“Wow. I’m not in California anymore.” I speak the words, to make them real, as I pass the Burlingame Kansas city limit sign. I squint my eyes at wildflowers and fields shorn, yellow like the summer heat. When I roll under the bridge right before one can catch sight of the cobblestone road, I know there is no turning back,
You can go home – the saying is wrong – though it’s rarely under the circumstances you would hope for. When you escape a town like this, for something bigger, you wish to never come back. But life rarely listens to your plans. Sometimes you don’t even listen to your plans.
Driving my little Volkswagen Beetle back home wasn't practical. I could have flown and picked up a car in Topeka, but I wanted to see the country. To draw this out just a bit. And maybe, to avoid things for as long as I could. I hate to admit it, but I am very, very good at that. It’s a skill I wish I didn’t have.
I look at my passenger, staring out the window, drool collecting on the glass. “We’re here, Toto.” I laugh to myself, but my dog, Beau, doesn’t get the joke.
He stares back at me, with big brown eyes and a lopsided grin. He was an excellent riding companion, something I worried about. The farthest I had taken my German Shepherd before this was a two-hour trip out of town and jumping into this one was pushing it. But leaving my best friend home wasn't an option I would even consider.
Now, I could proudly say, we had crossed states together.
It's 7 a.m. on a Monday now, and I didn't think I would be eager to see my old town, but I am.
I wanted to arrive the night before, but I had been pushing myself, as usual, to hit an impossible deadline.
My eyes were tired, and the coffee I drank for dinner wasn’t helping. So we made one last motel stop off of I-70 and called it a night. I wanted to clear my head before I had to face the reality of our father’s situation. I wanted to lie in bed with my notebook, document this feeling. All I ended up doing was drawing a shitty sketch of an ominous figure and a teenage girl I couldn't bring myself to think of. I couldn't bring myself to name or remember a few other things either. But avoiding them here would be impossible.
The grim reaper had been staring over my shoulder my entire life. His presence was always heavy. My father was forty-two when I was born. My mother, thirty-six. I was young when we lost her. My memories of her are faded, and they mostly spring from old photos, rarely from my mind. I also find her in stories my older sister Sasha tells me. My father rarely brought her up, but when he was asked questions, he would answer.
When I was little, I wanted to know everything I could. As I got older, I started to see the way my constant need for him to relive their life together wounded him. The way his eyes turned sad around the edges as the stories fell out.
For me, she was an image, my birthplace, a riddle I couldn't quite figure out. For him, she was a wound. One I kept opening without care, without thought because I didn't know. She was a fairytale princess, a home I would never visit again. More idea than woman.
I was three when she left us.
She never left him. Never let him move on.
The little girl in me hoped that if I stopped asking about her, he would move on, remarry. But he never did. It was a hope of my sister’s, one instilled in me by her, something I carried on.
And my father, he said he was content. He liked to drive his school bus, and he walked our dogs. He took Sasha and me to the mall, a half hour away in Topeka, on Saturdays. Because like most girls, we loved to shop. To dress up and play make-believe. With the age gap, I was playing make-believe in my bedroom, pretending to be the characters in the stories I read. My sister was playing make-believe at school. Pretending to be the girl the boys wanted. Pretending to want the boys in return.
On Sundays, my father took us to church. We learned about God from Pastor Winthrop. When we came home, I assembled puzzles with my father on the dining room table. My sister worked on her homework, watched TV, and talked on the phone with her friends for hours.
When I told my father I wanted to move to New York, following in my sister's footsteps, leaving him alone, he did not hesitate to support me.
He promised to visit, to leave anchoring, stifling Kansas for us. And he did. Every summer.
When I moved to LA he promised to visit me there, too, wanting to see the West Coast beaches again, where he once lived before he was a father. When he wasn’t coming to me or Sasha, he was meeting us in the middle. Vacations to the mountains in Colorado. Vacations to The Rockies.
Time is a strong and strange thief. His health started to fail. My phone calls home confirmed what I dreaded, what I feared most.
He was losing his memories, his mind, the most sacred pieces of him. The well of understanding and knowledge my sister and I always came to when we were scared of the world, of ourselves.
Sasha came home when she could since she was a freelance web designer and could work anywhere, but I never found the time except once, when I spent a few days in Topeka where my father was in the hospital. But I never came to Burlingame again. I wanted to avoid the problem. I wanted to avoid my home and the way it took and took and took from me. If I pretended it didn’t exist, maybe it wouldn’t.
I was wrong. I can see it now. When I pull onto the main street, I blow out a breath.
It's a time warp. Towns like this seemed to be stuck in glass jars. I want to grab this one, shake it up.
The road below me is cobblestone, my little car rumbles, jostling me in my seat. I throw my loose arm over my breasts. Fuck, I should have worn a bra.
The buildings I pass, my speed now dropped to twenty mph, are brick, old. New buildings are painted in bright colors, setting them apart. I pass the post office, the city hall, Harold’s Hardware, Betty’s Bakery. The Falcon's Nest.
I stop looking around, stare ahead. “Focus,” I say, and Beau glances at me. My chest aches and my mind turns over images of the picnic table sitting outside The Falcon's Nest. It's still there. I wonder if my name is still carved on the seat.
