A visit to a place I once knew

She was sitting at the receptionist’s desk of my parents’ workplace, at the same desk I had walked past hundreds of times before. The reception area had barely changed since fifteen years ago. I think that the fishtank which used to occupy the corner was gone, replaced by some inoffensive and lower-maintenance indoor plants, and the chairs had probably been replaced. She herself bore the same mixture of familiarity and subtle change. When I last saw her she was eighteen, the same as me, we were freshly graduated from high school, uncertain and young. Now we were both in our thirties, on the other side of marriage, with children in our homes and the first lines of age on our faces.

We had never been close friends, much less romantically entangled, so the reunion was less fraught than it might have been. Nonetheless, we had attended the same school and the same extracurriculars since middle school, so the sheer length of acquaintance had fixed the memory of her in my mind. I recognized her immediately, but she was just different enough that I hesitated a moment. She had aged, not badly, but not quite in the way that I would have expected. Perhaps I had misidentified her, and perhaps she was somebody unknown whose identity I had mistaken by sheer coincidence. But she said my name, and I said her name, and then we laughed and I explained why I had hesitated so long before greeting her.

“It’s worse,” I said, “if I said the wrong name rather than taking too long to say the right name.” She agreed. We took a few minutes to trade the names of spouses and children, and later, when I had finished my business and picked up my kids, she came by to see them and show me one of hers. Aside from the momentary disorientation, it was a pleasant reunion and a reminder of someone that I had known kindly for many years, but hadn’t thought of much in the meantime.

This proved to be emblematic of my entire trip home. I was visiting my parents in my hometown, the city where I grew up. I hadn’t been back for six years, and my previous trip was a brief jaunt in the middle of winter. This felt like the first time that I was truly back in town since I had left after graduating high school, nearly 15 years ago. Everywhere I went, things were recognizable, but just different enough that I hesitated before identifying them. Farmland and prairie at the edges of town had given way to housing development and strip malls, and at the eastern edge of town an enormous shopping complex still smelling of crisp new money had devoured… what? I can’t even remember what had been there before. Yet the parts of town which hadn’t been redeveloped had grown ugly and shabby, with boarded windows and weedy lots crowding together around liquor stores.

It didn’t feel like a homecoming, I told my mother. My parents live in a different house in a new neighborhood, and the hometown I remembered no longer exists. There are bits and pieces of it still, little island of precambrian rock jutting up between the volcanic channels of reconstruction, but the whole is gone. I don’t miss it. My hometown was a pleasant place but never a picturesque one, not the sort of place whose character deserved to be preserved.

On my last day there, however, my dad took me on a drive up the canyon to see the damage that last fall’s floods had wrought. The parks and the green bottom land that had filled the floor of the canyon had been scoured away and replaced by sandy silt. A few of the canyon’s old landmarks were still visible, but others had been wrecked beyend recognition. But despite the obvious and overwhelming evidence of destruction, the canyon felt like the least changed place that I visited. The same brown stone rose up in knobby terraces above the road, and the same brown scrub and bristly pines guarded the walls. Even the river which had ruined the valley was unchanged, its fury not something new but a repetition of the climactic note it had sounded now and again since its birth. And the canyon opens into the mountains, which were old before men knew their names.

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