Yesterday, I was mourning the loss of my stupid normal safe existence. Today, I've woken up to realize that it's still here. Here I am, lying in this sofabed with Warren as the sun starts to show through the curtains in the living room. Things are changing, surely. Something inside me is growing new parts, something new and shaky and blind, waiting to be born. But it seems as though nothing outside of me realizes that a change is at hand. The walls are the same, the TV filled with morning talk show hosts, and the kitchen promises breakfast dishes, should I choose to create them.
Who are we to deny change? Or refuse to stay the same? We can't do both.
Imagine a car, ripping through a guardrail of a bridge. This is a theme in my life.
Let's say this bridge is over some unknown void, and the car is just sailing into it with blind conviction that it will hit something.
A river, the ground, maybe even a freeway full of other cars.
It will hit something and it will all be over, finally. The payoff.
But this car is stuck in mid-arc. Time is frozen for it, and all it wants is to be part of the carnage.
Maybe that car is me.
Or maybe I'm driving it.
But I'm starting to think of myself as the car. A willing participant, short-lived, with nothing to lose.
I am in control.
I'm getting the cereal down from the cabinet, and Warren stops me, putting a hand on my wrist.
"Where do you want to go for breakfast?" he asks me.
I make a face at him. "I want my cereal," I tell him finally.
"We're going out," he says.
"Out?" I ask, the word new in my mind.
He laughs and lets go of my wrist. He raises his eyebrows and says, "We're going out. Coffee would be nice."
"Coffee," I say, watching him go through the doorway into the laundry room.
I hear the sounds of clothes going into the washer, and water running. After a few minutes, he comes back and we look at each other as he passes me to go upstairs.
"You started laundry," I call after him.
I hear him laugh as he goes upstairs. Warren does not do laundry. I walk into the hall and I can hear him upstairs opening and closing doors.
When he comes back down, I say, "Are you drunk?"
And he stops moving, his smile goes away. I instantly feel bad.
I opt for iced coffee because I don't like hot coffee that much. Warren gets hot coffee.
"You know you can stay in the house," he says to me.
I sigh, and I turn my iced coffee on the table between my fingers.
Finally, I look up at him and smile, and I say, "I don't know what I'm going to do yet."
He looks incredibly sad. A kicked puppy. A hungry kitten.
I close my eyes. Go away, go away, I tell him in my mind.
"Maybe I'll get an apartment or something," I say finally, not opening my eyes.
I hear him take a deep breath.
"An apartment," he says quietly.
Neither of us says anything for a while, and I decide to open my eyes. He's staring at his coffee.
"What did I do to deserve this?" He asks me.
I open my mouth to say something, but I can't. My stomach is bile. My veins are ice roads leading away from this moment, leading anywhere else. Who cares where they lead?
"You broke up with me. You don't get to be hurt," I tell him.
And he looks away, irritated. He shakes his head, and then after a few minutes, he looks right at me.
"You have no idea what it's like for me. You only see you. I'm some kind of obstacle to you," he says quietly, his voice low.
I have no response. My hands are fists on the table.
"Where did you go?" He says finally, his voice forceful. People turn to stare.
"What are you talking about?" I ask, looking around, "Keep your voice down."
"You haven't been with me in years," he says, his eyes sad.
On the way home, walking along Bernard Street, he keeps looking at me.
"Come home, Aaron," he says.
And I cross my arms in front of me, tears filling my eyes for some stupid reason that I can't fathom.
"Maybe I don't want to come home, Warren. Maybe I want to stay gone."
And we stop walking, staring at each other across the three feet separating us. If I wanted to, I could reach out, take his hand, and we could walk like that. But instead, he turns away and starts walking toward home again, faster this time.
I'm about to take my bags out to the car when he stops me, blocking the doorway, leaning on the door frame.
We stare at each other for a while, me with a duffel bag over one shoulder, and we don't say anything.
"I can't be mad at you," he says finally.
"Why not?" I ask, almost annoyed, but mostly relieved. It comes out as a broken squeak of a question.
He smiles, a sad half-smile.
And then he moves out of the way so that I can take my bag to the car.
