It’s an intensely chilly November afternoon, cold enough to snow, but instead icy rain falls from the sky in heavy, bitter drops, leaving the sidewalks slick and dangerous and the grass muddy and gross. To put it simply: It’s pretty crumby out.
And I am sitting in the one and only Gilmore dining hall with my dear friends, totally zoned out, enjoying a steaming cup of Gilly’s finest joe, chewing on a peeled banana, when the name “Nashua” hits my ear drum like the clapper hitting the side of a bell; I was now tuned in.
Disoriented by this abrupt tug back into reality, I ask “What about Nashua?”
Apparently, Nashua, New Hampshire had come into conversation after my pal John mentioned that he really wanted to get a spicy chicken sandwich from Popeyes, however the nearest Popeyes was all the way in Nashua, New Hampshire. “Did you know,” I said to no one in particular, pausing to take a long and thoughtful sip from my coffee, “that Nashua, New Hampshire is the birthplace of Russian Dressing?” As this sentence escapes my mouth I am overcome with an urge to go to this cursed city, to visit the home of the trash dressing which I despise with such zeal, more even than its predecessor thousand island dressing.
I look at my friends as they continued their discussion on the Popeyes chicken sandwich, it is then that I make a proposition which will consume our day and change all of our lives, for better or for worse. “I think we should go to Nashua.” My three companions consider this for a moment. My roommate Leah-Yaxi mentions that she thinks the Rockingham mall is near there, and she would be interested in going there, John and Guershon mention that there may or may not be a Buffalo Wild Wings in that area that they would be pleased to check out as well.
Operation Nashua is a go.
The four of us finish our lunch and then break briefly, as the boys need to go to lacrosse practice. While they are away Yaxi and I search desperately for anyone with a vehicle willing to accompany us on the long journey south. Usually, we would take the Yaxi-Mobile, but unfortunately her muffler is so dysfunctional that it sounds like the back side of the car is going to break off. It is clear that there are not many people on the N.E.C. campus that share the same interest in Nashua as my group of friends, and thus time after time we are refused. We are close to giving up and resigning to just going to the Buffalo Wild Wings in Concord and calling it a day, that is until we ask Josh.
Josh is an interesting young soccer player who lives down the hall. We tell him about our Nashua dreams and he says that he is down to come along as long as someone provides gas money and as long as he can stop in Hudson to pick up a pair of snowboard boots from his ex-roommates brother. Done and done.
John and Guershon return from lacrosse practice and by four-thirty the five of us are all piled into Josh’s tiny Subaru, eager to see the second largest city in Northern New England, home of Mandy Moore and aforementioned Russian dressing, and supposedly a mall and a Buffalo Wild Wings. Josh’s car is very small, it’s some sort of Subaru sport, racing…thing. There are a lot of dials and odometers that make me feel like I’m inside a Forza game. I tell Josh that and in return he asks me why it’s even called Russian dressing if it was invented in Nashua. I tell him that the good people of Nashua did not want to take responsibility for the monstrosity they created, and they deemed it better to instead just pin it on the commies.
As we drive out of Henniker it occurs to me just how fast winter is closing in. I see the Christmas lights which deck the Dunkin Donuts (even though Thanksgiving has yet to pass) against the deepening blue sky of the November late afternoon. Driving through this time of day, this time of year, fills me with a certain nostalgia which I can not quite define. Perhaps I am reminded of being driven home from Girl Scouts or to dance class as a child. Perhaps it is just the color of the sky which strikes a chord within me, the not quite night time. It’s only four-thirty-five, but it is almost completely dark out.
By four-fifty-one Yaxi is asleep and the car is quiet except for the sound of Nikki Minaj warbling through the speakers about starships flying. At this point we have all run out of things to talk about and the sky is plum purple.
We arrive in Nashua and from what I can tell the whole city is one giant strip mall, just Home Depots and Big Lots strung together with miles of parking lot and yellow lamps between them. In many ways it reminds me of Aurora, Colorado, a suburb east of Denver, known nationally for the 2012 mass shooting and known locally for being the absolute worst place in the entire state of Colorado.
We park the car outside of what we believe to be a Burlington connected to a mall. We enter and walk around for a while before realizing that there is no mall connected to this Burlington, or if it is there must be another entrance which we have yet to discover. We are about to leave when Guershon stops a young man who looks eerily like a young Billy Joel, “Hey boss,” he says, “hey boss, where is the rest of the mall?” The guy shrugs, “This isn’t much of a mall, this is more of an outlet strip.”
At this point I feel as though I am trapped within some sort of surreal dream. One where you know where you are supposed to be within the dream, but it looks like someplace else and you know what you need to do but it is impossible due to weird dream circumstances. “Where are we right now?” I ask. And then Billy’s young doppelganger looks at me and with a deranged smile, “You’re in Nashua, New Hampshire, welcome.” I ask him if he knows that Russian dressing was invented in Nashua, but before I can hear his response my friends ask me to leave because I am being weird.
We leave Nashua to go to Hudson for Josh’s boots. However, leaving Nashua proves to be quite a struggle. The city is insidious. Where there are no parking lots and street lamps there are dark, twisted corners, apartment buildings that look the same with silhouettes peering out from behind curtains, as if they know you are an outsider, as if they can sense it.
Eventually, we make it to Hudson, and as my friends and I wait in the car, I ask them what cities from their home states Nashua reminds them of. John, from Massachusetts, says it reminds him of Everette, Massachusetts, a city located just outside Boston. Guershon says it reminds him of Wyadanch, New York on Long Island. Yaxi says it reminds her of Nashua. It is then we all realize the “outside city phenomena,” the big bustling suburb outside the real destination, sad and desolate, all concrete and outlets.
This is the fate of places like Nashua, always second best, and that second best is what makes them so awful.
I may be inclined to return to Nashua again. It was a nice drive, and I would like to know if that young man knew about Russian dressing before I told him, or if anyone has ever told him that he looks bizarrely like a young Billy Joel.