the first year I lived here.
I was so miserable that my only goal for myself was to make one friend in my entire two years at the University of Utah.
My boyfriend broke up with me.
My friend committed suicide.
My friend group was quickly crumbling for a variety of complicated and uncomplicated reasons unrelated but not unrelated to our friend’s sudden death.
My former baby sitter and oldest friend was diagnosed with cancer. She died a year after I moved here.
There were people who got in car accidents. There were falling outs. There was vicious gossip.
But there were also parties. Gatherings. Readings. Seminars. Slowly I realized that I’d been hanging out with the same 30 or so people every week for months, and that these people constituted my group of friends. I’d exceeded my goal by 30. At least.
I’m writing all of this because the strangest thing for me over the past ten days has been to remember who I was when I lived here. I was newly 22 when I arrived and soon to be 24 when I left. I lost two people I loved while I lived here. I got broken up with and then I got back together with the breaker upper. My entire friend group shifted from people I met in high school, to people I’d only known in Utah. I only ate captin crunch cereal, frozen pizzas, 6 packs of krispy kreme donuts, frozen mozzarella sticks, and Noodles & Co. I bought a bike but never rode it. I started doing yoga. I started going to spin class. By my second year here, the only healthy part of my life was going to spin class twice a week after teaching back to back comp classes every Tuesday and Thursday. I was working what felt like a real job, even though being a graduate student still doesn’t totally qualify as a real job, and I was starting to become a person.
When I think about Salt Lake City me, I feel like I’m thinking of someone else. Some old, kind of annoying friend I used to have. I was a mess. I reveled in destruction. My favorite song lyrics at the time were maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano. I wanted to burn everything to the ground. I wanted to break people. I wanted to break myself. A month before I moved away, someone jumped off the roof of my apartment building and died in my parking lot as I pulled my car in after evening yoga. I was listening to Beirut’s “Vagabond.” Left the vagabonds, trail of stones/for to find my way home now. But in retrospect, those two years were not miserable because of all of the things I’ve recalled above. Those two years were miserable because I was 22-24 years old and I was in the fire of becoming. I was learning how to be intentional. How to make choices. How to be something other than a mere extension of my immediate past. I was growing up. And it was awful. And I wouldn’t relive those years for anything. I see my students now, how they’re not even there yet. How they’re in the pre-adulting phase, which can be just as bad in different ways, though for me lacked the self-awareness of my own process and struggle that 22-24 brought. [It is important for me to note that I imagine looking back on this 25-30 age in a few decades and having similar thoughts, but what matters to me now is that I feel a sense of peace that I never felt then.]
When I drive around the streets of this place now, I think I am looking to meet my old self. I feel unfulfilled or incomplete in some way here, like I have some kind of unfinished business. All those hikes I never took. All those bike rides that never happened. The friendships I only came to value after I moved away and they remained in tact. I want to find that old me, likely ordering a Santa Fe wrap at the Einstein’s Bagels on South State Street. I want to watch that me fill up her fountain soda, wait under flickering fast food chain lighting, not because I want to tell her that it will all be ok, but because I want to remind present self where I came from, because I want to remember that this was a hard fought battle from misery to happiness, because I want to reassure myself that I made it through something once and came out a better person.