I came back here because I had nowhere else to go. Not literally, of course. There’s always somewhere else to go. Someone else to be. Something else to do. Most of the time, the possibilities seem to just show me how limited my options really are. Usually, I don’t think about how much worse things could be and how much better I have it, or how much better things could be versus how inadequate my life is. It’s how different things could be that really gets to me. But here I am, again. Here and nowhere else.
I’d been away for 5 years but this town was exactly the same. This both comforted and depressed me as I walked back toward the room I had just rented. It was in a century-old, ill-kept Victorian house on the third floor. The tap water tasted like rust and the hardwood splintered your feet if you walked barefoot, but it was cheap and my account had been running low for a few months. The room itself was a small square, about 10 feet on each side, with pock marks and stains in the plaster and crumbling ornate crown molding just below the high ceiling. It might be a place that turns away the average renter, with its musty smells and a hundred years’ worth of dust accumulated in every crack, of which there were many, but I hadn’t exactly been accustomed to luxury for the past few years. It was old, but not without character. The room faced the front of the house, overlooking the overgrown yard and the wide, tree-lined street through an enormous bay window that took up 3/4ths of the wall. A palm tree rose up the 3 stories and stopped just above the roof, with its mane of dead fronds beneath the live ones scraping against the left side of my window.
Anyway, like I said, I came back here because I had nowhere else to go. And I don’t know where to go from here. I could stay. Or at least you’d think that would be an option. That doesn’t seem to have been a viable choice yet though anywhere I've been. I couldn’t tell you if I was here to find myself or because I’d already failed at that. Nor could I tell you if this is a new beginning or an end, a resignation from the life I left here to start, or just part of the unbearable middle.
It was summer and when I got back my room was hot and humid, having absorbed the heat all day with the sun finally disappearing behind the mountains. I had the right side of my bay window opened, but if I’d opened the left I’d have invited the rats that nest in the palm into my room to scavenge what little food I had. Still, the one open window let in a cool breeze that just started as the sky turned pink with the sunset. I had walked down to the drugstore about 1 mile away, which was the only time I’d been out in the past three days. It wasn’t just the heat that kept me inside, which wouldn’t make sense with a room that generally stayed 10 degrees warmer than the outdoors on a hot day and 10 degrees cooler on a cold one. The reason I’d been mostly locked in that room for the week since I got there was that I didn’t want to be seen. It wasn’t for shame or embarrassment, or even secrecy, I just couldn’t stand the thought of being cornered into meaningless small talk with an old coworker at the grocery store or a high school friend on the street. Even so, a trip to the store couldn’t be put off any longer since I ran out of food almost 2 days before, so I had taken my chances on side streets.
I wouldn’t say that I’m in the midst of a breakdown, but I might not be in a position to make that judgement. While for all I know it’s the worst possible thing for me right now, I feel like I need to be alone, which I’ve been trying to do and failing at for 5 years.
But, it’s not as easy at it sounds to stay in a mostly empty, sweltering room all day, and I decided after one more week that I would have to run the risk of being seen, and suffer the consequences. Besides, maybe nobody would even recognize me. I’ve lost, and keep losing on my current diet, a lot of weight over the past 5 years, unintentionally, and I keep my hair cut short now with a pair of dull scissors that comprise one of my four toiletry items, the others being a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste and a stick of deodorant, the last of which I’m not too fragile to go without if need be. It’s been necessary to pare down my belongings in the lifetime since I moved away, and actually, it’s been surprisingly easy. All the things I didn’t need could’ve filled a house, and incidentally they did, on a street not far from this one. It started with ditching the furniture, selling what I could on Craigslist and dispersing the rest among friends. That was before I could even leave, when I needed everything to fit into two suitcases and three boxes I FedEx’d to myself. After that the things I got rid of got smaller and smaller, and I became less and less discriminate about what I jettisoned from my life. If it didn’t fit in my carry on, I left it at the train station; if the car that picked me up had a full load, I’d leave a bag on the side of the street; if it weighed more than a pound, it lost its value to me. I sold all my books and albums back to stores. I donated most of my clothes to the Goodwill. What I could sell gave me some extra cash, but my main goal was shedding the weight of everything. After each item I left behind, it became apparent that I didn’t need it in the first place. I fell in love with the sense of freedom it gave me, free to depart one place or free to arrive somewhere else. Sure, it also made me more volatile and unpredictable since it was essentially effortless to give into every whim I had to cut and run, which on more than one occasion upset the people I met along with way. Anyway, in that room, I was left with myself, a sleeping bag, four shirts, a hoodie, two pairs of jeans, the aforementioned toiletries, my laptop, which had thankfully lasted the 7 years since I was in college, and a tattered shoebox full of things I just couldn’t bring myself to part with.
