GOOD

You Can Take the Girl out of Iowa

When I was a kid I would fantasize that I was adopted. I was the child of two cash-strapped grad students who had given me up so they could...

When I was a kid I would fantasize that I was adopted. I was the child of two cash-strapped grad students who had given me up so they could finish their dissertations. This couple—he was an English professor by now, probably, she an artist—lived in a big brick house covered in ivy. It was packed full of books. One January, while drinking wine by the fire, they would finally have that tough conversation, the one where they would discuss their long-lost daughter and wonder where she’d ended up. She’d be about, what, 10 now? 11? The professor would set down his wine and take his wife’s hand.

“Honey, we should find her. We need to find her.”
Cue the montage of them demanding to see hospital records, shuffling through court files, approaching the front door of our squat ranch house on Rosewood Drive. When my real-life mom lets them in, my fantasy parents glance around the living room. Crucifix. No bookshelves. Their eyes settle on a First Communion portrait of an exceedingly gangly girl with thick bangs and bad teeth.
They can just tell.
I never thought about the actual “reunion.” At this point the fantasy would leap directly to their ivy-covered brick home in the city. It’s probably Chicago, because this is the first city I ever knew, first experienced through the windows of the family minivan, contorting my neck to see to the tops of buildings as we hurtled along I-90 on a family vacation.
In front of the roaring fire, I would tell my fantasy parents about my life without them.
“First, we live in Dubuque,” I say. No description necessary. They’ve been to eastern Iowa. They know how bad it is.
“My whole family likes sports,” I continue. “It’s all they talk about at dinner. And they make me go to baseball games! Every summer! I bring a book, but some of the outdoor stadiums have really poor lighting.” They nod sympathetically.
“When we go on vacation, I have to beg to be taken to the art museum,” I say. “And then my dad makes fun of the modern art to the security guard. It is mortifying.” My fantasy mom, who totally wears funky jewelry, puts her hand on my knee and swallows, hard. But I’m not done yet.
“I go to Catholic school,” I wail. “I have to go to church EVERY SUNDAY! And Holy Days!” By this point, they are both quietly weeping. What have they done?
(Not to fact-check my own childhood fantasy, but it now occurs to me that this liberal couple probably would have just had an abortion. Or that it wouldn’t have been a couple at all, but a single woman. Clearly Catholic school succeeded at installing a few blinders.)
At this point I should probably say that I love my real family, and they love me. We just never seemed to ... fit.
My parents are a product of their environment, and they are happy there. My dad grew up in the town where I was raised, a place that’s 94 percent white and 83 percent Catholic. My mom grew up in a slightly smaller town three hours down the Mississippi. They like Iowa. They never yearned for anywhere else. Certainly not for the city. So expensive. The crime, the concrete, the traffic. No, thank you. Not for them.
I pined for the city before I even knew what that meant. I loved to read because I wanted to be somewhere else. This is why misfits are so smart, right? They read to escape. I read books about kids who run away and explore the city alone, I wrote stories about girls who are sent away to live with eccentric aunts for the summer.
By the time I hit junior high, I’d developed a sense of superiority about my dorkiness. It wasn’t that I didn’t mesh with the world, it was that I didn’t mesh with this world, with small-town Iowa. It was everyone else’s fault for not getting it. In cities, I was sure, everyone was just like me. Wearing Converse sneakers and shirts carefully rescued from thrift stores, listening to Björk. I pictured myself a city kid, delivering my late-’90s anti-establishmentarian missives about how prom sucks and Leo DiCaprio isn’t that cute, everyone laughing jovially around me.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my father diagnosed me with early senioritis. “Ann’s got her college search narrowed down,” he joked with his golfing buddies, “East Coast or West Coast.”

So we were all in agreement, then. The middle of the country was not the place for me.

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