Later, at the outskirts of town, I pulled to the shoulder, shaking and sobbing against the steering wheel. I finally acknowledged that my urgency came not from joy but anxiety and the pathetic fear that no one would remember me. Once my tears dried I debated running away, but instead went forward through the sheer mists of memory overlaying the landscape in front of me.
At the front desk I stumbled through the first greetings, relieved slightly by awkward hugs. I searched for beloved faces, and the warmth of embraces offered first through Facebook, and then in person. Yet, as always, I felt as if no one knew what to do with me – including myself.
And so it was for three days. I've never been good at small talk, and what is a reunion but chit-chat? I did find some old friends, and we explored our new selves together. I basked in their company. I spent a great deal of time with other people's children, enjoying being an auntie. I caught up with people I probably should have befriended twenty years ago. But the only time it was easy was a night meander through the grounds, chasing ghosts with someone who once owned my heart. We walked, and remembered, and I surreptitiously searched for the source of my loneliness, as if I could turn off a tap from twenty years before and retroactively find happiness.
During the day I practiced polite smiles and inept escapes when the silences grew strained. I was baffled by pronouncements of great friendship from a man I had barely known, and unnaturally hurt by the woman who refused to speak to me despite two decades of distance. I hid at night in my room, staring at the ceiling and listening through the window to drunken declarations of love and undying friendship, and longing to belong. And still I searched, but by then I didn't know what I was seeking.
I caught it on my last night, for just a moment. We danced, as we'd done so long ago, in a darkened room to music that had beaten its way into my bones and heart. I swayed alone, forgetting propriety and how to protect myself and for a brief, fleeting time I felt the limitless possibilities of being 16 and surrounded by brilliance and excitement and joy – a sense that just by being there I was changing the world for the better.
I left the next morning after a few brief goodbyes, relieved that I had faced my fears. I still love the school and cherish my two years there. My memories are deep and strong and vivid. Yet I have a lingering feeling that I failed somehow to truly live my time there, and that failure has followed me since. I drove home more slowly, mourning what could have been.