He bought me a ticket for my 27th birthday. While I was eager to show him around the place responsible for facilitating my upbringing, a lump in the back of my throat had already started to form. People get so excited about visiting Alaska, with its breathtaking backdrops and endless beauty and ridiculously late last calls.
But for me, visiting Alaska means going back home. Which, unfortunately, means going back to a place I’m constantly trying to either forget or rewrite. The breathtaking backdrops aren’t reminders of the usually overlooked beauty that surrounds us day in and date out. They’re highlights of a foreground plagued with hate and ugliness and pain.
So I feigned excitement and told my mother to expect us and packed an impressive amount of oversized sweaters. I sat next to the window and held his hand as we started to descend, wincing ever-so-slightly as he pointed out that mountain and that mountain and, oh, that mountain over there.
As I walked out of the airport the cold pierced my now unacclimated lungs. I’m always slightly surprised at how pathetically I handle the weather when I used to be the girl wearing flip flops in the middle of January. Now I beg someone, anyone, to turn up the heat or cough over an extra blanket or lend me a pair of wool socks.
A weathered reminder of everything I used to consider normal.
Now that my mother is sans one horribly abusive marriage, she lives in town. It’s a smaller home, definitely not as large as the house I grew up in with the three stories and the one car garage and the backyard that was once the venue of my extremely exclusive Ace of Base concerts. It’s a brand new space, though. It’s clean and pure and capable of accommodating my version of a new Alaska. The largest state in the country fits perfectly in the upstairs living room.
But like any significant other, I wanted him to see my hometown. I wanted him to see the movie theater where I had my first date or the 7-11 at the bottom of the hill that my brother and I used to drive to for free slurpees. I wanted him to see my high school and eat at my favorite restaurant and drive down the road I’d disappear on when I couldn’t handle that house a second longer.
I even wanted him to see that house.
So we borrowed my mother’s manual and drove the 45 minutes out of town. As we drove down the hill and over the river my hometown is named after, I started to feel heavy. Pound after pound of a tainted past attached itself to my arms and legs, making it difficult to take my foot off the gas or turn the wheel towards the exit.
We stopped at my favorite restaurant for pizza and what can only be described as fishbowls of beer. He was happy and smiling and so wonderfully curious that I started to hate my inability to view my hometown like the salad buffet I had just enjoyed; taking the pieces I wanted and leaving the rest behind.
We drove past the movie theater, now shut down and abandoned. We drove by my high school, me pointing out the gym where I played basketball and him commenting on the number of trucks in the parking lot. We drove by the 7-11 on the way up the hill, forgoing a pit stop for the sake of time. We drove past the Walmart that was once the center of a serious neighborhood controversy; half the town excited for its arrival, the other tormented by its impending presence.
As we turned right on my street I felt torn. I wanted to smile at the house that always had the best Christmas decorations or wax nostalgic about the backyard that had the amazing makeshift playground, but I wanted to scream at the corner where my father threatened to break my mother’s finger or yell at the turn where my father once told me I was meaningless.
We pulled into the cul de sac and I looked toward the third brown house on the left, swallowing my spit and angst and disgust.
It still had the Blue Star Service Banner in the window and the snowman fixture my mother had made outside the front door. The driveway was covered in ice and still as dangerous as I remembered; a fact revisited when we both tried to get out of the now parked car. As I walked up the stairs I noticed a piece of paper taped to the door. A foreclosure notice. I read every sentence and deciphered every word and while I already knew my father had stopped paying on the house immediately after the divorce, a part of me felt like I was reading a fresh copy of my childhood’s obituary.
I peered through the windows and saw the empty living room he once choked me in, now littered with pieces of abandoned furniture and collected dust. I saw the fireplace I sat in front of when I was asked to divide up baby pictures post-divorce, my mother to my right and my father to my left. I saw the kitchen table where too many “unacceptable” dinners were served, his inexplicable disdain still palpable despite the table sitting empty. I saw my mother’s hand-crafted wall ornaments hanging above the kitchen, apparently worth leaving behind.
And while it was a house I had loathed and cursed and was all too happy to leave the moment I graduated high school, it was a house I found myself mourning. I didn’t want to walk through that front door ever again yet I was periodically checking to see if it was still locked.
Maybe it was the staggering sense of finality. Rarely are we faced with terminal moments in which we become acutely aware of the death of a thing, even if that thing is hurtful. In that moment I knew my ability to ever walk into that house again had died.
Maybe it was the locked door that kept me from retrieving my mother’s crafty ornaments. They seemed disoriented and bitter but she loved them once. She deserved to have them.
Or, perhaps, it was the end of a secret dream still hiding in the corners of my heart. A dream that I’ve had since I was old enough to see his anger and hear her defeat. A ridiculous dream that everyone who has ever experienced domestic violence tends to have. The dream that if you just try a little harder, stay a little longer, suffer a little greater, it will get better.
The dream that maybe, just maybe, you can fix it.
As I pulled out of the driveway and put the car in reverse I stopped to look at that house one last time. I bid it farewell and good riddance. I realized that parts of my childhood and parts of my father, even parts of that now abandoned house, were the parts of myself I’d never fix. They’d stay broken, forever the shadows of what could have been and forever a memory of what was.
And then I looked at him. I put the car in drive and I held his hand and I smiled ever-so-slightly as he pointed out that mountain and that mountain and, oh, that mountain over there. Then I headed towards that upstairs living room.
The one big enough to hold my new Alaska.