January 6, 1999
I hit my left-turn signal as I pull to a stop on Highway 63. Three cars are speeding down the hill from the north, I can't turn out and get going fast enough to beat them, so I wait. My little car, an '89 Ford Escort that has more rust than get up and go, is tired from the six and a half hour drive from Sioux Falls and I don't want to get this close and die. Plus, I always know how much I like it when somebody else pulls out in front of me, so I wait.
I've taken my time in returning to school for the first time ever. I usually speed like a maniac through the countryside, particularly on the Iowa blacktops. In four years I've seen three highway patrolmen and, while it doesn't make me feel all that safe on the road, it keeps me ticket-free and happy. Regardless of the law enforcement situation, or lack thereof, I've keep it to the speed limit today, the trip taking seven hours, just like it's supposed to take.
Today is the first time since last May that I've returned to school. I took a semester off, what would have been my last semester, to do an internship that was supposed to teach me things about my profession. Instead, all it taught me was that I should have stayed and graduated in December like I was supposed to rather than delaying it any further. Just another stupid mistake to go with four other years of stupid mistakes. Unfortunately, like my dad always said, what's done is done. He also always told me to ask for my quarter back when I'd lose at Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo so I'm not sure how much of a sage he is.
The cars have passed and I make my turn, south, onto Highway 63. The sun is gone, only a bluish-purple tint of black remains in the west sky. I had forgotten how dark the road is when the sun is gone, and I don't think anyone down here in Missoura cares to install any streetlights. I really don't like to drive at night but I don't suppose anybody really does. Too many deer running around and too easy to fall asleep. Only 23 miles to go now and I must admit I'm getting a little anxious as I always do at this point.
This is where the newness of college started to sink in on a hot summer day in 1994. It was just three of us, my mom, my dad and me, with half my worldly possessions in the back of the truck, the other half in my car with my mom and me. They decided that I would drive the entire way that first time to get used to the drive. They didn't want me to sleep because with no one else from Sioux Falls coming down here with me. The drive would always be me by myself.
Mile 23 is where it hit. Somewhere in my upper stomach, immediately below my ribcage. It felt like there was a little electricity just sitting there and the only way to get over it was to drive the 23 miles or turn around and drive 350 miles back to South Dakota. If I had been coming down there with someone I graduated with it wouldn't have been so bad. If there would have been someone from Sioux Falls down that I could just talk to it wouldn't have been so bad. But bad it was. Bad, not knowing a soul, not knowing my roommate, not knowing, or remembering, why I chose to leave home so far away. But I stayed, and, except for a few rough moments, it's been okay.
Mile 23. It was a kind of "Point of No Return" sign. Even though I had gone that far I still felt like I could go back up until that point. At Mile 23 there was a billboard showing the schedule for the football team. "Adopt a Highway" signs were labeled by school organizations, fraternities, sororities, the association to legalize marijuana. It was like a tractor beam pulling me in to the town. The school was starting to get its claws into me. Twenty-three miles of anxiety that continues to get me even to this day.
I flip through the stations in the radio dial, homing in on one of the three that the northeast corner of Missoura has to offer. I settle on the classic rock station because the top 40 has Mariah Carey on at the moment, and I don't want the greasy double cheeseburger I bought from a Hardee's in Des Moines coming back up on me. It's not even like they're anywhere near each other on the dial, you have to go through all kinds of static to get to the other, and, without a programmable radio, you have to listen to it. Number one thing that I'm buying in May after graduation? A Sony Playstation. Number two thing? A programmable radio for my car.
A twinge of nostalgia has hit me at this point as I pass a fireworks stand that won't be open for another six months. Flashes of the good memories, working the first homecoming game the school won in fifteen years, going to watch old movies on white sheets in the old gym, walking home from the auditorium after seeing "A Christmas Carol" my freshman year, hit me like a bad movie flashback. As bad as it was at times, college in a small farmtown could also be fun. Maybe taking six months off of work and school and coming back for a semester will be good for me. Maybe it taught me to hate the real world and will make me appreciate these last five months I have to goof around. Maybe I'll really try to appreciate it.
I must say that I've changed a lot since the last time I was on this highway. Many things have happened while I was gone. I don't swear like I did, working in an office cleaned up my language even though the boss loved to send choice words my way. My wardrobe has changed, no more "Party Naked" T-shirts, they've been replaced by decent clothes, my old, worn-out tennis shoes have turned to brown suede loafers, my backwards Twins cap gone and will only return for intramural softball this spring. Goatee gone, hair cut, appearance: presentable. And I gave up the drink.
The time was always going to come when I'd have to give it up. I was dead set against drinking for a long time. Didn't want to have anything to do with it. Then I went out one night and had a good time. I began to think that I was a lot more comfortable about things with a three-beer buzz, I started to think that people probably liked me better at that point, too. Then I went away and went back to the way I was before college. Rather than hitting the bars on a Friday night, I hit the movies. I went to the batting cages when weather allowed, the mall when it didn't. I started reading again and enjoying my hangover-free Saturday morning cartoons.
I'd get up early on a Sunday morning, put the laundry in, take a shower. Amazing, no smell of smoke on my breath or in my clothes, no headaches, no pool of toxic waste sitting in my stomach for the entire day. Cripes, I was up early enough to hear "The Beatle Years" on NPR and was able to stay awake to enjoy it. Other interns I was around couldn't figure out why I was up so early on the weekends but I figured, why sleep in when you only get so many hours in a weekend to goof around? I began to enjoy the entire weekend again, not just the nights. Amazing, money didn't find its way out of my wallet so easily.
