My favorite street in Boston is Public Alley 502: a craggy sliver of pavement that stretches behind brownstones in the South End. It’s not a particularly scenic road — it lacks the grandeur of a fountain, for example, or the jagged charm of cobblestone — but it’s the surest shot from my home at one end to my sister’s at the other.
At a leisurely pace, I can be at Caitlin’s within three minutes. When I’m sprinting — as I was when she went into labor with her second baby, or when her 2-year-old fell on the stairs and split his head open this summer — I’m door-to-door in under 90 seconds.
I have a 30-year habit of following my sister around. We (voluntarily) shared a room until she left for college; two years later, I enrolled at that same college. We speak with shudders of what we call our “long distance” period: that is, when she lived in the Back Bay and I was over a mile away in the South End.
It’s a funny thing about the city, how you’re constantly surrounded by people who mostly remain strangers. I didn’t realize just how many people lived on my street until I joined its e-mail listserv. (What I learned: A lot of people live there, and they love reply all.) My sister’s a neighborly neighbor. She has a key to my apartment and will let herself in just to give me pictures my nephew has drawn or to “lend” me a can of tomatoes for a pan of quarantine lasagna. She’s a slice of small-town sentiment in the heart of the city.
Caitlin’s closeness has always anchored my feeling of home. I grew up with an overactive imagination and a constant, slow-burning anxiety — I slept better knowing she was in the bed next to mine. Hers was the familiar face I saw in college on the way to class. Now, my husband and I run into her and her family on the street, in the park, at the coffee shop. It’s so easy to race back and forth between apartments with a box of pizza and a good story that we do it all the time, running over at the last minute and staying well past everyone’s bedtime.
But starting later this fall, that won’t happen anymore. Caitlin’s moving with her family to the suburbs, blamelessly captivated by the sprawling lawns and showy greenery amid the concrete claustrophobia of the city during a pandemic. It’s not entirely unexpected; I’ve watched for months as friends once rooted in the city have traded their walk-ups for walk-in closets, no longer bound by a desire for short commutes and access to Boston’s bustling energy. I had hoped, though, that I could keep Caitlin with me a little longer. Not to be dramatic, but I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.
She’s always taken steps before me, making sure to leave solid enough footprints for me to follow. Now the path forward is a little less defined. She’s heading to her forever house in a town I might not choose for my own. For now, I’m staying here, in the city. I’m not yet ready to leave. But even as I cling to Boston and bet on an eventual return to pre-pandemic normalcy, I know that living here without her means my life won’t ever really go back to “normal.”
My sister’s departure puts a cap on this lovely extended adolescence we’ve lived for the past decade, where we can barge in without calling and share giggles and glasses of wine without having to drive home. We still have some time before she leaves, but already when I’m with her I feel nostalgic for something I haven’t yet lost.
Until then, I’ll keep padding up and down my favorite street, willing myself to believe that a 30-minute drive and a three-minute walk are not all that different, really. Once she’s gone, though, I don’t think I’ll be able to walk down the alley anymore to get where I’m going. I think I’ll take the long way instead.
Molly Donovan is a writer in Boston. Send comments to email@example.com. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.