My first date in college was with a senior I met in an ethics class. Tall and blonde, he often sat behind me in the lecture-style classroom. It wasn’t until we recognized one another at a Halloween party that I realized he even noticed me, or rather, noticed the grades I got on our first few papers and tests. A flattered freshman, I said yes to his invitation for coffee.
A few days later, under the brisk warmth of the November sun, we walked through Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, passing charming Victorian brownstones and trees with leaves the color of burnt umber. In the two months I had lived in the city, I hadn’t ventured far from my college campus in the middle of downtown, confining my exploration to the Common, the Public Garden, and occasionally Little Italy. My new guide led us down Commonwealth Avenue, a parkway reminiscent of Parisian boulevards renovated by Baron Haussmann in the 1800s. The wind picked up fallen leaves, rearranging them in new patterns along the sidewalk, and we shared in this the pleasure of a quintessential autumn day in New England.
“Have you been to the Esplanade?” my guide asked.
My answer was no; in fact, I hadn’t yet heard of the Esplanade. An esplanade, he explained, was typically a long walkway by a body of water. In Boston’s case, a walkway along the Charles River, which separated the city from Cambridge.
We came to the corner of Arlington and Beacon and proceeded up the winding start of a faded orange footbridge named in honor of Arthur Fiedler, a conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra from the 1930s to the 70s. The bridge rose above the busy Storrow Drive, and on the other side I saw for the first time the Hatch Shell, home to the Fourth of July celebration with the Boston Pops and, more recently, movie night on warm summer Fridays. And beyond the Shell, the Charles River undulated with the unease of a windy day and a Red Line T rambled across the Salt and Pepper Bridge (which I would later, much later, learn had the official name of Longfellow Bridge).
I must not have been paying much attention to the conversation, and I can’t recall any of it now, but the memory of that first walk on the Esplanade remains vivid. There was the playground with its oversized modern tire swing, then the weeping willows lining the path along the water, and further east, the sail boat docks with bobbing boats. But what enchanted me most that day was the wide wooden dock just past the central bridge. Though the budding flirtation fizzled in that confusing mix of stops and starts distinctive of college dating, another love was sparked that day, one I’ve returned to time and again.
I’ve sat on the dock of the Esplanade in the brisk autumn wind, watching the bloated sails of MIT boats. In the winter, I’ve waded through feet of snow on days class was cancelled to catch a sight of the river frozen over in pale serenity. Each year in Boston I ventured to the dock on the first day of spring, my birthday, often with friends and pastries in tow. And when the city emptied itself of nearly 250,000 college students in the summer, I’ve basked in the silence with my feet dipped in the river and my face buried in a book.
The day after Halloween in 2012, I took my first trip to Salem, Massachusetts. In celebration of the end of the pledge process for my Little, we bought a pair of commuter rail tickets and set out north. The train ran alongside shoreline for some of the journey and the landscapes of a blistery New England were both haunting and enchanting. Sitting in a mostly empty car, we giggled loudly in delight, planning our impromptu adventure and struggling against a weak cell phone signal to search for restaurants to eat at, shops to visit, and streets to wander down.
With Google Maps as our guide, we traversed busy streets to the center of the tourist district around Salem Common. The clean up after All Hallows’ Eve had begun along Essex Street and Hawthorne Boulevard. Disgruntled locals scrubbed at cobblestone streets with old boardwalk brooms, carried wooden cutouts of witches and goblins, and loaded popcorn machines onto the backs of trucks. Despite the clean up, the little town still bore a spooky atmosphere with its gloomy gothic houses and narrow side streets. Making our way down Charter Street, we came to the iconic Salem Witch Trials Memorial. The small, square space contained nothing more than granite benches and stone walls with the names of those executed engraved in a solemn serif font. Flowers, bracelets, and other knickknacks were scattered about, left as tributes and gifts. Even in the midday sunshine, the stark memorials made chills run down our backs.
Curiosity piqued, we walked then along the dirt path that connects the memorial with the Old Burying Point Cemetery, the oldest in Salem, and the second oldest in the country, opened in 1637. A maze of grave markers ranging in hight from just one foot to well over five feet, the cemetery is home to some of the areas most famous individuals from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Some of these headstones, we noted, had been worn to the point where no engraving was discernible, no name left to remember. Others were preserved spectacularly—like that of Timothy Lindall, buried in 1698 below a triptych marker engraved with a skeleton and an angel holding a scythe.
In our silliness, we posed next to the tallest headstone we could find, one that stood taller than the both of us. It marked the grave of a Mrs. Mary Pitman, known for her “distinguished female excellence,” according the the engraving. As two women connected by a sisterhood, this detail was not lost on us. Nor was the striking image of a much smaller headstone, crooked and leaning onto Mrs. Pitman’s marker.
