I Have Never Been a Romantic

The distance between city and countryside is greater than what milestones measure.

One of the primary themes in American Romanticism (or so I teach my English 11 Honors classes) is the journey. In this sense, it’s a journey away from the city, the seat of corruption and moral ambiguity, and into the country, where independence and innocence reign.

The concept has always baffled me, for though I love Romantic poetry and all its sensibilities, the journey away from the city seemed like a journey away from convenience, from population, from civilization. Nature is nice in small doses, I thought, but I couldn’t imagine dedicating myself to it à la Longfellow.

But with the amount of change wrought on my life in the last eight months — graduation, full-time work, apartment searching — I find my perception changing as well. The traffic on all local roads, the line of red tail-lights in the morning brings me to tears. That I am forced to drive wherever I need to go is endlessly frustrating.

I look around and wish for trees, for hills, for water. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking I am back in Remington, my childhood hometown — content there, happy there, even if it is only a dream.

I lived in a house in Oak Hill, Virginia — the suburbs of Washington D.C. — for 13 years of my life. It was the longest I’ve lived anywhere up to now. But my house in Oak Hill wasn’t as big as the rambling Victorian my family left behind in Remington, a little town somewhere between the mountains and civilization, where the pipes squeaked, where slugs slipped up the shower walls in the downstairs bathroom, where my brother Scott and I were convinced his bedroom was haunted.

My house in Oak Hill didn’t have a bush-lined walk and porch swing and huge oak trees. It didn’t have redneck neighbors across the street who hunted in season and brought their kills back to gut in their front yard, or a wooden school playground down the street. It didn’t have a river nearby, or train tracks, or a ruined wooden house on the corner infested with bees every spring.

My room in Remington was huge; it faced the street and boasted five windows that my mother layered with yellow curtains. It had blue carpet, yellow walls, and a Scooby-Doo poster over my bed. Once I took a stamp from the drugstore and decorated the wall on one side of my bookcase with the shape of a red monkey smiling, and it had that, too.

There was a record player in the corner (singing “Do you know the muffin man … ?”), and my bed, of course, and a walk-in closet that my friend Michelle and I decorated as a room for Scott to live in during the worst of his bedroom hauntings.

There were ghosts, too — not only in Scott’s room but in the dining room, the first floor at the foot of the stairs. We rarely opened the glass-paneled door, for if we did, icy breath spilled into the hallway, chilling the hardwood floor beneath bare toes.

The door would stick sometimes in its jamb — always, it seemed, when there was someone on the other side, alone in the dining room. I could convince Scott (two years younger and impressionable) that there was candy in there or that he was just a big old scaredy-cat to get him to tempt the wintry ghosts within.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I would recite as he, trusting me as only a younger brother could, stepped tentatively over the threshold.

After that, it was an easy thing to slam the door behind him and laugh as he banged his fists against the glass, screaming for mommy, daddy.

Less funny were the times I couldn’t get the door unstuck to let him out.

Remington was a Cherry-Coke-at-the-drugstore, walk-to-school, everybody-knows-your-name kind of town. The lights of the city were distant, so the stars shone brilliant on the night sky. Thunderstorms shook the house; lightning tore down trees. Yellow daffodils grew in backyards and wild along the river. Civil War battles were fought there a hundred years ago, but signs don’t show where and developers don’t fight over the use of that sacred ground.

The image of that house with its blue shutters and pink carpets and that small town lives still in my mind and more often in my dreams. I see it as a child would; I walk down those streets and all is as it was, and I am happy. There was magic there, and if I never climbed the trees or went in the dining room, I would go back with a snap of my fingers and call it home again.

These days I live in an apartment, the complex sandwiched between a new elementary school, more apartments, and the NRA building. It’s convenient — only 10 minutes from my workplace — and quiet, except when the guys upstairs get a jam session going (one of them is an excellent drummer).

I am often content here because I do like convenience and I like the city, but there are nights when I look up into a sky hazy with electric light, and I wish for the creaking porch swing, the wind in the trees, and my innocence returned to me.

I realize that this life, too, is a journey. I realize I am only partway through, that there are still miles to go, that I am still young.

I have never been a Romantic, but now I wonder when, what someday I will find my way back to a small town on the water. When I will finally plant my roots and grow my daffodils and know that I am home.

Article © 2002 by Jenn Reeder