The waffles and ribs place finally opened. They finally wiggled past the protestors and built the Lowe’s. There’s a new Thai restaurant downtown.
But other than that, it’s exactly the same.
I think that’s part of what makes going back so disconcerting for me.
Staying exactly the same, in my new line of work and new lifestyle, is no longer an option. If you’re not growing, you’re dead, they say. I’ve done nothing else since I moved, to the point I have growing pains.
Maybe that’s not it though. I think I’m in the mourning stage — that period when you realize how much damage you did. And nothing makes mourning return more sharply than seeing a ghost. That’s what this town is, a ghost of my past.
I drive by the trailhead where I used to run. There’s the hill I was once carried up over someone’s shoulder to see if it was possible. There’s the dive bar that advertises that it allows smoking just by keeping its doors open. There’s the house I couldn’t drive by without peeking to see if a certain car was there. And on the corner, with its maroon awnings flapping in tribute to its 150-year presence, is the newspaper I worked at for five years. Here I argued with editors and typed and planned camping trips and gossiped and angled through politics and fell in love and cried and cranked out story after story on deadline. No one should do that all in one place.
In my new town, I’m somewhat sheltered from remembering. I have a new house. A new name. A new job. A new life. I’m always looking forward, so I rarely have time to look back.
When I drive into this town, I run into all the people who helped me make my past what it was. I see one who made a sliver of a contribution while ducking through an athletic store on my way to a coffee shop.
He looks different, but in a good way. He’s filled out, but not because he gained weight. He’s just lost the gauntness and angles of youth.
“I didn’t know you worked here,” I say, but realize just as the words slip out that I did.
“What? I’ve worked here for years,” he says, with the same lift on the edges of his words that he always spoke with.
We catch up.
“Nothing’s changed,” he says. “I’m still doing the same things I’ve always done. Same old thing.”
I think of the whirlwind reshaping my own life and feel sad that he won’t get it. It’s too much and too big to explain, so I gloss over the highlights. We part by saying, “see you later,” and I think it’s very possible that we never will.
I leave this town with a sense of relief, driving past cows and covered wagons and other hokey tourist polishings that have rusted and cracked. I weave through the tangled roads. I coast down hill after hill covered in brown grass. I ease out of the foothills and onto the valley floor, past orchards and corn fields and shacks where strawberries are for sale.
I breathe easier as I return to my new home, yet still feel the heaviness of that place, lingering like a sour stomach. Someday I won’t feel this way.
But mourning is a process.