I sigh and hurry outside.
When I come back to the door, he's blocking the door again.
I stand there, looking up at him from down the back steps and neither of us says anything. His eyes aren't sad anymore. They aren't really anything, but he looks defeated.
"Don't go," he says finally.
As I cross the bridge over 505, I think again of the car tearing through the guardrail, and I know that I'm the car. A willing participant, not a victim.
And who knows what's at the bottom? Who cares if I sink into a river or explode against a sea of oncoming sheet metal? Who cares if I even make it to the bottom at all?
I stop the car on the other side and put my head back against the headrest.
There's a lot in my head right now. All of it's colliding and destroying itself. Over it all, I'm trying not to scream, because I would have to scream to be heard. But I don't think I want to be heard.
After a minute or two, my car is back on the road.
I haven't been home in years. Literally years. I met Warren a while ago. Five years? Six? Something like that.
To put things into perspective, they've never met him.
They didn't want to meet him.
My family is not totally friendly to outsiders. They get me, they're cool with my lifestyle and all that mushy nonsense. They just don't like Warren, because he took me away.
I left them for the city, and for school, and when I met Warren, I left them behind completely. And then I left everything else.
This trip is not without fear and regret, believe me.
Going home at this point is like driving into a brick wall on purpose.
I realize as I start to see the first white farmhouses and red barns and bored cows standing in pastures that I've made a mistake, but I can't turn the car around now. I've come to far. The windows of the buildings downtown stare at me, trying to remember my name.
I am a ghost here. I may never have existed.
My car is a stranger among the beaten, broken Cadillac sedans and pickup trucks. I pass the funeral home and the hearses waiting for the body. I pass the Wal-mart and the Burger King, so different from ours, and I pass the park and then I'm in the residential section. People who don't farm live here, and they own the buildings downtown or they work at one of the factories.
One of these houses is a low flagstone ranch with a treeless backyard. This is where my car stops. I sit in my car, not moving, eyes closed. Shut up, shut up, I tell myself.
The door is red, with a Christmas wreath hanging on it. People here like to start decorating for Christmas before Halloween.
I've got my two bags, one on either side of me at my feet, and here I am.
My hand hesitates, then knocks, then rings the doorbell.
I hear movement behind the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the curtains move behind the picture window and I think: I can leave now. I can go home. This isn't my home anymore.
But then the door opens behind the storm door and my aunt is standing there. She seems to have become an old woman, and she looks like she doesn't know who I am at first. I can almost see her formulating a polite way to send me away, but then there's a spark of memory behind her eyes.
"Aaron," she says.
And she opens the storm door excitedly, smiling, and moves aside to let me in.
"Look at your hair!" she says as I pass, and I can smell her perfume. She laughs and shuts the door as I step into the long, paneled living room full of mid-1990s artifacts. The air in here is musty.
I turn to look at her, and she looks at me. She sighs, satisfied with the situation, then she says, "Your old room is an office now. We figure you can stay out here on the couch or with Pete in his room."
The kitchen is the same size as the living room, with all the cabinets and appliances on one side, and the table on the other. The backyard is bright and sunlit through the sliding glass doors. We're sitting at the table now, she with her newspaper and me with my quiet regret.
"Your uncle won't be here unfortunately," she says finally over her reading glasses. "He had to make a run to Chicago."
I had noticed that his truck was gone.
She looks up at me again and smiles. "Aaron," she says. "You feeling alright?"
"I'm alright," I tell her, my stomach cramping.
She lets go of her newspaper and takes my hand. I look directly at her. She smiles and says, "Pete will be home at some point."
"Pete," I say.
"He's missed you a lot," she says. She laughs, and after a minute, she lets go of my hand. She puts her paper down and looks at me with the sad look I've gotten used to people giving me lately. "I suppose we've all missed you, Aaron," she says finally. She looks to her right, out the glass doors. "When you left, Pete just stopped being himself. Your uncle and I hardly recognize him these days."
I take a deep breath and let it out, but it comes out with a shudder. My hands are cold.
