My mother and grandmother would always say, “You’re not from Annandale. You’re from Alexandria.” Our zip code straddled the invisible line from Alexandria city and Fairfax County.
Even back then I knew that the distinction they made was something they told themselves to feel better.
I’m from Annandale. Actiondale. Nowadays, K-Town, home of the best Korean B-B-Q you’re going to get around D.C.
People ask where in D.C. I’m from, and if they’re from the area, they’ll ask, “Where did you go to high school?” The D.C. natives who went to public school only know the city public schools. The D.C. natives who went to the prep schools only know the prep schools. The kids from Fairfax County usually say, “Ooooh.”
Annandale High School was a bastion of conflicting cultures: first-generation kids searching for a place (be it in the all-AP crowd, or gangs), the class Northern Virginia All-American jocks, the misfits. I was an over-achieving AP dork, I twirled flags, I edited the newspaper. But while these things may have defined me some, they didn’t define where I fit. The whole school never gave me any sense of place. Didn’t then, still don’t. I don’t know where my place was.
I missed my 10th reunion, which happened just down the street from where I live now. Some of the people I still keep in touch with asked where I was, why didn’t I go. It wasn’t a statement of anger or protest. I just couldn’t figure out why would I go? Didn’t really know anyone that was going. Didn’t really care. Annandale sits on the periphery of my mind; a state of mind, rather than a place. It could be anywhere in middle America, it could be suburban Maryland, it could be Jersey. It’s the generic anywhere that formed me, and yet it didn’t form me at all.
My grandmother’s house was set back in a quiet neighborhood of large grassy lots, houses that looked different from one another, shaded by huge oaks that survived the blight back in the early 1980s. I visit now; it’s a ghost house on a hill, a totem, surrounding by pre-fab monstrosities. Passing the K-Mart and Wendy’s in downtown, past the old mom-and-pop cleaners, the fire station, the Safeway, I feel disconnected. Hi, Starbucks where I worked. Hi, Memco-where-mom-worked-then-Bradlee’s-then-Hechinger’s-then-Home Depot. Hi, 7-11 near the high school where I drank a lot of coffee. Hi, old friend’s mom’s house. Hi, public library.
My husband always asks why I never know where I’m going when I drive around Northern Virginia.
“You grew up here!!” He always says, exasperated with me.
I did, and I didn’t. I spent my childhood waiting to leave.