The Long Road Home
I sat behind the wheel and looked out the passenger window. Looking past the plastic consol and the dark grey upholstery was like looking down a long tunnel, out into the light. It made the orange, red, and yellow foliage seem unreal; brighter than it could possibly be in real life and I couldn’t bring myself to get out of the car.
I used to drive down this road often. It’s not a shortcut to anywhere. In fact, it’s actually the long way around. I only ever drove this road with one other person in the car. He would sit beside me, mostly in silence, watch the scenery, and not ask why I went this way.
Where I’ve stopped now, near the middle of the long detour, a curve of road looks out over a marsh to mountains on the other side. This time of year, with the leaves turning but not yet falling, the view is worth the trip.
Even back then, I would slow down along this stretch. The first time, he snorted and remarked sarcastically on the view. He had a point. What did two teenage boys out for a drive care about nature showing off? But the road widens here, leaving plenty of room to pull over. I had thought, at the time that I would pull over but the viciousness of his comment made my palms sweat, my heart beat painfully fast, and I stepped on the gas.
Gravel spat and clattered on the undercarriage, almost covering his quieter remark. “You should have stopped.”
The funny thing? We never did stop. I think we both feared what it meant if we did. My heart always raced a little faster as we neared that spot, my palms slipped a little on the wheel. We always slowed. We never stopped.
So it went. All through high school, until the last drive in the summer before we both went away to college. That day, I stopped in the middle of the road. I didn’t have the nerve to pull over.
“We’ll keep in touch, right?” I had a death-grip on that steering wheel, waiting for an answer.
“Of course. Always.”
A sharp horn blast behind us made us both jump and I had to drive on. In the history of our drives, I could count on one hand the number of times we’d ever encountered another vehicle on that road. It figured.
We did keep in touch. We got together on holidays when we came home, but neither of us ever suggested a drive. I wanted to, believe me. I wanted to more than any other thing, but we both knew by then what a can of worms it would open if we did. It had nothing to do with curiosity any more. We’d both had experience, and we both knew what we wanted, but I guess we also knew our friendship might prove too fragile to risk.
We graduated again, moved back, not home, but close enough to keep an eye on aging parents and I knew by then we’d waited too long. Our lives were settling into the patterns of middle age. I’d had my loves and lost them. I wasn’t willing to risk it again. My life, while perhaps not ideal, worked. He’d buried a wife, left a lover and raised a son. We joked over a beer once, wondering if his teenage boy ever drove home the long way.
“I hope he has,” he said. He looked at me over the spilled foam and empty mugs. “I hope he stops.”
That was the last time I saw him. There was too much behind those words. Too much time had passed. Whatever friendship we had left I couldn’t risk loosing over words misspoken through the layers of years and beer and regret. If I could hold whatever we had in my memory, it would live forever.
Now, as I drove back into town, I began to think I’d made a mistake. The memories had faded, grown old and indistinct. I thought driving up here would strengthen them again, invigorate them. It only made me feel empty knowing how dull they seemed held up against the bright colours of life. The melancholy of knowing I came back to visit my mother for what might turn out to be the last time made them look so weak. Even wearied from life as she was, she vibrated next to the things I only dreamed I’d done.
I told her about him on that visit. “No wonder,” she said. She put her hand in mine. It was grey, veined and wrinkled and small resting against my palm, pink with health. A tear pricked my eye and made me blink.
“No wonder what, Ma?” I asked, surprised at how rough my voice came out, and how soft at the same time.
She smiled. “He comes here, you know.” I hadn’t known. “He asks about you.” My heart thudded in my chest and the tear escaped, followed by a few more. “I tell him you’re happy even though I know you’re not.”
“Why do you tell him that?”
“If you wanted to see him, he wouldn’t come here asking after you. If I told him how unhappy you are, he would find you.”
She shushed me. “I want you to find him.”
She lifted her hand from mine and whipped my cheek with a finger. It was the softest thing I’d ever felt, like velvet against my two day stubble. I worried she’d cut herself against my roughness.
