Sammy Espinoza's Last Review
People like to say you can’t go home again, but for me that’s more a literal statement than a figurative one. Because I never had a home to come back to.
When you spend your childhood following your mother in her search for a great love—or at least for an apartment you won’t get evicted from—you end up a bit of a wanderer.
It never bothered me much until recently, when life decided to sucker punch me and then keep on wailing.
For starters, I broke my rule about dating musicians again. Karma really hates it when I do that. A fact she proved categorically when my indie-rock goddess girlfriend Juniper Street delivered the killing blow to our seventeen-month relationship onstage in a song literally titled “Goodbye, Sammy.”
Of course, the emotional damage wasn’t the extent of it. Because I had to go and break another one of my rules. This time it was the one about not using my well-respected music column (written under the pen name Verity Page) or its thousands of subscribers to lie about said musician’s mediocre band in print. In many pieces spanning the entire last month of our doomed relationship.
I thought it might save me and Juniper, but instead it lost me my job. (Well, nearly anyway. More on that later.)
For anyone counting, that’s two major life pillars down in the space of a weekend—and I’m not even done.
I started thinking about what people do when their twenties are not what they dreamed them to be. About sleeping in a bed you’ve outgrown. Letting your parents cook for you when everything is falling down around you.
That’s when I first had the bright idea to travel to Ridley Falls, Washington. Population seventeen, or something. The closest place to home I’ve ever really had. The place I lived with a family friend for a year when I was nine because my mom’s boyfriend of the moment didn’t like kids.
The place where my parents grew up, and at least one set of my estranged grandparents still lived.
Only when I called Dina Rae, my flighty mother, to run this plan past her did she “accidentally” let slip that my father’s father had died the year before and no one bothered to tell me. And she only mentioned it after she had tried to talk me out of visiting “that hellhole” in three other ways.
Knowing my mom, she had been hoping this news would activate my too-complicated bail-out chute. The one I inherited from her. Instead, it led to the biggest fight we’ve ever had. One where I told her she had a lot of nerve trying to control my perception of the world when it had taken me four days to even get her on the phone.
Worst of all, it only strengthened my resolve to do the opposite of what she wanted. And in that moment, the opposite of what she wanted was me in Ridley Falls, as soon as possible.
What better place to heal, right? I asked myself during an admittedly wine-soaked pity party a few days later. To nurse my wounds and stick it to my flaky mom and remember the joy that can be found in the simple act of living small—or whatever the big-city rom-com heroines say.
In my defense, I came up with a lot of awful plans to heal and/or reinvent myself in my post-breakup wallowing period. This one might have stayed at the bottom of the empty bottle with the rest if it hadn’t been for the article I read that night—less than five hundred words on a site without a stellar reputation for journalistic integrity.
I personally hold that article responsible for the email I sent my boss (a woman whose approval I have been desperately chasing for nearly a decade) at 12:14 in the morning. In said email, I promised I could fix everything. My column. My disastrous love life. The relationship with my mother I was starting to fear I’d outgrown.
I wish I hadn’t included all of that in the email, but more than that I wish Esme hadn’t agreed. Hadn’t let me charge a Greyhound ticket to my company card and sent me off on a no-other-expenses-paid odyssey to the absolute middle of nowhere.
You have two weeks, she’d written. This is your last chance, Sammy.
Like I said, it’s been a ride.
I step off the Greyhound in Ridley Falls with a kink in my neck and a storm cloud over my head. The guy next to me on the way here from Seattle was a talker. And not just the polite conversation type, but the here’s-the-tortured-story-of-my-failed-marriage-do-you-have-any-advice? type.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve spent a bus ride with someone’s tragic life story. I attract oversharers like a front man attracts girls with daddy issues. I used to think it was what made me a good journalist—this ability to draw deeply personal information out of the most reluctant stone. But I’m not even sure I’m a journalist anymore.
I’m not sure of much of anything, really.
Which, of course, is why I’m here. In a town deep in the boonies of Washington State where I spent what could be defined as the most normal year of my childhood. The place I always picture when someone says the word hometown, even though I didn’t live here long enough to claim it.
I imagined I could sense the shift the moment the bus passed the sign: there’s something about . . . ridley falls! Like maybe this was the very moment my life would start to change for the better.
But it’s been twenty minutes since then. I’m surrounded by shuffling, zombie-like Greyhound ticket holders in the closet-sized station. I try to remember the feeling of watching that sign pass. The feeling that there’s something big at stake here.
But it’s hard not to focus on the negative. And boy, is there a lot of that. Starting with the general approach to sanitation in this building.
My phone buzzes in my back pocket, and I lean my massive leopard-print suitcase against my thigh, shifting aside the matching duffel and backpack to retrieve it. I wish for the millionth time I was the kind of person who traveled in sweats, or leggings. Something more comfortable than the tight, expensive jeans and satin bomber jacket I chose for myself this morning.
I can hear my mom’s voice in my head, chastising me for even daring to think it. How do you know you won’t be seated next to a movie star, huh? You know I met Denzel once on a flight to Vegas . . .
Even though I’m currently very annoyed with her, there’s something about advice your mom gives you. Especially when she’s not really the advice-giving type. So here I am, actually dressed even though there’s literally no chance a movie star would have taken a Greyhound bus from Seattle to Ridley Falls. I know this, because I sort of already know the most famous person who would ever set foot here.
I shudder again, thinking of my oversharing email to Esme. But I shake it off as I extract my phone at last. There will be plenty of time for self-loathing when I’m in a place that doesn’t look like it could give me tetanus.
As my phone rings, the caller’s contact photo takes up the whole screen. Willa’s face, squished next to mine on a wine-tasting trip to the Willamette Valley before her wedding, cheeks flushed and eyes a little squinty. Simpler times.
“Please tell me you’re here somewhere,” I answer without preamble. “I’m afraid the guy from the bus is going to follow me to the bathroom for more free therapy.”
“Boundaries, babe,” she says breezily. “And seriously? You need to read that article I sent you about the capsule wardrobe, your luggage is large enough to replace Pluto as the smallest planet.”
“Pluto isn’t even technically . . .” I begin, then trail off, looking around frantically.
The line goes dead, and I finally spot Willa in the flesh—all gawky six scarecrow feet of her. Her auburn hair is in a messy bun, her overalls cuffed a solid four inches above her Birkenstocks.
There’s an even bigger smile on her face than the one in the picture. For a split second, it’s enough to make the weight of my luggage (and all my problems) disappear.
It was Willa’s family who took me in when my mom was on her journey of self-discovery with Robb the childless wonder. I had never met the Crosses before, but Willa’s mom was my mom’s teenage babysitter when she was a kid, and she promised me they’d stayed great friends. That I’d be in good hands.
Even so, the thought of living with strangers had been terrifying.
As the grown-up Willa approaches me from across the bus station, I can still see the toothless little girl she was on the porch that day. Her smile hasn’t changed at all—except to grow a few important teeth back—and it has the same effect on me today as it did then.
I feel instantly at home. Like as long as I have her by my side, I can handle whatever comes. Back then it was a two-week stay with a strange family that turned into a year. Today, it’s a breakup, a near-firing, and the growing sense that my entire life is totally out of control.
A few seconds later we’re face-to-face for the first time in way too long, hugging and laughing and, okay, crying a little, too.