Featured Image: Mantas Hesthaven
The last time I left my hometown was at the start of December 2021. The decision came easily when I sat down with my friend Lucy back in September, a few weeks before my 29th birthday, and confessed how miserable I’d been feeling. I told them everything over beers and burgers, laying out what’s been bothering me for over a month: I was not happy here.
“I want to move back to LA,” I told them, a little tipsy from my drink. My mother always told me I could always trust drunks to tell the truth. Lucy was nodding her head and hearing my grievances.
“You should,” she said. “If you’re not happy here, you should move back.”
We walked into downtown Santa Cruz after our dinner, and my heart was becoming clearer as I sobered up. I saw where I was, both in life and location. This was the county where I grew up, but it was not where I would continue living. I spent more time with my friend and then gave them a ride home. Lying in bed that night, I felt a sense of peace I hadn’t felt in weeks. Now that I admitted what I wanted, I could rest a little easier.
Leaving home has never been difficult. I was born and raised in Watsonville, CA. It was a city with a predominantly Latinx population, though it also had communities of other descents, such as Filipinx, Japanese, etc. Still, being of Mexican descent, I grew up mostly around the Mexican populace, my friends the children of immigrants who have come from the south seeking better lives, a systemic issue disguised as an American promise.
My parents were no different. Having met in Mexico City, they moved to California after having their first child, settling down in Watsonville where I was eventually born. I was the first in my family born a citizen of the United States. My parents took us to visit family in Mexico annually during the summers. They didn’t want us to forget our past, our roots, or our family from home. I spent most of my childhood summers in Mexico, often at the cost of nurturing childhood friendships in Watsonville. I think this was the first sign of my loose definition of a home. For my parents, home was defined by family. But it didn’t sit with me for some reason. The definition was more elusive to me. I felt welcomed in Mexico. But it didn’t feel like home. At least, not mine.
When I first left home for college, I felt the same way. I lived in Watsonville all my life, and I felt ready to move on. But living away from home proved to be a little difficult the first time. I fell into a deep depression and had to take a short leave of absence from school. I returned to Watsonville feeling terrible. But being around a community I grew up with did help me get my footing back. Still, I could only stay for so long. I recovered in my hometown. But I had to leave again to finish school.
Eventually, I finished school and earned an MFA. The next year was when I officially came back to Watsonville, and it was one of the most miserable in my life. I worked as a substitute teacher for the school district, on call for the next assignment without any consistent scheduling. I was constantly broke and lived with my parents. A lot of my friends were moving away from Watsonville, migrating to larger cities for better work.
I didn’t think of doing the same until my best friend Maritza left for San Francisco. We didn’t have much chance to see each other anyway when we both lived in town. But it was obviously different when they chose to leave. We had dinner two nights before they left, but I didn’t get to see them the day of their leaving. We continued to stay in touch, but my life had become lonely.
Their leaving was a wake-up call. Walking my dog Nina was the only consistency in my life then. I hated my job. I hated how my writing career had halted. Nina took her walks with eagerness, pulling the leash, forcing me to powerwalk. I would do what she wanted because why not. There was nothing else for me in Watsonville. Everyone I knew was moving on. Everyone but me.
Then my brother offered to house me if I were to move down to Los Angeles. I had never considered moving south before. He made his offer in November, though I did not accept until December. I didn’t have to think that hard about it. I had had enough of my hometown. Not in a negative way, of course. I just felt that Watsonville had nothing to offer me anymore and that it was time to move on.
Watsonville hadn’t changed much since I left it at the start of 2019. It was 2021 now. The wetlands remained. Gentrification was still a huge problem. At the very least, my favorite bookstores were still standing.
Moving back to Watsonville was, in hindsight, an experiment. Los Angeles was an incredible experience. But nothing had changed for me financially since I arrived in 2019. I was still working part-time, which hardly covered my expenses. I had worked as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles as well before losing my job to the pandemic. Even if I were offered, I wouldn’t return to the classroom. My life as an educator was over. I could not imagine myself as a teacher anymore. I had spent enough time pretending to be one.
