An impromptu tour, Jake calls it, his desire to get out of Falton. It’s a holiday weekend, and we head west, visiting as we go. If people aren’t home, no worries, he says; we can always sleep in the car. For three days, we stop, go, hit Chicago. We devour deep dish after an extravagantly-priced trip to the top of the Sears Tower. Everyone is told to call it the Willis. It isn’t, though. Not to me, not to most.
On the boomerang, we hit up my cousin, his half-sister, land in a suburb of Cleveland—Jake’s first hometown. His old house is close to the Brown’s training field and to a college known for its music program. Friends of his still live nearby. One says we can couch surf after he takes us to look around.
“Come on, man,” his friend says. “You gotta see it now.”
The need to see doesn’t apply to me. These places are all new; I can’t compare them to a past I didn’t lead. In an Army surplus store that used to be something else, a red wool beret captivates me. I buy it, can’t wait to fill the metal grommets with weird leftover earrings, pins, something to declare it unmilitary, yet still smashingly smart.
After looking in at the closed down ice cream shop where Jake copped his first feel, a woman pops out of the historical building. He looks familiar, she says. She claims she remembers Jake’s parents, especially his mother, but gets the name completely wrong and pegs the family as part of the sports contingent.
“Yeah, yeah,” Jake tells her. “That’s right.”
We’re soon in a car, driving to a quarry. It’s the famous spot where these lifelong friends fought before they met. Each knew of the other group of young swimmers with handmade rafts. There was a line in the creek. The other side was where the mean kids lived.
I’ve heard of the place, this river, but nothing prepared me for the rocks. They are immense blobs, deeply brown, giant boulders guarding the stream. Jake and his friend tell each other old stories again. There’s a fisherman casting a fly. I watch him, surreptitiously aim my phone, take his picture. I don’t feel a sense of repetition here like I did in Philly, in Boston, in D.C. These are places I’ve visited and felt the “might-of-been’s.” It’s the presence of an old lover who walked those ways before me.
I shudder, continue on, reclaim my peace among the autumn leaves, downed trees, gentle sparkling waves. I’m creekside, so I don’t need to make a blueprint in my head, just follow the coast, until I can’t. I don’t want to go back, so I climb, find an abused trail, grow weary of used condoms, cigar butts, empty beer bottles, dead insoles.
Jake and his friend are where I left them.
It isn’t until we’ve been home for a month when my own desire to leave Falton is heavy that Jake gets around to downloading the pictures he took on his camera. They’d followed me on my path until I scrambled up to the debris-filled footpath. Photos of the trickling sun through golden leaves, a shaft of light hitting me implying a salty delusion that I knew where I was going, what I was doing, that I hadn’t made the wrong choices with the wrong men.