The road back


It’s a last-minute, 24-hour trip south and I question it even as I drive out of town on a Sunday morning.

There’s nothing on the radio and the leaves are just now starting to change.

Mom’s visiting my sister and we didn’t plan this very well so it’s random, haphazard, as I try to see them both.

My road is familiar. I cut through the folds of the Laurel Highlands and watch the road rise and fall before me and check my progress against the clock; 40 minutes to Ebensburg, an hour to Altoona. I’m making good time.

But an hour into Maryland I peel off the interstate, take a back-way in to avoid DC’s beltway. This is the way we used to go, that year we both lived in Northern Virginia, the weekend he took me north to meet his family and I almost told him I loved him, by accident, that’s how natural it was.

I haven’t driven this way in a while, and the roundabouts are unfamiliar now. There’s a little town called Lucketts where Irma lived in the back of a trailer park, cooking me an enormous Guatemalan meal every Sunday morning. Winston made me coffee and laughed that I’d drink as much as he’d pour me and my Spanish leaped forward.

Driving past the parking lot I remember the night I turned down their son, how I cried on the drive home because I’d wanted to love him, but love doesn’t grow on command. How I didn’t know that I’d already met the man I was meant to love, and that this time love would grow strong before I even realized it was there.

They’ve moved back to Guatemala, I learned recently, that couple that opened their home to me, a college freshman overwhelmed with perfectionism. Sundays were an escape. I could leave homework, and fellow students with ideas they didn’t understand, escape the odd bubble we all lived in there, and spend a day in a different culture among adults who worked harder than I could understand.

Oscar bought me white roses that Valentines’ Day, for friendship.

I played the old piano badly in the afternoon church service, accompanying songs I’d never heard, while Winston tried to call out the chords and I tried to remember that “Re” meant the D chord. Some days I translated, struggling over words or phrases, destroying Pastor Gilmer’s flow.

In Leesburg, I glance down the side street the church was, remember awkward dinners at Taco Bell with Raul, the much-older man who scattered Spanish and English together and tried to date me against the pastor’s express request to leave me alone.

I was too naive then.

And then I pass the IHOP, and remember that late-night trip in to town, as September gave way to October, when he talked to me for the first time, and Quinn asked him in amazement, “you talk to girls?” while I asked the same question in the ladies’ room, butterflies coming out of nowhere.

Two weeks later we were dating, and I stopped going to that Hispanic church.

He couldn’t understand the words. I lost track of Irma and Winston for a while. It was hard to face them after that conversation with Cesar.

The road leads out of Leesburg, and I marvel at all the new complexes that have grown up.

I navigate heavy traffic I’ve grown unaccustomed to and soon my sister’s son is asking if I have a belly button and do I know he has a baby brother in his Mama’s tummy?

The past slips away again, back into the quiet of my memories, the way I leave that town behind.

The town where I first learned what love really is.

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