When I was in university, I was asked to do a visual exercise that was to detail the limits of our memory and the power of our imagination. I was asked to think about my home, and imagine a car. I was told to climb into that car, and start driving away from my house. Where I went wasn’t important, but I had to drive away from my home, and I had to continue driving in that same direction away from my house for as long as I could. We were given several minutes to think about the scenario, and when the timer ran out, we were told to write down our imaginary drive so that we could share it with the class and see how far we had each made it along the road of memory’s imagination.
Everyone in my class in Texas made it far. But they all made it right from the central point of a home that existed within that state, within that city. For me, the question itself had fundamental and confusing issues. Did they want to know about my drive from my birth country of England? Did they want to know about my current house in Houston? Or did they want to know about the other corners of the world that I considered equally as influential in my development as any other I’d resided in? Without knowing the answer, I chose them all.
Before I begin my drive, my brother and I run from the door and head straight for the tree that seems to always be in blossom, tiny white buds of fur that resemble caterpillars creeping from the branches until they grow too heavy and fall to the grass beneath our feet. Together, my brother and I run three circles around the tree before returning to the door, hopping across the concrete-rainbows that separate the grass of the garden from the walkway to the car. Once in the car, we reverse from the drive and pass the complex where we go to see the dentist. We drive along winding roads and past fields and tress until we arrive at the all-to-small road that leads to my grandparent’s house. Down lanes barely big enough for a single car, we soar past oncoming vehicles that run off into the shoulder to avoid collision, just as we have done. Just after we pass the oldest dove house in the world, we pull onto a road that winds past several pubs, including The Pineapple. Entering Dorney Common, we slow to a stop to allow the cows to cross the road. When they have made their rounds, we continue on into Eton Wick, Windsor Castle in sight not more than a thirty minute walk away, and turn down Queens Road to my Granny and Grandad’s home.
As a family, we step into the elevator and my brother and I fight over who gets to push the button to go to the ground floor. I win, being older, unless my mother explicitly tells me not to push the button, and even then I may slip an arrogant and defiant jab at the ground floor to beat my brother. In mere seconds, we arrive at the bottom of the building and walk past the gateway to the garage and start our trek down the hill, past a pile of rocks that we had salvaged for stones to allow our terrapins to sunbathe in the warm, incandescent lighting of our apartment. When we reach the bottom of the hill, we step into a red taxi and continue our trip towards downtown, soaring along roads far too narrow for any car to handle within the bounds of normal human safety. When we arrive downtown, we walk to the bank and pass by two enormous stone statues of Fu Dogs, where my brother and I climb upon their bodies and try to scale them to their heads. After the bank, we move through crowded city streets and make our way to the peak tram, passing through a park with a mushroom waterfall that, through age, no longer possesses a safe and dry approach to its center. Together, my brother and I attempt to dodge through the scattered droplets that fall upon us, then run back to our mother. Climbing onto the tram, we rush to seats that are positioned flat with the floor of the tram, but are slanted backwards to almost 45 degree angles thanks to the extreme incline of the tracks.
My brother and I climb into the captain’s chairs of an enormous van parked in the driveway of our suburban house. Our father finishes loading the cooler between our two seats, then he and my mother get into the front and pull out of the drive. We head towards the freeway, driving up into the air on an elevated crossing before veering right and entering the on-ramp of a three lane freeway heading towards San Antonio. We drive for what feels like days, but in reality is only a few hours. The road is straight, flat, and plain. The heat of the road makes the hills look like water is resting on the concrete a few hundred feet ahead. As we get closer, the mirage vanishes and we are left with waves of heat that pass us by. When we arrive in San Antonio, we drop off the car and start walking to the River Walk, a man-made structure of nearly stagnant water that brings tourists to San Antonio without anything more to offer them. I think nothing of the place, and continue on in childhood ignorance.
I sit on a bus passing French buildings and tiny Renault Twingos. The trees rush by my window, their branches occasionally scratching along the side as we dart down the suburban streets outside of Paris and head towards our school. When we arrive, the gate slides open, razor-wire lining the perimeter, and we drive into the compound that is the American School of Paris. Large aircraft hangers that are now gyms are scattered across the campus, long buildings that were formerly offices but now house classrooms for students sit peacefully in the center. There’s history here, the history of an American military base that now is home to the education of TCKs in a land they don’t belong.
I ride a bus alone, darting down faintly-memorable roads of a city I once lived in years before, one that rests in my mind like a drunken dream, a chaotic haze of flashes in time. I feel the weight of the bus tip as we pull around tight cliff corners, and I look out over the water that surrounds the tiny island I live upon. Around me is nothing but trees, rock walls, and water, but then out of nowhere a skyline appears, and I am driving down Queens Road and pulling up to the stop that connects Queens Road to the fish market. I walk from here, the smell of rotting flesh and neglected garbage wafting into my nostrils, a smell I have become so familiar with over the years that I smile. I look up into the sky as I walk and see the signs that will soon be illuminated in the night, but currently hang lifeless and old, a mess of clutter blocking out the sky that slices between the buildings of compact streets.
I am driving now, back in Texas and sitting behind the wheel. I’m heading back from college in San Antonio to visit my parents, taking the same straight and boring road I have driven dozens of times before. I listen to music loudly as I ignore the lifeless and uninspired flatness that surrounds me. I am sad, but I am hiding it well. I miss the world, I miss the culture, and I miss the life of my youth. I want to be on a plane, I want to travel the planet again, to see the things I never saw before in the places I never had the time to visit. I want to be free again, free to get up and go and do whatever I can wherever I land. But I am stuck, stuck in school and knowing that when I have finished my education, I will be stuck in a job, a prisoner to a life and a world that doesn’t understand a man like me.
I am all grown up now. I am in my job and I have finished my school. And I have moved, but I have moved from a city that didn’t understand me to one that understands me even less. As I sit in my car and drive the three miles to work and back every day, I think back to a question my professor once asked me in college: “How far can you drive before you can’t remember what the next part of the road looks like? Tell me about the drive you remember.”
I smile to myself, because I know now that she missed the entire point of the question she was asking. So I ask the question she should have asked, but one she never would have understood, to you, the only group of people who can grasp the depth of what I am asking:
How far do you have to drive away from your memories until you are free to discover the world you do not know? Tell me about the unknown.
Post by: James R. Mitchener