You buy the little house at the bend in the road, where the elderly brothers lived. Your mother and father knew their names, but you never saw them. They were characters out of a fairy tale–The Elderly Brothers in the House at the Bend. You save the house from its eventual fate, which was to be torn down to build a subdivision. Your heroic act stems the tide of change. The sea of identical houses never spreads, like mushrooms, across the hills on the road where you grew up.
You marry the smartest boy in elementary school, the one who had to start pretending to be mean and stupid when you both hit puberty. But you knew all along that the two of you were meant to be together, and because you stayed, you find out you were right.
Your children go to the same schools you did. They play in the same woods. They swing on the grapevine and name the thorn-covered honey locust the Witch’s Tree. You live down the road from your parents. You go to the same church. People stop your daughters in their sweet Sunday dresses and lean over them to whisper, “I knew your great-grandmother. She was the kindest woman I ever knew.” You become your great-grandmother. Because you never leave, this is what people say about you long after you are gone. You are never a stranger again.
You are in the Junior League with all the other nice, white ladies. You are a nice, white lady. You’re so thrilled to be invited to join the Junior League, even though you made fun of it in college. This is the effect Mississippi has on you. It erodes your intentions. It changes you. You are never the same again.
You’re in the Junior League, but at night, you drive past the little house next to the railroad tracks, in a neighborhood you never knew existed when you were in college, inside those safe, wrought-iron gates. A neighborhood no one from the Junior League has any cause to visit.
You drive by the house again and again. You park sometimes and wait for the train to go by. You feel its roar in your thighs as you sit in your car. You love every line of the porch. Every crack in the sidewalk outside. The way the tree in the yard is bent and crooked. You buy it eventually, your secret house where no one from the Junior League ever goes.
You walk around the neighborhood by the railroad tracks at night. You listen to the echoing sound of the cars being loaded in the distance, like lesser thunder. You feel the ghosts of your former self. You live with ghosts. This is what Mississippi does to you.
You never marry, because he was never going to marry you. You were not going to live together, either. Nor casually refer to him as your partner at faculty dinner parties while eating artisan cheese. You do not even call him your boyfriend. Admit it. He was never your boyfriend. He was two decades starring in his own drama and you loved your part.
But you are close to New York City and you ride the train in along the Hudson. The fact that the river freezes there becomes normal to you, instead of something out of another world. Maybe eventually, you don’t watch the frozen river out the train window at all. You don’t stare up at the ceiling with your mouth open every time you arrive at Grand Central Station.
Maybe you go into the city a lot, to escape the fact that he is never going to love you. You are never loved again. Maybe you can afford an apartment there, for the weekends and the summer. The apartment is in Brooklyn, and you live at the center of the universe, instead of at its margins. You swim in that strong middle current, and there’s no one to grab hold of you from the shore and pull you in.
You never end up here. It is too cold. You are never warm again.
But there are little cabins that look out at Lake Superior. You can walk from there to a diner and a pub. You live in a contracted world, and you never become used to the fact that in winter, the whole lake freezes.
With the humidity, your hair is always perfect and maybe that is enough. You really are a writer, and you tell everyone without shame because this is Key West. You live in the neighborhood with the densest chicken population, your neighbors the rest of the service staff, because that is the only place artists like you can afford to live. But you are warm all year round and you can still afford a cool beer in a shade-filled local bar. You are never cold again.
This winter was longer than it had any right to be and the river almost froze. But not all the way. Not yet. We walked down to see it and watched a bald eagle swoop into the ice-filled water in search of a fish.
On cold mornings, we scrape the windshield and to the east, the sun rises between the buildings, standing in orderly lines. The power plant towers emit a plume of smoke into the blue sky above the houses to the west. We are cradled in the benevolent hand of the valley.
Our friend has a pontoon boat, and we go out on the river in the fall. Sometimes, the engine dies midstream and leaves us adrift. We worry about what would happen if the engine never started again, where the river might take us.
But we would signal to the shore. We would call a friend. We would jump into the murky water and float towards the bank together. We would find ourselves buoyed with the understanding that the river flows inside of us, the liquid all the same. The current would carry us home.