I left the suburbs for Chicago, but there's a boy back home

Here I am at the crossroads. What would you do?

Published January 24, 2006 11:36AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 20-something female who has just reached a tough crossroads in my life. About six months ago, I moved to Chicago -- 200 miles from my dreary, mediocre-at-best suburban hometown -- in pursuit of better career opportunities and a life of my own in the "big city." Of course, my new life hasn't gone exactly according to plan.

At first, it was great. I got my own apartment for the first time, and had a decent, respectable, white-collar office job. Inevitably, though, the culture shock and subsequent fear of city life caught up with little suburban me; then, three months after I was hired, my company let me go and eliminated my position because of an inadequate workload for me. Now, I'm facing one of two choices: either move back to my go-nowhere hometown or have my mother come and live with me until I'm able to get back on my feet. Her coming would thereby eliminate the last of my familial ties to the place where I grew up.

The choice seems clear: Stay in Chicago, get past this obstacle and try "making it." But I'm leaning toward going back home for an entirely different reason. You see, shortly before I moved to Chicago, I met someone in my hometown. We started out just being friends: two people with common interests who'd go out, shoot a few rounds of pool and talk about things that mattered to both of us. Then one night, just before we parted ways, he kissed me. Admittedly, I was smitten, but I blew it off as being just alcohol-induced lust. Three days later, I got a job offer in Chicago and proceeded with my plans to leave.

Since I moved to Chicago, I've been heading home two or three times a month, even more now that I'm unemployed. Each time I'm home, I make a point to see this guy. Our friendship has deepened, of course, and now it seems to be turning into something more.

Our budding relationship hasn't been without its obstacles, naturally -- first and foremost being the physical distance between us.

When I moved to Chicago, he was completely supportive and understanding of my reasons for wanting to leave my hometown. Like me, he hates the narrow-minded, dead-endedness of it, and wants to get out someday, too. Right now, however, he's finishing his last year of college there, and has some personal obligations to his family that he needs to fulfill before he can go anywhere else. For me, this indicates that even if I were to move home and we were to become more seriously involved, I wouldn't be stuck there forever (or, perhaps, that he might someday be able to join me in Chicago -- I don't really know).

I'd love for him to come and visit me here, but to complicate things further, he has a medical condition that prevents him from driving a car, so traveling is a bit of an obstacle for him.

My time to make a decision is running out, Cary, but I'm nervous about the outcome either way. On one hand, I'd like to move back to my hometown and take a chance on having a relationship with this guy. But he's really the only thing I've got going there, and there are no guarantees it would work out between us in the long term. What I am guaranteed there is a potentially dead-end career with only limited opportunities for success and advancement, and a crappy social life marked by inadequate cultural events and entertainment for young people like me.

I'm afraid that if I stay in Chicago, though (particularly if my mother moves here and I have no real reason to go back to my hometown again), my friendship with this guy will inevitably fade into the realm of e-mail and Christmas cards. I'm trying hard to want to stay in Chicago, to not think about this guy and what may or may not be, and to tell myself to leave it up to fate: If it's meant to be, it will happen. But it's getting harder and harder to maintain that little mantra when I can no longer deny that I'm in love with him. It brings to mind a quote I read recently: "The trouble with never giving into temptation is that you never know if you might get another chance."

Cary, if you were me, at this crossroads in your life, which direction would you take?

Love or Opportunity

Dear Love or Opportunity,

How can we do what we would have done if we had been as we are now back then? Can't do it. We had to do what we did to get to be who we are, so we can now stand back and say, Hey, I would not do it that way again! In which case, of course, having done it differently, we would turn out differently, and see things differently, and advise differently, and still be filled with longing for what we did not do.

Nonetheless, I will tell you what I would do: I would go back to my town and be with this guy and fall in love and have a life.

I would do other things too. I would not accept a life that did not make me happy. I would identify what it was that made me happy and find a way to do it while living in my town. For instance, if you're driving to your little town from Chicago three times a month, you can also drive to Chicago from your little town three times a month, no? But you are not likely to do that, are you? Because something about your little town fills you with lethargy like a narcotic. You have seen this happen to the people there and that is why you felt you had to escape. You have seen how it sucks the life out of people, the dreary lives they lead, the opportunities they miss, the intolerable quiet of tree-lined streets, the sound of the corn growing, the claustrophobia of routine. You have seen it and that is why you fled.

So if you go back you have to find a way. You have to find some people and form a tribe. Then you need a clubhouse, a building. And if you have to, well, you and your boyfriend, you leave together and make a life somewhere else. But do not rely on fate. Do not be passive. It is a struggle; you must assert your will over life.

That is what I thought I would do when I came to the city of San Francisco: That I would be like a G.I. entering Paris after World War II, showered with flowers. But the city is big, and it belongs to other people, and it does not know your name when you arrive.

The older I get, the more I want my family nearby, take them as they are. Why? It is because while others shake their heads sadly at our cruel eccentricities, among my own family we just laugh, because we alone know where it comes from: We understand this language; this is the language of our family. This is who we are! The older I get, the less I can escape who I am. I am not that sophisticated person I am trying to be. When I was a young boy I dreamed of becoming this sophisticated person. But I am still not him. I am still that boy, dreaming.

But enough about me. You asked, I told. I would go back there and form a life and then fight to maintain a connection to the things I love, whatever that requires. What do you love about Chicago? The architecture, certainly. The museums and bookstores, the clothes people wear, the way they walk, the lives you can imagine they lead as you see them walk down the street. A city is a place of the imagination. You will miss all that if you do not continue to cultivate it. But you do not need to live right in the middle of the city to cultivate it. In fact, again using the benefit of experience, I think I can say that the economic struggle to survive in a great city can dull the imagination, can rob the spirit of the leisure it requires to dream its fullest dreams. You struggle, you get distracted, you tighten down, you fight little socioeconomic skirmishes and ongoing low-intensity social warfare and it saps you like malaria; bit by bit you dismiss the things that call you and the things that made you; you just don't have time for that now, distracted by ephemeral things, the glitter of recognition, the building of a name.

And why do you want a name? Only because you are lonely -- amid the crowd, as anybody could have told you, you are still a lonely person, shy like the first day of school.

In other words, I've lived in a great city for about 30 years, and frankly I don't think it's so great anymore. I go to the suburbs where people don't have to struggle so hard, and it looks kinda nice. I sort of wish I were there. (Of course, I also wish I were in Paris. But you didn't ask me whether you should move to Paris.)

Plus what else? Your city changes beneath your feet. You fall in love with a place and then it changes. Who are all these people at the movie screenings now, at the rock shows, at the weekly papers? Who are all these people? Where did they come from? Who let them into my city? As you age you walk around and you do not recognize the place you love.

Sure, this is nothing new. It's just what happens over time. But like I say, if I could do it over again, I wonder.

If I had been who I am now, who knows?

But you are who you are now. That's the tricky part.

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