There are roads, and then there are lonely roads. “The road less traveled” is what my mom always called them. I would always travel the lonely roads, both literally and figuratively, having no idea where I was going and second-guessing every moment of it. There’s one road that sticks out to me, however, that I remember traveling in the late summer. I was traveling to my older sibling’s house in Arizona in mid-August. The sun was beating down on my old car as it drove down the bumpy, straight highway, surrounded by nothing but dirt, bushes and that occasional broken down, abandoned house. If you’ve ever driven down highways like this, you know how the minutes turn to hours as you doze off, daydreaming while driving as the speedometer fluctuates from 50 to 60 miles per hour. That’s what happened to me. That lack of concentration became the reason I ended up on the road less traveled, or better yet, a road never traveled.
It turned dark as I daydreamed about who knows what. Then, I realized the barely paved path in front of me turned to a newly tarred road with fresh yellow divider lines going down the middle. My foot quickly transitioned to the breaks and my car came to a swift stop on the edge of the road. I got out of the piece of junk and looked in front and behind me, both of which revealed a fresh highway spanning for as far as my eye could see. And it was dark, so I couldn’t see much. I probably cursed in disbelief. I usually do that. Taking out my map and my flashlight, I aimed to locate the path that I had stumbled onto. No use. I cursed some more. I always do that. Afterall, I was unintentionally driving on an unwanted route for who knows how long, wasting much needed gas. I was now cold, desperately in need of someplace to warm up other than my car, as one-hundred and twenty degrees quickly lowers to twenty when the sun sets. I looked around and I saw neon lights in the far distance, indicating some sort of buildings located in the horizon. Without wasting any time, I got in my car and drove in the direction of the light, like a moth to a flame. As I drove more, I got a better look. It was a diner. A no name diner. Open 24 hours, says the sign. With one other car parked in the parking lot, it appeared good enough for me, so I pulled in and practically ran inside.
As I opened the double doors, the smell of coffee hit my nostrils like a sucker punch to the face. The sound of music from the jukebox in the corner filled the air. It’s oddly familiar. A ceiling fan circled in an almost hypnotic fashion and made that universally loved humming sound. I looked around and saw a cup of coffee on a table, steam rising from the cup, indicating that it was freshly made. Enter the waitress from the kitchen holding a coffee pot; her red hair in a bob and a blank, white apron round her waist.
“Made fresh for you,” she stated as she pointed to the coffee on the table. “Take a seat.”
“What?” I turned to the coffee on the table and stared at it. “How did you know I was coming?”
“Your car gave it away, hon. Don’t be so on edge, take a seat and I’ll grab you the menu.”
Trying to be polite, I took a seat and listened as the music on the jukebox ended, plunging the diner into silence. I looked around, and noticed small, yet familiar details, such as a signed baseball bat in a case and a High Honor Roll certificate framed on the wall; weird decorations for a diner, who am I to judge? I tried to get a closer look, but was interrupted by a menu dropping on the table in front of me. The waitress smiled and reminded me to ask her any questions if needed. I thanked her, took a glance at the thick menu, opened it, and froze. In the menu I find pictures of a younger version of myself, all dated and placed in chronological order.
In elementary school I meet my best friend.
Two years later, my first crush.
Time goes by, and I get the High Honor Roll award in middle school.
My mom becomes sick not much later.
I flip the page.
I attend high school and run for class president.
I learn how to play the trumpet in the school band.
My mom is getting worse.
My grades go down.
I inhale a large bit of air and look around, expecting it to be all in my head. It’s not.
Friends are gone.
I barely graduate high school with a passing grade.
No college or future plans.
I run away.
Three years of worrying about my mom before receiving the news.
Dad’s overcome with grief, so he decides to join mom, leaving me and my sibling on our own.
I’m on my way home.
I daydream at the wheel.
I closed my eyes and snapped the menu shut, breathing heavily while trying not to break down.
“Like I said, hon,” pierced the waitress’ voice beside me, jolting me awake from my thoughts, “your car gave it away.”
“I’m,” I paused, trying to wrap my head around what I had just learned. “dead.”
“Dying, really.” She came and sat in the booth in front of me and took a deep breath. “Your mind’s just all over the place right now, manifesting memories and objects that are important to you. Hence the,” She hesitates. “scattered decorations.”
I don’t remember how I responded to that clunk of sentences. I probably cursed. I usually do that.
“Look,” she had said, leaning in, “you’ve had an interesting life to say the least. And one that you probably didn’t deserve. Full of choices and outcomes that lead you down unpredictable paths with unpredictable destinations. That’s just how life is. And you have regrets, I can see it. You weren’t there when your parents died and you weren’t there when your sibling needed you the most.”
“Look, I get it,” I laughed. “If you want to just harp on all of the mistakes I made in my life, then don’t bother. I already remind myself practically every night.” I leaned in. “Do you know how hard it is to live with this constant guilt that you weren’t there for someone when they needed you? When they trusted and relied on you?”
“I don’t.” her eyes were filled with sorrow.
“Good.” I leaned back. “Because it never goes away.”
There was silence for a good minute. The humming of the fan never stopped and the sky outside turned pitch black, revealing no stars.
She leaned back and took a sip of coffee. “The way I see it, you really only have two choices. Look. I know you’re filled with grief and longing to see your parents again. I understand that. But I also know you want to apologize and reconnect with your sibling.” She gestured to the kitchen door. “If you enter through that door, your mind falls asleep and you essentially pass away. Maybe there’s an afterlife where you see your parents again, maybe there’s not.” She then gestured to the diner’s front doors with her eyes. “Go through those doors? And you return right back to your body. Maybe you’re in a coma, maybe you’ll heal quickly. It’s really not for me to disclose.”
A lot to take in. I stayed silent for a while, pondering my options. Two things I really wanted, behind two doors. Two completely different paths with completely different outcomes. I really don’t know how long the both of us stayed in silence. I want to say a couple minutes, but knowing me, it would be an hour. Just thinking. Going through infinite scenarios in my head that can lead to infinite more.
What if I saw them again?
What if I don’t?
What would I say?
Would I be forgiven?
Is this really my fault?
But there comes a time when you have to stop living in the past and fight for the present moment. Running away from my problems brought me there to that very moment and there’s nothing I could have done about it. If everything taught me anything, I had to take ownership of my actions and face the outcomes, no matter how harsh the road is. Because life is essentially like driving on a road. One sudden turn can lead to unexplainable moments and unfathomable outcomes. But that’s what’s beautiful about it, right? Dead or dying, I still had a choice. I just hope I made the right one.
Photo Credit: www.pond5.com