If anything, I was a bookseller at heart, and the reason I returned to Watsonville was to work at the local bookstore in Santa Cruz. A few weeks shy of my 29th birthday, I was offered my first full-time job. Not seeing any promotion in my employment in Los Angeles, and the dread of having to continue to scrape by through part-time crumbs, I chose to accept the position and move back home. I spoke to my roommates about it. I spoke to my family about it. I announced it on social media and spent time seeing friends in Los Angeles before leaving them. And, of course, I gave my two-weeks notice. I was ready to come home.
Getting used to my new job came quickly. I had merely switched from one bookstore to another, from a Barnes & Noble to an independent. Other than the distributors and some store policies, there weren’t many differences between the two. A bookstore was a bookstore, a retail job that made itself more lucrative through the title of ‘bookseller.’ Regardless of the honorable profession that it is perceived by the industry, it is in essence customer service. Either way, I enjoyed my time at the store, as I did at the B&N in Los Angeles. I had complaints, sure. But bookselling was a joy to me, and I was now working in a store I had admired as a customer for years.
Returning home was not a difficult experience. I don’t want to be unfair to my hometown. I enjoyed my time back home. I visit it often for a reason. Because I missed it. I missed my friends back home. I missed my family. I missed Nina. It was that nostalgia that convinced me to return home. When I was thinking about accepting the job offer at the indie bookstore, I thought about what I missed. My feelings fueled my decision, and my dedication to try to reconnect with my community.
I searched for opportunities there too. I was excited to apply for Poet Laureate. I told a friend I was willing to help with a podcast. And, more than anything, I felt financially relieved. I was living at home with my parents again. I didn’t have to worry about rent. There were other payments, of course. But there were fewer at home. I could afford to relax and enjoy my time.
I love my community. I have written stories about it. I consider them love letters to my former home. My protagonists are connected to their origins, and that includes their hometowns. They leave, but then they return. They realize that their home is a part of them. I felt the same way about Watsonville. It was my origin, my community. I cannot leave it entirely.
My feelings towards my community were warm. But I couldn’t stay. A few weeks into the job, into living at home again, and into returning, I began to feel an emptiness inside. One could even go so far as to call it dread. I would walk Nina again. I would go to work. I would come home. And that would be all. I tried my best to write. I would visit the cafés I once frequented. And the same feeling of stagnation returned. I couldn’t write. I would sit at their tables and inspect my surroundings. Students with their homework. Elders reading their newspapers. Friends catching up over tea. It was a similar sensation. I recognized it immediately: stagnation. It was stillness. It was the lack of ambition. The feeling grew as the days progressed, reaching a peak when my birthday was just around the corner. I was about to turn 29. I would be 30 next year. I was feeling dread at the thought of not having reached my career before my third decade. But even more than that, I felt fear of no longer moving. I never felt this in Los Angeles. There was ambition there. There were resources. But more than that, there was movement. I had new friends there. And I missed them dearly.
The day after dining with my friend, I had reached a decision. But I wasn’t mentally prepared. I needed reassurance. I needed validation. I must have given signs about it at my new job because a coworker asked me if I was okay. And I told them everything. I said I wasn’t happy. I missed Los Angeles. I wanted to go back. I wanted my other life back. I felt guilty for leaving the store just a few months after hiring me. They listened to me and assured me that it was fine for me to feel that way. I didn’t owe this job anything. If I wanted to go back, then I should. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I felt validated. I felt like I was making the right decision. I would return to Los Angeles.
I spent the next few weeks planning my move back. I kept the idea mostly to myself, confiding my plans with only a selected few. I spent my time at the store acting like nothing was wrong. And nothing was. There was nothing wrong with Watsonville. There was nothing wrong with Santa Cruz. They had their issues. But they also had their purpose. They were meant for a quiet life. They were meant to be places where people relax and enjoy their existence in peace. But that isn’t me. I am not a person of peace and relaxation. I have restlessness in me. It’s strong. It motivates me to move forward. I cannot move to my hometown. I love Watsonville and my community. But I don’t belong there anymore. I was meant to be elsewhere. I haven’t outgrown my hometown. I’ve just expanded my horizons.
