I headed out to my old highschool on Wednesday, not even sure if I remembered how to get there. I probably haven’t driven that path in sixteen years. In some part of my foggy recollections, all those roads on that side of town twist together, a web of nostalgia. I’ve driven them so many times, they’re just a single memory. Top down, radio blaring, hair tangled.
I set off in the general direction, figuring to get lost on the way. But the turns aren’t just familiar, they’re intimate. I know that store, used to play Mrs. Pac-Man there. Left the nozzle in the tank once and pulled away, spilling a dozen gallons before I shut the pump off. I remember the owner feeling bad he had to charge me for the fuel, if not for the damage. Probably a buck a gallon back then.
I pass the John Deere dealer. Went there dozens of times with my dad, usually to patch together another broke thing that was screwing up the harvest. Along this stretch of road, I recall passing slow-pokes and rubber-neckers. Old-timers looking to the sides at what’s changed instead of keeping on, straight-ahead, fast enough to please me.
I’m that guy now. Doing five below the limit, expecting to miss my turn, but there it is. Sikes Mill. It isn’t a T-bone, more of a slight curve off to the right. I know exactly how fast I can take that turn, and I do. Back then, I used to take it faster.
Funny, but all the distances seem shorter to me. This drive used to take forever, even doing 80 MPH. Before I know it, I’m passing my old neighborhood, not prepared for the sight of it. I feel like driving in, going up to the house I lived in with my mom and handing them a book. “I used to live here,” I’d say, then feel dumb for saying it. I’m sure the current occupant would feel even more awkward. That house is just their home right now. Down the road, it’ll become something different, just like it is for me.
I get up to the school and can’t believe the buzz of activity around it. What used to be a road between the Middle and High schools is more parking. I follow signs to the office and wait in line for my visitor’s badge, two books in hand.
“Can I help you?” the lady behind the counter asks. I’ve been watching her help several other people, and she pretty much runs this school. I can tell.
“Class of ’93,” I say. I feel like this is the standard greeting for half the visitors. She nods distractedly, confirming my hunch. “I just came back to apologize for my behavior 16 years ago,” I tell her. “I’m going through a program right now, and the eighth step is to–”
She reaches for the button under the counter.
“I’m just kidding. I brought some books for the library.” I hold them up, partly so she can see I’m not armed or anything. “I wrote them,” I add.
She gives me the paperwork and a badge. Number twelve. “Still in the same place?” I ask. There’s tons of construction going on around the school, buildings sprouting up where I used to practice for soccer.
“For a while longer,” she tells me.
I head there just as a class is changing. I’m surrounded by people far younger than I was when I went here. Surely. Then I get to the library door, which warns against cell-phone use. Below that, there’s a sign that reads “No MP3 Players.”
I feel old. And I realize that I was younger then than these kids are now. Surely.
The library is empty, save for two kids huddled around a single monitor. I poke my head back in the AV room, where I remember pushing rolly carts with TVs strapped to the top. The librarian says she’ll be right with me as I dig through the recycling, pulling out Sunday’s paper with my article on the cover.
It’s wrinkled, but I spread it out on the counter. It seems so long ago that I returned books here. I remember some of the ones I kept late. On purpose. It’s weird to be back, and dropping off something that other kids might read. May even enjoy. A little while later, the librarian is taking my picture as I stand in the HE-LO aisle. My book will sit here. Soon. And hopefully not for long.