Walking down the street on a recent return to Pittsburgh I was reminded of one of the reasons I chose to escape. I walked past a trio of boys. Tall, white, athletic builds. One blonde, a redhead, another wearing a baseball cap. As I walked past each uttered faggot under their breath. I didn’t even turn back to give them a glare or a usual response of fuck off. When this happens, I no longer acknowledge it. At this point in my life I have grown too tired to have to rebut or chastise heterosexual men. In the past it hasn’t worked, so why would it now? It’s moments and interactions like this with the world around me that makes me feel like I am a stray among the crowd. That belonging in a particular place at a particular time isn’t meant for me.
I’ve been trying to cope with my sense of belonging for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in a place I belong. Maybe those aren’t the right words for what I’m feeling; maybe it’s just that I’ve never felt attached to any given place for a long enough period of time. But then again that’s not true, because place, place I have been attached to. Places both new and old I continue to find myself attached to. I long for the rocky coasts of Maine where I spent my childhood summers, the gritty post-industrial hellscape that is Pittsburgh where I spent my undergraduate days, and even the bright hues of orange, red, and yellow that fill the woods surrounding my hometown in Upstate New York come fall.
But even in these places—new, old—belonging never seems to stick. My anxiety gets the best of me, and I swap the current locale for something different, fresh, something I think will help. I know that in order to feel something, anything, more than what I do, I have to flee. I fled my hometown of twenty-two years for six hours and four hundred miles away. I fled Pittsburgh for a place nearly seven hundred miles and ten hours away.
Pittsburgh is eclectic. Eccentric. Unusual. Maybe because it comprises so many people from so many walks of life and so many corners of the world. All jammed into little row houses and brick ranches next to thirty-two-story condo complexes. The old and new sit side-by-side in a city of 58.3 square miles that’s sandwiched between three rivers. But I haven’t found that the old and new meld and mix.
The three rivers. The Ohio. The Monongahela. The Allegheny. Each murkier and more seemingly stagnant than the last. If you sit above the city on a glorified hill named Mount Washington you’ll be sitting among the rows of newly constructed townhomes and condos—all selling between one and one-point-five million dollars a piece—you’ll get the best views of the hellscape I called home. You’ll be able to see downtown with its art deco skyscrapers of years gone by, that sit beside grand and ever expanding full glass façade buildings twenty stories taller than their elders.
But while you sit atop that hill, what you’ll also see is the complexity of the rivers and how each carves away to create the city center that sits in your sight line. You’ll see the Allegheny to the north slowly curling and twisting its way towards city center. The Monongahela from the south carves sharper away at the landscape—its twists and turns more abrupt and off kilter than the Allegheny’s. They meet at a point—The Point—to form the Ohio which extends westward toward the state that bares the same name. But what you’ll see as your eyes follow the rivers to their meeting point is that they don’t ever seem to mix. The deep brown of the Monongahela and the grey-green of the Allegheny appear to flow side-by-side each other with no confluence of the two waters in near site. It appears as if an imaginary wall separates the two waters from ever merging. It goes on like this well down river to some little mill town outside the city. But here, in Pittsburgh they never really come together.
I’ve always hated the rivers. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been fonder of the ocean. The rivers hold a false promise of providing all the same pleasure the ocean brings. There are beaches, boat yards, marinas, and yacht clubs all along the rivers. To the untrained eye they do just that. Boating, swimming, fishing. All that and more can be done along the six shores of the rivers. I never partook during my time there. Friends would constantly invite me to kayak the rivers, or go to the county beaches for a picnic, or just to hang out in the sand. I never said yes. Maybe it’s because I find rivers to be filled with false promises. Fakeness almost. The beaches aren’t real. Sand trucked in from some distant land. The kayaking—subpar. With each stroke of the paddle some new hue of murkiness appears from the depths below. You can’t see if a fish is near. You can’t see your hand if you stick it just below the waterline. You can’t see the bottom. Perhaps I find the fakeness to be the result of what’s around those yacht clubs and beaches and boat yards. They’re saddled beside dilapidated and defunct factories and steel mills waiting to be bought up and revitalized into another new hospital or tech startup.
