I first moved to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2007, as soon as I graduated from college. I had just landed my dream job and I was absolutely miserable.
It wasn’t my first time living away from my family, but the times before, including college, had been temporary.
The high-rise apartment I moved to in Alexandria was spacious by post-graduate standards: a bedroom, small dining room, kitchen. The complex had a gym and pool. But it was also an hour away by a combination of car and Metro away from my job in Northwest D.C. The windows all faced gloomily out onto the junction of I-95 South and the Beltway. The roar of cars was endless.
My parents kissed me goodbye and closed the apartment door softly on their way out. And then, I was truly alone.
I felt sharp pangs of endless sadness coming over me. I was alone, in this city I didn’t know. Mr. B was still living in Philadelphia. It was just me and this apartment, far away from everything. The clock on the wall ticked loudly. I walked through the rooms in the darkness.
I looked out of the kitchen window at the dusk closing in over the highway, the headlights of the millions of cars as cold and non-feeling as ever, and I burst out bawling. I decided not to call my mom right away because I knew she would be worried, but then I just had to, or I would die. “I feel alone, " I sobbed. “I can’t do this,” I cried, in spite of the fact that I firmly convinced myself that the future was in D.C. for many months before I was graduating school.
“We got used to living away from friends and family, and so will you. Just give it time,” her voice came through the phone, small and far away. I hung up and bawled like there was no tomorrow. “This too shall pass,” she said, gently, before she wished me good night and hung up.
The first year in Alexandria was miserable. I was constantly either commuting to and from work, trying to learn what was going on in the corporate world, or driving either home to Harrisburg to be with my parents, or to see Mr. B in Philadelphia.
All of my coworkers would be talking about going to the bars on Friday night, but as soon as 5 pm rolled up, I was already on my way on the Metro to Erica. I would drive through the Wendy’s next to my apartment complex, and eat dinner in the car, sitting in late-afternoon D.C. traffic for hours on the way up I-95. NPR’s Marketplace was always on the radio. I did this commute so many times that, to this day, I still smell phantom chicken nuggets when I hear Kai Ryssdal’s voice.
This was my first D.C. But then, somehow, things started to fall into place. Mr. B moved to D.C., and then we left behind that brutalist apartment complex, to Bethesda, and then to Pentagon City. We spent weekends with friends and exploring the city.
A person who was seemingly me wrote this post,
These days are languid and even my hair is limp, lifeless, waiting for when the lightning bugs come out. But even then, the heat does not break on these blackberry nights. I become moody and feel adrift and that I will never moor my anchor to anything, and D and I go outside to run against the humidity. We make it half a mile and then slow down, walking, hand in hand, down a street overflowing with magnolias and I talk about how I want to live in every house on that street, and D says his usual line about how he’ll start to work at a hedge fund so we can live there and we both laugh because we know that we don’t care whether we get that house. We’re not keeping up with anyone but ourselves, and time is on our side.
I want to remember this moment forever, of how we are young and it’s just the two of us and we can do anything we decide-we can buy the house with the magnolias, we can fly to Israel, we can work at hedge funds or open a collie rescue. I try to take a picture, but all I get is the gleaming black pavement and not the expression on our faces. It’s a picture that can only stay in my mind.
And then, it was time to move to Philadelphia, a place where we could actually afford to buy a house. And, also, we missed our families.
I, again, had a really hard time. Philadelphia was a gritty, grimy, cold city compared to Northern Virginia. Living in D.C. was like living in a bowl of cotton candy. Sugary, light, disconnected from the real world. We were young, didn’t have any responsibilities, no mortgage, and lived in an apartment where we could see the sun rise over the Pentagon.
As I put it in a post back then (have I really been blogging this long?), “I didn’t do anything in D.C. except go to museums”.
The last time I was in D.C. was the fall of 2010.
It was hard to visit because it was just painful. Everyone else there was still living the Museum Cotton-Candy Life: interesting restaurants, pillow fights near the Washington Monument, Facebook posts of all my old friends drinking at rooftop bars together while I was sitting and looking at these Facebook posts in Mr. B’s old high-school bedroom on Friday nights in the Philadelphia ‘burbs.