I laugh as I pass the sign that says the town is ten miles away, wondering who the person was that determined the distance. Just up the road, right here, three-quarters of a mile later, is another sign that says only seven miles to go. I've always wondered if there was some worm hole or fluctuation in the space-time continuum that made me go three miles that quickly. I always check the speedometer, but I'm always going something near the speed limit, definitely not fast enough to travel three miles in forty seconds, at least not without the aid of a hyperdrive, which I'm sure didn't come standard with the '89 Escort. The more I think about, somebody probably just made a mistake. Both signs might go home with me in May, though, or maybe in time someone will fix the mistake.
Okay, now it's serious. There are the lights, the town is approaching. The highway reminds me of a quilt because there are at least seven different and distinct types of asphalt that was used to patch it up. The road tosses my little car around and, when it's windy, I actually have a hard time keeping control. The road makes it real fun when a semi going north comes barreling down on me. I hear that in ten years or so they might actually repave the highway and fix it the proper way.
This will be my true test of sobriety. I have a conviction to fight my evil friends and ward off all alcoholic influences on my quest for a better life. My roommates don't believe me, they think it will be just like my pledge to exercise or my crusade to learn how to play the harmonica. That was different, I keep telling myself. This time, I'm going to do it.
An insurance salesman's billboard, two for realty firms, one for the campus radio station. It's been so long, amazing how the past comes rushing back and becomes the present. I pass The Beast, as we like to call the monstrosity Wal-Mart, which is responsible for killing off dozens of businesses. I pass the Burger King, now it's like any time I've gone to get a BK Broiler. It's like I've never been gone. Instinct tells me to stay right at the Y intersection, I remember how my dad bitched about this intersection that first trip down.
The half-year away from town is completely gone now. A small hill, Ace Hardware to the left, a big grass field with a residence shaped like a lighthouse at the end. The windows boarded up, the walk not shoveled, the foundation cracking under the weight of the structure and time. I always told myself that if I stay in this town that I'd buy it and fix it up, make it look like it did when it was built. That dream has now become a casualty of reality.
I take the S curve at 35, faster than the posted 20, which makes me feel like an Indy driver in my little car. A stop sign next with an apartment building to the right and Conoco to the left. The building was my residence during my sophomore year, the clerks at the Conoco conveniently thought I was 21. The car lurches forward, it must sense that it's near the end of the journey. The excitement gone now and in about five minutes it'll be like I never left and I'll want out the same as I did before. Five more months then it's all over. Five more months and 18 years of schooling are finally finished. Five more months and I'm finally grown up.
There are three blinking red lights between my destination and me. In true Missoura form I blow through them without a thought and drive out of the downtown district into the ghetto. All the students live down here in white trash housing with cracking foundations, paint peeling off siding and crumbling brick porches. I've thought about growing up and becoming one of these slumlords because they're making hand over foot. I stay on Filmore and turn left on Scott and see the house that I'll live in for my last four months here.
I pull up on the lawn and turn off the engine, thus completing my final trip into town as a student. There are lights on, my roommates are both here, they were going to wait for me before they went out. Tomorrow is the first day of classes, and they are going out to the bars to celebrate. I sit for a moment, then pull my keys, open the door and get out. I hop onto the old wooden porch, avoid the holes from people stepping through it during parties, open the doors and walk in.
"Hey guys, how are you," I say. They look up from playing a video game and smile.
"My god, how long has it been?" Cam asks, getting up and giving me a hug. "We never thought we were going to see you again."
"Oh, shit, Cameron, he couldn't leave us forever," Coke says to me. We all call him Coke because if he's not drinking beer, he's drinking Coke. Plus he had a drug problem there for awhile. "Leave your coat on, we're going to the Flamingo."
Here we go.
"No, not tonight. I told you guys I'm not drinking anymore and besides, I need to unload my car." This will be the first battle. If I win, I'll be okay. I'm going to win.
"No you're not. Lock your doors and let's go. Everybody's gonna be there to welcome you back. How rude would that be if you didn't even show up for your welcome back party," Cam says, putting on his coat. I've got to fight it.
"Not tonight, maybe on Friday." Great effort, keep it up.
"Nope, tonight. Let's go. Man, you've been away from the Flamingo for half a year! You've at least got to go and see Jamie, she'd been asking when you were going to get back." Coke's playing dirty pool now, of course I'll go. I've been hot after Jamie since our junior year. Part of me says he's lying but another part of me doesn't want to chance it.
"Okay, but just for a little while and I'm not drinking."
"That's all we ask." Okay, I bent, but I won't break. I'm strong, I can fight this. I don't need booze, I can be myself and still have a good time. Just for a little while, nothing can go wrong. I go back out the door, which they didn't even let me close, and step back onto to the wooden porch. I can do this, I can do this.
January 7, 1999
The alarm goes off. It's seven o'clock. I'm an hour and a half away from my first class, the first class of my last semester. My mouth is pasty, my smell hits me in another second. I'm in Coke's bed, which is not a nice place to be. Memories of the night before come back. I couldn't do it. I couldn't even last a single night back here without doing it. Damn it, why did I do that? Why do I always do this? Why can't I grow a spine, be a man, fight my urges, don't give in to hate, do the right thing.
I get up out of the bed, still in the clothes I drove home in, grab a towel and head for the shower. Classes immediately enter my mind. They are unimportant at the moment. Ethics, ironically, is the first class of the day. I hang my head in defeat, as I always do, and start the mental abuse that was sure to come and will.
Damn it, I thought I had it this time.