The day before putting in my two-weeks notice, my managers gave me a gift card to a local sandwich shop. They said I’d been working hard, and they wanted to thank me for it. I took the gift card and put it away in my pocket. There was a line at the registers. I thanked them and focused on getting through that line of customers. I wished each one a nice evening. Eventually, the line died down, and then I thought about the gift card. I was going to put in my two weeks tomorrow. I was going to move again. I was going to leave again. I stepped outside during my break and saw the store from the outside. I have just started to know my coworkers, the managers, and the regulars. I was about to let it all go. I remember going home that night with lingering thoughts. That said, I felt no hesitation. I knew this was the best decision for me. I didn’t have to leave. But I wanted to. My hometown had nothing for me anymore.
When I declared my leave the next day, I almost felt that guilt return. My manager gave me time to gather myself outside the store. I was midway through my shift. I stood outside and took deep breaths. I saw the store from the outside again. I posted the news on social media that night. I would declare the news myself. I would take hold of my own narrative.
Like last time, I spent time with people before I left. One of the people I spent time with was one of my coworkers from my new job, soon to be my former job. They saw my post about leaving and I asked them if they wanted to watch a movie with me. They said yes. We bought the tickets for a Tuesday matinee and agreed to meet at the movie theater at midday.
I arrived at the movie theater early to purchase our tickets. I wanted to make sure we got good seats. Funny enough, we were the only ones watching the movie that day. It was the only showing. I purchased our tickets as they arrived to meet me just before the movie began, quickly grabbing a bucket of popcorn before taking our seats. Because we were the only ones in the movie theater, we couldn’t help but chat throughout the movie. Before that day, I could count the number of times we spoke at work on one hand until we discovered together that we shared a similar passion for anime. It was purely by chance that I asked them to see the movie with me, and it was by chance that they said yes. We couldn’t help but talk about other anime and manga while the movie played. Good thing we were alone, or else our talking would have gotten on people’s nerves. But because it was just us two, we kept talking.
When the film ended, I asked if they wanted to grab dinner. We went to the same restaurant where I told Lucy I wanted to leave Santa Cruz. My coworker and I kept talking, the conversation flowing between our love for anime, literature, and future careers. We spoke more about our personal lives when we finished our food and took a walk downtown. I offered them a ride home when our time was over. On the way there, we talked about planning another day together. We talked about it again the next week at work and chose the Sunday before my last day of work. We spent the day in San Jose and visited another bookstore before strolling the mall and grabbing lunch. We returned to Santa Cruz, and they came over to watch another film. Even after the movie was over, we kept talking and watched other videos together Then it started getting late and I walked them to their car so that they could drive home.
I thought about my coworker a lot after that, now a good friend. We had hardly spoken at work before, but they quickly became the one person I hoped to see every time I walked in. I felt happy, but also incredibly sad. I got to know my new friend at the last minute. I cried driving home. I didn’t want it to be over. I told myself it wasn’t. We were friends now. Friendships don’t end with distance but with neglect.
I couldn’t help but think about my newfound life in Santa Cruz. I spent time with Lucy as well. I spent time with my younger sister. I visited another friend I hadn’t seen in years in Mill Valley.
And I also saw Maritza again in San Francisco. I remember leaving their home near midnight. They were the last person I visited before leaving the next day. I remember how scared I was to lose my friendship with them, but that night we spoke and said goodbye trusting that our bond would survive. It was something I had never felt before in my relationships. I have a terrible fear of abandonment. But that night I walked down that cold street in that San Francisco night without fear. If I cried, it was because I realized saying goodbye was getting easier. One day we might no longer need each other. But perhaps needing was never the point. It was seeking each other and trusting each other that probably fueled a friendship.
