Boston in April is a city reluctantly thawing. On some days, spring appears to be right round the corner, temperatures peeking above the thirties; other times, winter remains a weary presence, sporadically treating us to a little flurry of snow. Yet other times, my hearty Bostonian welcome is a full-out snowstorm. I barely escape the plight of getting stranded at the Richmond airport, managing to catch an earlier flight back to Boston. When I arrive, the city is stark white and frozen.
Returning to a place to which I’ve bidden farewell not four months ago, is strange, to say the least. There’s a little allure in finding myself a tourist in a place I have claimed as a second home, in some ways dearer than my first – I jaywalk across a street with sometimes faulty lights while other less fortunate souls shiver in the cold waiting for them to turn; know exactly where a misplaced foot might slip over an icy manhole cover. Sometimes I look at her with new eyes – less wary in sparing a second glance, more willing to take a picture – little luxuries I never partook in as a busy, international student.
Jetlag sets in alongside twenty-four hours of restless sleep, and in an effort to make sure I stay awake for the upcoming wedding, I spend a lazy afternoon on a bench at the Boston Public Garden. The city has rarely been quite this attractive, my rose-tinted lenses having arrived tardily, only a little before my last months in Boston. Returning to it is like newly discovering home, familiarity settling against novelty. Before my eyes are all crisp blues, fiery reds, and fairytale greens – hypersaturated and almost like a dream – I never thought I could love a city so fiercely, and yet, I have.
When I stepped out of Logan airport from a grueling and somewhat emotional 24-hour flight into the muggy heat of Bostonian August, falling in love with it was the last thing on my mind. It remained the last thing on my mind throughout my two (too) short years in Berklee, but somehow, between long walks along Charles River and tearing my hair out over finals, this beautiful, temperamental city wormed its way into my heart.
I remember, noting with some wonder, while sitting in Symphony Hall listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra play in my first semester, that I was actually, finally, living in a strange land, and it was no longer strange. Something about the entire situation – that I had received the ticket at no cost with a BSO student card, that the Symphony Hall was a mere fifteen minutes’ walk from my residence hall, that it was neither the first nor the last time I would do this – the mundaneness of it all, had made it exhilaratingly clear that this wasn’t an extended holiday; it was my life.
My life, as it were, consisted of a few things – music, church on Sundays, and the occasional concert or movie when I could spare the time and convince myself it wasn’t too cold out. My steps took me around Back Bay, to Cambridge, and sometimes to Chinatown, where the unique combination of bustling, jostling, and overwhelmingly Asian faces brought me somewhere between Boston and China, not quite Singapore. The closest I got to home as I had known it for nineteen years, was a restaurant called Penang that mollified my tastebuds longing for familiarity – oftentimes the only part of me that did. It served up coconut-infused rice with anchovies and cucumber, home on a plate.
Commonwealth Avenue, or Comm Ave, on which I lived for almost two years, is a pretty street, lined with the sort of expensive brownstone buildings you see in a Nancy Meyers film. The lights go up a good while before Christmas all over the trees on the median strip, and stay there through the spring semester, only coming down to accommodate the new growth of leaves. Verdant glistens like tiny emeralds under the sun, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, signalling (actual) spring, and bursts forth into full-fledged foliage for summer before any of us can track their growth.
In fall, Boston is a pretty sight. Leaves every shade from burnished gold to burnt orange, gleaming in the afternoon sun or darkly silhouetted against the azure skies, fall to carpet the streets before they get swept up and piled away. Comforted that nobody is in the vicinity to spot me as a tourist, I snap a hasty picture of the sight before my door, one of the few before college life catches up.
One of my favourite memories on this street involves a trolley and a roommate who has since become one of my dearest friends – where she wheels me sitting on it down the sidewalk, careening past bemused residents, laughing like maniacs. Later that evening, I, being the only one small enough to fit, sit on the same trolley doubling as a dolly. My great responsibility is to hold the camera tripod steady on the trolley, as another roommate shoots a scene for her film in the Tiffany house adjacent to our residence, affectionately dubbed Narnia (you could slip into it, unpermitted but generally unnoticed, through the closet door of the bathroom on our floor).
Narnia, better known as the Ayer Mansion, housed some of the staff that oversaw our residence. Complete with mosaics, stained glass windows, and a gorgeous spiral staircase, it drew regular visitors who, coming for a tour around the house, were generally puzzled by the college girls entering the building and disappearing off to the rather less awe-inspiring wing. There, excitement is over birthdays, and the assortment of desserts that come with them – pies and cakes and ice cream. I wake up on my twentieth to see a sweating cup of caramel frappuccino on my desk, courtesy of my roommate and best friend. It’s not quite home, but at least for the moment, it’s better.
