We rolled down the country road in a white pick-up truck, a six pack in the back seat and nostalgia in the air.
His beard was that of a proper mountain man, eyes as blue as high school. We were coming down off the mountain after an afternoon of shooting—as in actual guns. I’d never shot a gun before—am I even allowed to do this as a liberal?—but another forever friend had graciously insisted. “Come over on Saturday,” he had said. “We’ll teach you.”
This is home. It’s a place where old washers are strapped to the back of pick-up trucks and people stand outside smoking cigarettes in their bathrobes. There is a sign-up sheet for pumpkin rolls on the counter of the local pizzeria—name, phone number, and how many y’want—and a pencil-scrawled list of those who have been banned from the local bar. An old girlfriend pulls up next to me at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru: “I saw you cruising through town!” she said. “I knew it was you!” (Mind you, I am in a nondescript rental car, making this moment even more serendipitous for both of us.)
For as much as this town isn’t me, anymore, it’s entirely me. Even the smell of cheese fries and gasoline, as men from Texas frack the land and look on with lonely, saucer-filled eyes—that’s me, too. I know the old dirt roads just as well as any one of ‘em. I’ve worn those same Carhartt jackets, too, as I felt my fingers freeze at the tip of the steering wheel.
We idle in a gas station with the smell of beer on our breath, when my friend—the blue-eyed one—spoke:
“You’re the only one from our class who really left,” he said.
“That can’t be true,” I replied.
These are the conversations that make me pause. Is he upset with me for leaving? Have I abandoned those that I love?
“Every time I see some new fucking picture of you from somewhere else in the world,” he continues. “I think—there goes Ashley.”
I tap my foot. Pick at my thumb nail. Brace myself to be chastised. But what he says next takes me off guard. I am unprepared. It is not what I expected him to say.
He looks at me with earnest eyes:
“Is it really better out there, Ash?”
I look down. There is silence. A decade of divergent life experiences rushed in between us. There are a million different answers I want to give, but all of them feel superficial, hollow, only a tiny fraction of the truth.
Soon, though, he changes the channel on the radio and turns up the volume—perhaps to save me from answering. Perhaps to save himself from the answer. And onward we drive.
And so I have been thinking about the question non-stop for the past three days. How do you bottle the world and show it to someone? How do you explain, in a few words, how big the ocean is, and whether it is better than a pond?
So I asked Twitter: for those of you who grew up in a small town, how would you respond? Here were their answers.
I still haven’t formulated a proper response, but I can tell you this: as I accelerate onto the highway, I look around at the barren winter trees, the tractor-trailer-filled truck stop, and the big yellow bulldozers, and I cry. I cry for my past. I cry for the death of innocence. I cry for the people who are just as part of me as I am, myself.
And I cry because, once again, I must choose.
With every mile I drive, I choose.
With every place I go, I choose.
I choose to be both more me…and less.
Never better, but always different.