I left a small town. Not a town that is small, but certainly a town with small-town-minded people and circles of friends and lovers and enemies that bleed into each other with the destruction of a coastal oil spill, each person covered in the complications of and connections to a dozen or more others. My sister sent me a screen shot of the boy she's interested in, asked me to look him up, and let her know what I thought. What I thought was I knew him. Of course I knew him. He would come into the pub where I worked. I had seen him out with his friends when I was out with my friends. He was super nice. All the servers thought he was dreamy. I knew his friends. I knew his drink (stout). And now I know another person who he will date.
While serving in the Irish pub, what would be my last job in South Bend, I was teetering between where to go after graduation and what I should do. Should I move to the familiar Grand Rapids and begin my MFA at Grand Valley State University where I received my BA? Or should I try to enroll in one of the seemingly too good to be true teaching contracts in Saudi Arabia or South Korea where all the eager children spoke English, your living expenses were covered and your profit was tax-free? Or should I move to either Austin or Seattle - my two choices for where I would replant after uprooting my life?
On one of those last nights, it was late, about fifteen minutes past last call, we still had a good hour or two of cleanup and side work after a particularly raucous open-mic night. There was a group of ten not willing to leave, they were standing at least, but still around their table, blocking our attempts to clean up the empty pint glasses and crumpled napkins. Finally, they began to file out after we turned up the lights and turned off the music. I was not-too-discreetly sweeping around their feet when a pair of worn Chuck Taylors and some gaudy metallic and scuffed strappy sandals blocked my path. I looked up to see my ex-boyfriend. He was standing with his arm around a girl that I worked with at my first restaurant job years ago - I used to call her my arch enemy. She wore hoops that were much too large and by talking sweetly to the manager she would always get the best section. She was lazy and every time I heard her breathy voice it made my skin crawl. I hadn't seen her in six years. I hadn't seen him in three. He was the executive chef for a brief time at the fourth (or fifth?) restaurant I worked at, and after quitting because of "creative differences" I asked him out. I never like to shit where I ate, and certainly do not date where I work. Bad news bears. I told him I loved him, but don't think I meant it. Five months in, his bad temper characteristic of chefs and emperor-child-syndrome surfaced and our story ended.
But somehow, the two of these interesting characters in my own personal history found each other, and they were dating. We exchanged the awkward, hello-how-are-you's and the oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-you-two-are-dating's and the yes-I'm-still-serving-but-about-to-finish-my-MA-next-month's. I tried to end the conversation as fast as I could. And for the rest of the night and weekend I was completely blown away by the smallness of the town and the lives that I would have never put together, connected without my slightest help or interference.
At that moment, I knew I needed to leave, anywhere, it didn't matter. My ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend was someone that I knew. And I know this is not a new story, or even remotely shocking to most people. Some even hope for a life like that, chanting the interminable Cheers theme - where everybody knows your name. Groups of people and townies are constantly swapping and cycling through each other romantically, but because of the way I was raised, moving from state to state, house to house, country to country, I simply couldn't fathom someday dating someone that once dated someone else I knew, or work for a person that owned the same restaurant I had worked at a few years back or teach a class made up of students that I used to babysit when I was younger. I couldn't do it. I needed to be able to go the bank and not know every person in line. I needed to be able to go to write at a coffee shop, without any makeup, hair unwashed and eat a bagel at 1pm because I had woken up at 12:30. I needed anonymity. I needed to not know everyone's story before we meet. I needed a fresh start.
Austin is where I ended up. And I have a friend here, from South Bend, who is trying to make those same connections, and asks me every time we hang out, "Hey, you know Carissa, right?" or "You remember Zach, Ellen's boyfriend?" and gratefully, I can say that I don't. People like him, people like the ones satisfied in South Bend and other similar cities and towns, are happy to know everyone and everyone's business. But I am not one of them. I prefer to sit back, wait, and learn about new acquaintances on my own. People are so much more exciting when you haven't already heard about their father's drinking problem, their trip to Cabo, or their third attempt at college before shaking their hand for the first time. There are far, far too many people still left to meet on this earth before signing off and giving in to those that you already know. Their knowledge and their experiences are there for the sharing. I can only hope Austin is big enough, diverse enough, and full of newness long enough for me to remain.