And then, all of a sudden, life hit, and I had no time to go back, even in my head. I was in school. I was looking for jobs. I was interviewing for jobs. I was traveling to Italy, to Montreal, to New York. I was pregnant. I had a baby.
And now, I’m here, on the brink of 30 this year, almost ten years out from my D.C. adventures. I am seemingly the same person who wrote BlackBerry nights, and yet, I am completely different inside. I no loner spend weekends wandering aimlessly around Georgetown with a frozen yogurt in hand.
I now have these weird things that I thought only people in sitcoms had: An MBA. A house. A child.
I am at a point in my career where, instead of being the scared intern, people are asking ME for advice. Even though I still don’t feel like one, I’ve become an adult.
And I am absolutely happy with my life.
But over the past couple months, suddenly, somehow fate arranged for me to go back to D.C. not once, but three times.
The first time, we went with Miss B to meet up with friends from Chicago who were visiting other friends in D.C. It was her first long-distance trip, and we were too busy trying to anticipate the needs of an 11-month-old to really reminisce, although we did remember, once we got stuck on the Beltway on the way back from Tyson’s Corner with her, that we did not even a little bit miss D.C. traffic. After we put Miss B down for the night in the hotel room, Mr. B walked to pick up some Nando’s near the hotel where we were staying in Bethesda.
As I ate the familiar peri-peri, I thought back to the last time I had Nando’s, right before I left D.C. I laughed as I thought about what that person would say if she walked into the hotel room and saw now-me. This person sitting in sweatpants, drinking red wine, praying the baby in the Pack n Play in the next room wouldn’t wake up.
The second I went to D.C. was with Mr. B, sans Tiny B, two weeks ago, for a wedding. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but was we were getting the car to drive back home, it clicked. The hotel was on the same block as my old office. There was the Thai place with the pun name that we went to for a holiday company dinner once. There was the coffee shop I met with a friend when I was having a career crisis. “What’s going to happen to me? Do I stay in DC? What do I do in Philadelphia?” I asked her, pleading for help.
I looked up to the window where my cubicle used to be, where I used to stress out about projects, about moving to Philadelphia, about deciding when to have kids, all of the big life decisions that have since come to pass. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, maybe the ghost of myself so I could tell her it would all be ok.
The last time I went to D.C., I was alone. I just accepted a new job offer this January , after I finished my MBA, and I was headed down for two days of training at my company’s headquarters in Richmond. I spent some time on the road crying because I missed Miss B, and because I was relived that I didn’t have to do the bed-time routine that night, and because I felt supremely guilty for being relieved, and because I felt supremely guilty in general.
After calling and checking to make sure Mr. B knew that he needed to microwave the rice for 24 seconds, not 30, so that it wouldn’t be too hot for Tiny B, and to make sure to put socks on her when she went to bed, my thoughts drifted again to the past, to the road that I used to drive, back and forth, endlessly, and what kind of thoughts I used to have when doing the Philly-DC drag, what I cared about then that seems completely stupid now, and new fears I’d never thought I’d experience.
As I made my way around the Beltway, I realized that I was driving down a familiar way. I was driving down the stretch of 495 that goes right past my old apartment. The apartment where I used to live almost ten (!) years ago. And I looked at the window where the ghost of the person I used to be looked back at me, younger, more nervous, groping for a way forward in a world where there are no strict rules about how to live successfully.
It’s going to be ok, I told her, wishing I could have pulled over and come in when she was lonely and scared. You’re going to be great at your job and the next job, and you’re going to make tons of friends in D.C. You’re going to leave D.C. and hate Philly. In fact, you’re going to be miserable for a couple years. But then, you’re going to love it. You’ll be surprised to know that you don’t miss D.C. at all, and even now find it cold and uninviting.
You’ll be surprised how much you take to Philly, how much you love spending weekends here. And then, just when you think you have everything figured out, you’re going to have a baby, and life is going to get insane and incomprehensible again. But, just when things are terrible, suddenly the baby will start sleeping through the night, and your sanity will come back. And then, after all the hard slogging through your MBA, you’ll be done, and suddenly, you’ll be here, on the other side of the glass, in this car, speeding onward to your unknowable future.
But you will know one thing. And that one thing will be that this, too, shall pass.