“You hate that I’m gay,” I said, though most of the words didn’t have enough breath behind them to make any sound, and I couldn’t quite meat her eye. Instead, I blinked down at the blue sheet showing through the white weave of the hospital blanket.
“And you hate that I’m dying, but we are what we are, Sweetheart.”
I don’t know what I expected her to say so late in the game. She’d never coddled me. She’d never lied to me, but hearing her not deny my accusation hurt.
“You could be a serial murderer and I would still want you to be happy. What you are is gay and lonely. That’s no way to live. Especially when you don’t have to.”
“What if it doesn’t work out?”
She sighed and took her hands back, smoothing the blanket over herself, a gesture I’d come to know meant go away, I’m tired. “Life doesn’t work out, you know,” she snapped. “You want many kids, and you have one. You want to travel, and one of you dies three weeks after retirement. You want grandchildren, your son is gay. The world doesn’t wait for you. You take what you have, and you make it work.” She looked at me critically for a few minutes, until I’d gathered the thoughts she’d just shredded, and then she smiled. “So I had forty-six wonderful years with your father, and a son I couldn’t be prouder of. I can say my life was mine, and that I lived it. It’s what anyone should be able to say.” She didn’t quite say she wished I could say the same thing, but I saw it in her eyes.
I sat with her a few more minutes, watched her as her eyes drifted and she fell asleep. She was beautiful. I kissed her forehead and whispered against her grey hair. “Next time you see him, tell him the truth.”
I’ll never know what she told him, if anything. I was just about to leave the house for my weekly visit when the phone rang. I went to the hospital to pick up her things and sign the papers. I’d packed the last of the pictures and unfinished knitting into a box and turned to go and he was there, standing in the doorway. What surprised me was that I wasn’t surprised.
“Hi.” His smile was slow, gentle, like he knew how fragile I would be.
“Hey.” We couldn’t quite look at each other, or think what to say.
“I’ve been meaning to -”
“Yeah, I know.” I interrupted. “Me too.” I didn’t want him to say how sorry he was, or that he knew how I felt. I just wanted to get out of there. The emptiness of the place was oppressive without her.
“No, really.” He came into the room and took the box from my arms. “I wanted to call you. My Dad was few floors up.” He indicated the ceiling with a jerk of his head. “I found out your Mom was here the day,” his throat bobbed but he tightened his smile to keep it from slipping. “The day I did this.” He hefted the box a little. He’d been close to his father, I knew that and I hated that I didn’t even know the man had died. “I wanted to call you …”
It didn’t sound like the end of the sentence, but when he didn’t say anything more, I shrugged. “I’m sorry.” It didn’t feel like enough.
Silence fell. I wanted to take the box back, leave him with the empty room and get on with my grief, but I couldn’t quite work up the nerve.
“Listen,” he began. Down the hallway, the elevator bell dinged and I heard the doors slide open. “Let me walk you out.” It sounded like he hadn’t known what he was going to say and the elevator gave him an opening. I nodded and followed him out of the room.
Maybe it was better this way, I thought. No long good-bye to her ghost. She wasn’t there any more. I stifled a sob and blinked at the floor of the elevator. He stood next to me and breathed. I matched my own breath to the sound of his just to keep it under control. I wanted to collapse, to weep, but the only person who had ever held me while I cried was gone, her life reduced to a single box, a single son with empty wishes of what might have been.
In the lobby, I stopped, faced him, reached for the box. We had to go about our lives. He stopped me just outside the door with a hand on my arm. The crisp autumn air cleared the stench of age and waiting from my nostrils. The watery sun, the rough grey pavement, the dirty cars lined up in a row in front of us seemed too normal, too everyday to exist so close to the suspension of imminent death just inside the glass doors. I loved my mother. I had hated visiting her. I hated this place. This was what happened to people who waited too long. They lay in a bed, helpless, abandoned by the things they hadn’t done in life, but not close enough to death to let those undone things go.
