“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.”
Wallace Stegner, The American West as Living Space
“What if I walked away, right now, into these open spaces ahead?”
I wasn’t sure if every 19-year-old entertained such thoughts, but as I continued walking in the midday heat of a Southern California summer, I could see the journey clearly. I could see myself: A tiny figure whose outline was distorted by the heat rising from underneath the thin-soled Converse shoes, walking slowly but with certainty, fearless in the way of someone who had nothing to lose.
I had lost enough that year to not fear the possible pain of the unknown. I had lost enough to have nothing holding me in place. My college applications had been sent off late and only to a handful of unknown institutions with rolling admissions. Considering it was the end of August, I had assumed I had failed to get in.
Two marriage proposals had happened that summer, by two different men, neither of whom even pretended to understand me much. A month before, I had lost all of my cash, my car and my place of stay; and the absurdity of my pre-college summer was finished off — with a death.
As a matter of fact, it was the dead that was still keeping me in place.
She had died untimely, from a heart attack-ed. I was called out of my Anatomy Lab to receive the message. It was just a note, written on a pink slip that rarely meant good news. The couple of times that I had witnessed it being delivered into my classmates’ hands, they wouldn’t return for the rest of the day. Sometimes, they would be gone for weeks; and when they came back, I noticed the difference in their faces. It looked either like gravity — or weightlessness. I was about to find out which.
My messenger — an unknowing work-study student from the counselors’ office — ran out on me before I could ask him for any details.
“I have a note,” I told the receptionist in the counselors’ office, while rummaging in my schoolbag for my glasses.
“I know. They are still on hold,” she answered.
The supervisor of the office loomed in the background, by the copy machine. I saw his face, however blurry, and knew if I could see him any clearer, he would tell me of his sympathy. My hands continued shaking, as they searched the bottom of my bag for an item I insisted on needing before picking up the phone.
The next few days had passed in a slow-mo waltz of minutes. There would be phone calls and somber cards; a weeping husband on a flowery couch; a line of uninvited guests who would never be around whenever I was attacked by a slew of forms and interviews from funeral parlors.
“Whatever you need,” they promised to the weeping husband, as they too began to weep.
Nothing had prepared me for the questions that happened that week, from the people on the other end of the phone:
She was a donor, they said; and could they have my signature — to take her eyes?
Make a list of all the things, they told me: things to be placed inside her coffin. Did I know which she had treasured the most?
Choose the clothes she would be most comfortable in, they insisted: Shouldn’t she be comfortable, wherever she was going?
And was I sure she wouldn’t prefer cremation instead? (‘Cause that wouldn’t cost us as much, they would mention under their breath: After all, they weren’t completely heartless.)
The weeping husband continued to assume I was strong enough to take his place. No one had asked me if I was ready or willing, or knowledgeable of her last wishes. Perhaps, I had promised more competence than the bulb-nosed man on the flowery couch, who nodded and moaned, accepted troughs of food from the still uninvited neighbors, with their solemn faces and anecdotes about the dead.
“Whatever you need,” they mumbled over his shoulder as they hugged and strained their own faces for emotions.
On the morning of the funeral, I remembered shivering. They had wanted us to start early: The first burial of the day. And the morning would be so cold, and dewy. The husband continued to weep in the front row of gray plastic chairs, while I accepted envelopes and hugs from people I hadn’t known.
Thank you for coming.
Thank you for coming.
Thank you. It means so much.
The following week, I had promised to come back and clean out her closet. The task of deciphering the bus schedules and routes seemed absurd and painfully sad. I would study the indifferent faces of the drivers as they spoke gibberish about my transfers, and vouchers, and student passes.
I would get off on the last stop and study the desolate grounds and the open spaces ahead.
“What if I walked away, right now,” I thought, “into the open spaces?”
What if I followed the trajectory of black telephone lines or began chasing tumbleweeds:
Where would I end up? And would I end up free?
And would that freedom feel weightless, eventually returning my joy; my forgiveness?