Home is the old farmhouse in the middle of the prairie, miles outside of town. Where Pa tended to pigs, and Ma, the best seamstress around. You hated the bacon she served. Ma and Pa told you to be grateful. In protest, you ran through Pa’s soybean fields in one of Ma’s hand-sewn party dresses. You believed the whole world was a vast golden prairie. Ran until Ma was tiny and hollered. When you returned, your dress torn to shreds and your bare feet dusty, Pa shook his head. A pipe hung from the corner of his mouth.
“Ruined,” Ma cried. The dress hung in wake in the mud room until Ma finished tearing it for its last life as a rug. Ma and Pa said this was your home. Not beyond it. “Your home is your castle,” Ma said. “You are a princess.”
“Prisoner!” You pointed an accusing finger in their direction. They banished you to your bedroom, where you read towers of books and dreamed about what lay beyond the horizon.
“Get out of here!” You screamed and hid behind closed doors, the crowds at school, and your own window and listened.
The fire within you dampened. You hid yourself—your true self—and did what was expected: homework, church, choir. You stopped naming the pigs. Listened to the handsome man who wiggled his hips. You cut your hair short, bleached it. Smoked Pa’s hand-rolled cigarettes while you leaned out your bedroom window. You performed this vigil until your eyes no longer distinguished where the horizon ended and the night sky began.
Senior year came, and there was another horizon in sight. Classmates chatted about leaving for college, the military, or starting life with their sweethearts. The future for you was a hazy watercolor of the amber landscape.
Home for you was this dusty, struggling town. It resembled your mindset. You had nowhere else to go. Two years ago, after high school, you boarded a bus for active duty. You were one of the lucky ones. Some friends came back, others migrated to cities noticeable on a map. Some didn’t come back at all, and yet, you expected to see them turn a corner and punch your arm like they did a few years before. “What next?” The question tugged at you and kept sleep from you.
Homecoming. You never thought you’d get sucked back into high school socials. But there you were, nursing a watery beer in the basement of a friend of a friend. You scoured the party attendees. The crowded, dank space was full of kids who were still in junior high when you left. Crowded and smoky, you saw her leaning against the wall, chatting away with another gal. With her short, boyish hair, she stood out. When she told you her name, you said, “Of course,” for it was the color of her eyes. She saw you study her bleached hair. “I did it myself,” she said, touching the hair on the back of her neck. “Ma hates it.” She smiled, and something within you changed. You danced, and you smoked. Spoke in whispers about who you were and wanted to become.
You swore you’d follow her anywhere. The back of cars, walks through the woods after dark, late-night diners, the county fair, and the middle of her Pa’s field. She found the bottles that promised you peace. You hadn’t hidden them well. Pills and thrills became the norm, then booze to bring you back from the waking dream.
Jade feared nothing; life was not something to lose. You had scars that reminded you otherwise. You told her you’d go again if it meant fighting for someone like her. The promises tumbled out around her, anything to keep her close. There was no one like her in your tunnel vision.
Her ma and pa said you walked a dangerous line if you didn’t get her home in time. Their complaints were background noise. When you flopped on your bed alone, you imagined her bejeweled gaze swirling above you. You saw it even with your eyes closed.
Ma and Pa hated the two of you together. You got serious fast. They saw no future for you with Alex and weren’t shy to say it. But you were the same age as they once had been.
You laughed in their faces. When he drove away after curfew, you screamed, “Good night, lover boy!” No one could separate you two. He had been a world away already. There was a hurt inside of him you wanted to heal. You understood each other without words. He was all you needed to live. You didn’t think about “what next?” There was only the now.
You became proficient at lying. The stories you told were so elaborate that they didn’t question your whereabouts. You worked hard to masquerade as the person they wanted. You volunteered, sang at choir practice, and visited Nan. Inventing what awaited us in the world. You bribed them with time, then slipped away after hours. Alex’s Chevy waited at the end of Pa’s road.
“Where to?” he asked.
“To the edge,” you replied. Sometimes, that meant driving to the coast. Other times, it was the water tower. More often, it was his place on the other side of town.
Home was the room you rented above the bar. Again, the surroundings set the mindset. Stark, water-stained walls, chipped furniture, and a sagging twin bed. You owned nothing but felt like you had it all. At first, it was a respite from her ma and pa. But “what next?” invaded your reasoning. Someone had to make a move.
Avoiding the question was easy with beer, uppers, and downers. The early hours of the day were often a roller coaster of laughter, then passion. Each time, you knew you were taking her an inch farther from who she was. She was yours, but what could you give her?
There’s something you’ve never told her. The night of the accident we were drunk, just a few beers. Danced to your own music. Summer made the place an oven. She thought the window sill made a nice porch. She swung her legs around, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her lip. That moment was funny as anything to you, and you doubled over in laughter. When you looked up, you caught the moment she lost her footing. Her realization that fate was beyond control.
You flew down the stairs and met her on the sidewalk. There was blood all over. You scooped her up, put her in the backseat of your precious Chevy, and sped to the hospital.
All she asked for was a cigarette and joked it could be her last. She cracked a smile and winced. You lowered your foot on the accelerator and ran the red lights through town. The fear of losing her increased.
You did the right thing, but it was a big ticket for her ma and pa to cast you away. A no-good ex-soldier nearly killed their little girl. You packed a few things into your rucksack and didn’t sleep in your hometown again. You believed the only way to save her was to leave.
Dark weeks followed you after the fall. Home was a trap. He was gone. Ma and Pa made sure of that and tended to you. Told you to be grateful. They were there. He had fled. But for you, there was only him. The pills took everything away. Both the pain and your beliefs. Gravity pushed you deeper into your bed. A day came when Elvis sang through the walls. The moment was like the sun breaking through the clouds. You resumed your post by the window where you thought you could summon him. How long has it been?
You drove as far away as possible. Got a job delivering. It kept you moving. Never slept more than one night in a town because you were always passing through. The job kept notions of her at bay, but they returned before sleep like a fog creeping over the water. What was it about her? You pointed your finger at the ceiling like you had the answer. She could live without you.
You sat outside the town you had escaped. It repelled you like an opposing magnetic force. You took your foot off the gas and killed the headlights. You trespassed, but the lights were off in the house, yet you walked toward it as if you belonged. There she was, leaning on the windowsill, smoking, while she gazed wistfully into the distance. The deep circles under her eyes and frown made her look much older than she did at that basement party. Was it only a year ago? How much had changed? Or how little had in the middle of the prairie?
You hesitated. She hadn’t seen you yet. You recognized these as the moments before your life would change. You had promised yourself, the Almighty, and the universe that if your paths crossed again, you wouldn’t waste another minute. Footsteps crunched on gravel. She turned.
“Please know I did it for you,” you said, your eyes darted and searched for her pa. Her mouth opened in surprise. “I loved you enough to let you go.” You kicked the stones by your feet. An unfamiliar weight of responsibility was on your shoulders. “You always said home is wherever we are together. I’ve got nothing to offer but a drive out of this town. What do you say?”
You think about it often. The moment before our lives took a turn away from that town, that house.