It was a particularly hot day when I couldn’t take the confinement anymore. I was lying belly down on the floor, with my cheek against the hardwood, too hot to budge. I had tried sleeping but couldn’t so my eyes were open, the only part of my body that was moving, staring out of the window. A bright beam of sunlight was illuminating half the room when I heard a deafening thunder and in an instant the sky went dark and the rain started. Huge heavy drops began beating against the window and splashing off the sill of the open one, misting my face. Beads of sweat of about the same size were rolling down my back and I couldn’t resist the desire to go outside. Also, it gave me an inconspicuous reason to wear my hoodie, hood up. I walked north toward downtown, hoping that the rain would keep most people indoors. And it did. I walked alone, splashing in the flood of puddles that formed after just 20 minutes of rain. At this point it dawned on me how incredibly hungry I was. Later, I’d nearly survive off of oranges picked from neighbors’ front yards or public parks, and in the fall I switched to apples, supplemented by a box of cereal or a bag of chips I rationed from my seldom trips to the store. Then though, there was no ignoring my hunger and the grocery store was 2 miles in the other direction so I ducked into a coffee shop. It was quiet and empty aside from a table full of middle-aged men and one barista. I ordered a muffin and passed the barista 2 of my quickly depleting dollars. They were soaking and dripped across the counter as I handed them to him. Water and muffins don’t mix well, so I sat at a table in the back corner, figuring I was safe on a day like that, and watched the door. Before I was halfway finished my 12th-grade English teacher walked in with her son. While I sat still and continued eating my muffin, I was silently panicking, wishing I had a book to pretend to read or a phone to stare at. I thought I might be lucky enough for her to miss me, but I was wrong. She turned from the counter and scanned the room, choosing the table right next to mine even though there were six others free. After she set down her latte and took off her raincoat she looked my way, and after a few moments, recognized me. I couldn’t deny who I was; she was one of my favorite teachers and had known me well. She seemed abundantly happy to see me, and I feigned glad to see her, too. And then it came, “What have you been up to the past few years? I heard you moved away, and I was so sorry to hear about your parents.” I should’ve planned my response for the exact question I knew was coming to me, probably over and over again just by default of being here, but I hadn’t. I could’ve told the truth, but that would’ve stripped my time of the privacy I was so desperately searching for. I didn’t hesitate before answering, although I’m not sure how. I told her I’d joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in four different countries in South America and then moved to Michigan to work at a job in nonprofit marketing that I got through I friend I’d met down there. We talked for 20 minutes, mostly with her asking questions and me describing in detail the projects I’d worked on and how rewarding they were and even about my fictional roommates in Michigan. I told her I had to go meet someone and that it was great to see her and walked back out into the rain.
I was happy, or maybe just incredibly relieved. Either way I was elated as I walked past downtown toward the park. I’m not the lying kind. As a general rule, I just don’t do it, or, didn’t do it. I didn’t premeditate my response; it came naturally and I felt no guilt or confusion as I left the coffee shop.
Not soon after that day, an acquaintance, a guy who used to be in a friend’s band, was behind me in line at the store. Apparently, being away from this place simply does not go unnoticed by the population that has not nor will ever leave. After a few awkward pleasantries, he asked, and I explained that I was involved in an incident in northeast Texas, was wrongly convicted and spent a 2-year sentence in a Dallas County jail. I alluded to the matter being complicated and unjust, and made clear that I didn’t feel entirely comfortable talking about it, then I paid for my toothpaste and left. After that, I told my old dentist that I’d gone to grad school in upstate New York, a former coworker that I was working on a ranch in Montana, a childhood friend that I moved to China to teach English, my old neighbor that I had intended to spend that first summer working at a fish cannery in Alaska but never made it and lived the past few years in Seattle selling my paintings at Pike Place, and I told the grocery-store checker that I used to talk to every Thursday that I was sorry but she had the wrong person.
Somehow, this made me feel safe. I could be here without really being here. Of course, it wouldn’t last. Conflicting stories would inevitably be shared, with everyone connected somehow. And besides the ruining of my reputation as a trustworthy person and disturbing an entire community, I couldn’t stretch my funds much longer and I wasn’t willing to get a job here. Before the sun came up one day in winter I packed my few belongings into a backpack and left the keys to my room in the landlady’s mailbox downstairs. I took a bus to the train station and watched the sun rise above the town as we started rolling down the tracks. I bought my ticket from a kiosk without looking at the screen. I didn’t care where I was going, I just needed to be going.