While I was home for Christmas vacation I found myself meandering down memory lane by way of old yearbooks, photos and a handful of notes my mother had pilfered from my backpack and carefully tucked away for the last 10+ years. Between the pages of smiling faces I rediscovered inside jokes (long-since forgotten) and summertime promises, dusty with the passing of time.
I'm a writer by trade, but every so often even I find myself flooded by an emotion that renders me speechless, leaving me grasping for the just-right words. Like the fringe between asleep and awake, it's a magical grey area; a combination of reality and fantasy, somewhere between a dream and a memory.
I had an amazing group of friends in high school. We were a ragtag team, our own little roving pack of misfits. We perfected the art of skipping school and had a thing for country drives. A tank of gas was the price of freedom, and ten dollars was all it took to feel invincible and impervious to the world. Truth be told, I don't know that I have ever felt more present in the moment than I did during those afternoons with the windows down, the radio up and the sun shining in on our little corner of the universe.
Sophomore year we made a group decision to participate in the school play. Not having a theater at our own at our high school meant passing a semester in a suspended state of hormone-infused, sugar-and-caffeine laden evenings in The Burnham Building, a practical, sturdy, brick building that had once served as the city's lone high school.
Night after night we showed up for rehearsals and reprimands from cranky directors and stage managers. Though the months felt infinite at the time, looking back, I now realize we were growing up and growing apart at the speed of life. Each day prepared us for the great unknown that lay ahead. We laughed hard and we crushed hard. We drove to Taco Bell to ponder the future over 7-layer burritos. We overanalyzed anything and everything anyone said or did. We complained about our parents, our part-time jobs, our age. We talked about the future like we had it all figured out.
Over the course of those few precious months of practices and rehearsals, I took my first (and only) sip of peach schnapps (just one capful). My first real crush grew into my first real love, (rather than bringing it to his attention I silently spent every night thereafter hoping he'd magically take note.) I discovered one of my closest friend was living a secret life, soon to surface (ultimately breaking the hearts of girls far and wide.) I tirelessly battled my parents when "everyone else" was allowed to do XYZ and I was not (and for each of those "grave injustices" when they stood their ground I don't think I'll ever be able to thank them enough.)
For all the time we spent at Burnham, I remember very little about the building. I can't recall if the seats were cushioned or wooden, painful or comfortable. I don't remember where the restrooms were located or what the dressing rooms looked like. My lingering memories are rooted in emotions and senses: the rush of sitting close, the scent of Abercombie cologne, cherry pie and Diet Dr. Pepper, awkwardly dancing between tape lines as Cake's "Going the Distance" blared from somewhere off in the distance.
As for the building, the one memory I have retained remains that of the backstage walls. Having been used for decades, the painted tiles of backstage Burnham were covered in messages from other plays, other people, other times. Decades of names and notes; a time capsule from the past to the present by all who had passed. Hidden away from the rest of the world, those walls were a place to make a mark and remind the future that we were here. My friends and I, like so many others before, left a legacy preserved for posterity in black Sharpie ink, and when we walked away from the building after our final curtain call that spring, I had no idea it would be for the last time.
Life changes us. It changes the way we think, the way we trust, the way we love. We not only grow older and wiser, we grow different. We begin to opt for the direct route home rather than the meandering country drive. A ten-dollar tank of gas becomes little more than a line item on a monthly budget, midnight swims no longer cross our minds. We grow older and grow to accept certain inalienable truths: not all is possible, not all is infinite, so much is so very fragile. We move away, we move into new chapters and new lives, leaving our eternal autumn behind.
At 31 I now understand that the handful of friends with whom I roamed the backstage of Burnham were not just the people I spent my formative years with, they were the loves of my life. With each country drive, first cigarette and Dr. Pepper toast, our lives were being inextricably intertwined. Like siblings, we grew up together. We became a family suspended in time.
Last week I had the opportunity to catch up with one of my dear high school friends. As we reminisced, I mentioned my intention to return to Burnham one day to revisit our wall. Turns out the city razed the building a few years ago. They put up something shiny and new in its place.
Author Richard Ford once said, "What was our life like? I almost don't remember now. Though I remember it, the space of time it occupied. And I remember it fondly." Stage lights may dim and buildings may crumble to the ground, but I like to think the ghost of my 16-year-old self is still happily sitting in the theater seats I cannot quite recall. Surrounded by the contents of her backpack, shoes strewn to the side, I like to imagine her putting off geometry homework for one hour more, head in the clouds as she makes makes a mental note to call her best friend about something "Carlos Juan."
I don't know that I will ever return to the site where Burnham once stood, it seems my mind has preserved it better than time. I'm sure that in a decade or two, the details of songs and snacks will have escaped my mind. But as for the space of time it occupied...that, I am certain, my heart will remember fondly.