It was a dream. In it, I wandered the halls of my old high school a last time, willing myself to find reason not to leave, Hey, you still need to sign my yearbook! Do you have summer plans this year, Ms. Ringrose? The future is a promise of only disappointment, fear.
I’ll do anything to stay. With every tick of the clock hanging over the exit, I pang for a life so familiar. I stand with my back pressed against the heavy metal doors taking a mental photograph of the yellowed ceiling tiles, the dust-marked linoleum, and the peeling paint of dented lockers. With crushing reluctance, I exit the building.
It’s strange, because as nostalgic as the dream was, the scene could not be further from my true experience. I didn’t have a “last day” at of high school. I was simply there, and then not. One day I was taking quizzes and sneaking cigarettes, and the next I pulled at the threads of a (self-shortened) tweed skirt as my dad dropped me off at a private boarding school. I hadn’t predicted that my bad behavior with boys, booze, and dope would prompt my well-intentioned parents to suddenly send me away.
Even if my high school experience had ended with gentle finality, I was not that girl in my dream. My training wheels were abandoned when I turned two years old, and I refused restaurant children’s menus at six. At seventeen, I began my first fulltime job, and rented my first apartment a year later. If life’s milestones were the check-in points of some great race, then I was winning. However, when my friends danced on Mexican sand while I matched sobs to those of the child I gave birth to at twenty-two, I realized that the rate at which one speeds through life has nothing to do with its quality. Still, when I left high school, the doors couldn’t open fast enough.
I finished my final exams in an empty room while other girls sweated in gym classes and flirted in hallways. I was dating an aspiring alcoholic who wanted to marry me, and I had enough credits to graduate a year early. When I finished my last test, I quietly packed up my things, thanked the supervising teacher, and bought a coffee on the way to my below-minimum wage job.
A few months later my diploma came in the mail, and my mother begged me to attend the graduation ceremony. By the time it rolled around, I had three crummy jobs, too many bills, and a string of much older boyfriends who filled my apartment with smoke and emptied my refrigerator of food. But I couldn’t break my mom’s heart any more than I did on a daily basis, so I bought a $20 thrift store gown and skipped the after-party. It rained that day, and I had already forgotten some of my classmates’ names. I felt like a high school impostor in a puffy gown and elbow gloves.
Still, I wake from the dream, and I am lost. My head aches as the last ten years tumble through my mind: swimming in the lake with a brown-eyed boy; it’s too cold to be out there, so we’re both fully dressed. Hugging my parents goodbye; parties in a ratty basement suite; college classes; reading in the midst of keggers; job interviews and new clothes; road trips; arguments; tears; an unexpected “+” on a pregnancy test; a move; morning sickness; our wedding. And then, it slows down.
A birth. Her eyes. Our home. Tears at the dinner table because she just won’t let me eat. Her first steps from my arms to her daddy’s. Laughter. The three of us in bed, together. My belly, again round.
I remember with sudden clarity and relief that I am home. It’s six a.m. I slip out of the bedroom and down the stairs into the cool morning air. It’s quiet and my kitchen is clean but for a stack of mail and a misplaced dish. I survey the rooms of my home with a sense of bewilderment, how did this happen?
I walk to the computer, noticing that my husband has tidied our shared office space, and I sit to write. I’ll leave the dream girl to grieve the past or fear the future, for I have found my way from there to here, and forever forward I must move.