Saying goodbye to Missouri is always hard for me, harder than I ever anticipated it would be when I was in high school and dreamed of making a life Anywhere But Here. I measure my remaining moments by noting “last times”–the last time I will do something here until next year, when I return.
This is the last time I will press a button and hear the reluctant rumble of the garage door opening.
This is the last time I will eat butter-slathered Texas toast from a Dairy Queen chicken strip basket.
This is the last time I will listen to NPR on a long drive, with a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a Chantilly’s-sourced pastry for company.
This is the last time I will watch Saleh chase snobby, petulant geese in the park, begging them to eat the bread crumbs he has saved and brought for them.
This is the last time I will walk through a seasonal swarm of friendly ladybugs that have congregated on the back deck of my parents’ house.
It’s really very melodramatic, and I feel ridiculous as I do it, even though I can’t stop myself and I don’t even bother to try. A few days ago, I was driving somewhere with Mr. Mostafa in the passenger seat, and I said to him, “You know, leaving here…I know how narcissistic and self-centered this sounds, but every time I leave here, it feels kind of like a little death. Because every year, I go, and when I come back, things have changed, things that I probably wouldn’t notice or care about if I lived here all the time. It’s like, I see how life just goes right on without me. It’s like I died.”
Saleh looked puzzled. Then he said, “Well, that’s pretty silly. You want the world to stop when you die?”
I sighed. “No, that’s not what I meant.” Even though I knew that’s exactly how it sounded.
A few days later, I tried again, saying the same thing to my mom. She replied, “I know exactly what you mean.” At first, I was kind of stunned, but then I realized that she must feel the same way when she goes back to California for a visit, every time she drives by San Mateo High School, where she met but never really interacted with my dad (they were in entirely different social circles, as high schools of a certain size are wont to have, unlike my own high school, where social hierarchies were delineated but we all knew and interacted with each other, for better or worse) or the building that once housed the Family Burger, where she worked as a teenager.
I mentioned in my last post that change happens slowly in the Ozarks, and this is true. But things do change, especially in terms of infrastructure. Buildings come and go. As in many other parts of America, a building that has been in existence for seventy years or so has had a reasonably impressive lifespan. Lots of buildings aren’t made up of much more than a wood frame, insulation, sheet rock on the inner walls, and tin sheeting for the outer walls (in major contrast to Saudi Arabia, where pretty much every building is made up of concrete blocks).
For example, when I was in high school, a small building, housing a modest tanning salon, was built a few miles down the highway from our school. It was one of those wood frame/tin wall jobs, but we still appreciated the shiny newness of the building (the smell and sparkle of a new building, like a new car, never gets old). At the time, we girls were all obsessed with tanning, especially, like, right before prom because duh, everyone knows that you look better in a formal dress when you have a tan. I have long maintained that I’m simply not genetically destined to be any shade of brown, even the mottled orangey-brown of a white girl who desperately wants to be tan, despite the shade of my mother’s complexion, which makeup manufacturers generally identify with such breakfast cereal-inspired descriptors as “honey” or “almond” (and yes, she is my biological mother; I don’t have a stepmom and I was not adopted). But for a few months, even I briefly succumbed to peer pressure and dutifully hopped in a friend’s car to go tanning on the afternoons that weren’t occupied by Quiz Bowl or softball practice. Each time, before I got in the tanning bed, I meticulously applied a little heart sticker just above my jutting hipbone (God, I wish I were now as fat as I was back when I was first thinking about how fat I was) in order to gauge my tanning progress (girls who used a sticker in the shape of a Playboy bunny for this purpose were “slutty.” Funny–but sad–how high school girls, and even adult women, will find the silliest reasons to tear one another down). But after several months of religious tanning, I was barely dark enough to be able to see where to apply the heart sticker each time. I gave up and accepted my lot in life as a pale person.
Blessedly, tanning has gone out of style somewhat, although you can still find tanning beds to visit in the Ozarks if that’s really your thing. But the little tanning salon did not survive. Within a few years, it went out of business, and within a few more years, the building was demolished. All that remains of it now is a vacant concrete slab foundation. I feel a little jolt of sadness every time I drive by it, not because I think we need more tanning salons in the world, but because it was there, and now it’s gone, and so quickly. It just feels like such a waste. I wonder where all the tin and sheetrock and wood went. Was it just thrown in a dump somewhere? Was it repurposed? What will happen to that concrete foundation? Will it just sit there forever, a lingering tribute to teenage girls’ once-relentless pursuit of basal and squamous cell carcinomas?
I overthink stuff.