I thought about Maritza, Lucy, my new friend, and my younger sister as I slept one last night at my parents’ house. Nina was snuggled in bed next to me. My relationships with each of them almost made me reconsider my move. I thought that if I had become friends with my coworker sooner, I might have decided to stay. I might have spent more time with my sister. I might have walked Nina every day. I might have bonded more with my coworker, spent time after work with Lucy, and stayed within closer travel distance from Maritza. That might have been my life had I decided to stay. My life there would have been with them.
But I wasn’t comfortable with that quiet life. For better or worse, my hometown didn’t offer what I wanted. I have expanded my horizons and couldn’t go back to being satisfied with less. My friends. My family. My community. They made me who I am. But I was more than that now. Writing my feelings makes me feel ungrateful. It was such a beautiful life. Why would I give it all up? Why could I not be satisfied with what I had? I don’t know. It’s hard to know why I wanted more than the life I had. There must be something wrong with me for knowing how fortunate I was and leaving for another life entire. I’ve probably cried too much since announcing my leave, since understanding what I was leaving behind again. It was never enough for me. I wanted to keep moving forward. My life would have been the same every day had I stayed. But I was no longer satisfied. I could not return to my former life. There was no former life to return to. I did not belong there. My life was elsewhere now.
I managed to say goodbye on my last day in Watsonville. The first person I saw was Lucy, who I met up with for breakfast near the beach in Capitola. From there, I drove to the bookstore because I promised to stop by to see my coworker one last time. Then I went home and spent the rest of my day packing the last of my items. It took me a while to leave. I stayed long enough to say goodbye to my sister, who had to go to work in the afternoon. I’m glad we got to say goodbye. Of course, it wouldn’t be forever, but it was still difficult to leave without crying. The hardest person to leave was my sister.
I was spending my last few moments getting ready, but I also spent it reflecting. I was leaving again. I was about to leave my hometown for the third time. I thought about how I had spent the last two weeks with Lucy, my coworker, and my sister. And I thought about how I could have stayed and had a life with them here. But I knew it wouldn’t last. If not for me, it would be them who would have left. My coworker spoke of their plans for grad school. My sister also wants to move out of my parent’s home. And Lucy was thinking of moving away too. Even if I had stayed, this life wouldn’t last forever, just as it hadn’t with Maritza. They moved away. And others would move away. That’s the thing about friendships, relationships, and coworkers: none of it is permanent.
I posted on social media on my last day thanking everyone for making it a memorable experience. Then my mother helped me put my luggage in my car. It wasn’t much. I never brought back much when I returned from Los Angeles three months ago. It wasn’t much when I left in 2019 either. It was mostly clothes and books. I never thought about needing anything else.
Nina stared at me as we packed up my car. She didn’t look as confused as she did the first time I left. I think she understood that I was leaving again. My mother told me that the first time I left, she spent days waiting for me on my bed, leaving only for walks and food. Eventually, she got used to life without me. That said, every time I came home to visit, she wouldn’t let me go. It broke my heart to leave her again. I thought about taking her with me several times, though it would be a discussion I would need to have with my sisters. But until then, she will stay at my parents’ house. She will live without me for a while. It’s so heartwarming when I come home, and she acts as if I had always been there for her. Our bond never dies.
Then the moment finally came. I promised my mom I would let her know when I arrived safely. She held Nina in her arms as she gave me her blessing. I entered the car, turned on the engine, and prepared my playlist for the 5-hour drive. I had driven out of that home several times. But that day, I understood that I was making the right choice. I did not hesitate this time. As I started driving away, I looked behind me through my rearview mirror like I always did. I saw my mother standing there with Nina in her arms until they were finally out of view. Then I looked ahead, just like before.
2 thoughts on “You Can’t Go Home Again: What it Meant to Leave my Hometown Three Times”
Nice work, Christopher. Well written and heartfelt!
Thank you for your words! As someone who recently left Watsonville for the place I grew up in, I keenly understand your experience. I’m also caught between being rooted to familiar shapings and reinforcements, and a restless desire for forward motion. It may make you feel better or it may make you feel worse to hear that I share a similar struggle as I find myself in my mid 50s. I don’t think I’ll ever settle the matter and maybe that tension is what defines us best.