I grew up in a town where diversity meant a wider selection of coffee beans at the grocery store. Where inclusion meant clapping at heightened volumes when the three black kids in my graduating class of 600 walked across the stage for their diplomas. Where the most controversial thing to happen since the cholera outbreak in the 1800s was an Instagram knife threat on the school systems made by clowns. Perkasie, Pennsylvania, landlocked in Bucks County by farmland and rivers, is as boring as it is conservative. Apart from the churches looming on every street corner, the most life is found within the walls of Pennridge High School, where million-dollar turf fields and a college-sized campus hold over 2,000 students.
That high school taught me hatred: how to hate and be hated, how to conceal your loneliness and pretend that not having friends didn’t bother you. On my first day as a freshman, I planned to fly under the radar, a task I figured would be easy beneath the gargantuan show of wealth that was our school. Pennridge has three floors of classrooms and amenities, complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a state-of-the-art weight room, and a theater where the entire community gathers twice a year to see sub-par acting. We had a reputation to keep up; we weren’t the most privileged school in a 100-mile radius for nothing. We were expected to act like the straight, white, Christian pricks everyone wanted us to be. And I did just fine conforming to that crowd at first: I went to church service every Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church, the red-doored house of God just off Perkasie’s main road; I played soccer every summer on Suicide Hill, the three-tiered behemoth covered in athletic fields for one half of the year and sleds for the other half; I joined clubs and kept my grades up. But when a “friend” outed me, I quickly became “that weird lesbian chick,” a label that overrode every other identity or accomplishment. And so I was forced to live outside of our town’s sphere of perfection, which was perhaps the greatest thing to ever happen to me.
In my straight days, I rode my bike around town with Joey, my middle school boyfriend. Our favorite place to explore was the old train tunnel off of Vine Street and 9th, a landmark with a history riddled by death and disease. There was an old legend that a train engineer was decapitated by an oncoming locomotive when he stuck his head out of the side of his train at the perfectly wrong time. The train supposedly ran all the way to Quakertown, a neighboring city, before the authorities realized a corpse was driving, but we could never find any proof of that. What we did find proof of was an outbreak of cholera in the mid-1850s during the early days of construction on the tunnel. The initial contract was cancelled when a handful of Irish workers (the exact number is unknown) died from the disease. Joey and I braved the eerie tunnel, searching for signs of the paranormal, something to shock us out of our boring lives. The two sets of tracks ran exceptionally close to one another, almost too close for two trains to safely fit, validating the possibility that our town’s favorite ghost story might have happened. We found nothing besides a sea of spray-painted obscenities on the tunnel walls and a damp pack of matches.
Another of our adventures was to Menlo Pool, Perkasie’s community-pool-turned-waterpark. Menlo underwent million-dollar renovations in the early 2000s, turning a leaf-and-poop-filled community bathtub into an aquatic attraction that brought in tourists from around the state. There was a lazy river, a whirlpool, two water slides, a rock climbing wall, and two diving boards. Joey always beat me in swimming competitions, but I skittered up the rock wall and slapped the glass board at the top before he was even half way there. We played basketball when the lifeguards set up the nets for the aquatic court, and we flew down the deep-end waterslide like badasses. He broke up with me in the shallow end towards the end of summer. I rode my bike home alone, neither happy nor sad about any of it.
I met Heather my senior year of high school. She noiselessly strode into our French classroom and took a seat diagonal from mine. She was mysterious — ever so quiet, crazy intelligent, unnoticed by bullies. Like me, she had no friends in the class. We worked together on a group project. We saw Cloud Atlas together a month later. She was my reason for leaving Perkasie.
What frightened me the most about Perkasie was the number of people who simply stayed put. They graduated from Pennridge, got jobs at the local grocery store or maybe at an insurance agency in the town next over, had kids, and remained rooted in a place with charm but without opportunity. I told myself I would never be one of them, but college tuition bills laughed in my face and chained me to the ground for the duration of my freshman year . My only option was a state school with a half hour commute from my house, but after a year of staying put, I escaped to a campus near Harrisburg. It wasn’t Boston or New York City, but it was two hours from Perkasie’s hatred and only half an hour from Heather’s Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster. I packed up and ran.
The charm of Perkasie only exists to the people living in ignorance within its limits. I felt the damage of my privilege as soon as I left. I realized that no, you can’t be whatever you want when you grow up; I could only ever be as great as my labels would allow me to be. I still feel Perkasie’s ghosts every now and then, a barely noticeable tug on on the last-remaining chain from my childhood when my ego inflates and my judgment flares. By leaving, I joined the ranks of the Irish workers who died while building my hateful little home town: dead to Perkasie, alive anywhere else.
Claire Meler was the editor-in-chief for this issue for the second year in a row. She is a senior English and marketing major. She is also the publisher of Lady Blue Literary Arts Journal. Apart from her involvement in the literary world, her existence is defined by a love for bowling, an abundance of video games, and an obsession with coffee culture.