THE DAY BEFORE I LEFT FOR CALIFORNIA, it was eighty-two degrees, sunshine and serenity. My mom and I went for coffee as we usually did, sat down and talked about travel arrangements and fiscal responsibilities, P’s and Q’s. She slipped me a twenty across the table as we broke off chunks of our cranberry orange scone. “Just a little spending cash.”
When we walked out, I thought it might be the last time. Perhaps when I returned, I wouldn’t want to come to this place anymore, or anywhere here. That was what Mom was afraid of, I could see, and she watched anxiously as I gathered my curls into a bunch. “Imagine what your hair will do in their weather,” she said. I recalled how humid it was in Florida, October 1999, the year my hair transitioned to curls; the year of the glasses; the year of the braces. So far from those days, I thought, I felt I’d grown up. I’d imagined California was always eight-two degrees plus sunshine, and that Californians were hard to appreciate a North Dakota afternoon like the one my Mom and I walked through.
That night when it cooled to the sixties, I’d found my friends. We clouded the bar for hours, crying over the roar of music and clamor, and conceptualized the next few months. Maybe I’d come back with a husband or a new hairdo, maybe I wouldn’t come back, we decided. As the house claimed the last call, we gathered ourselves in small ways and together, laughed out the door for the last time, drove around our favorite circuits, rolled down the windows and bullshitted, straight talk. The city pressed on past the window’s realms, I wanted to go home, I didn’t want to go home. It was the same conversations we’d always had, about the empty lots where buildings once stood, now robbed of aesthetic.
“So what’s going to happen now?” I asked, and I got the long answer, just the one I was looking for.
I could hear a train trundling through night. We crested into the country, just past the water towers, right near the grain elevators, where there was light but no sound. I was cold in my dress, my goosebump skin scraped by a chilly air, but I laughed anyhow, I smiled anyhow. Everyone took a moment to admire the sky before we packed up, took the corner on the wheel’s tips, parked in the alleyway, called it a night. Then I said I wouldn’t be back.
Then returning home to a dark house, tipping down the back stairs, I came to my luggage. It occurred to me: The next day just after dawn, I was going to be on the westward road. The summer I’d always wanted. A chance to break from familiarity and then, to rebuild. And I’d never been so uncertain.