Coming back to a town I was so ready to abandon is strange. It reminds me of how older relatives will always greet you after years apart: “Look at you. Look how much you’ve grown. You’re so much taller than I remember”. The same thoughts pass through my mind as Pine Creek, my hometown, comes into view. I don’t know why I had expected everything to stay the same after I had left. Maybe it’s because I believed that the town was a part of me, but the truth is that I was simply one small part of it. I wasn’t the miraculous little gear that had kept the machine turning; it could work fine without me.
I left over two years ago in hopes of “finding myself”, “finding something better”. I hoped my return would be with a new job, a new partner, or both. But I'm jobless, single, and waddling back to town with my tail between my legs.
As the bus rolls onto a familiar street, I suddenly become overwhelmed by the feeling that I am unwelcome. Not only by the slew of people I suddenly and, I’ll admit, quite rudely left behind, but by the town itself, the buildings, and the sidewalks that I equally deserted. Every brick stares at me like the eye of an unforgiving stranger. I think about leaving (again). But I am out of money and options.
The bus slows to a steady halt, and the doors unlock with a hiss like a soda can being opened. I bite my lip with shame and gather what little I brought with me. The bus driver nods at me encouragingly, and I give him a quick, awkward smile. And now the bus is gone, and I’m alone, standing idly on the pavement, unsure what to do.
If I were younger, it would all make sense. If I were in middle or high school, it would be easier to slink back home and excuse myself for my youthful naivety. But I’m twenty-two. And at some point, I can't blame it on “being a kid” anymore.
It’s not like I still believe that adults have everything figured out, but some part of me still thought that I would reach a certain age, and all of the wisdom my parents and grandparents always seemed to have would spill into me. But here I am. Still waiting.
I’m not so much disappointed in my failed dream than the ones I had carried; the dreams others had for me, that they supported me, hoping I would accomplish.
I want to crumple myself into a paper ball, be carried off by the wind, and tumble around with the other litter in these tired, old streets.
For a brief moment, I ponder if one of the buildings has suddenly called my name, sprung with life and ready to tell me about its disappointment in me leaving.
“Will! It really is you!”
I turn to my side and see a man walking up toward me. He has a playful candace, bouncing on the heels of his feet. I recognize him almost instantly: Peyton Presley. We had both gone to the same high school and were mutuals brought together by a common friend.
“Peyton, hey,” I say.
“I thought that you had left town,” he says, his warm breath turning to mist against the frigid air. It’s that perfect time between Autumn and Winter. When your cheeks are still rosy, but your lips aren't chapped; when you can comfortably wear a sweater, but you don’t have to suit up into an insulated coat.
“I thought I had left too. Guess this town wasn't done with me.” I chuckle, unsure if what I said was a joke.
This is one of those bizarre, unexplainable moments. Not the ones where you see a ghost or a UFO, but the perfectly timed and completely unexpected run-in that seems just as unearthly as the first two. I hadn’t expected a welcome party and definitely hadn't expected it to be Peyton.
“Where are you staying?” he asks, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets, the knuckles turning pink.
“Well, I’m actually trying to figure that out,” I sigh.
“You’re not staying with your mom?” he prods, a little saddened.
“She doesn't even know I’m back in town,” I laugh because all I can do is laugh. I usually wouldn't let my guts spill like this. Usually, I play civil and refined. But this is it, this is the last twist of the knife to get me talking. I’ll sit in this confessionary and tell this poor, lost acquaintance all my secret sins.
“I can’t stand to face her right now. To tell her about everything.” I admit, swallowing hard.
“...Then why don’t you start with me?” Peyton says.
I stare at him like he’s crazy, but his face remains rigid.
“I’ll buy us a meal. We can talk things over-catch-up. What do you say?” he asks. Then I finally remember something important: Peyton is kind. Not just kind but truly generous. “Really, it’s my treat,” he adds.
Why not? Why not drift like a leaf on the endlessly bizarre and nonsensical whims of the universe?
“Alright. You choose the place.”
. . .
There’s something special about baklava. If you’ve never had it, imagine the crispy, flaky part of a croissant doused in sticky syrup and covered in crushed pistachios. In terms of mouthfeel, there is nothing so perfectly crunchy and chewy (if done right).
I’m staring at a neatly stacked pile of baklava trapped beneath a large glass lid. Peyton catches me staring and adds to the order, “Oh, and two pieces of baklava, please.”
Ten minutes later, we’re sitting at a table by the window mawing over a pair of gyros.
“I’ve never been here before,” I say, peering around. The walls are a warm cream color, while the floors are a polished chestnut. Elegant brass lanterns hang from the ceiling, radiating different colors of light. Pictures hang at odd angles, held in elegant, ancient frames. The air smells of a salty sweetness.
“It’s new. Opened up a few months ago.” Peyton explains, wiping cucumber sauce from his lips.
That same feeling as before comes crawling back; that jet lag that time has somehow passed without me.
Even Peyton is different than I remember. It’s like those people who go missing for a long time so they age them up in pictures. I knew him as a boy, but now he is undeniably a young man.
