This past weekend I returned to the land of my youth. I moved to the Southeast shortly after my son was born, but his father still lives in the Midwest, so the past few years I have driven the young man up to Indiana to meet his dad for summer break. Every single time, I manage to forget how weird it is until I get there.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, but we managed to settle in Indiana for a whole eleven years. During those years, I hit puberty, had my first kiss, went to high school, started college, and had a kid. In my mind, that’s where I grew up. So, even though I’ve been in Georgia for fifteen years, there’s a part of me that will always see Indianapolis as “home.”
When I start planning our road trip back home, I get really excited. The nostalgia factor kicks into overdrive. However, when we actually get there, the fifteen year gap smacks me in the face like a cold fish. Imagine that Pride and Prejudice is your favorite book of all time and you’ve read it a million times and know large sections of it by heart. Now imagine picking up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by accident. You’re reading along, settling in to the familiar grooves of the old story, and suddenly you’re saying “Where the fuck did that come from?” It’s kind of like that. There are new buildings and new roads and parking lots where old buildings used to be, and then, just when I accept that it’s been a long time and everything has changed, like a ghost, something will pop up that looks exactly the same as it did twenty years ago. The whole thing gets surreal. My son thinks I’m crazy, and maybe I am, because I have to drive by my old high school every single time, just so I can look at it and say “It’s so weird.” If you squint a little, you can still see the buildings I remember squatting like toads among all the shiny new construction.
As I get better at picking out and recognizing the bones of my youth under this shiny new veneer, the weird factor hikes up another notch, because the people are all wrong. Logically, I know that the people I used to see in these places have moved on, just like I did, but the teenager that lives in my head keeps expecting to see all my old friends just where I left them. So now I am feeling kind of surreal and disjointed and lonely. When I hit this trifecta of weird, a fun fourth element creeps in. I start to feel fat. If, by some bizarre cosmic coincidence, I were to run into someone I used to know, they’ll see all the weight I’ve gained. Don’t even get me started on the crow’s feet. By the end of my first day back “home” I am a giant, sad sack of crap.
This year was a little different though. It was my fourth year of putting myself through this brand of torture, and I decided I was over it. When I got to the “I’m old and fat and ugly” stage I reminded myself that I don’t care. In the normal course of things, I have accepted the fact that I’m not nineteen anymore, and I think I’m pretty. Anyone who disagrees can go screw. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but what pushed me back over the edge into my normal sassy self was a commercial on the Disney channel. I saw Selena Gomez singing “Who says you’re not perfect?” and I said “Damn straight. If I can be happy with myself in Georgia, I can be happy with myself here too.”
On day two, I had a wonderful time. I went to a craft fair to see an old friend who was selling her wares and bought a magnetic squid. I met another college friend and her husband for dinner and had a great time talking about whatever popped into our funny little heads. And I didn’t waste a single second feeling like I should apologize for not being quite the same person I was before I moved.
By my last day in town, I was feeling pretty good about life. It was a beautiful evening, so I went for a long walk around my old stomping grounds. I marveled at all the new things and rediscovered all the quiet little corners that have resisted the passage of time, and I did it all with a smile on my face.*
*A quiet, little smile of contentment, not one of those big crazy smiles that make you wonder why that person is walking around with a big ol’ grin for no reason. That would have been creepy.