It’s hard living in a city where people keep disappearing.
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the idea of alien abductions. It started at nine years old, when I watched a television documentary on UPN called Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, which told the story of the McPherson family’s Thanksgiving encounter with extraterrestrials in Lake County, Montana. The only trace of the family had been a video tape of their evening.
I was hooked. I read a comic in a public library about Barney and Betty Hill being plucked from a New Hampshire highway in the fall of 1961. I grabbed a copy of Weekly World News from the news rack every time my mom took me to a Piggly Wiggly and devoured stories of little green men on probing expeditions throughout small-town America.
Maybe this was because I was from a small town myself. Goldsboro, way out east of Interstate 95, had only about 40,000 souls. Goldsboro is most famous for a bizarre event in the 60s, when a U.S. Air Force plane accidentally dropped two live hydrogen bombs into a swamp in the city. For some reason, they didn’t explode. One is still there.
Almost everyone I grew up with is still there too.
Rarely do new people arrive.
The people I knew on the elementary school playground were the same people we knew in the high school parking lots, the names as constant as those of lovers carved into a tree trunk.
But in big cities, those trees are bulldozed.
August will bring my 11th anniversary of moving to Charlotte. It was in this glowing gray city, not the rolling tobacco fields of my hometown, the mysterious disappearances began for me.
New partners, graduate schools, and better jobs flash like intergalactic headlights in the distance, seducing my former friends into its metallic, whirring shape, and whisking them away to other cities.
The longer you’re here, the more often it’ll happen.
We’ve planted our flags on a mountain that to others is just a stepping stone.
I remember in 2014 when I realized my first post-college friend group was over.
My friend Bethany was moving to Korea to teach English, leaving her boyfriend, Nick, behind. This couple had been the centerpiece of our group, which was made up of his friends from Wilmington and her friends from Queens University.
As their relationship plunged into a black hole, we were all to be flung separately back into the universe.
“We’ll still hang out!” said Rebekah, a woman I’d only met through Bethany. Hunter, a man I’d only met through Nick, echoed her sentiment. But I think somehow we all knew as soon as Bethany took off into the sky to be transported to an alien land, our group would just be a little lost colony.
That’s how transplant cities are.
It’s not just about who leaves, but the wake they leave behind.
I was left lethargic, lonely, and bored. And it wouldn’t be the last time.
People continued to drift in and out of my life, Charlotte for them being a short layover on their larger journeys. One friend had a baby with his girlfriend and moved to Elizabeth City to be closer to her family. A woman I’d been dating got a job offer from Facebook and moved to California. I had a great connection with a woman I met through grad school, but then she ran out of money and moved back to Montana.
Charlotte’s gravity was strong enough to affect their rotation, but too weak to pull them into orbit.
For those of us who stay, it’s hard not to get possessive of a transplant city. We start to think we’re the only ones who really care about Charlotte.
It’s exhilarating when you meet someone else who views Charlotte as their home.
I felt that way when I met my future ex-girlfriend.
By January 2018, we’d been dating for a year and a half. We’d been to many going-away parties together, confused as to why anyone would want to move anywhere else. Whenever we’d catch a glimpse of Charlotte’s blinking skyline ascending from the horizon like a spacecraft, we’d sigh. “My city,” she’d always say in a dreamy voice.
So we bought a house. It was almost defiant. Screw what anyone else thinks. Charlotte was good soil. We wanted to plant seeds here.
It was my fear that sent our relationship into a stall.
In some ways, I was still that nine-year-old boy reading books about the Bermuda Triangle and Amelia Earhart. Back then, I wasn’t afraid of the aliens coming to take me. I was afraid they’d never come take me.
“What if I die before we discover proof of aliens?” I remember thinking to myself in my bunkbed in Goldsboro. They’d be here sharing unimagined technologies with my descendants, and I’d be an echo lost in time, snatched up by that other great mystery in the stars.
Something about that fear had implanted itself in me. I was now afraid I’d never see the soft glow of a spaceship to teleport me to a new job, a new life, a new city.
I panicked, ended things, and she left Charlotte.
My bitterness used to be toward the people who left. Now it was toward Charlotte.
I convinced myself it was Charlotte’s fault my relationship ended. I told myself I wouldn’t have been scared in a better city.
No wonder people leave, I remember thinking. Charlotte has no culture. Everything is too new or too old. Everybody hates it here.
I was left alone in that house we’d bought, like the last man on Earth. For the next two weeks I slept in different rooms, the guest room, the master bedroom, some nights on the couch in the living room. Nowhere felt like home, but I had nowhere else to go.
One night, I looked up the UPN special on the McPherson family’s Thanksgiving abduction.
I read the IMDB page and stopped: It was fake.
It was a mockumentary, entirely scripted. My nine-year-old self must’ve been too young to realize it. I downloaded a copy and was stunned at how cheap and fake it looked.
It was then that I realized something.
The aliens weren’t coming for me.
No interstellar job opportunity would land in front of me on the highway like the Hill family’s UFO. No Martian would descend from the sky, take me into her ship, and fly me to her Utopian homeworld. This was my world, my city, whether I liked it or not. I would stay, but why? To always be the one still here after the others flew to a galaxy far, far away?
A few weeks later, I was driving to a friend’s going away-party in NoDa. I’d met her right before my ex and I bought our house. She’d been there at our housewarming party and still there when I needed to be dragged out for beers post-breakup.
I thought about faking an illness and skipping her party. I couldn’t stand to watch the bodysnatchers steal one more friend.
I paused at a stop sign on North Davidson Street. My fingers gripped the steering wheel. It would be so easy turn around.
But I couldn’t. She’d never ditched me when I needed her. Even though she was only here for a short time, it was just the right time to help me through the hardest period of my life.
And it wasn’t just her either. Each person who’d landed in Charlotte seemed to drop in at a perfect time, and even though I’d wanted them to stay longer, I could now imagine other people in other cities whose lives would soon be better for their presence.
And I think that’s the point of living in a transplant city.
I’ll have less lifelong friends probably.
The bodysnatchers will always pluck people with little warning.
But truth is, Charlotte snatched those people from other places, too. There are so many heartbreaking goodbyes left, and so many unexpected hellos to come.
After that latest goodbye party, I looked out over my Uptown balcony into the slow moving clouds in the distance, and the winking lights of an airplane heading for Charlotte Douglass International. I wondered where the pilots had abducted their passengers from, and who would emerge from its bright lights upon landing.