Driving alone for 32 hours is inevitably going to result in some reflection. I was hoping to have mountains of introspective and monumental thoughts to report back on, however, I chose to spend my time listening to a ten hour playlist twice and digging through my podcasts app in search of anything that could hold my attention. After the first hour of my drive, I was already feeling overwhelmed and simply had to turn my mind off.
The route I took out of town brought me through my old stomping grounds and on the expressway that traces the edges of downtown Grand Rapids. This route somehow seems to mimic the progression of my life. Spending 27 years in that city has filled every main drag and alleyway with nostalgia. It seems every corner has a ghost of memories haunting it, and it’s practically impossible not to bump into past versions of myself everywhere I go. Elementary Kayley is pushing a stroller down Cascade road with toddler-sized Layne struggling to keep up. Tween Kayley is sitting outside the local 7-11 with a rainbow colored slurpee – one layer of each flavor. It will soon melt and turn into a murky brown, but trust me, it tastes better than it looks. That beautiful, tree-canopied backroad is the one high school Kayley used to drive down when she would “borrow” her parents car before she had her driver’s license. And the record store on Division is where summer-before-college Kayley she would go while dreaming of the turntable she would receive the following Christmas.
My parents are moving. The next time I visit, I will be going to a new home which is 40 minutes outside of Grand Rapids, secluded, and removed from unwanted memories. As I drove out of town and looked over the uneven skyline of buildings just off the freeway, I realized that I never have to go back there again. I can fly into the airport and immediately head out to the new lakehouse, never having to worry about walking around a street corner, wondering who will be standing on the other side. I don’t have to watch the door while I sit in my favorite local restaurant, make awkward small talk as I wash my hands in the bathroom, or repeatedly have the internal and exhausting “should I say ‘hi?'” debate. From now on, every time I head back to my parent’s place, I don’t have to pass by the house that represents the life I turned my back on over two years ago (depending on my mood, sometimes it’s worth taking the long way).
In some ways, Grand Rapids is my history. I’ve tasted the entire city, and I feel like a child audibly sucking on a straw to get the last drops of something that was once sugary and delicious, but now it’s just melted ice. The suburbs are my childhood, the city is what changed me. My father has given me nearly every reason to move back – endless security, the nearness of family, and the simple fact that I wouldn’t have to watch him try to hide his tears when I hug him goodbye (it gets harder every time). I’ve heard my parents talking in the other room when the time has come for me to return to California, and my mom’s response to my dad’s grasping for reasons that I should stay is always the same, “Charley, she can’t come back here. She just can’t.” She’s right. And I might never have to again.