Eventually, we wandered away to find lunch, a feast of turkey and mashed potatoes and cole slaw and fries enjoyed at the well-known Red’s Sandwich Shop. And with full bellies, we boarded the commuter rail to head back to Boston. But the impression of those grave markers stayed with me through the rest of the fall and into winter, during which I’d often find myself visiting the Central Burying Ground, a small graveyard on Boylston Street across from my college dorms.
I’ve shared my love of cemeteries with some in my life, especially those I’ve traveled with, and it’s a difficult thing to explain. But I think Mrs. Mary Pitman, if she could see herself known to the world now as a distinguished female, would understand.
Porter Square was not a neighborhood I had traveled to before I met my first college boyfriend. Situated in Cambridge off the Red Line between Harvard and Davis, the area was renamed in 1899 after Zachariah B. Porter, a hotel proprietor and the man who also lent his name to a cut of steak known as the porterhouse. The neighborhood isn’t home to much, save for quaint, though old, New England homes, a school or two, and a few exceptional restaurants.
Dating a guy who had already graduated and was working an engrossing theater job meant quality time was oft confined to late week nights and some Saturday mornings. Around 8 or 9 p.m., I’d start my trip to Porter Square going inbound at the Green Line Boylston stop, unwilling to walk the extra five minutes to the Red Line at Park Street in the chill of winter. Bundled in layers and scarves, I’d sit and wait patiently for the screeching and clamoring of the train to announce its arrival. The train cars were always teeming with people, no matter what weeknight. And I’d blend into the masses, transferring lines one stop later, then taking my seat as the the T ventured into Cambridge.
A few weeks into February, and just a month or so into our relationship, the Red Line closed on weekends for construction at Harvard Square. A stop too early, I’d have to take the shuttle bus then to Porter Square, and in addition to the extra hassle in a New England winter, the bus robbed me of my favorite part of my commute to Porter Square, the ride up the really, really long escalator. The longest escalator among all T stops, its 199 ever-moving steps emerging from the bowels of Cambridge came to encompass all the giddy excitement of dating.
Along the escalator are countless bronze gloves, part of the larger installation by Mags Harries called “Glove Cycle.” The gloves grope at the rails, point, push, and prod, not unlike the hands and bodies of commuters passing through the station like clockwork timed to the faulty train schedule. Scattered at random, too, they capture the frenzy of being caught on the escalator as the wind billows in spiral downwards. All of this frenetic energy reflected to me then the motion of my days and nights spent with him, and even when they came to an end, this fondness for my commute to Porter Square failed to faded.
Public transportation was a part of daily city life I never grew bitter about, not even when the E train on the Green Line never came, not even when small fires delayed the Red Line, not even when I had to schlep to a neighborhood off the Orange Line. It was in these moments I came to love moving about the city, came to love the sensation of at once being both a part of a moving mass of people and an individual with my own distinct direction.
Summer was the season I knew least of during my time in Boston. It wasn’t until I had the chance to return one July after moving to North Carolina that I truly came to appreciate the city during these hot and humid months. Changed since graduating and starting a new adventure, I still found in myself so much love for the city, and it made the process of falling in love with a person that much more rewarding. We had agreed to meet in Boston, staying with my Little, to celebrate his 22nd birthday. I had shown him all my favorite parts of the city, including the Esplanade and Little Italy, and we decided to try an adventure new to both of us and explore the Harbor Islands.
With a late start to the day, we walked along the outskirts of Little Italy toward the water and Long Wharf North, a historic pier built in the early 1700s. A shipping hub, it was first home to warehouses and extended a third of a mile into the Boston Harbor. Considerably smaller today, it’s home now to a Marriott hotel and sits adjacent to the aquarium. And on its northern border is Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, with its sweeping pergola and lush green grass.
Walking past the park, we went to buy our ferry tickets to Georges Island, one of the most well-known Harbor Islands that also had an designated area for swimming. Tickets in hand, we wandered around the Wharf, planning for the day we’d own a yacht and dock it in the nearby marina. And absorbed in these silly fantasies, we missed our intended ferry. Unbothered—and might I add that was unusual for me—by the extended wait for the next ferry, we bought lemonades and laid in the lush grass of the park as a jazz musician played nearby. It was in the peace of that hour, sunlight filtering through swaying treetops and our arms pressed against one another, that I began to feel love in an unprecedented way for another person, a romantic, all-encompassing and yet fleeting love.
We eventually made it on to the next ferry and had our fun swimming in the chilly northern waters of the Boston Harbor finding comfort in body heat. A day or so later, I said goodbye—for now—both to Boston and to him. A while later, I said goodbye to him in a different way, and while one love is no longer part of my life, the city remains.
A little more than five years after I moved to Boston, I returned again for a brief autumn weekend. I wandered the streets that I had called home, visited the places where I experienced the things that shaped me, and saw a few of the people with whom I had grown. Many loves in my life have changed, some growing in importance, others fading and even disappearing from memory, but my love for this city remains unwavering, unchanged, and as genuine as the day I first walked the Esplanade. It happened in the way they all say it should, slowly at first, then all at once.