I had forgotten how humid it gets in Pittsburgh. That walking a mere half-mile down the street sends beads of sweat dripping down my forehead and back on a seventy-five degree day. That after it rains the humidity jumps from the already unbearable eighty-five percent to ninety, or ninety-five, or a hundred. It feels as though you’ve entered the depths of hell after a rainstorm. Unbearable on any given day, but even more so come late October.
When I was in Pittsburgh I always felt as if I, like those rivers, never mixed. Like it was not my place, that each and every thing and every being around me continued on with their lives and I stayed stagnant. I found so much of its elements to be lackluster. The things that drew me to the city of steel initially now seemed overwhelmingly suffocating. The limestone and brick façades of almost every building that once seemed artsy, industrial, unique; now seemed dirty, worn, old. Dingy almost, covered in soot, a reminder of the past gone by.
I never felt like Pittsburgh was the place where I belonged. And so I left. But now that I am gone I yearn for the things I’d never thought I’d miss. I want to dr-ive across those rivers on one of those 446 golden yellow bridges, climb Mount Washington for another view of the skyscrapers and rivers and bridges and more.
Situated along the banks of the Erie Canal in Upstate New York, my hometown boasts little to do without a decent drive. Head twenty miles in one direction you’ll hit Syracuse. Head thirty miles in the other Utica will be your destination. I don’t miss much about this area of the country. Except for fall. I always found fall to be the happiest and most beautiful time of year upstate. The sweltering heat waves finally subside, and make way for crisp frost covered mornings with a bit of nip in the air. When I close my eyes I can almost perfectly imagine a Friday night in early October in my hometown. The leaves fallen or falling. Those that remain are bright orange, yellow, red, some brown. The sun sets early as I stand around a bonfire, its orange haze mixing with the sun’s. The smokiness lingers in my nostrils, and is replaced only with the smell of decaying leaves and the dampness and chill that sunset brings. But home also brings immense anxiety. Home makes me anxious and makes me feel as though I do not belong. As if I share nothing in common with the people there besides the fact that we all meandered aimlessly through the same halls of the same high school and now stumble out of the same single bar after drinks.
There’s a place that I go when I am home and I get anxious. It’s one of the only places I feel I belong. The time it takes to get there is the same it takes to listen to Hotel California—about six, or six and a half, or seven, or some odd minutes. That place does more for my emptiness than any other thing or person ever could. Because when I look out I can see for miles, and I can see that my world isn’t tiny, the world isn’t tiny, that not everything is closing in around me and that I won’t suffocate. At that place I perch myself atop a hillside, surrounded by windmills whose blades create a soothing sound. So soothing that it allows my mind to focus, to focus and to calm. To attempt to begin to understand why I am anxious. To attempt to understand why I feel the way I do about places, spaces.
Maybe I never stay in one place for too long because I always feel the need to escape. Escape what? I’m not quite sure. Escapism offers a temporary solution to the unending anxiety and emptiness that seems to plague my body when I remain stagnant, remain in one place for longer than a certain period of time.
I have always hated winter. Winter has always been depressing, mundane, and seemingly endless in Upstate New York. It can, and usually does, snow from October until April, sometimes even until May. It’s no longer shocking if Mother’s Day is filled with flakes rather than flowers. During the winter the sun only shines thirty-one percent of the time. Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and even our neighbors Buffalo and Rochester all have the sun appearing at least thirty-four percent of the time or more.
Syracuse has one of the highest rates of seasonal affective disorder in the country. Another list it sits on the top of? Annual snowfall. Syracuse averaged just under one hundred and thirty inches last year. More than ten feet. That’s nearly five times the average snowfall in Manhattan; in Anchorage they see less than half of Syracuse. Some try to make light of the brutal winter upstate. An annual competition for the Golden Snowball Trophy is held between Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Binghamton. Out of the past sixteen years the trophy has been awarded, Syracuse has taken it fourteen times. Only being dethroned once by Rochester, another by Binghamton. I can’t make light of the snowfall. I can’t make light of the winter. I’ve always hated the winter.
Is the winter why I never felt like I belonged? I escaped for a warmer, more temperate winter climate in Pittsburgh. My first year there I was relieved to find that a major snowstorm consisted of only three to four to five inches. They use pick-up trucks for snowplows, it made me laugh. My seasonal depression was at its lowest levels that winter. But through my sense of relief, I found myself mocking Pittsburghers for their lack of snow management. Back home we get three feet in a night and school won’t even be delayed. I kept standing up for the place that I never felt I belonged. Why? I still hated winter, I still hated winter upstate. But now that I was gone, and unable to experience the brutality of the wind against my cheeks and flakes in my hair, I longed for it. I’m not sure why.
