Familiarity and Distance

This flat land haunts me. Yet here I am again, arraigned to stand trial with the past.

A personal history looms before me: the birds and landscapes are as familiar as my own reflection, but through years of distance we have othered each other, and now gaze at each other across the chasm of memory.

It has been so long since I’ve driven a car. Just sliding behind the wheel reignites thrills unfelt since adolescence – those first freedoms, being out on the endless roads of the midwest, a loner, an individual, full of American dreams and desires. I lower the windows, step on the accelerator and speed through the wheat fields, through pastures filled with grazing cattle and oil derricks under the Oklahoma sky.

It is only through alienation that I have come to see the holiness of American highways, so vast and full of dreams… The immensity and futility of all that concrete… So many finely constructed roads leading so hastefully to nowhere…

I pull off the highway and into a roadhouse called Big Dick’s to meet some hometown friends I haven’t seen in nearly a decade. Half the barstools are occupied by bikers, the other half by red-faced men in college football caps and large women in tight, rhinestoned Levis. I spot my friends in the corner and the first thing they say when I stroll over is “Holy Christ, Jennings, we thought we’d never see you again”.

We shake hands, embrace, then who I am and who I was sit down across the table from each other.

When last I left them in our late teens we were drunks, drug-addicted and living off our parents’ money. Now they are bearded, brawny, balding, with thick Oklahoma accents and wives and ex-wives and multiple children; all of them working in the booming Oklahoma oil and gas business, with few pursuits outside work and family besides beer and fishing.

God, what different paths we’ve taken.

Over several beers we recollect our reckless adolescence (all those drugs and mischief it’s a wonder we’re still alive) before the questions about my life begin.

“So what’s it like over there?” they ask, over there here meaning everywhere outside Oklahoma. “Aren’t you ever afraid something will happen, I mean with all that stuff going on over there.”

But how to put over there into words? How to communicate eight years of experience?

I talk about of the beauty of over there, about how danger is usually an illusion, but as I try to conjure such distances I see their attention drifting, and return the conversation to something more familiar: our shared past in this flat and featureless land, where once we manufactured dreams in apartments soaked in whiskey and semen, where in truck beds in spring-soaked fields we once made plans to travel the world together.

As the conversation plods on into a discussion of oil and Thunder basketball I begin to recede. Now it is my mind that begins to drift. I want to say, “Where and when did I lose you, my brothers, and whom did you auction our dreams to? God knows I am lost – none is more lost than I – and what first drove me away may only be whispered by death, but you know, on the path of endless wandering the water may be hidden, but it is plentiful.”

Instead I sit there quietly, and as the night wears on I understand I too have lost a world, their world, the inherited world I abandoned, and though our lives still beat with the same forever-dying heart I see I have become the stranger in our native land.

Around midnight we shake hands and say goodbye, for another ten years perhaps, perhaps forever.

*****

I drive through the eternal Oklahoma countryside, across the ringing plains, a horizon of wheat in all directions.

Everything I see gives birth to a memory:

It was down by that muddy riverbank I first tasted whiskey. In that pond there I caught my first catfish. In that field I discovered Woody Guthrie. At the end of that long, dead-end gravel road under the turnpike I lost my virginity in the back of a Volvo coupe. All of it so distant, yet so familiar.

So I drive, faster and faster up and down the dusty Oklahoma highways, as if outrunning all the lives I could have lived, driving nowhere, driving towards all the lives that still await me, towards a future that will turn out utterly different from anything we imagine, a future wholly undreamt of and without reason.

Read in Nowhere Magazine

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