a strange homecoming

16 years later, I’m back.

IT’S THE CLASSIC TALE.  GIRL FALLS IN LOVE. GIRL IS FORCED TO LEAVE. GIRL MISSES HER OPPORTUNITY TO GO BACK. ENDS UP FALLING IN LOVE SOMEWHERE ELSE. THEN, BY SOME WEIRD TWIST OF FATE, GIRL ENDS UP BACK. BUT IT’S TOO LATE. OR IS IT? 

quiet, peaceful, a little too peaceful.

memories of a little girl playing the piano.

a russian teacher repeats, “again.”

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FADE IN: 
 
INT. HOUSE IN LIBERTYVILLE, IL – DAY
 
It’s March 2004, GIRL, shy 4th grader who recently turned 9, runs down the stairs. She peers at the sliver of window between the curtain and the wall. Another grey sky day. She sighs, and then walks into the kitchen for breakfast before school. 
 
DISSOLVE TO:
 
EXT. APARTMENT COMMUNITY IN OAK PARK, CA – DAY
 
It’s April 2004, GIRL and MOM, 45, BROTHER, 6, are walking back from the library, squinting in the bright California sun. 
 
GIRL
I miss our old library.
 
BROTHER
Why? This one has more computers. 
 
MOM
You’ll get used to it after you start school. 
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Sometimes I wonder…was my childhood really so grey? Why do I remember it being so full of warmth and light? Was I too naive? Was this why my parents were so desperate to leave? 

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CUT TO:
 
INT. HOUSE IN LIBERTYVILLE, IL – DAY
 
GIRL is standing alone in her empty bedroom. She feels the soft carpet under her toes. Lets the bold pink wall color flood her vision one last time. She screams and starts sobbing. 
 
NEIGHBOR, girl aged 10, quietly walks into the room. 
 
NEIGHBOR
(In a soft and comforting voice)
It’ll be ok! You’ll love your new room. 
You can always come back and visit!
 
DISSOLVE TO: 
 
INT. HOUSE IN Newbury Park, CA – DAY
 
September 2004. GIRL wakes up, disoriented. She quietly walks out of her bedroom into the kitchen and living room area. She looks outside. Blue sky. Spanish tile roofs. It feels so foreign. She hates Spanish tile roofs. She hates palm trees. She doesn’t yet know how lame it is to miss the Midwest.  
 
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Left: mine and every other child’s favorite corn buildings in Chicago


Above: the “diamond” building I was also obsessed with for some reason
Fast forward to September 2011. 
 
EXT. UCLA CAMPUS – DAY
 
GIRL (now 17) gets dropped off at the edge of campus on a grey day. So this is what college looks like. She follows her FRIEND, also 17, to the Humanities building for the conference. 
 
GIRL
I’m going to apply out of state for college. I don’t want 4 more years in California. 
 
FRIEND
I want to stay in California. There’s really no other place I’d want to be. I like it here. 
 
GIRL
I don’t know, this just doesn’t feel like college to me. I want to go to the east coast. Or maybe Chicago. I just know I don’t want to stay here. 
 
INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT
 
GIRL sits in her bedroom, laptop open on her desk. She begins to write her first college essay. This was her ticket out of here. Out of California to experience the “real” collegiate life she’s looking forward to.  
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Despite the barren trees, ashy skies and brisk air, I never remember being cold. Long winters, summertime thunderstorms, tornado drills and lockers full of wet coats. But I never remember being cold.

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EXT. SOMEWHERE ON THE 101 – DAY
 
GIRL sits in the back of a car with her MOM.
 
GIRL
I guess I’ll just go to UCLA. 
 
 
Fast forward again. This time to December 2014. GIRL is now a junior at UCLA. And starting to realize she actually likes California. 
 
EXT. BUFFALO GROVE, IL – DAY
 
GIRL sits in the back of a rental car. DAD is driving. MOM and BROTHER are also in the car. GIRL stares out the window, the monotonous and barren winter landscape of suburban Illinois passing by.  
 
GIRL
It feels weird to be back. 
Comforting, in a way, but foreign. 
Like everything is familiar but I’m the foreign one.  

There was the history. The pride instilled within us from a young age. A sense of identity, without yet the acknowledgement of diversity. It was the early 2000s after all.

 
Happy. Perhaps became we didn’t know better. Perhaps because nothing else matters anyways.
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EXT. UCLA CAMPUS – DAY
 
It’s graduation day. GIRL is running around in cap and gown, saying goodbye to everyone. She loves UCLA and she loves Los Angeles.  
GIRL 
I’m staying in LA. I mean, I do want to move to New York at some point, but I’m sure I’ll be back. My industry is here, and I can’t imagine not living in a big coastal city.
 
INT. CONFERENCE ROOM IN WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – DAY
 
It’s December 2017. GIRL, now 23, is sitting alone in a meeting room, on a conference call. She gets another incoming call from an 847 area code. Strange. She attempts to ignore the call but accidentally picks up and loses her conference line.  
VOICE
Hello? Is this Leslie?
 
GIRL
Hi, sorry, yes it is. 
 
VOICE
Hi Leslie, I’m calling from Northwestern’s admissions office. We’re happy to let you know that you’ve been accepted into the program.  
 
DISSOLVE TO:
 
INT. APARTMENT IN Culver City, CA – NIGHT
 
A little over a year later, GIRL is in her bedroom, laying in bed, staring at the ceiling.
 
GIRL (softly, to the void)
I guess I’ll go to Northwestern. 
 
EXT. LAX – DAY

Insert stereotypical shot of plane taking off. 

 

FADE OUT

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After all this time, I guess I do still have a history here. My history predates the bean.

And I’ll always call it Sears Tower.

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So here I am. Back in the city. The city I once loved. The city I defend passionately to all my Californian friends. Chicago is the most beautiful city in America. 
 
Here I am. In the middle of Chicago. A block away from Michigan Ave. The city I know so well and yet feels so wrong. Just a year, I keep saying to myself. You’ll live. You love this place! Think about all the fun times you had here. Now you get to call it your own. 
 
But deep down, I wonder whether I only like Chicago in small doses. I keep reminding myself that I came here for a personal cultural study. That I’m in a sense going back to my roots, that it’s just a 16 year late homecoming. 
 
I hate the California-centric thinking that permeates through the state. Californians think they are at the center of the world. That everything important, in Hollywood, in tech, happens here. That California has a ton of problems, but hey, it’s still a paradise compared to the rest of the country. It wasn’t until I got here that I realized how much elitism I soaked up. While I can easily understand why people don’t like LA, I have a hard time understanding people who don’t want to end up in California. Doesn’t everyone want to go to California? What do you mean people are happy in other places?
 
Here, in the heartland of America, I’m reminded of a different America. One that has immigrants, hardy immigrants at that, but also has a bunch of small-town folk who don’t venture far from home, and don’t have the need or desire to. I want to unpack this, soak in this experience to cleanse me of my coastal elitism. Understand the lifestyle of people who know they’re not at the center of it all. Appreciate the grit of people who make a home here, so far removed from their familiarity, adjusting to the local charms (potato skins and popcorn). 
 
In the past few days, I walk around and wonder, “is this a place where people stay? People like me, young, ambitious, globally-minded? Why do I feel so claustrophobic in such an expansive metropolis?” It feels so temporary to me. Just passing through and observing. 
 
Also, should I even bother explaining that I am familiar with the city even though I just got here? That I used to kind of be from here? Can you be from somewhere that you haven’t lived in for 16 years? Can you be from somewhere you weren’t born but spent a few formative years of your childhood? 
 
What a strange homecoming.  
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