By Christine Baker
Clinton, CT, USA
Christine Baker and Jessie
Three cars pass me on this old country road because I drive too slowly. I pass a small pond. In my memory, two crotchety white geese cross from a pond on the left to a smaller one on the right. Once those geese stopped a loaded logging truck dead in the middle of the road. A rough looking man with a stained cigar that clung to his unshaven mouth stopped his truck here in this road just to let two glaring old geese condescendingly stroll across so they could wet their feet in the smaller pond.
I used to look for those geese each day when I was a child, especially in winter when ice knives froze to the trees and the darkness outwitted the light. No geese appear on this day, nor do I see the old brown horse that I always imagined was quietly lonely, even if the geese must've somehow kept him company. I don't know when they left, or died, both geese and the brown horse. As I slowly drive on, I wonder if they remained for many years after we'd packed up and moved away. I wonder if anyone even missed them after they had gone.
The smallish cemetery next to the pond with the short brown grass, the whitewashed tombstones from the 1800s and the bent cast iron gate looks exactly the same, although I still feel that general sense of unease passing it or any other. Ever since a few kids on the school bus explained the universal cemetery-passing rule, I've always been awkwardly aware of my breathing. They claimed that you must hold your breath when you pass a cemetery because if you don't, a demon will enter your soul. When I was nine-years-old, Mom stopped the car between the gates after noticing my intense breath-holding ritual until I gasped for air. She simply wanted to prove that no ghost would swallow me whole and that that day would be like any other.
Today I think for a fleeting moment that I should leave the safety of my warm car just to take a deep breath, just to wander aimlessly around. But I never walked around this small cemetery before, and really, I see no reason to start. It just isn't the point for me to suddenly begin anything new. If I wanted new, I would have flown to Fiji or Patagonia or Miami. No, today at least, I don't want the flecked Miami sunshine. I just want Haddam. Haddam is enough because I need something tangible to remind me of the person I used to be.
So I continue to drive on. There are more houses now than before. All of the newer ones seem bigger, more obtrusive with gaping front doors practically on top of the narrow road, modern roof lines edging out the quiet country way. The open fields where we climbed trees, scraped knees and stared up at the clouds have given way to manicured lawns and paved driveways. I pass someone's front yard and recall the exact spot where Beth and I ran fast from Billy because he was a wacko and our Moms told us to stay away from boys like him.
I stop by the Country Market, a small grocery store with narrow aisles that Costco-sized carts were never meant to pass through. The high-glassed meat counter was always my favorite place to visit in the store next to the candy aisle since the tall man with the long black moustache usually gave me two thick rolled up slices of perfect Oscar Meyer bologna. Sometimes he would even throw in a big slice of American cheese. I walked by the counter half-expecting to see him standing there smiling in his blood-stained white apron. Instead, a young boy with pimples and thick glasses, who should have been in high school but wasn't, smiles crooked at me.
I walk slowly through the aisles and am conscious of the odd fact that I remember it all from within a span of my memory I thought was closed or no longer existed. We are capable of recalling such random things. Soups in aisle two. Glass containers of fresh milk and chocolate milk are in corner aisle of the store. Bread in aisle four. In all these years, no one thought to rearrange the aisles and they remain intact with new items in place of the old.
Memories near Haddam, CT
The two gigantic cash registers in the back still haven't been replaced with something buzzing, wirelessly connected and digital. The short old woman snapping her gum with her pink sweater rolled above her elbows hasn't moved from the register in at least 40 years. She looks the same way as she did 30 years ago and that means she might be close to two-hundred-years-old. I find myself unconsciously looking for cheap toys or a piece of candy to jab at my Mom's side as she shushes me, even though she is not there to shush me and even though I am well passed the age of being shushed at all. For the first time, I understand why she became so claustrophobic in this small town so many years ago where the cashiers never leave and two nasty decrepit geese stop traffic on a whim. We left so we wouldn't get stuck here too.
Now as I retrace my path back up the hill that still makes me carsick because of the sharp twisting curves, I can't stop myself from craning my head back to look once more for a lonely horse and to check one final time if Billy still lives in that frightening dark green house that Beth and I were too scared to ride by on our bikes. I drive on, continuing this journey through my past, thinking that this will somehow revive me or remind me of what I forgot about myself.
