White Lines

Out here life is different. There are no sidewalks, only white lines, and the streets corkscrew like roller coaster tracks. Dead ends don’t exist, even though they are everywhere. And people hide in their houses. They watch television and download porn by the terabyte and eat food with too much sodium.

When I came here it was because of the quiet and calm it afforded. I wanted a place to retreat, where I could sulk or celebrate or create new memories from nothing. A place far from the gunshots that rang out in my old neighborhood, in the crumbling house that sat at the edge of a crooked cobblestone street, squeezed between the decay of the ghetto and houses too dilapidated to gentrify. Nobody cared about that place. Or more aptly, they averted their eyes. But here, in the exile of the American suburb, there is still violence in the whispers all around. It’s just disguised differently — no better, no worse.

At the grocery store, people push their carts as I stare. There is something peculiar about them. Not so much in the way they dress or speak, but in the way they live. I used to think it was because they all left the city behind and as small pieces of their old lives disappeared they cobbled together new ways of living. That as time progressed they tried to hold on to the memory of that distant life, but year after year it diminished, like what happens when you photocopy a picture too many times. Turns out I was wrong. Some of these people never lived in the city, don’t know what the city is even about. What they do know is this place is where they settled and that’s that. The beer is cheap and the people are tame and nobody gets murdered too often. It’s a fragile but predictable peace, laced with deadly levels of monotony and unfulfilled desire.

Detached from the housing tracts that line the hills along the valley, my wood-framed house sits alone. It’s set off on a private road and surrounded by trees, hundreds of them, populated by birds that sing songs I don’t recognize. In the mornings deer pass like ghosts, grazing on plants then vanishing. Wild turkeys walk in single file lines down the hillsides. Mist clings to the trees and rests in the air like the apparitions of dead neighbors.

Up here, on this hill, it remains silent. Even when airplanes pass in the cold sky overhead, the fury of their engines is muted, leaving nothing behind but contrails white like breadcrumbs. Life in a flight path can be cruel. Sometimes it feels as if I’m watching the world from behind glass. Strangers ferried back and forth to points I could plot on a map if I cared. Exotic destinations I might dream about if I could ever remember these things when I woke. But time doesn’t allow such luxuries, such nonsense.

The communities out here were built on the promise of escape. But not escape in the form of a holiday. Escape from crime and minorities and overcrowding and dead schools and plummeting property values. Escape from the city and its creeping death. The promise was utopia, still is in the minds of some. But that promise died long ago, back when the machines that cleared the forests and stamped out lookalike homes started to misfire. When city dwellers with less money than those who built this place started arriving en masse, debt and Section 8 vouchers in hand.

The wealthy built these houses and parks and schools, and those accustomed to making do with less came when the shine turned dull. When the smell of fresh-cut lumber and new shingles and wet paint faded, the next generation moved in to hand-me-down homes — when the dream finally became affordable, or at least less exclusionary. That’s when I arrived. When my meager salary could buy more house in the suburbs than it could rent in the city. After I tired of pouring cash into my landlord’s pocket wondering what kind of future that would create. When it seemed right to try my hand at raising a family and building something, however difficult that can be.

When the wealthy abandoned this place they started from scratch elsewhere, building bigger homes with stronger fences and higher taxes. It seems you can only run so far though until you hit smack into another city rotten with decay and teeming with the same problems that scared you to flee in the first place. And from what I understand that’s no way to live.

Soon enough I’ll be knocking on their doors again, real estate agent in tow, asking what kind of wiggle room there is in the price and if they plan on leaving those new appliances I saw in the kitchen. I’ll take a tape measure from my pocket and make sure there’s room enough to fit all that I got. And when I put my money down I’ll ask where they’re moving to next.

Originally published by Thought Catalog in November of 2010.

(Painting by Kenichi Hoshine)

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