Maybe she had done her last thing. She told me about him coming to see her. She’d let go of me, of my failings. She’d let me be the son she loved and not the son she was ashamed of, who’d disappointed her by not being what she’d hoped.
“Listen,” he said again, bringing me out of my thoughts. “I know it’s been a long time.”
He didn’t have to ask. I just nodded and followed him to his car. He popped the trunk so I could deposit the box. Inside, another box sat with its contents, an old tape player, some cassettes and some framed pictures and cards, jumbled as though it had been rattling around back there for some time. When I looked at him, he shrugged and lost his smile somewhere in the other emotions he was working hard to swallow.
“What do you do when that’s all that’s left? Keep it? Toss it?” He touched one of the pictures, him as a young boy, probably taken just after I’d met him, then slammed the trunk closed. “It was easier to keep things the same, not be reminded all the time that he’s gone, you know? If I didn’t have to look at his stuff … But I couldn’t throw it away, either.”
His words from earlier, ‘I wanted to call you,’ took on new meaning and I felt I’d failed him by not being there. I wanted to say something, but he had already opened his door and his head disappeared as he ducked inside.
I got in and watched out the window as he drove. The town hadn’t changed much over the years. Our road still led us on a long route to our destination, but this time, I was a little worried about where it might take us.
“Have you thought about this much since?” He looked at me out the corner of his eye.
I nodded. We’d never had to waste a lot of words deciphering one another. I saw no reason to make him explain himself now when I knew perfectly well what he wanted to know.
“Occasionally,” I lied. I’d thought about this drive much more than just occasionally. He smiled like he knew the lie for what it was, and I shrugged. “Have you ever,” I didn’t quite know how to ask what I wanted to ask. “I mean, I only ever, well,” That went well.
“I’ve never taken anyone down this road.” He said quietly. I wondered if he was speaking strictly literally. “Have you?”
I didn’t answer right away. I had, literally never driven down this road with anyone but him, but if he was being metaphorical, I couldn’t say the same. “I’ve… been places,” I said lamely.
He grinned and I heard a low chuckle, a sound I hadn’t heard in years, and I was suddenly nervous to the bone. To cover it, I reached for the radio and spun the dial, listening for something just intrusive enough to take the edge off. I settled on a station with soft rock and took my hand away from the dial. It dropped and my fingers brushed over the back of his hand on the gear shift. Little bits of thought and memory broke loose and drifted around me in a haze.
“What are we doing here?” I asked suddenly. What was I doing? I hadn’t seen him in so long.
“My life is getting smaller.” His voice was so quiet, so lonely. “My father’s dead, my mother doesn’t know who I am, my sister left the country. I don’t have much left.” I didn’t know what to say to that. “If you have something, then say so now.” I wasn’t sure what to say. “Please.” We approached that corner, and his hands, white on the steering wheel already, began to shake.
“I-” the car sped up minutely. “Stop!”
He did. In a clatter of gravel and a whirling cloud of dust he pulled his car to the verge.
“When you ask if I have something, I assume you mean someone.”
“I guess I do.” He wouldn’t look at me. At the moment, I wasn’t sure I minded. “If you do, you know its fine. I wouldn’t expect you to have …” He swallowed. “Just because I never could, wanted to, doesn’t mean I ever expected you to not.” His lips pursed tight. He’d talked himself into a knot I couldn’t untangle.
I had to undo my seatbelt to twist around enough in my seat to see him properly. “I don’t think it really matters what either of us have or haven’t been doing all this time, do you? We’re both here, and I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
“Ok.” Still, he stared out the windshield. I reached over and turned the key, cutting the hum of the engine, the chatter from the radio and leaving only the sounds of our breathing.
“Why did you visit her?”
Finally, he removed his hands from the wheel and settled them in his lap. They only stayed still for a brief interval before he started picking with one hand at the calluses on the other. It was an old, old habit I recognised from long before I ever realized how much it meant that I knew him this well.
