When I was 23, I left my hometown in upstate New York and never looked back. I was terrified of life and unhappy with who I was, and I figured the best way to become different was to run. And so I ran. I spent most of my 20s putting in substantial and dangerous efforts to forget what I didn’t want to remember.
Which meant that anyone I’d once been close to had to go as well—those were the people who were most capable of reminding me who I’d once been, and more importantly, who were most likely to believe in me. I wasn’t interested in anyone’s faith. It was a slow and gradual purge of anyone who had meant anything to me.
Then recently, I made some changes—I began to let my past breathe again. I began to miss some of the people I pushed away.
My boyfriend and I went to Cleveland over the holiday weekend, and because of the wonder that is Facebook, I knew that a friend from high school lived there. I hadn’t seen her in over a decade, and reached out to see if she’d be in town for the holiday weekend. To my surprise, she said she would be, and we made plans to get together.
Before the visit, my boyfriend and I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I listened to the bluesy roots of rock and roll and I saw Bowie’s glittering outfits. I looked at pictures of Bruce before he started wearing Dolce and Gabbana, and saw Phish’s big, glittering hot dog and read notes from Patti Smith’s journals. I tried to figure out how John Cougar Mellenemp got an entire exhibition to himself. And as great as it all was, my nerves about the impending visit got tangled in the sensory overload of the place, and I was relieved when it was time to go.
As we drove the twenty minutes over to my friend’s house, I made my boyfriend tell me several times how cute I looked, and my mind raced through the possibilities: What if she isn’t funny anymore? (She is.) What if she gets easily offended by profanity? (She doesn’t.)
What if we don’t even like each other anymore?
My anxiety quickly fell away as we delved into the last decade. We found a rhythm quickly and had so much to say to each other that we had to move my boyfriend’s seat because he was getting in the way. And it felt really good to talk to someone—especially this someone—who had known me when I was young and stupid and reckless.
We all sat there, tucked away in her living room in front of her Christmas tree, and our men talked while we re-introduced ourselves to each other. We talked about her kids and our parents and people I used to know; we talked about what she thought of motherhood and where I’d disappeared to; we talked about things that I hadn’t planned on telling her, but everything was so natural that real honesty came easy.
At the end, I watched her move around the kitchen making dinner for her kids, as I sat on her counter and wondered how this grown-up had taken the place of the teenager that I knew. Here she was making food for her toddlers, when it was like, barely last week that she was at my house studying for our bio midterm and asking me for more candy.
And then, the visit was over. We hugged tight before I left, took a selfie so we knew the visit had actually happened, and made plans to see each other the next time she was in Jersey visiting her husband’s family.
The visit had been perfect: my good friend seemed to be living a genuinely happy life, and I felt re-connected to my past. My trip to Cleveland felt complete.
But there was also an unavoidable truth that settled into me as we drove away from her house, bringing with it a prolific sadness: I missed out on so much.
As we drove back to Jersey the next night, I put my feet up on the dashboard and watched the headlights and shadows slide around them. I let myself drift into an alternate world—one in which I hadn’t disconnected so vehemently and so profusely. I let myself think about what might have been—what friendships I’d still have, what changes they might have brought. I thought about what it all would have looked like: turning into an adult alongside all these people who I’d barely allowed myself to think about in years.
And I let myself feel the weight of all that sadness.
Because I know now what I didn’t then: feeling pain won’t break me. I can be sad and regretful without undoing my appreciation for how hard I fought for the life I have now—and how happy I am to be living it.