A Defining Moment

At some point in the foreseeable future, a grownup is probably going to ask you about a defining moment in your life. What they will most likely mean by that phrase is something that has happened to you that was very important for some reason. Defining moments are different for everyone. One day something will happen to you or some thought will pop into your head or someone will appear in your life and it will be important for you, and all your friends and family members and blood-pact enemies will have these important moments, too.

I wrote the above explanation in order to introduce the defining moment of Molly Buffington’s life, a life that was not marked by hook-handed men with inexplicable lisps, or fires that destroyed whole countries, or orphanages with evil-looking gargoyles that, according to the nuns who ran it, ate the smaller, slower children. Molly Buffington’s life was rather dull, a word that here means boring and without interesting things like pirates or wizards or talking fishes or man-eating lizard people. But then one day, like it does with so many people, something came along that made her life slightly less dull. While it did not involve carnivorous reptile men, it did involve something almost as scary to a girl of seventeen: moving across the country.

There were a lot of logistics involved in the move, “logistics” being a boring word adults use to talk about things that are necessary and complicated and boring. Because of the move, Molly had to pack away the little bits of her soul that she had up in her room, for instance. Most people decorate their homes with their souls, and if you ever enter a house that is not decorated with soul-bits, I suggest that you leave very quickly because the inhabitants are likely poorly disguised robot imposters or soulless creatures of the night. Molly had displayed her soul around her room by posting drawings and notes and photographs to a bulletin board, by keeping a perpetually cluttered table for doing her homework, by amassing a huge stack of books that she desperately needed to read, and by hanging up paintings that she sometimes would look at and climb into with her mind. These things had to be taken down, picked up, folded, given away, thrown out, placed into plastic baggies, and arranged into cardboard boxes with scrawled words in runny blackish ink. She also had to get boring paperwork from school, and she had to say goodbye to friends and teachers and acquaintances and people she didn’t particularly like and people she particularly didn’t like. After all of these logistics were taken care of, on a hot and overcast day in the beginning of June, she clambered into the front seat of her family’s car and watched as everything she had ever loved was smothered by the horizon, the way a thick afghan blanket can cover your toes so completely that it’s like they aren’t even there anymore, and you are certain they will never return, if they were even there in the first place.

If you have never been to a city, I suggest that you go some time. Cities are full of strange people and pungently smelling food and tall buildings that are full of people in dark suits with dark eyes and dark secrets. I say all this because Molly was from the city, and that was all she had ever known. She was familiar with busy people and busy intersections and busy coffee shops and busy dogs. She was used to grumpy strangers and confusing streetlights, she was used to waking and sleeping while the soundtrack of traffic droned melodically in the background, she was used to anonymity and apathy and assuring people that the very famous hamburger place was not in that direction. But the afghan blanket of the horizon had swallowed up the city and all of what it had ever been, all of what she had ever known. Now she was heading down a sparsely driven road through barely inhabited rural land in order to reach an entirely un-busy, small-in-every-way town, a town she was to spend days and nights in, sleep and wake in, spend precious moments of her life in. It was like being sent to another dimension where the inhabitants only drank carrot juice and slept during the day and wore their sweaters backwards. In other words, Molly was scared and confused and lonely and bitter. So, she just stared out the car window, ignoring the comforting words of her mother, feeling grumpy and watching out from under scrunched eyebrows at the brownish grass that waved sympathetically in the dusty wind.

The ride was going to last four days, four days of cutting like a bullet through the heart of the continent, seeing city flatten to desert and desert melt to mist and road become sky. Mountains and valleys and buttes and cows and billboards for shady antique shops watched Molly as her eyes glazed over behind the windowed protection of the car.

But there was something that even the dark glass of the passenger side window in her parents’ car could never protect her from. The songs on the CD that her mother was singing along to rolled together into hours of scratchy-voiced men from the south part of somewhere strumming in key with the rumble of the tires on the worn-out interstate. As these hours passed Molly began to notice that, every few miles, a house or two would dot the side of the road. Sometimes they were skeleton houses, no glass in the windows, grass climbing up the doorstep, the door ajar, like it was begging someone, anyone, to come in and let the house be a house again. Other times they were regular, lived-in houses with a truck in the driveway and a pink tricycle thrown carelessly up against a tree by some tyrannical toddler, or with a maroon boxy car with a dented bumper parked beside the kitchen window, where an unseen light framed a figure washing a plate and turning to look at an invisible something.

Their car would fly past these homes in an instant, but the images wouldn’t leave Molly’s mind, like lichen on a tree or a tick imbedded in the soft part of your ankle. The houses were not houses, she realized, they were homes, much like the one she had left that was now becoming increasingly further behind her, and the tinted windows did not keep that fact from seeping into her from the outside.

“Where do their children go to school?” she wondered to herself, eyebrows unfurrowing for the first time in days. “And what do they want to be when they grow up? Do they hang strange paintings of clowns that some distant and dead relative gave them? Do they have a favorite smoothie to make on days when it is hot and dusty and the sun seems angry? Do they keep a little box of notes from people they loved so much it hurt but they lost them anyway? Do they have a collection of thirty-year-old films on VHS tapes that they pull out when the world seems big and sad and lonely? What is special and meaningful and real to these people?”

Realizations do not make a sound or a scent or a flavor, and typically a light bulb does not appear above your head, although that would make things considerably easier. They do make a feeling though, something that you can feel with all that is capable of feeling within you, while someone sitting less than a foot and a half away can be completely oblivious as they hum along to a guitar solo. This was the case for Molly Buffington. She did not see it or hear it or smell it or taste it, but she felt something click in that gooey part of your chest where lots of important things click during your life, and the instances when those clicks happen are what adults like to call “defining moments.” She thought about the boxes of bleary-inked things, the soul-bits that had been up in her room, the people she had said both happy and sad goodbyes to, and the memories and feelings and all that was behind many horizons by now. And though she could not see it, she somehow knew that the houses and places and people along the road, they all had those things too. There was a bigness to their smallness, their unimportance to the surly teenager shattering at the sudden thought that these were real people with real souls and real friends and real blood-pact enemies and real dogs and real allergies and real picture frames with real pictures of other real people who weren’t around to take pictures anymore and because of that they had cried real tears but they had also laughed real laughs which were still real and important, all the while she had been sitting in a car and driving by.

Molly Buffington looked back out the window again, and then looked at her mother, who turned to her and smiled. Molly smiled back, smiling for the first time in several days. She realized that moving wasn’t so different, so strange, so alien or alternate-dimension-y as she had thought, and a tension left her like a bird leaving a branch when it saw some delicious insect to swallow up down below. A grown-up would call this a defining moment for Molly, who is a real person like you, with real defining moments like yours.

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