A week before Christmas, the city, populated mainly by strangers a long way from home, well-near vacates. Winter blankets the city in snow, white and blank and beautiful. Boston hushes, and stills – like a ghost town, serene and empty. It comes back to life in January for the new semester, welcoming students back with temperatures dropping to negative Fahrenheit.
Midwinter, a blizzard blows through Boston and drops several feet of snow in our backyard, leaving the city immobilised. We troop out to see the spectacle, the Charles having completely frozen over – its banks spread a good quarter way across the Mass Ave bridge, the expanse vast and white apart from the dark silhouettes of barren trees far on the right. I capture it on my phone, sloppily with frozen fingers, then join my friends to partake in the full Bostonian college experience, which has apparently expanded to include sledding on the riverfront after a snowstorm.
Snow days, when we’ve had our fun adventuring out in the wintry wonderland, mean blanket forts complete with fairy lights and mac’n’cheese, chick flicks, and company of friends – brief respite from fifteen weeks of barely hanging on. Spring semester, perhaps in part because of the cold, always feels like an endless crawl to the finish line. The end of spring break brings with it a sort of manic desperation leading up to finals week, amusing in retrospect, and setting off regular bouts of hysterical laughter, the sort that comes with the territory of fifty girls under stress living under one roof. It doesn’t end until the semester does.
The Charles thaws out over the course of the spring semester, and for its faults (bugs, heat, humidity), Boston summers yield the loveliest sunsets over the river. The pastel hues blend flawlessly into sky and water, pink darkening to deep purple as the sun sets. The indigo of Boston’s night sky completes her colour palette. On the Fourth of July, the Boston Pops provides the perfect soundtrack to the celebration. The shower of fireworks feels like blessing and freedom – for a few moments, the American dream isn’t a myth, or even a dream, and I’m living in my La La Land right on the banks of the Charles.
Walking home amidst the throngs of fellow temporary Bostonians, the crowd breaks into a run – I look back and see the storm, silvery and magnificent, crossing the Charles, heading for me.
Depression is the unbroken thread that weaves through my Bostonian college stint. Sometimes, my skin itches – I had graduated to thumbtacks at some point – and other times, music is my only salvation from the insistent, virulent soundtrack in my head. The malady’s contradictions are every bit as outrageous as this city’s temperament – at once ugly and glorious, crippling and stimulating, ruinous and edifying. At times, it has threatened to swallow whole and hollow out – and yet other times it has reached in and sculpted my insides into art. If there is beauty to be found in me, the Artist has used pain as chisel.
As it has broken me, it has also made me more – and these cracks, these marks of growth, are littered across the streets of this beloved city, strewn in its waters and on its trees. Its sunsets have seen my tears. Its storms have raged, tearing through the cityscape, like an underscore to mine. I have sat entire afternoons in Boston’s loveliest fall, eyes full and heart empty. And I have seen its skies, summer blue like I have never seen, and felt hope for the first time in months.
The days remembered best are the hardest. Pain etches joy into our hearts like nothing else does, and when the darkness has passed, I find the deep grooves are dimples, not wounds.
I spend my last night in Boston on Comm Ave, the very same street I had gotten lost on, my first night. Christmas Eve is a quiet affair. The trees are adorned with fairy lights, and the night is surprisingly warm. The last week had been spent saying goodbye to professors and friends – goodbyes that felt simultaneously poignant and disturbingly inconsequential, for the fact that I would be back in a few months, yet only, somewhat as a stranger then.
There are, I think, no words for saying goodbye to home. This precious city houses in its nooks and crannies my wildest dreams alongside griefs I thought would haunt the rest of my days, each cherished joy alongside the blackest moments, and everything in between. Deeper beyond, better than the most splendorous snapshot of Boston, are the two years I have lived in this city – every silly college antic, every tear-soaked pillowcase, every second making music.
I leave Boston on a grey Christmas morning, my first one-way ticket back to my other home. It’s a rushed, unsentimental exit, and I leave a few things behind, some unintentionally, taking still more with me than I had come with.
Written by Yvonne Teo
Classically trained under the tutelage of pianist Benjamin Loh, pianist and composer Yvonne Teo later branched out to jazz and other contemporary genres during her studies at Berklee College of Music. She first became acquainted with the world of jazz ballads under Boston Pops pianist Bob Winter, and later delved into various other contemporary genres while studying under jazz pianist and clinician Russell Hoffmann, as well as Emmy-nominated television composer Kurt Biederwolf.
As a composer and pianist, Yvonne’s musical style encompasses and sometimes fuses several genres, including world, jazz, pop, Broadway, and contemporary classical. She also writes for various media and local ensembles such as the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Ding Yi Music Company, and Ensemble de la Belle Musique.
Article and photos reproduced with permission of the author