It started with my boyfriend from my freshman year at Washington College—a boy with whom I’d driven down the flat country roads of Maryland’s eastern shore after dark with the sunroof open to the light of distant stars. Stars whose photons had been traveling billions of years to reach us as we flew along on the edge of night. Stars that were already gone.
Recently, decades after graduation, he got in touch and said he was sending along some photographs and letters from that year as he digitized his albums. How did he find me, I wondered, then paled. I’m unphotogenic. And I couldn’t imagine what on earth I’d written at the age of 18 that anyone would keep.
When the pictures arrived, they weren’t so bad. My hair was the longest it’s ever been—no style–just hanging to my elbows, which I guess was the style. But the letters. They were vacuous and self-absorbed. Embarrassing. But hang on, this is worse. I was surprised they were vacuous. I thought of myself as ‘deep’ then. Tragically meaningful. You’re just going to have to forgive me. It’s the rule now that we’re all grownups.
People I haven’t heard from in decades are showing up in my inbox or texting lately. Case in point, I also heard from my boyfriend’s roommate, and that was astonishing because we barely knew each other. Our relationship was indirect. Adjacent. So, it was both a surprise and a delight to hear from him. And then a girl I’d known somewhat briefly in college who’d been kind enough to throw me a bridal shower messaged me, and a guy on whom I’d had a slight crush in high school but never dated. Why does this move me so, reconnecting after decades with our people-points-of-entry into the world?
Maybe it’s because these are the people who were with us at ground zero. Closer to lift off. We hadn’t jettisoned even the first-stage rockets yet.
We were still powering up for the ascent.
Then Bob got in touch. We met working at a Cape Cod conference center one summer with a bunch of other college students. I’d applied for a job on the waitstaff but when I got onto the Cape that June the only remaining position was pots girl. Pots girl scrubbed heavy frying pans and massive casserole dishes all morning in a bustling kitchen where salad girl tied one arm behind her back to keep from impulsively sticking her hand in the lettuce slicer, and pots girl learned that if you rinse with blazing hot water you don’t have to dry but you’ll probably get burned. Pots girl also rocked a hairnet over her ponytail, all of which was a humbling drag, but the whole staff switched to bathing suits and hit Craigville beach in the afternoons. On the sun-drenched shore of the Atlantic pots girl got very tan and fell in love.
So, all these years later, I was shocked and charmed to get a text from Bob. I’d always wondered what had become of him. We swapped some photos of our families and agreed we’d talk on the phone. He wanted to reminisce about that summer. But something told me I wasn’t going to have a lot to add to his memories because after the initial delight of reconnection it occurred to me this guy had broken my heart.
He was supposed to be driving up from Atlanta to spend Thanksgiving with my family when instead, he sent a letter ending the relationship. Weeks later, I asked this winsome US Naval Academy Midshipman I’d just met to join my family for the holiday instead. He became the father of my three kids, so this turned out all right. Maybe in ways we can’t anticipate, all roads lead home.
I think it’s that the people who disappear from our lives become mysteries. Books we borrowed and had to return unfinished. Time ran out. Someone else was waiting to read that title. Then, unexpectedly, we get to pick the volume up again and learn how the plot unfolded long after our character left the story. And when it has ended well, we are just so grateful—because whatever flirtation might have come before, or conflict, misunderstanding, estrangement, or rift–we’ve evolved to being able to hold the past in a different, more generous, and all-encompassing love. We finally know what it means to be happy for someone else—to feel joy for their joy–even for someone who may be living the life we meant to live. And that of course, is the most difficult. And that of course, is why you are here.
Then there is this. I think reconnecting with your past impacts you more profoundly when your family of origin was fractured in some way—death, divorce, parental depression, moving a lot, alcoholism, illness—there are a lot of ways in which the container that held your original self fragments. When this has been the case, your sense of self becomes ill-defined. Uncertain of who you are, you become what other people need you to be. That’s a thing, right? You appear to be participating when you’re actually observing. You become a writer. Or something better.
So, when people reappear from the time before now, they are evidence that the past that seems to be someone else’s distant memory, was real. That you are real. Sometimes we need reminding. Sometimes we need to be reintroduced to that girl or that boy who knew they could do or be anything they wanted to be.
I used to think that making a new friend was one of the greatest joys in the world but recovering an old one is even greater. Because when people from your heart’s long-ago reappear, they do not come alone. They bring you with them.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.