I generally try to avoid shopping at our local grocery whenever I am home. I opt instead to drive the twenty, twenty-five, thirty minute drive to Wegmans because I know that I will not see the people who make me feel like I do not belong. But sometimes I can’t stop the inevitable. During a summer stint at home I shopped with my mother, aunt, and grandmother. Everyone together and home for the 4th of July holiday. Our shopping list? The summer essentials: watermelon, beer, and barbecue sauce for the chicken. A quick trip that I expected to be unremarkable. But it wasn’t. And part of me knows that even these mundane little trips into town never are. Something always happens, someone always says something, I always see someone. We were shopping and so too was a transgender woman. Her cart: water, salad mix, two pints of Ben and Jerry’s. Several store employees followed her around the store, laughing, giggling, pointing, attempting to take pictures. It made me nauseous. My family and I went to check out; the woman was in line ahead of us. I noticed then, that two employees from the deli counter were lurking in the distance, attempting to discretely snap a picture of this woman just going about her normal day. I couldn’t contain myself. At that point I hadn’t grown tired to chastise and rebut. Turning towards the worker, I glared stating, Put your phone away and get back to the deli, you’re not funny, it’s not cute, stop, it’s rude. The employee responded with inauthentic bewilderment, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I can see your phone, I’m not stupid I know what you’re doing, it’s ignorant.
The worker snapped a picture then went back to the counter with seemingly no shame on her face. The woman checking out smiled, said thank you, and left. My mother, aunt, and grandmother, glanced at me all muttering something along the lines of I can’t believe you did that. You’re embarrassing us. You’re gonna make them upset we have to get sandwiches from them for work and I have to pick them up, now they’ll probably spit in them. I didn’t care. I still don’t care. All I cared about was that these people, these people made me realize that I didn’t belong here. In this town. That these people ostracizing a woman going about her normal day, making her most certainly feel as though she does not belong, that, that made me know I didn’t belong. My family and I checked out and left the store. I was still anxious and bothered by what had occurred. I told my family to wait, wandering back into the store. Hi, are you the manager? “Yes, what can I do for you?” Nothing, I just find it extremely unprofessional, rude, and hateful that you have several employees and even your assistant manager following and mocking a customer around the store. You should be ashamed. “You’re right that’s not okay.” I know its not.
I went back to the store a week later, the employees were all still the same.
These moments occur often at home; the people there are the antithesis of open-minded. Difference is mockable, laughable, pointable. Difference is reason enough to make someone feel like they do not belong.
I miss home but I don’t miss the people. Shit, I don’t even know if I miss home, or the idea of it. The concept of it. I miss the natural beauty of fall, hiking the high peaks of the Adirondacks, spending the night at so-and-so’s lake house or camp. Those moments, in nature, surrounded by it, they were and still are the moments I felt I belonged in that place. They brought me peace, no anxiety, an attempt at some sense of belonging.
What I’ve come to decide is that when I exist in a place or space that all the negatives pull away on my body and anxieties. The most minute details and experiences and interactions begin to build up into one big something—something that makes me feel like I stand out in the place I reside. But when I leave the places I’ve spent time in, I yearn for them and despise the place I exist in in that moment. Perhaps I’ve just never given belonging a chance?
Perhaps it’s the people in the places I end up that make me feel like I don’t belong. That my interactions with them and their interactions with me and their interactions with others are what I find most off-putting. The way people act makes me feel as though belonging isn’t for me. Is it the people or the place that make me feel this way? Or is it a combination? The people in the place are what drive me away.
It’s easier to never get comfortable in one place. It’s easier to avoid the people who make the place dreadful. To avoid any and all reasons for the dread you feel, and just to move on to another place, space.
Wesley Hood is a first year nonfiction MFA student at the University of New Hampshire, and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Wes writes primarily memoir and lyric essay, and when he isn’t reading or writing or in class, he teaches literacy and writing to fourth and fifth graders at Salem Public Schools in Massachusetts.