Where the Road Takes You by Nikoletta Gjoni
The days grow long so you decide to take yourself for a drive. You tell yourself you just want to wander around aimlessly. You stuff your phone in the glove compartment to avoid the pressure of using GPS. It’s chilly out but you still roll down the window, just a crack, as you meander through the familiar streets you’ve both driven down a hundred times and haven’t driven down enough.
Not as of late.
You begin to map out your childhood like one of those Hollywood bus tours, except your houses have looked nothing like the stucco and Spanish tile roof styled homes of the rich. Yours were modest. Cute. Cozy.
You make your way up the neighborhood with the idyllic name: Woodland Hills. It was the first place your family moved to from the Midwest all those years ago, escaping the big city’s suburbs and lower income priced apartments. At first, you laughed. This place stinks, you said after your first exploration. There’s nothing but trees everywhere. Where’s the excitement? As if at ten years old you knew anything about excitement. You heard that kind of criticism on television shows and parroted what sounded like apt commentary. You scoffed at your new classmates on the first day of school, your walls quickly going up.
But now? Driving down through the quaint neighborhood, you remember this:
The smell of hose water spilling out in rivulets down the concrete summer streets.
The crack of a baseball bat making contact with the ball.
The feel of your fingernails digging into mosquito bites, marking x’s across the summer trail on your legs.
The numbing sting of a scraped knee as blood prickled to the surface.
You drive past the house and brake in front of it, just for a moment, to admire how nothing about the exterior has changed. Was the driveway always that narrow? Were the windows always that high up?
The windows where your first pet—a little yellow canary you trained to leave its cage during the day and crawl back in at night—would sit and doze in the warm sunlight.
You look up at the third floor at what used to be your bedroom. You wonder if the delicate blue wallpaper is still up. If the person who sleeps there now pretends that they, too, live in a fancy little Victorian house. That wallpaper felt old worldy to you then, so all your doll games took place in some tragic Victorian setting where a pretty young lady died with blood splattered lips from consumption.
Your imagination was always wild, tinged with a little darkness. You grew out of many things over the years, but never that.
You do a once over for good measure before putting the car in drive, worried someone would find your stopped car suspicious. You continue down the road and remember which houses certain kids lived in.
The neighborhood is like a time capsule and it sparks great joy and great sadness in you. Especially now, as the sun begins to set, and the air gets cooler still. You roll up the window and remember the smell of chimney smoke against the metallic gray of a snowy day off from school.
At the neighborhood’s exit, a tight fist balls up in your chest as you leave the picture-perfect childhood behind. You think about how lucky you were. How lucky you still are. You remember all the times your dreams have brought you here, to this very spot, and you recall reading how the subconscious soothes an anxious mind by responding with memories of safety.
In the dreams, you sometimes walk up to the front door, only to wake just before it opens. Your safety net only extends so far and in a strange way, you’re grateful for that. For the opportunity to let the inside of the house remain as you remembered it, unsullied by nightmares and stress dreams.
These dreams, they don’t come often but when they do, you wake up with wet eyelashes. You tell your brother of this phenomenon and he responds, in astonishment, how he has the same dreams too.
You make a turn onto the main road and wonder when the universe will reward sadness with a rip in the sky, a break in the time continuum. You think about how magic exists so simply in books and movies and you wonder why reality is not equally as simple.
To crawl through a wardrobe and enter another world.
To tap your heels and return home.
You wonder many things as you cut through the threshold of what used to be vs. what is, hitting the part of town that better aligns with your present life. Behind you, the house continues to be lived in, breathed in, existing.
Driving further towards the purpled sky, towards a life with no balance, you wonder why the heart was made to withstand the squeeze of homesickness that always seems to spring up unannounced, and always at the end of emotionally taxing days.
Nikoletta Gjoni is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer living outside of Washington, D.C. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Kindling Volume III, Cleaver Magazine, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review, and Riggwelter Press, among others. Her work has been previously nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. View Gjoni's publications at www.ngjoni.com or follow her on Twitter @NikiGjoni.