"Things don't change here," she says to me. Then she chuckles. "Except for the kids," she adds. "You and Pete, you've both changed. You've got blue hair and he's getting married."
"Married," I say, not quite remembering what the word means. I sit there, sinking into the vinyl dining chair.
She shakes her head and says, "I'm not complaining, but that girl makes me wish Pete had turned out like you. You know what I mean."
I laugh, suddenly feeling okay, and I say, "Why's that?"
She winks at me and says, "Because I'm not ready to be a grandma. I'm not old enough." Then she sighs and says, "And that filthy girl is determined to make me one."
Something about this is so funny that I can't not laugh.
And then we're laughing together.
I've been gone a long time it turns out. They've torn down the drive-in and put up a strip mall. The town has somehow grown a Chinese buffet. A Walgreen's sprouted at one of the three stoplights. Things have changed, after all.
I'm walking down the main road, something I haven't done in years. It's not like home at all, here. It's familiar, but faintly alien.
I find the library has new books, but the building is the same.
I hear my phone vibrate on the way through the park downtown. I pull it out of my hoodie pocket and it says HARRISON. The message says, When are you coming back?
I put my phone back without replying.
I get back a few hours later, and as I'm walking up the street toward the house, my car looks content to be here. I wish I could say the same.
Pete has become an anomaly, a sort of mythical person who is never actually home anymore. My aunt mentions him throughout the day. She talks about him briefly as we eat dinner, and again as she does the dishes.
She goes to bed sort of early, her face tired above her night gown, and I decide to stay up and watch TV.
Cable here is different from cable at home. The channels are dominated by Fox News and The 700 Club. Reality TV seems as out of place as reality itself.
The sky through the curtains gets darker, and the decorative lamp in the front yard bathes the grass in dim light.
It's late at night or early in the morning when I hear the front door lock being fumbled with. Five minutes pass, and finally the door opens. I turn to see Pete, much more adult than I'd last seen him, come in with a pretty girl with bright red hair. A wave of intoxication follows them in, and they leave the door open and stare at me.
Pete's eyes get very sad, then happy, then he turns and starts pushing the girl back toward the door. "Out," he's saying to her. "Out, out, out Hannah."
"I thought I was staying here," she says loudly, staggering out the door.
Pete follows her out for a second, and I can hear them arguing through the storm door. Then Pete comes back in and sits down on the couch next to me.
We look at each other, crickets chirping through the screen.
"Aaron," he says finally, smiling. "You came back."
My stomach is cold.
"I'm not back," I say.
He points to the car backing crookedly down the driveway and over the yard without its headlights on, bouncing over the curb into the road. "That's Hannah," he tells me. The car speeds away with the horn blaring.
"She seems nice."
He grabs the remote and starts to flip through the channels, and I think of Warren.
"How's life?" he wants to know, his dark eyes fixed on the TV.
"I suppose things are okay," I say.
He leans back against the couch and looks at me from under his eyebrows. "Just okay?" he wants to know.
"I've got some complaints I guess," I tell him.
"How's Warren?" he asks after a minute of hesitation. He says Warren's name the way my aunt would. Casually, but coldly.
"Good," he says finally, passing the remote back and forth between his hands. Then he hands it to me, smiling at me. "I'm going to bed."
He gets up and walks down the long hallway to his bedroom at the end. I hear the thin door open and close, and then I'm alone.
Nights are mostly quiet here, except for the occasional roaring motorcycle or train in the distance. Not at all like home.
The couch is comfortable I guess. More than ours.
I know I don't belong here. I don't know why I came back. The idea of a couple days here is starting to seem like an eternity.
I don't know this place anymore. I don't even know myself.
I've got this feeling in my stomach that I'll never know this place again. I don't know how I feel about that.
I hear my phone vibrating on the coffee table.
I pick it up and it says WARREN. He's calling me.
I answer and I hear him breathing, sort of shaky, maybe in tears.
"Aaron," he says.
I squeeze my eyes shut and say, "What time is it?"
And he starts to really cry then. It's hard to listen to.
"Come home, Aaron," he says finally. "Come home."
And I think to myself, maybe I will.