I fly into Reno and pick up a car, then drive the 60 miles northwest to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range. Just past the transition from high desert valley to forest, where the road starts to gain in elevation and the Ponderosa and Jeffery pine cool the air.
I can’t help but think about all the times I travelled this road as a girl, discouraged and tearful in the back seat of the car, watching the sun set behind Pioneer Peak. My father never understood why the trip back and forth made me sad, but he never wanted to talk about it either. Back then, I longed to open up to him. With my stepmother always in the seat next to him, it wasn’t possible. He was a smart but impatient man, and I wasn’t confident enough to challenge the two of them together. It was often a long, silent trip, coming and going. Being the one at the wheel is definitely better.
The little town sits on both sides of the river, largely unchanged. I pass the motel, the Mexican restaurant and the gas station on the corner where everyone bought their first six pack of beer. Turning left at the only stoplight, I head over the bridge and pass the empty lot where the movie theater sat when I was 10 years old, where I took tap dance lessons and saw John Travolta in Grease for the first time. Before it burned to the ground. The lone department store has closed, but the bowling alley is still open.
Left again and up the hill on the edge of town, I idle for a moment in front of the house my father owned. It’s shockingly run down and neglected, and the garden my stepmother tended has long since died. I can still make out the tulip on the front door, though the paint is badly cracked and peeling. It used to say välkommen. Welcome. We had no idea why it was there, but none of us wanted to paint over it.
I feel my heart shift in my chest. It’s strange to be here, looking back. I head south, to where the town peters out and pine trees take over again. As I slow to turn into a rutted driveway, I see there’s a new, younger horse in the corral. I pull up in front of the house and Steph comes out onto the front steps. I expected that the house wouldn’t have changed much but still I am amazed to find it hasn’t changed at all. A thick layer of dust has settled, and there is an air of decay its possible to not understand if you’ve never stepped away. Her father’s smoke still permeates everything. Steph’s cheerleading posters hang from her childhood bedroom wall, and I stare at them, trying to reconcile the faded versions of us staring back.
I’m glad to see her, glad to have the company of a friend. Because I’m nervous. It’s all kind of surreal, being here, knowing I probably shouldn’t be, knowing how susceptible I am to opportunity and chance. I can feel him in the air and I am hyper aware of his mother’s house halfway between here and Gibson’s Cabin, where the reunion dinner will be held.
I feel him before I see him, and I try to keep my distance. But he finds us in the tour of the old high school and invites us to tag along. We join him and others in a visit to Mr. Bell, our high school English teacher, many years retired. Cross legged on the floor of the Bell’s living room, I’m keenly aware of how I don’t fit into the group. These are the kids who’s parents were involved in the community and the school, who’s families have been here for years and years, whom Mr. Bell knows well. I am the misfit. But mostly, I am aware of him. And I know that he is aware of me.
I find myself at his mother’s house for a pre-dinner drink. Stephanie is oblivious and lightens the air with her chatter. His parents are gracious and honest, exactly how I remember them. The way I envied them, expressive, trusting, interested. His mother sits down next to me, and his sister joins us. We end up all driving together in one car.
Steph and I find a table, and he sits down next to me. I feel electric as we talk through dinner, and it is difficult to focus on anyone else. I see him eying my wedding ring, as if measuring its worth. I think about how easy it would be to put my hand on his leg, and how comforting to have him cover it with his own.
But there is never enough time to get that far.
Photo credit: realestatebook.com
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