“So, why are you back?” Peyton asks curiously between bites. “I heard you made a pretty big show about never stepping back in Pine Creek again.”
My stomach churns anxiously, and suddenly, I find myself not as hungry as I was before. I gently place my gyro down onto the wax paper.
“So you heard about the Christmas party, huh?” I sigh.
“Yeah…” Peyton says with equal unease.
“Well, after the party, I packed my things and skipped town. But it was just one thing after another. A slew of heartbreak and lost opportunities. Nothing seemed to go my way no matter where I went or what I did.” I explain, ripping the corners of the wax paper. “It wouldn't be so bad if I hadn't run my mouth off at that party. I was just…so confident in myself. And then I went and blew it. How am I supposed to tell my mom that-tell anyone that.”
“Well, you’ve told one person now. And if you can do it once, you can do it again.” Peyton says encouragingly. “In your own time, of course,” he adds shyly.
“It’s going to have to be tonight if I want somewhere to sleep,” I sigh.
“...Maybe not,” Peyton says suddenly, his eyes growing wide. “You could stay with me,”
“Listen, you’re a nice guy, but I don’t know how comfortable I’d be sharing a room with you,” I say bluntly, picking up my gyro and digging back in.
“See, that’s the thing! You could have your own room.” Peyton explains. “My grandpa passed not too long ago, and as it turns out, he left everything to me. And I mean everything. Including the house.”
“Wow, your parents must have been pissed.” I chew.
“Yeah, they were a little more than disappointed about the whole thing.” Peyton chuckles softly. “My dad was especially…vocal about his feelings toward it. I mean, he was his son. It’s not like they always saw eye to eye but Grandpa didn't even leave him a button off his coat. Nothing. Not a single cent.” he explains, baffled. “But they can't complain. I have my own place, completely paid for. So that’s their silver lining.”
“And maybe this is mine,” I say softly.
Peyton taps the plastic container filled with the Greeks’ greatest contribution to humanity.
“Plus, you have baklava,” he teases playfully.
“Plus, I have baklava,” I repeat like a prayer.
. . .
Peyton walks me back to his car, the same one he’s had since high school. We drive through town and he gives me a tour of everything old and new alike. But I don’t need to be reminded of the old things, because none of them have left me. The ice cream parlor, the barber shop, the pizza joint, they are all just as vivid in my head as seeing them now with my eyes. Finally, we take a turn into a pleasant, suburban neighborhood lined with trees. Peyton parks into the driveway of a colonial home with navy siding and white singles. It has a row of gooseberry bushes planted outside, pruned to perfection.
The inside is just as neat as the outside. The floors are shiny and waxed, the walls freshly painted. Every knick-knack and appliance is free of dust or grim. Through the front door, there's a kitchenette across from a spacious living room. There’s a recliner by the window that looks like it could swallow you whole with its comfortableness. A carpeted stairway leading up to the second floor is almost perfectly aligned with the front door.
“Was your grandpa Mr. Clean or something?” I say, soaking in the space.
“Yeah, Gramps was a bit of a hypochondriac.” Peyton chuckles. “While he was in hospice, I tried to keep things nice, just the way that he liked.”
“Too bad he didn't get to see your work. You did an amazing job with the house. It sucks that all while he was in some hospital.”
“Oh, he wasn’t.” Peyton corrects me gently. “We had a nurse stay with him here.”
“Did he…die here?” I ask. My words cut bluntly, and Peyton cringes a little.
“Yeah,” he sighs sadly.
“It doesn't freak you out…living in the same house that he died in?” I ask.
“Not really,” Peyton says, rubbing the back of his neck. “I know it's probably weird to say, but…in a way, it makes me feel close to him. He loved this house, it was like a part of him.”
For an old guy, Peyton’s grandpa had good taste. Everything in the house is modern or tastefully retro. Nothing feels too crowded or too barren. And in an entirely bizarre way, I feel jealous. Jealous of this perfect house, and I’m not more like it. I could only wish to be so clean, so pretty, so balanced.
“I’m sorry…for not being here,” I say, giving Peyton a gentle side-eye. “It must have been rough. I know you two were close.”
Peyton gives me a sad little smile. Even when he was upset, he was always smiling in my memory. I guess that fact hasn't changed.
“So, where will I be staying?” I ask, clapping my hands together. I don’t mean to be so abrupt, so blatant. I was never good at sitting in my feelings and, even worse, sitting in anyone else’s. It feels like trying to sit in boiling water, and even after a short time, I want to jump right out.
“Oh, yeah-” Peyton begins, flustered. But then his face falls a little, his lips curling uncomfortably. “So…this is the thing. I know you’re low on options, but I understand if you wouldn't want the room. You’re welcome to sleep on the couch, but if you want your own space, the only one available is…”
I manage to piece together the picture without him having to finish. I suddenly get a tinge of nausea, like when you bite into your food, only to find something that doesn't belong in it. But I swallow it down.
I’ve always needed a door to close, a place to be alone. I need to hear the click of the lock and know that no one could come in unless I wanted them to.
“No, that-that would be just fine,” I say.