The Great Escape, Part One: Jerk-Ass Pullman

This is what they show students to entice them to come here. Idyllic, huh? But where's the rest of the town?

In about two months, my husband and I will be moving. We have a rental van booked. I’m so excited that part of me hesitates to tell you about it, lest I jinx it. I just have to remind myself: Laura, you don’t really believe in jinxes, just like you don’t believe in the curse of Macbeth or the power of positive thinking. And even if I do believe in those things on some level, I’m too excited not to tell you.

You see, I’ve been living in this armpit college town for seven years (seven is lucky, right? should ward against jinxes?); my husband has been here ten. We both came here for college: he from Montana, me from California. I was a third-year transfer and he came as a freshman.

I didn’t know anything about Pullman, WA, when I decided to come here. I wanted to get out of Southern California. I wanted to start fresh. Washington State was the first school to accept me, so I dove. I packed everything I owned (minus my Barbie collection) and my mother into my Hyundai Elantra and drove the thousand miles north. I wanted a new experience and, boy, did I get one, if not the kind I was looking for.

As we drove the circumference of the town I thought, Fine–it’s only two years (which I actually crammed into a year-and-a-half, which I would not recommend to anyone who really wants to focus on their major because my writing definitely suffered under the weight of all those extra credits). I figured I’d get my degree and move on to somewhere else. I was twenty years old and eager to experience everything I could. And I’d never experienced a college town in a wheat field. The downtown area was kind of cute and there was an ancient drive-thru that sold burgers topped with ham and fried eggs (I’ve still never had one–it’s on my very short to-do-before-leaving list). Every store in town sold college paraphernalia. There were a lot of people my age. So. That was fine.

And then, about a month into my Pullman experience (I came in January for spring semester), I went to a Super Bowl party. I’ve never been a football fan but I didn’t have many friends yet and was eager to branch out. Plus the friend who invited me didn’t really understand the word “no.” So I went.

Turned out, the party was in the apartment of my future husband.

There’s a whole lot more to our how-we-met story, including the fact that we really didn’t like each other at first and I was more interested in his roommate and that after our first date a few months later my then-future-husband popped a tire trying to impress me with his driving prowess. But the point is, we ended up chaining each other to this town. I was due to graduate a semester after he was, so he took a job at the local engineering company rather than pursuing other jobs he’d had his eye on in Seattle. Then, once I graduated, he wanted to stay with the company a couple years so it would be a significant item on his resume. That worked out because it was cheaper to plan a wedding in Pullman than in San Diego, near my parents, and I had a full-time hotel job. Then his company offered him a scholarship to start a graduate program. He could only chip away at one class at a time because of his work schedule, but it was free grad school. I told him to take it.

At first, I didn’t attach myself to this town because I figured I’d be moving soon and there was no point getting involved in the community. Plus, we still had friends from college hanging around, also working at the engineering company, and didn’t really need to make more. Of course, all those friends wanted to get out of Pullman, too. Their plans just took less time than ours. I made some sort of lemonade out of the situation by applying to a graduate program in Spokane, an hour and a half away, where I lived part-time while pursuing my degree, coming back to my husband and Pullman part of the week, living with a roommate in Browne’s Addition the other half. It was difficult, but it was one of those new experiences I’d been craving when I came to Washington. And when my degree was in hand, I came back to Pullman for one last year.

That year is coming to an end.

I have to admit, in this last year I’ve gotten more attached to Pullman than I had in the six years prior. I finally both had time to be in a play and found a play I wanted to be in. I got into a groove for a while with yoga classes. The baristas at the coffeehouse I’ve been frequenting since I came here finally know who I am. There is an old empty movie theater that I sometimes dream of buying and turning it into one of those places that sells beer and pizza to moviegoers, that plays old movies, and even maybe use it for live theater once in a while. None of this adds up to me loving Pullman, of course, and I wouldn’t have the money for the movie theater dream and the college student population would probably make selling alcohol a living nightmare, but for once I feel a little guilty about calling the place Jerk-Ass Pullman whenever possible.

The truth is, I’m a little scared to leave. We’ve had this great hope on the horizon for so long–getting out of Pullman–and once we leave, that will be gone, as will our ability to blame our lives on where we live (that’s Jerk-Ass Pullman for you, I often say: when a business that’s supposed to be open is closed, when the movie we’ve been anticipating never comes to our theater, when a presumably drunk college kid screams obscenities out the passenger window of a car as we walk down the street). There have been quite a few times when, seeing my misery, my husband has offered that we might move early, consequences be damned. My happiness, he says, is worth more than a master’s degree (I do so love that man) but the older I get, the more I err on the side of pragmatism. Sure, the population of Pullman won’t come see a play unless it has previously been a movie, but it’s cheaper to live here, the university is two miles from our apartment, and I get to spend time with my husband every evening and all weekend. If we’d moved early, his commute for school would have been about two hours a day, his credits might not have transferred and he would have had to pay tuition, and if I couldn’t find a job in my field, I would have been forced back into customer service, a field I’m not only no good at, but which has a tendency to push me off my mental balance and generally corrodes my soul.

We stayed in Pullman because it was the safe choice: something that, when I pulled into town the first time, I never thought I’d do. I saw my future hopping from state to state, maybe country to country, learning and growing and seeing the world. Young as I was, I had already given up on the prospect of romance and generally expected to die alone, living in a hotel like Dorothy Parker. But you see life differently when you’re part of a pair. You want to do right by the other person, not just yourself. You aim for the goal that will bring maximum happiness to both of you, or at least minimum misery. For a long time it’s been the latter. The hope is, when we move, we’ll have the former. And while we’re both looking forward to a place with broader horizons, we’re wary. We know there is no Shangri-La, and we won’t waste time pining for it. But we won’t let ourselves get stuck in another quagmire. Someplace between paradise and pit would probably be fine.

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