How Do You Write About the Suburbs?

How do you write about the suburbs?

Right now I’m staying in Puyallup, in the big house I grew up in. It’s got new carpets and my room is painted and we have different dogs than when I was a teen, but it’s the same house. Everything is familiar, so what is there?

My days are filled with suburban rituals.

I do loads of laundry. I cover the jasmine plants for the winter. I take the vacuum in to the vacuum shop. I go to the mall to exchange clothes. I walk the dogs in cul-de-sacs. I make soup. Drop off packages at FedEx. Give candy to trick-or-treaters. Watch TV, on-demand, on a big screen. Read books curled in a chair with the dogs at my feet and a mug of tea at hand.

It’s fun. It’s fun in the way playing a video game you’ve already beat is fun. Which is to say it’s not that it’s not fun.

But how do you write about it?

There’s this coffee shop called Anthem, and it’s in downtown Puyallup, by the library and the outdoor stage.

The food is good and the coffee is good. In the evenings they serve beer and wine.

If you go there, you will find a crowd of people dressed in flannel and North Face fleeces. They all have pretty, clean faces. The faces are all pale and the girls all wear makeup. They have slightly teased hair and H&M clothes that were trendy two years ago. The whole establishment, with its concrete floors and Pier 1 clocks and corrugated metal wall art, was trendy two years ago too.

The crowd is constant and shifting. People vacate and occupy seats hundreds of times an hour as they complete their meetings, and mommy dates, and things on MacBooks, and mentoring sessions with their pastors.

This is where you go to find Puyallup’s Christian millenials, and you can tell how much they have been on fire for the Lord by how wrinkled and highlighted their New Testaments are.

I think I sound like I’m teasing them. I am one of them too. I have come here on this sunny morning to email some people and read a book, and I spent a longer time than I’d like to admit deciding on this particular flannel shirt and the way my hair is parted. I’m hoping that today’s look has effectively married “thrown-together” and “put-together,” so I can impress the hoard of identically dressed strangers milling about who will never make a point of commenting on it.

This is my hometown.

When I got my license in high school, I would go to the next-door library in the winter instead of joining the basketball team. I would do my homework at a quiet desk, and then I would browse the stacks, picking up books about undeciphered languages, and then I would go outside to the lawn. In the dark December, the Christmas lights were bright and it was a time I didn’t mind early nights, because there, the nights were the most unbelievable deep blue. It was sweet and sad to stand out there, on the lawn where even longer ago, as a toddler, I had stomped in the wading pool and couldn’t work up the courage to go down the playground fire pole.

Today I’m here during the school day. I have been out of school almost five years and the pleasure of not having homework is as keen as the day I graduated. Again it is sweet and sad: pleasant to be back in the stomping grounds, and painful to not be in Spain, site of my most recent adventure. How easy it is to discount where I am and remember the places I have been. I have a habit of loving the place I was last the best.

I am reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and I should have read it before I left for Spain because now my heart knows too well the landscapes he describes. His characters took the same bus I took from Pamplona into the Pyrenees. He talks about Basque country: the misty mountain chill in the air (here is where Igor taught me Spanish for fog: niebla) and the characteristic “red roofs and white houses of Burguete:” I agree. He describes an inn with an upright piano in the corner, which the character Bill Gorton plays. If you go to Burguete, which is the first first town you pass on your second day of walking, on the way out of Roncesvalles, there is an inn on the left side of the street where you will find that same upright piano today. It is locked and Hemingway has etched his name on the lid. I never stopped at that inn or saw the piano because I was lost in conversation and forgot to look.

I didn’t remember it until I came across it again in the book at Anthem.

Out the window in Puyallup, the sun is brilliant even though it’s dancing away from this hemisphere. The grass and tall green trees glisten and people are, for the most part, smiling. Everyone loves fall. The leaves are turning bloody and snowing all over, but as soon as the trees’ branches are bare, we’ll clothe them in lights.  And we’ll do it with cups of coffee in our hands.

I missed Hemingway’s, but at home in Puyallup, in the corner of the living room, we too have an upright piano. It’s the color of wine but when you shine a light on it, it’s red. It’s the piano my siblings and I learned to play on. And around the times the trees get their lights, we put Christmas things on the piano: stray tree ornaments, half-finished cups of tea, snowman figurines that can’t go anywhere else.

And this piano is unlocked.

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