Stay or Go?
The scenery raced by in a blur. Not because of the speed, but because I simply wasn’t paying it any attention. None of it mattered to me.
I didn’t know where I was going. I had no destination in mind. Heck, I hadn’t even planned this trip. I went out to get groceries but didn’t stop when I got to the store. I didn’t stop when I got to the city limit. I hopped onto the highway and followed it wherever it may lead.
I just kept driving.
My mind wandered as the world rolled by and I relied on muscle memory to keep me on the road. Some of the things that drifted through my mind weren’t important, like a show’s cliffhanger ending. How were they going to get out of that situation? Other things were more important and infinitely harder to find an answer to, like what was I doing with my life?
Music played on my stereo, but for the most part, it went unnoticed. Sometimes a song would grab my attention and I’d listen to the lyrics. In those moments, it felt like the song had been written just for me. I understood each word, every note, and the singer’s intent. I too could hear the road calling my name.
Had been for a while.
Those songs fueled my desire to keep driving, as did my desire for an adventure. I needed something different, an escape from the mundane. I wanted to see something different, something I didn’t see every day. A picturesque lighthouse with the stereotypical red and white stripes drifted through my mind, but that was a bit of a stretch. There weren’t many of those in the middle of nowhere. The nearest coast was days of driving away and as much as I wanted to go someplace, I didn’t want to go that far.
An hour came and went. Then another one. I rolled my neck and shook out my wrists one at a time. I was ready for a break.
A flock of birds in their V formation flew over and followed the road for a while before turning off and heading into the unknown. They did so over an off-ramp, and I decided to follow them. Seemed as good a place as any.
The town I found myself in was on the small side, the kind where everything from the town hall to the local coffee shop was all still built on the one main road. I cruised down the street at the leisurely pace of thirty-five miles per hour. It was a jarring shift from the highway speeds, but not unwelcome. At this pace, my mind settled and took stock of the day.
How crazy was I to just up and drive hours away from home? Why had I done that? I took a risk and a chance, but would it really make a change?
The urge to drive left me as suddenly as it had arrived and I pulled over. I stepped out of the car and stood on the main street sidewalk, taking in the little town. Old brick buildings with glass storefronts lined the street. Great old shade trees pushed up bits of the sidewalk and threatened to break out of their assigned planters while blocking the sunlight from reaching the ground. People of all ages roamed the street, entering and exiting the different
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t recognize any of them and the thought excited and terrified me. Where even was I? My phone could easily answer that question, but did it really matter? All it would tell me was I was two hours away from home in some town I didn’t know and I felt like knowing where I was would take something away instead of adding to this experience.
Whatever this experience was.
I wandered up the road, peaking through the storefronts, hoping to find anything to catch my interest. I spotted antiques, hardware, auto parts, and books but nothing caught my attention or called out to me as the road had earlier.
A simple question sat in the back of my mind, growing louder with each passing minute. What was I doing? I needed to go home, get groceries, and get back to work, but the thought of doing that didn’t appeal to me.
I didn’t want to go home and return to all of my problems. Home was where chores needed to be done, bills paid for, and days prepped for. Going back meant returning to a job I didn’t care for and led nowhere. Meanwhile, my dream career of being an artist fizzled out and died despite my best efforts to keep it going.
I didn’t know what to do, so I sat on a bench. I tried to figure out what to do, to lot out the ways I could changes things around, but each item on the list seemed to feed off everything else. I could try getting a better job, but I’d been doing that. Most places want more experience than I had. I could try going back to school, but that cost money and time, of which I had neither. If I had time, I’d be investing it in my dream, which needed more than I could give it, but I couldn’t give it the time without taking it from work, which paid the bills. Barely.
I let out a long breath and rubbed my hands down my face.
An older woman sat on the bench beside me. She sprinkled seeds across the sidewalk and birds swooped in to partake in the free food. “Are you unhappy with your life?”
I blinked and took in her chartreuse jacket and cheetah print leggings.
She repeated herself, never looking my way. “Are you unhappy with your life?”
We were the only ones there, so I figured she had to be talking to me. “Yes.” Then I hesitated. I wouldn’t have driven out here if I was happy, but I wasn’t unhappy. “No.”