“It was as close as I dared get to you. I waited so long for you to forgive me for nearly breaking our silence, and you never did.” He sighed heavily and I watched his eyelashes flutter rapidly for a few seconds, unable to assimilate what he’d said. I’d never considered that my silence might sound so much like anger and accusation that he thought he needed forgiveness of some sort. “She was so proud of you, you know. I couldn’t bear to tell her what I really wanted.”
He nodded. “I thought she had, but she never said it.”
“We all waited so long to say it out loud.” I settled back around until I was facing front again. It seemed like we would wait a little while longer. It was heavy in the air around us, all that waiting, as it had been in the lobby back at the home, only now, it dripped anticipation I couldn’t quite stomach. Was it too late for us? I feared anything we did now would reek of the staleness of the years we’d wasted. “We’ve never stopped before,” I said at last, needing to break the silence. I’d expected it to shatter. It only thinned a little, made it easier to breathe.
“Why, do you think?”
“I don’t really know.” More silence, but no longer with the same threat of stifling us. He was no longer picking at his hands.
“As long as it was just a detour, it wasn’t worth it. We would have lost too much.”
“And now?” Finally, he looked at me.
“We made it the destination.”
“Do you always speak in metaphors?” I felt my lips curl up in a smile in answer to his question.
“I didn’t think we came here to talk.” I reached over and undid his seatbelt for him, took his hand and held it. He looked about as breathless as I felt.
“I’m not afraid of this any more.” It surprised me enough to hear him say that to ask what had changed. “I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do.” He smiled down at our laced fingers, but I could tell he was thinking of something else. “Your mother scoffed when I told her that.”
My mother? I don’t blush easily, but thinking of this beautiful man talking to my mother about me was slightly beyond my ability to process properly.
“I think her exact words were ‘I’m eighty years old, boy, and even I have a pretty good idea what you should do.’” He chuckled as I sputtered. It sounded so like her. His brown eyes sparkled as he continued, and I couldn’t look away from him. “You make memories, she told me.” I sobered quickly, wondering how I’d missed all of this intensity in him. “You make memories enough to fill you up for the days when it seems that’s all there is. You take him and you hold him and you love him because in the end, there is nothing else. One day, one of you will be here, lying in a bed waiting, and if all you’ve ever done is bide your time, you’ll have nothing. Take the time now while you have it, while you’re young enough for it to mean something.” I was crying now, my face wet and crumpled and red, and he took it in both his hands pulled me close against him, resting my head on his shoulder and wrapping his arms around me. I sobbed into his shirt.
“She loved you so much.” I’d always known it, but to hear him say it sent new waves of grief through me. “And so do I.” It was like a breath of fresh air, cutting through my heartache and I pulled it into my lungs, in deep breaths, running the words through my head over and over until I was calm enough to sit up.
His own eyes were bright, the lashes spiked together, but he smiled. “It sounds so simple now. I love you. I should have said it a long time ago.”
“Now is what matters.” It was true. We couldn’t go back any more than I could have changed who I was to make my mother happy. I should have known she never wanted me to change, the same as I should have known where my own heart had been all these years. I kissed him and his moan sent a thrill through me, but I wasn’t going to consummate this in a parked car on the side of a dirt road. That was just too much nostalgia, and besides, we weren’t kids any more. “Home,” I muttered at him, hoping he wouldn’t fight me on it. I didn’t think I could withstand much argument.
“Mmm.” It sounded like consent, so I pulled myself back to my own side of the car, and he cranked the keys in the ignition. It was the first time that long road home seemed too long. I didn’t care about the scenery. The only thing I could see was him, and it was the last time I was going to wait.
It isn’t a long road to nowhere any more. It’s home. Our house lies somewhere past the middle, just past the bend where even now, lovers park to look at the view and do the things lovers do. Our mantle is lined, many layers deep, with pictures of the people we’ve loved. His son visits often with his wife and children, and we remind them constantly, not to wait. Now is what matters. Now will never come again, and I wouldn’t trade what I have for all those lost years. They are my reminder to cherish every moment with the man I’ve always loved.