She had been through every small town in Ohio, marking every stop on her map with a highlighter. Sometime around Ironton her map became soaked with yellow and too fragile to unfold. Now, she just drives; lets the wind tell her where to stop for a while. Most of the time, though, the wind misleads her, and so she continues searching. Hoping for another time – another chance.
Scenes like this always catch her: a child at Wendy’s or Bob’s Big Boy, or even one time at a restive stop at the campgrounds near Serpent Mound, around seven-years-old, seemingly out of place with who she assumes are her folks. But then, another person walks up to the child and the illusion breaks. They are connected like big and small versions of the same doll. She tosses out her half-eaten meal, gets back in her car, and drives.
She turns on the car radio and lets the music do its best to fill the emptiness left by another failure. Two years and she is no closer to her goal than she was before she started this lonesome journey.
“You’re a fool to do it,” her sister warned. “Just settin’ yourself up for heartache.”
“My heart already aches,” she cried. “I can’t move on until I know it wasn’t a mistake; that my dreams are just dreams.”
“Well, go ahead and be crazy then! I just hope I’ll still be here when you decide to come back.”
Every few months, she calls home – just to see if there’d been any news. There never is. Her sister continues to beg her to return and she continues to refuse. If they hadn’t found that box buried deep in a half-hidden closet; if their mother hadn’t died with so many secrets, things would probably be different, and her need to be different, to find answers to her own questions was too strong to turn back. And anyway, the deeper into small town Ohio, the closer she felt to — something.
And then it happened.
She had stopped at a tiny inn around Matamoras on the Ohio River. It was early morning and she had just returned from an invigorating walk along the river, enjoying the view of West Virginia, the fresh, crisp morning breeze stroking her face and playing with her hair. She had just been asking herself whether or not she should cross that bridge and head into the mountains when time stopped. She came upon a family finishing up their breakfast at a park table. They had a girl with them. She was about seven, freckle-faced with strawberry blond hair neatly brushed and pulled off her face with a headband that matched her flower-print dress. Though it was pulled back, her hair fell in curls that gently stroked her shoulders. There was something about that child that made her feel like she was staring into a mirror.
She took out an old photograph of herself, the one with her mother, from when it was just the two of them, at a park identical to where she stood. Her eyes bounced between the photograph and the girl, cataloguing everything they observed.
Curls. Sun freckles across the nose bridge. Too far to see the eyes… Sense of coordination and style. Flower print is okay, but yellow? Never! And those shoes! I never wore shoes like that – not without a fight.
Her parents gabbed and joked while the girl cleared away their food. Their voices carried downriver with the early autumn leaves. She was uncomfortably riveted by the girls’ sense of duty and she balanced the cups and plates in her tender hands, walking as slowly as she could to the garbage can. Again and again, it went like that until the table was completely cleared. Then, she grabbed a clean napkin and started cleaning up the spattered hot sauce from the wooden picnic table. Her parents snickered. They wore, she noted, ripped jeans and old sweatshirts permanently stained by sloppy drinking, beat-up shoes held together by stubbornness more than rubber adhesive.
“Sure ya don’t wan me ta hook up the vacuum to the RV, girl?”
“Now, Earl! You leave her be. I think it’s sweet.”
She watched as the three of them chased each other, laughing and whooping, to their RV leaving her even more alone and utterly distressed. Is this how it begins? Is this the human joke they call destiny? What will her 21st birthday be like? Will she be stuck chasing her own children, had while she was too young to know better between stacks of dishes, hair pulled haphazardly off her face while trying to keep order? She’ll work for nickels and dimes and little gratification. Maybe she’ll have those occasional “should’ve listened to everyone” musings about her own could-have-been mistakes. Or maybe she’ll own something big – her first rate education paid for by her own discipline.
Or surprisingly wealthy parents another voice sounded, the voice that sounded like her sister. Can’t judge a book….
I just hope she’s not like me, even though there are worse fates, I suppose. Who really knows until the ride is over?
Feeling shaken, she slid back into her car and thought about following the RV. She scrawled down the license plate number instead and called home.
“Hey. It’s me.”
“Who?” She wasn’t sure whether this was playfulness or anger. Has it been that long?
“Where are you this time?”
“Near the West Virginia border.”
“Are you done with your search yet?”
“I think so,” she whispered. “I think I am. I don’t know for sure.” The car started to feel small and cramped.
“Well, if you don’t know for sure, then you probably haven’t,” her sister responded in a confident tone. “Besides, you have to come home. My wedding!”
“There was this girl – Wedding??” Karen nearly dropped the phone.
“Yes. And I want my big sister there. You have to walk me down the aisle!”
“But you’re so – are you sure he’s really the one?”
“More sure than you are!”
An ocean of silence swelled between them.
“Look. There is always someone you think you’re right about and you’re always wrong. What makes you think it’s different this time?” Karen knew her sister could say the same thing about her, but wouldn’t. And she felt awful for it.
The freckle-faced girl swam into her vision. She was smiling as she ran past her dad. Karen could see that he loved her, that she had a good life, that she was happy. “No, I can’t,” she said in answer to her own question. She squeezed the paper with the license plate number written on it between her fingers. This can wait. “I’ll be home soon. Love you, Goose!”
Karen stood in front of the tall, freestanding mirror in her mother’s room that was now hers examining her reflection. Her sister’s wedding day. Her thoughts kept wandering back to that girl by the river. She wondered what she would look like in her flower-girl gown with her cute, patent leather T-straps that she always hated to wear but had no choice. She knew she didn’t have a right to those imaginings, but they were all she had.
Well, that and a scrap of paper.