Life was rough, and I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I didn’t hate it either. I was lucky to have a job, so many people didn’t. I was lucky to have a home. I was lucky to have friends. I was lucky to have even a few minutes a week to focus on my art. I was lucky, I knew that.
The thing was, I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t upset either. I just was, and I think that upset me most.
The woman chuckled. “You don’t know?”
I leaned forward and rested my elbows on my knees. “I’m thankful for what I have—I am—but …”
I trailed off and she finished. “You want more?”
“I guess. Is that wrong?” I looked her way and she met my gaze with sympathy.
“It’s natural.” She threw out another handful of seeds. “We’re always growing, trying to improve things. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t.”
I watched the birds as they hopped around, pecking at the seeds. “How can you tell the difference between those times?”
She sighed. “You can’t, not as they happen.”
I leaned back with a grunt. “That’s frustrating.”
“That’s life.” She tapped my shoulder and pointed a boney finger at the trees lining the streets. “Do you think the trees are happy to be confined within the sidewalk? Wouldn’t they rather be in the forest?”
I nodded and studied the gnarled roots trapped within the confines of the concrete. “Of course. They’d be much happier there.” In a forest, they’d be free from restraint and safe from people.
“But do you see that stopping them? They are doing perfectly fine where they are.” Her finger traced the cracks in the pavement. “They make the best of their situation and bit by bit, they break free from it.”
“So you’re saying I should just tough it out?” That was the advice I expected. That’s what anyone would tell me. I had a good life. I should just be happy with it.
It didn’t help.
She surprised me by shaking her head. “No, because you are not a tree. You have a choice. People are lucky. We have more control than we think. If you wanted, you could keep start fresh. It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done. You’ve done it before, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but I don’t know how I did it. It just happened.” Time had moved so quickly. One minute I was in school, the next I had my first job, and I just kept working. I never stopped, too afraid and too content to move on to something else. Now, here I was years later, feeling trapped within the life I’d built for myself.
The woman laughed. “Then it should be even easier the second time.”
“But what if I only got where I am because of luck?”
“Luck is a matter of perspective and it can change with time. How lucky do you think these trees thought they were when they were seedlings? They were planted somewhere where they were cared for, but now, years later, that lucky break has turned into a prison.”
I didn’t know what to do with that information.
The woman patted my arm. “The simple answer is, there is no simple answer. Life is tough and you won’t always be happy with it and that’s okay, but you should never give up. Keep trying, whether that’s sticking it out where you are, or packing up and starting fresh. Both choices are valid.”
“What would you recommend?”
She tapped her chin. “In the old days, I’d have packed up and moved on. Now, I’m old. I don’t move as well as I used to, and I’m stubborn as hell. On top of that, just because something might work for me, doesn’t mean it will work for you.”
“I guess you’re right.”
She crossed her arms and gave me a hard, but still friendly, stare. “I am right.”
“Thank you, for the advice.” I stood from the bench, sending the birds fleeing for shelter up in the trees.
The woman nodded and indicated her clothes. “Thank you, for not insulting my outfit.”
I placed a hand over my heart. “I would never. It’s a beautiful outfit.” It really wasn’t, but I’d never say that.
She chuckled. “Don’t lie, it’s hideous. I wore this because it bugs Darlene. Sometimes you have to make your own happiness.”
I arched an eyebrow. “By messing with others?” Sure, I barely knew this woman or this Darlene, but that felt out of character based on the talk we just had.
Now she looked offended. “My outfit isn’t hurting anyone. Not really.” We shared a laugh. “Do you know what you’re going to do?”
“No, but whatever I decide, I’ll give it my best.” I waved goodbye and returned to my car. I sat there for a few moments with my keys in my hands.
What would I do? I still didn't know, but that didn't scare me as much as it should have.
My head said to go home and make things work. My heart said to keep going and see what happened. I put the key in the ignition and the car revved to life.
I drove down the road and came up to the highway. To the right beckoned the open road that would take me who knows where and a new adventure. To the left, the path back home to a life I had somehow managed to build without meaning to.
Which way did I go? I glanced in my mirror and saw the woman still sitting on the bench, feeding the birds.
I had a choice to make, and neither decision would be easy, but both could lead to happiness.