Kim Shirkhani

I held the numbers in my head as I walked from the kitchen back to the phone in the living room.  I must have lost one along the way, because when I relayed them to the woman on the other end of the line she said six was not enough digits to be a telephone number. This was my own number, but I was only five years old. The woman was the mother of a friend I now barely remember, except that her name was Colleen and she was moving away to another town. My number was so that we could keep in touch, and I’m pretty sure it had been my idea for us to do so. I don’t remember any of the process that got me to this moment. And I don’t know why I remember any of this at all. Colleen and I did not keep in touch. Possibly it has stuck because this “best” friendship—such as it was—is the only one, during all my childhood years, to have ended because the friend moved away.

As a rule, people move to, not away from, Southern California, where I’d met Colleen. Although by the 1970s that had been true for at least a few centuries (much to the original inhabitants’ misfortune), the place was still nowhere near full. This vacancy was big among the area’s pull factors, alongside the weather and the presence of the beautiful Pacific. And the push factors that were inexorably, mercilessly, headed our way had yet to arrive: real estate prices were not yet impossible, nor brushfires yet relentless, nor traffic yet insane. So for me, friends could—at least locationally speaking—be taken for granted. Most of us were there to stay.

People also move to the place where I now live, New Haven, Connecticut. And then they keep right on going. In this case, the strongest pull and push factors are one and the same—the presence of a major research university (i.e. Yale). To be sure, most New Haven residents are not here for Yale and many leave for reasons unrelated to Yale. But when I first arrived here, on indefinite terms, trailing someone enrolled in the graduate school, I landed in a neighborhood aswirl with university-related transience. Most of our neighbors were grad students, assistant professors, lecturers, postdocs, fellows; some were from nearby, many from far away. At first, we saw nothing worrying in any of this and befriended a couple who lived downstairs. We should have worried more when, within a year, this couple stuffed their belongings (and their adorable cat, Tomas) into a truck and moved back to Mexico City. It took being here a few more years, and especially it took having a few kids, for us finally to realize that to live where we did was to be constantly surrounded by dozens of potential Colleens.

The younger of my two kids, now seven, is on his eighth BFF. The first one he lost while still a toddler to a bad tenure decision. Five more were whisked away, one by one, for reasons in the same general category. His current favorite pals, numbers seven and eight, are both scheduled to leave at the end of next school year, when the relevant parents will finish their programs and move on. Kids are resilient, of course, and early childhood friendships are known to be fluid. But I’ve noticed him minding the losses more as their numbers mount; the last one—number six—was for sure the worst.

Colleens are not just for kids. My youngest’s first playmate belonged to a family, the Garcias, that also included my older one’s first best friends and a couple who remain among my favorite people in the world. They lived upstairs from us, and over the next five years our kids spent hundreds of hours playing at their place, at our place, or, when negotiations broke down, in the stairwell that connected us. We hoped they would never move. Over that five years, the number of families with small kids living in our adjacent buildings—three creaky multi-level houses—increased to six. We dubbed our mini-block—in the manner of a cult—the Compound, and we joked about building a sky bridge between the houses to even more handily borrow eggs, a thermometer, or one another’s kids when our own were bored and driving us crazy. Summer nights in our backyard were like a carnival. The 11 resident kids drew in even more from around the neighborhood, and they’d wheel around barefoot or on bikes while we grownups grilled or sat on the grass or the steps talking, drinking beer.

Also like a carnival crowd: our community was adventitiously composed; diverse in our interests and our national backgrounds; and bound, very soon, to disperse. It was always hard for me not to anticipate that day, when it’d all come apart.  It happened gradually, but completely, over the following five years. The first family to leave was replaced by another, also delightful. But they, along with two other families, were soon forced out, when our first landlord sold his two of the three buildings. Then another family went back to Europe. Then another bought a house nearby. We saw the number of our original families go from six down to one—us. Finally, we left.

Despite the fact that before coming here I’d moved 16 times in four cities, I’ve always hated leaving. And there’s no one who likes being left behind. Once, when my first college roommate had graduated and was preparing a move to Japan, I got mad at her for forgetting it was her turn to buy the toilet paper. But she had only a week or so left in the apartment, she protested. She was right. It didn’t take long after she’d left for me to see that I wasn’t mad about the toilet paper. I was mad that she was graduating and leaving me.

But that’s what happens after college, even when college is located in a big city like Los Angeles. And in a smaller, university-centered city like New Haven, that’s just what one should expect. Back when my first kid was a baby, I met a parent who looked at me skeptically and asked what I did. When I said I was teaching at Yale while my spouse was enrolled in the grad school, she made some gesture to signal, “Oh, never mind you.” She was long-term in New Haven and, as she later told me, made a point of not getting attached to anyone just passing through. Looking back, I think this person just didn’t happen to be into me. But I believe she was sincere about not wanting to get attached. Now I find myself looking skeptically at new parents on the playground. I can rarely summon the optimism to ask them what they do.

My family’s churn through multiple sets of friends over our years here is not all bad: now we have people to visit should we ever find ourselves in Williamstown or Boston or Mexico City or Dresden or Bodø. Or Los Angeles, where we actually often do find ourselves. Of course, this problem of ours could easily be called a privilege. There are better reasons to call New Haven, as I sometimes do, “Heartbreak City.” There are probably plenty of New Haveners who’d love to leave but are stuck for various reasons. And then, in the larger world, while most people who move around still do so out of aspiration, more and more have no choice but to leave places where they had friends, kids with friends and everything else familiar.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression about New Haven. Not everyone leaves. We still have beloved friends here who don’t happen to be enrolled in programs or awaiting tenure decisions or working in labs set to close on a particular date. Some of them are even former residents of the Compound, now living just a few blocks over.

I also don’t want to understate my own complicity in the swirl that defines my kids’ social lives. We choose to live here rather than move somewhere less changeable, such as a suburb or a part of town where there are fewer university people, or some other city entirely. At least for now. Like those of many academic workers, my terms here are still indefinite, albeit more settled than they’ve been. It turns out that moving houses, even within the same neighborhood, is hard on kids. Even though the Compound was empty of friends when we left, my kids took our leaving, even to a place just a few blocks over, harder than they’d taken losing any of their friends over the years. Indeed, for all the heartbreak in being left behind, I sense that suffering more of that would hurt them less than to leave altogether this place they consider home.

The Garcias ended up moving to, of all places, Los Angeles. We spend a few days with them whenever we’re out twice a year, visiting my family. We see them more often than we see friends who now live in Guilford, a suburb 16 miles away. I hope they never move.

Kim Shirkhani |