The Long Way Home

Jenna Mahaffie
3 min readDec 14, 2020


I drive a lot. I go to the ATM, the grocery store, the post office. And then I take the “long way home.” I drive east of town, down the refuge road until the landscape opens, the road maintenance ends and the inevitable scatter of dust starts to smell metallic. Then I turn around and drive the other way; down to where the houses start to spread out from the tiny metropolis that is town, sometimes even further. I loop the alleys that pepper my community, looking at hidden houses and wondering what the kitchens look like. I keep my music on max volume, occasionally just listening to the same song on repeat until I’ve exhausted the melody tenfold. I write in my head; anything from introductions to stories to phrases I like. Sometimes I list them in my phone, always without context or meaning. “Inconsequential conglomerations of cosmic dust.” “The propagations of life’s splinters.” “She yawned, her mouth cobbled in webs.”

Words come to mind too. Ones that, if given a taste, would have a “finish.” Crestfallen. Cacophony. Acquiesce. Pithy. Curt. Apropos.

Most of the time, I drive without any purpose at all: to go, to clear my mind, or perhaps even to forget. This is difficult, because the physical manifestations of my memories are permanently stained from the internal chassis to the external bumps, lumps, and dents. The top of the steering wheel is worn from my hands; eternally anxious to go or leave or come or stay. The passenger seat is blemished blue from the pen that leaked when you sat on it; ruining your pants and the cloth. Its walls have absorbed songs, words, stories, and all the times I’ve experimented in hypothetical conversation with myself. They know the understated intimacy of giving someone a ride: the intricacies of small talk, specifically selected background music, and/or uncomfortable silence.

A dear friend shared a writing prompt from a grant application recently. “Write the last paragraph of your autobiography.” With the windows open, feet extended out the window, and my seat as far back as it could go, I sat in my car in an empty parking lot. We texted about the prompt. “I wrote it fast and didn’t read it twice,” he said.

I did the same, picturing myself penning a memoir 30 years in the future:

“My life hasn’t exactly taught me any specific lessons, nor do I wish to share a sweeping piece of advice as a conclusion. The parts of my sum are built by the relationships I’ve chosen to invest in and the places in which I’ve learned and grown. Harvested from specific moments as a child, lessons as a student, and all the growth, change, love and loss I’ve experienced as an adult, I have become. But moreover, I’ve chosen to really listen, really talk, really know. Perhaps that is the ordinary magic of life through a critical lens: one that allows us not just to be, but to feel.”

I followed up immediately after pressing send with an explanation of my surroundings, which were a stark contrast from my deep thought: “I’m currently parked in an empty Pizza Hut lot 35 miles from my house just questioning the majority of my existential meaning.”

He replied: “It’s crazy when we find ourselves in small moments that are actually really big.”