Marianne told me once that you always love the first place you travel to. We were in Japan when she said this, sneaking extra glances at a cute monk in a Tokyo temple. It was my first time overseas, and I assumed Japan would be “that place.” And it was, in a way, and I’d go back in a heartbeat, but it wasn’t the real first.
When I was sixteen, a friend and I went to San Francisco to stay with my aunt for a week. It was the first time I had been to the West Coast, the longest time I had been away from my parents, and the trip happened at that pivotal age, that age when I knew absolutely everything and wanted nothing more than to “express myself.” And there was San Francisco—all traffic and noise and brightly colored wigs in the Castro and crazy sunglasses and velveteen purses from the Haight and barking sea lions at Pier 39, and outside the city the biggest trees, the hodge podge that was Berkeley, the spicy-sweet smell of Eucalyptus trees. The way the sunlight glinted off the bay in Sausalito, the cold breeze and fresh seafood at Half Moon Bay.
I idolized Aunt Joannie (known as “Lisa,” her middle name, to everyone in California). I loved her biting humor, the way she ordered escargot like it was fried ravioli. With my aunt I tried for the first time brie (loved it), lamb (was indifferent, but would later love it), and crème brûlée (um, yes please). But for all her sophistication, my aunt flies in the face of any stereotype that might be pinned on her. She owns a taxidermied squirrel and a buffalo skull and has a tendency for rescuing too many cats. She’s an immigration lawyer, and though she lives in one of the most liberal parts of the country she always votes Republican. She holds dinner parties and cookouts for her friends and threatened one Thanksgiving to put a Cornish hen inside the turkey and then tell all the kids the turkey had been pregnant.
Jesse and I went to San Fran to stay with Joannie once, and we walked all over that city, up and down steep hills, from museums to Chinatown to North Beach for garlic ice cream at The Stinking Rose.
We almost moved to San Francisco the year after we were married. I was accepted to the MFA program at the University of San Francisco, a gorgeous Jesuit school near the Haight and Golden Gate Park. But it’s a private school and the tuition would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars for the program, which offered no financial aid. UNCW was offering a TA position with a stipend and a full tuition remission for the first year. So, that tipped the scales, and here we are in North Carolina with no student loans.
The last time I was in the city was in 2003, right before heading to Japan. It’s been nearly six full years since I walked those streets, saw the water, the bridges. Some days, I want to go so badly it’s all I can do to keep from just buying a ticket and packing my bags. I often check airfare prices, and when Lauren posted her San Francisco pictures on Facebook, I nearly cried I wanted to be there so badly. Marianne was right, but it wasn’t Japan I fell hard for. It was the loveliest city in the loveliest state, the freedom and expression, the feeling of taking my first bite of brie, that creamy indulgence, the thrill of being sixteen, of getting to decide who I might become in the place where I could be absolutely anyone.