It's a feeling, an ache somewhere between my heart and my stomach. A homesickness even when I'm there, but heavier. It's like that Tony Bennett song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
Is it possible to be in love with a place?
Except it's not a place. It's a part of me.
This all struck me while walking down the Pearl Street Mall with my 7-year-old daughter and husband. We were doing a grueling investigation of the best ways to enjoy downtown with your kids for my job at TravelBoulder.com. Very grueling.
"Right here, Mom. This is where I want to do it."
Betty Anne (formerly Bettie Anne, but she changed it because she knows everything now) stood with her arms outstretched in the quiet alley that cuts from Pearl Street to Walnut Street, next to Centro and what used to be my home base at the former Daily Camera building, essentially 10th and Pearl streets. It's a new building now, full of high-end shops instead of an old printing press that smelled like metallic ink.
Betty has had this crazy fantasy for years, and it's about to happen. She asked for a "boom box" and a beanie for Christmas, and she's been practicing hard in hip-hop class for five months. She wants to set up a piece of cardboard on the Pearl Street Mall and break dance for money.
She doesn't exactly know break dancing moves, but she has the enthusiasm and commitment and the vision and, damn it, I don't care, I'm her mom and I'm always going to be her biggest cheerleader no matter what her passion is (and probably even pass out dollar bills for passersby to slip in her overturned ball cap).
What she also doesn't know is the significance of this spot. She couldn't possibly know that it was right here where I first saw her father 11 years ago. He was almost 23 years old and superhero tall and oh so out of my league, but what really struck me about him was the immediate familiarity I felt; there was no getting-to-know-you phase. He was immediately just him, and that allowed me to be immediately just me. Also he was probably wearing a gaudy Affliction tee and I was probably wearing Ed Hardy because 2006 owes the world a fashion apology.
We walked over to what was the Bookend Cafe, and I bought him his very first ever coffee and we got a slice of cherry pie to share, before admitting we both hated cherry pie, so we threw it at birds on the mall and watched them fight. A man nearby held a "Free Hugs" sign and we stole a few.
But I didn't want a relationship, so I kept pushing the tall guy away. I was afraid of messing up another man's life, and he seemed too kind for the woman who broke everything she touched.
He texted me from an RTD bus a few days later that he knew he was going to marry me. I ignored that stupidity and invited him to meet on the mall again, as friends. We walked up to Lolita's, bought a box of Nilla Wafers, found a nearby park on West Pearl, climbed to the top of a tree and ate the entire box while overlooking the world. Also, I was supposed to be clocked in at the Daily Camera at this time and got in big trouble when I returned.
I couldn't help it. He was a magnet. Plus, I mean, Nilla Wafers.
A few days later, we were both working on the mall when I casually texted him that I was craving chocolate milk because, really, when am I not craving chocolate milk? A half hour later, he showed up in the newsroom with a gallon. Turned out, his boss wouldn't let him take a break, so he quit his job. He walked out. To bring me chocolate milk. Because I had a craving. I scolded him. How ridiculous and irresponsible of him. His response: "I've got priorities." He was looking only at me. What a fool.
Four years later, I sat at my desk in tears. I cried most of my waking hours those days, but I was lucky because when my postpartum depression got too bad, I could just send a text and he'd be there. With my newborn baby Betty (well, before she could read, it was Bettie), who'd been born in the Boulder Community Hospital.
He put his career on pause for the first year of her life to stay home with Betty, and he came to work with me every day and pushed her up and down the Pearl Street Mall in her stroller, just waiting for me to text that I needed to see her or feed her. Winter, spring, summer and fall, for 12 full months, this man raised our daughter on the bricks, as if the mall were our home.
And in a way, it was. She learned to walk by holding onto the play sculptures. Our little Pisces learned to love water in the splash fountains, and she visited the newsroom every few hours to see her working mama so I didn't have to cry to the rhythmic groans of the breast pump.
When she got old enough to attend the day care where my mom worked, and after I had healed both physically and mentally from a traumatic childbirth, my husband resumed his career.
Chocolate-milk boy hadn't been such a fool, after all.
I guess it shouldn't surprise me that my Betty is so drawn to the Pearl Street Mall, that she has this inexplicable dream to dance on the bricks for the city. After all, this street is what first shaped her brain. It will always be a part of her. A parent to her. And in that, whether or not her break dance moves are perfectly executed, it won't care, damn it, I'll be her biggest cheerleader.
You'll find her on the mall on Father's Day, raising money because she wants to buy her dad a gift herself.
I suggested cherry pie and a box of Nilla Wafers.
He said he was craving chocolate milk.
I think he should get all three.
Aimee Heckel is a style columnist for the Daily Camera and a travel writer for TravelBoulder.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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