On the final ten minutes of the drive, I explained to the mp3 player that its 'random' choice highly amused me. Sure, of the hundred-plus songs it had at its disposal, its only option was to play 'Time Stand Still' as I crossed into terra familiara.
In Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," the ghostly passengers manifested, taking solidity as they neared their destination. As the signs grew more and more familiar to me, I felt myself—that sturdy collection of opinion, belief, and time—melting away into the far more malleable version of myself I once had been. Even down to the fog on the headlights, the ending to this trip could have been plucked directly from any number of coming-home dreams I've had over the years, ever since I moved away.
A solitary woman guiding twin beams of light down a road unshared. My car's headlights whipped away too quickly as I passed the churchyard, leaving me no opportunity to see the silent, named sentinels lining its rows.
By the time I pulled into the familiar driveway, I half-wondered if I was nothing more than the least-substantial visitor in a town solely inhabited by ghosts of my own remembrance. There, the sterile replacement for the Bryants' split-rail fence, for years a local landmark; there, the church where Jeff and I married among a cloud of hovering, celebratory friends; there, the place where the Carlisles' century-old oak fell during a freak windstorm—there:
No, my mind whispered. A litany. Alabama, Jeff, large cats, circle of geeks. Not this place. Not any more.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of a howling thunderstorm squatting just over the house. (My pen originally wrote "our house" even as my head was shaking a denial. Some phrases, once learned, are difficult to unlearn.) As I lay listening to the rain, a simultaneous crash of lightning and thunder came. When it left, it took the electricity with it.
Silence settled in as fans, air conditioner, and sundry appliances whirred slowly and then halted. I did not hear my mother stir; she must have been sleeping with her good ear to the pillow in order to have missed hearing that commotion.
I think sometimes about the life I've chosen for myself: caretaker of geeks, of those few people whom I've decided to pull into my life. So often, I felt that my choice as caretaker is a horrible, awful example of chickening out, of taking the path of least resistance.
I lay in bed this morning and realized with a sharp, sudden horror, that no, I have not taken the easiest way offered to me. It came to me with the aching clarity of an answer you know is right, whether you like it or not.
How simple, how easy, it would be. Like falling, and letting gravity do the work. A town named for my family, a road named for my great-grandfather, a community center named after my grandfather, and several generations of children (and adults) who had my mother for a teacher.
I stayed away for eight months this time, and it took less than twelve hours for the tide to rush back and slam between my ears. Here, by dint of birth and breeding, I would never—could never—be a stranger. Part of the community whether I asked for it or not, unlike our days in Huntsville where we freely admit to recruiting geeks into our ragamuffin alternate family.
I could come back, and I'd be welcomed with the same collective arch of eyebrow reserved for those who have gone out 'into the world' and chosen to return.
I could come back, but that tide would kill me.
There is such a thing as drowning in one's past, of being so thoroughly trapped by the expectations of forebears and family that you feel you have no ease of movement remaining. A life lived wholly by the expectations of those you are only related to.
I stood in the churchyard this morning, staring at the graves of my father and my grandfather, under a tree that was tiny during my childhood, when Keith died first—
In our adulthood, it has far outstripped me. It is taller than me now—far taller—and will outlive the generations of my family that will be buried under it.
But not me.
When I spoke with Colter on Friday night, he mentioned longingly that Nashville was a five-hour drive from Little Rock, and Atlanta was so far away that he did not even know how far it was.
I thought of the cities I have learned in the past five years. Birmingham. Nashville. Atlanta. Huntsville. Words came to my mind that, five years ago, I never dreamed might have been possible:
"Jeff, you won't believe this, but I think I might be turning into a bit of an Alabama girl after all."
I will be home—really home—on Monday.