The pretender.

When I come home to Kansas City — "home" — it's back to a house my mother bought, post-divorce, long after I went off to college; I sleep in a king-size bed that my back has to adjust to on every visit, in a room painted the color of an oxidized penny. It's beautiful and familiarly foreign but still manages, somehow, to offer a sense of belonging. It's mine. More mine than anyone else's, anyway. The same silk flowers and unplugged clock/radio welcome me upon arrival. I picked the scent of the reed diffuser on the bureau. My beat-up blue Samsonite sits on the luggage rack with needlepoint straps to match the heavy taupe curtains, a halo of dirty clothes and cast-off shoes strewn around it. No one else sleeps in this room; no one even comes in when I'm home.

On Friday night, Congress passed a stopgap measure to keep the government running — whatever that means — followed by torrential downpours and Cocoa Puffs–size hail drumming on the roof. There's something about the rain on this roof, like music. Like a steel drum on the gutters.

When I woke up Saturday morning, sun fought its way around the blinds and into the room. A beautiful spring day, perfect for a jog…only the sunshine belied the above-normal temperatures and abnormal humidity for early April.

But I was already laced up and ready to run, so I set off. Pressed play on my iPod, queued up to the anthem to the life of a suburban drone, Jackson Browne's "The Pretender." The sidewalks were slick with fallen petals from magnolia trees battered by the storm the night before; the street in front of one house was lined with cars and SUVs driven by garage salers clamoring for one man's trash and a nice glass of 50-cent limeade.

Where the ads take aim and lay their claim to the heart and the soul of the spender.

Every home was buzzing with activity: lawnmowers humming, men cleaning gutters, crews at work on the stone façade of a new construction. Children finding their footing on skateboards and bicycles after a long winter, aging women watering fragile spring blooms in newly dug planters, dogs languishing and panting on stoops in the suddenly-sticky air.

In this neighborhood I call home, the streets between Roe Avenue and Mission Road are in alphabetical order. Granada. Fontana. El Monte. Delmar. Catalina. Buena Vista. I had to Google the "A" street: Alhambra. It's the only one I consistently can't remember.

I passed houses in various states of completion and disarray, looked at the cars parked outside and flowers planted around the foundation, and saw homeowners doing their chores outside or enjoying the first heady preview of summer, so many of them my age or just a bit older. Everyone smiled; everyone waved. I can't imagine owning a home, or a dog, or being married, or navigating a double-wide stroller along the streets I so nimbly jogged through — okay, panted and stumbled through — on Saturday. I'd sometimes like to think, in my urbane, urban existence, that I'm above the lives these people have made for themselves.

That my train commute and restaurant meals and diverse group of friends — who happen to eschew the suburban lifestyle themselves — and fingertip access to my beautiful city make me somehow better.

Who am I?

 

I could say that I'm just different, but I'm really not even that different. That I don't struggle to make my next car or mortgage payment, that I'm not part of a book club, that I've abandoned my timeline for those adult milestones like marriage and having children… I am this place, even if I've chosen not to live it. I grew up here, and something as small as one simple choice turned me away from it.

And really? That I live in a big city doesn’t make me any different.

I'm gonna be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender.

In a tiny apartment, far from the shade of the freeway…but when the morning light comes streaming in, I get up and do it again.

Amen.

I wound my way through the neighborhood, which is less cookie-cutter the more I look at it, listening to my iPod, not sure whether to feel heartbroken or hopeful. There's this cynicism and veiled dejection in this song's lyrics and tone — and my personal association with it — but the music is so gorgeous. This simple piano melody, Jackson Browne's bell-clear voice, a frantic heartbeat of drums behind it all. You want to hope that if the person in the song just believes a little harder, he'll actually get to the point where he really is just happy. Content. Getting up and doing it again because he wants it, not because it's all he has left.

Are you there? Say a prayer for the pretender. Who started out so young and strong… Only to surrender.

You hope it because he's you.

I leave here with a sense of agitated peace, that I’m not so different from all of this, that I belong — or, you know, don't — just as much as anyone.

I've been aware of the time passing by. They say in the end, it's the blink of an eye. And when the morning light comes streaming in, you'll get up and do it again.

I never realized I took time to think when I was out running.