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Why I Did Not Go There

Today I suffered the minor insult of oral surgery. We were never told thirty years ago that the braces we suffered long middle school summers with would later cause our gums to recede, but I doubt that would have influenced our choices then. Thirty years later in the now I am in a leatherette dental chair looking out a sixth floor window at Renton’s car lots and Asian food stores while the doctor and nurse talk about a baby shower as he planes the roots of my teeth. A lack of feeling doesn’t dull the anticipated pain transmitted by the sound.

In an hour it’s done. Everything looks good, they say. Take this, don’t do that, and out the back door to the plush soft-lit hallway, then Jim Kramer yelling at nobody from the lobby plasma screen. All is soft light and the distended non-pain of my jaw sliding off my face, sliding off my face.

Renton is where I lived before. My now ex and I bought a townhouse a stone’s throw from the dental offices, moving there in 2004 so her commute was less onerous. It was a compromise in budget and style: reasonably priced in 2004’s real estate bubble insanity, lawnless and modernish in its late 1979 construction. I was sick then, but able to pull out carpets, paint, move everything. It felt better being closer to the city.

I liked and disliked its wasted space of stairwells and odd-shaped rooms and cubbies, liked the two-car garage, liked the little deck with no stairs down. We painted, bought occasional furniture. The odd-shaped living space never really worked, but it was comfortable and clean.

I could have gone up there and looked at it, driven by, walked under the three maples at the end of the street whose spring green leaves dazzled and whose autumn gold leaves dazzled more. There is a creek with a path I could have walked along, retracing all the other walks. I could have looked out at the city and thought about how different things are now, even with everything physical the same.

In college, I started driving around places that were old to me in our little Texas suburb. Friend’s houses, or houses where I had met and hung out with someone I thought was theirs. Curving around the street behind the middle school, the wide streets–never very long–wandering behind the high school with their modest houses. I parked in the Winn-Dixie parking lot and looked at the lines, walked into the store and looked without buying anything. I drove around my old elementary school and then out the county roads that dissolved into a rural clutter of telephone poles, rusting stop signs, driveways closed off with dented cattle gates, transformer stations humming like Martian landers. I knew all the curves and stopped at the same points, at the farthest points of the high school and early college universe, and then I turned around. Girls I feared but whose address I knew I drove by, quietly and evenly, never slowing down, just driving by and looking but knowing some calamity would happen should I be seen.

I don’t know what these drives were for. I was looking for something but didn’t know what it was, or if I would recognize it if I saw it. Often I would do them on Sundays, in the evenings counting down the hours to classes and worry, sensing time’s held breath, knowing children were being called in. I remember the light leaving and the sky’s high vacuum, a pensive, drawn clarity. The drives were always quiet, with the radio off, and with no one. Driving by the girls’ houses, I don’t know what that calamity was, and I always avoided it.

I did this after college, after going to graduate school and coming back, though much less. On return visits I have made the long circuit, sometimes accompanied by Matt, sometimes alone, always long and quiet with the radio off.

Two years ago I visited. January was a surprise blast of intense cold as sometimes happens, the cold sharp enough to make standing in still air painful. I didn’t make the long trip, though some shorter ones in all the new subdivisions, the same McHouse after McHouse. I talked it over with Matt, thought about it, decided to go back to my parents, and turned around to drive to one of the girls’ houses, and stop. It was vacant, as worn out as shoes. I did a brave thing and knocked on a neighbor’s door. At the end the woman opened the glass and came out to speak to me directly: this happened, that happened, a shame, doing well. She was a kind woman generous with her time, standing in the cold with no coat, talking to some stranger. I stood in the street in golden winter sunset, sky blue through bare branches, guys in a driveway talking. In that moment, it felt like California. Then I got in my rental car and left.

Today I did not drive up the hill, then the steeper hill, then the final steepest hill to the smooth meadow where our former townhouse is. I have my own home I can go to, the October willies shaken out of it by marathon sessions of crazy-cat-stairs-chase, Thanksgiving with friends, fixing the bedroom vent. I have a job and writing and improv classes and money in the bank. I have plenty of now to be in.

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