When I was in seventh grade, my best friend Teresa and I wore necklaces that read "Best Friends Forever." We swore we would never take them off. We swore we would stand by each other through just about anything we could imagine happening in our small seventh grade worlds.
I lost that necklace many years ago, somewhere no doubt in these woods near my house on one high-flying adventure or another. I've not spoken to that particular friend in almost 28 years. Nothing happened between us except life, but apparently life was enough.
Thirty minutes later, I arrive at my old high school in Middletown. The front entrance is huge, with large glass windows and a large cross. I park in the main lot that is completely empty on this warm summer day. In my memory, I can see my friend Carla rush from the senior parking lot to the front doors all disheveled and laughing because she is late for homeroom again. I see us all sitting in the grass taking our senior group picture. I see us sitting at a bland cafeteria table cracking jokes and making grand plans that may or may not have actually come to fruition.
At this all-girls Catholic high school, I was blessed to have many friends. I fit well into a large group. I was an athlete, but our group crossed over from athletes to cheerleaders to the uber-smart and even a few Goth girls. I loved that our group of friends was diverse and I appreciated then that we all accepted one another for exactly who we were. High school is hard, make no mistake about it, but I see now that high school is the first time we are really seen before life and experiences change us, mold us, and alter us, even slightly into different creatures of different habits.
Over the years, I kept in touch with fewer and fewer of our original high school crew. We connected at random times on Facebook and sent the obligatory holiday cards. We maintained a relationship as thick as dental floss believing that somehow we were still connected, we were still part of one another's lives. But each year, the connection grew more and more frail. Each year that passed, I figured it was just life getting in the way. I had other friends after all; newer friends who fit better into my life. How honestly were we supposed to remain close when we lived in different states, lived very different lives, had varied interests and goals? When it comes down to it, we can justify just about anything.
Summer always reminds me of the past, of long summer nights with the windows rolled down and our arms hanging out the windows to capture every bit of the damp breeze. Summer is the time I remember hiding in the woods with my friends laughing so hard my sides hurt after stealing a street sign. Summer is the time I recall skinny-dipping in a dark pool, dancing with reckless abandon to Whitney Houston as sunset drifted over the water of Long Island Sound, reveling in the company of my friends and talking with wonder about everything we hoped to experience.
When I moved into my new home two months ago, I found a box filled with notes, letters and cards that were given to me over the years by a few of these high school friends. I smiled at the references to inside jokes, some of which I remembered and a few that totally eluded me. I laughed at our yearbook quotes. So much changed, and really so little. Am I that different from that 18-year-old girl I used to be? Do we really change that much when it comes down to it?
They say people come into our lives for a reason, that God places them there at a specific time for a specific purpose. That sounds a lot like fate to me. I'm not sure if I believe in fate or if I'm more of the mindset that we are all just leaves scattered wherever the wind wishes to take us.
Whether it is fate or whether it is by chance, the winds of time have brought me back here. It may have taken me 26 years, 9/11, a hurricane named Sandy, hundreds of miles, too many jobs to count and more memories than I believed my memory could hold, but I have somehow, miraculously found my way back to the people who knew me first, and who know me best.
It is only now, 28 years after that first best friend necklace, that I understand what a best friend really is. Life moves on at its unpredictable pace with its ebbs and flows, with its excitement and routine. We've all learned in our own separate ways that the world is sometimes not as perfect as we might have imagined it to be when we were carefree and laughing at that beach or driving fast down that old country road so the bumps lifted us from our seats. We've experienced sadness, hardship, triumphs and we've learned along the way that some of what happens to us just doesn't seem to make much sense, no matter how much we try to understand.
I don't need to wear a necklace to have, or be, a best friend. I don't need to visit the place I grew up to remember the person I used to be. It is a sheer act of will and stubbornness to keep old friends good friends. These friends who have known me for so many years see me as I was, as I have always been and as I always will be. They see my truth – the core of who I am. There is an intense comfort in that.
They are my touchstones and that, above all, is what a good friend really is. An old friend gives us both the permission and the space to be exactly ourselves over a glass of wine and a good laugh. Time stands still when we are together and I am no longer rushing to experience my life to see what will unfold. It is unfolding in front of me now and I no longer feel the need to throw away my todays only to find tomorrow. Today is enough. Today, with my friends, will always be enough, no matter what stretch of road I may find myself on.