It’s possible that because everything else changes so slowly around the Ozarks, major alterations stand out in stark relief whenever I come home after a long time away. I remember the exact moment, years ago, when I turned onto my parents’ rural lettered highway to find that while I had been away, the center of the road had been graced with two divider lines in fresh yellow paint, when for as long as I had been alive (and I’m going to guess as long as the road has been in existence), it had just been a bare strip of gray asphalt, patchworked with newer black asphalt over the years, with no lines to indicate where it was safe to pass (and as it turns out, there actually is no place on that road where it is safe to pass, so the lines are solid down the entire road). I drove much more slowly down the road that day, amazed. When I pulled up to my parents’ house, my dad came out the front door to greet me, and said, “Hey, sis! Whatcha think of our fancy new road lines?”
It’s in the spirit of shock induced by new road paint that I did a double-take when I drove by a now-blank concrete slab foundation where the local roller skating rink once stood.
“Oh, my gosh! They tore down Skateland!” I exclaimed.
Alli, my 19-year-old cousin who has more maturity in her pinky finger than I did in my entire body at age 19 (and possibly even now), was sitting in the backseat with Lavender. “Nikki, that place has been gone for years!”
“No, it hasn’t!” I objected. “It was still there when I was here last year. I mean, I know it’s been out of business for years, but the building was still there!”
“No, it really wasn’t!” Alli insisted.
“Yeah, it’s been gone for a long time,” my mom agreed.
I didn’t argue, but in my head, I was sure they were wrong. I laughed inwardly at how I was reacting to the loss of this building, which I hadn’t even been in for maybe twenty years. But I used to go there every Wednesday during the summers of my youth. In a moment, I remembered learning to roller skate when I was five, when I fell on my butt so much that it would hurt to sit down for a day or so after I finished skating. I remembered how I would always come home with at least a few sticks of watermelon Laffy Taffy (the kind with black fondant seeds that turned your teeth black). I remembered practicing my splits at the back of the skating floor, where you could practice tricks like that without being in the line of skater traffic. I wanted to be able to do the splits on my skates so that I could win at limbo, but it was a skill I never quite mastered. I remembered birthday parties at Skateland on Saturdays, which were always attended by some unfortunate lackey who had to dress up in large panda costume, complete with a colorful, pointy birthday hat, and skate around with us kids. I remembered that for a few years, I didn’t wear the dull brown rental skates because I had my own pair of skates, white with a large pink pompom on the toes, which I carried to and from Skateland in a red skate bag. I remembered that Skateland was owned and run by a couple named Harry and Veronica; Harry looked like Marc Summers (you know, the Double Dare guy). Veronica was round and had long, dark hair that reached the bottom of her back. I wondered where Harry and Veronica were now and whether they knew Skateland had been torn down.
Yeah, I really overthink stuff.
I know all of this sounds morosely nostalgic. But the thing is, if I had the chance to live in Missouri for the rest of my life, forever and ever amen (as Randy Travis would say), I don’t know that I would take it. Actually, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t take it. I love Missouri fiercely, but I also know that Missouri and I are best when we’re in an open relationship, when I’m allowed to see other people and places. I know that if I lived in Missouri all the time, I would feel stifled, restless, and frustrated. I would watch the Today show in the morning and think bitterly, “Those lucky bastards, just standing around on the street in New York! Do they even know how lucky they are?” (I used to do this when I was in high school.) I would be constantly counting down the days until I could make the three-and-a-half hour drive to the airport in St. Louis and catch a flight to Somewhere Else.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if this is normal, this pathological dread of having to leave a place in which I know I would never want to settle down permanently, anyway. I know a lot of it has to do with my parents. Every painted road line and every newly blank concrete slab foundation is a physical marker of the fact that they, like all of the rest of us, are getting older. I’m in my thirties now. Leaving my parents is always hard, even though, alhamdulillah, they are nowhere near age-induced dependence on anyone or anything. But still. I don’t want things to change. I don’t want them to get older. I don’t want to creep further and further away from the days when they were my safe haven from everything, when having to be away from them for only a week of summer camp was absolute torture. Now, as then, I’m certainly not going gentle into that good night. I’m going crying and kicking and screaming.
And truth be told, so is my mom. It’s partly her tears that trigger mine. I think she dreads my departures more than I do. Having a mom who is your best friend is partly a blessing and partly a curse. But in truth, I know the blessing outweighs the curse. I’m grateful that my mom loves me and misses me when I’m gone. I’m grateful that she feels my absence so acutely and always wants me home with her, even as she understands and respects my choice to live far away from my parents. After all, it’s a choice she once had to make for herself. I’m grateful that once I reached a certain age, my parents trusted me to make my own choices about my adult life, to strike out and follow my own path, even if it has taken me far away from them.
And that’s why I’ll always come back.