Will I see someone I know soon? Will they know I'm here? Can I just hide away?
The town is busy. It’s the last week of school, and I see two yellow buses on surrounding streets.
A cluster of farmers sits outside Lazy Lee’s gas station, coffee in hand, shooting the breeze.
I feel sixteen again, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
I roll down Beau’s window a little more, and he sticks his head out as far as he can, inhaling every scent Burlingame has to offer.
No sooner am I on the main street that I’m off, turning left down the road that leads to my old house.
In LA, it takes you over an hour to get anywhere in the city.
In Kansas, an hour drive will take you through a handful of towns.
It’s easier to escape.
When I pull into the driveway, my eyes immediately fly to my rearview mirror.
The old high school doesn't look the same. Construction trucks sit on the front lawn. The old red brick building is a shadow in my mind. My eyes travel up the three-story building, and a million stories scramble in my mind to be the first one I replay.
Too many memories, too many heartbreaks.
My Aunt Vera walks out onto my old front porch, pulling my eyes forward. I grab the key from the ignition and step out into the hot Kansas heat. I hold the door open long enough for Beau to jump across the center console. He immediately finds my old mailbox and takes a piss.
“Severin! My darling girl,” my aunt hollers.
I roll my eyes at my dog and laugh, pointing at him as he finds a new spot to circle and take a shit. Fuck, I'm going to step in that later. I can just see it.
“Aunt V!” I turn to her and slam the door, then bounce up the steps. She catches me in her arms. She smells of pancakes, maple syrup, the past. I release my aunt and turn back to the trucks for a moment, shaking my head. I feel like I am hallucinating.
“I've missed you so much,” I say. The last time I saw her I was a senior in high school. I was a child ready to see the world, not ready for the heartbreak I would experience before I left. Not ready for the way my world would end before it even began.
“You, too. It's been too long since you came home.”
I try not to flinch at her words. At the guilt churning there. I avoid her eyes, turn around. “What's going on with the high school?” My hands go to my hips, my eyes become tiny little slits. The Kansas sky is blue and blinding and I need to be sure I am seeing what I think I am seeing.
“They built a new one. Just outside of town, to the east. Your father didn't tell you that? It was about five years ago.”
“No.” I narrow my eyes at the red brick building. I need my glasses. My father didn't talk much about the school anymore. Not since he stopped driving his bus, closing that chapter of his life. I’m not surprised they built a new one. I remember the failing window air units my senior year. The outdated facility was pushing it even then.
“How old was that building anyway?”
“Over a hundred years old, I think?" She places a hand on my shoulder, and I lean into her, my cheek resting there. "I reckon you could say it was time.”
“What are they doing with it?”
“Oh, someone bought it I hear. The city auctioned it off on the courthouse steps. It’s being turned into low-income apartments.”
“Isn't everyone here low income?” I step away, softening my face when I look at my aunt again. I’m not trying to jab, it’s just a truth. You move to a place like Burlingame because it’s quiet, cheap. Topeka is a half hour away, so you have the city convenience close by.
“Low income for women looking to start over.” My aunt's voice is soft and soothing. I remember the way it sounded on the other line of the phone when I was a little girl. I would call her when my father grounded me. I begged her to reason with him. She would laugh and ask me what I did wrong. When our mistakes and sins are repeated from our own mouths, we often see ourselves in a new light.
I look at her hard. Her eyes are the same blue as my father’s.
One night, years ago, she came to our house to stay. I overheard her talking to my father, her twin, in the living room, while I was supposed to be asleep. I pressed my little ear to the carpet and watched their feet from beneath my door in the small crack of light.
Her husband had hit her. Blackened her eye, gripped her arms and left violent and green marks there, slowly fading to yellow. I never spoke of it, the things I wasn't old enough to know, but I clutched her tightly the next day. She stayed the whole summer with us, getting back on her feet. That was the summer I pretended I had a mother.
The sound of car doors slamming pulls me from my memory. I grab my aunt’s hand and squeeze it.
“You hungry? I made pancakes and eggs for your father. The food at the home isn't nearly as good as what I can make. So I take him what I can.”
“Yeah, I’ll be in in a bit. I’m just going to grab a few things.”
“Okay, darling, I’m in your sister’s old room, so your old room is free. You’ll be sharing with Sasha when she gets in, or one of you can set up that tent in the den. You’re picking her up from the airport, right?”
“Yes. She gets in tomorrow afternoon.” I need her. My lifeline. I feel so close to her, even when she’s miles away. I wonder if it was like that for my father and my aunt. If the twin connection was so strong they could feel each other’s pain no matter where they were. Can she feel his pain now?
I walk back to my car, popping my trunk and reaching for my hair tie on my wrist. It's already too hot. I gather my sandy locks at the nape, pull them up.
A man walking across the lawn of the old high school catches my eye just as I secure my messy bun. I watch him walk to a pickup, the one that caught my eye earlier. I study his gait as he reaches the tailgate, letting it fall.
My breath stops, my cheeks flush.
Fuck. I didn't expect to see him, the first boy I loved, so soon.