Memory as a concept is fucked. I think we can all agree on that.
For example, I remember most of the food I took home from my 8th grade prom. I remember the last song I listened to, before my 4th performance in To Kill a Mockingbird in 2009. On the flipside of that, I can never remember if my sister Emily’s birthday is on the 22nd, or if it’s on the 23rd. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall the color of my girlfriend Cara’s car.
It goes on like that.
When it comes to my first Greyhound trip, I remember most of the experience. What I can’t remember is the specific town I went to. Equally annoying is the fact that I can’t recall the last name of the best friend I stayed with. Just about everything else retains a diminishing clarity. There is no definitive reason that I’m aware for how my brain goes about organizing things. It’s clearly not in any order that I consciously signed off on.
The first name of that best friend is still clear to me, although I can’t say I’m completely confident in the spelling. I met Sara the way I met most of my friends at that time in my life. We met through a chat room in 1999. The function of the room was to create characters, interact, and build alliances. Silly things like that. It was sort of like a really shitty version of Everquest, except no one could ever really agree on the rules. Thinking about now is a little embarrassing, but it was fun at the time. My family only had the one desktop PC in the computer room downstairs. I couldn’t get on, until around 9, 10 o’clock every night. Knowing it was a school night never stopped me from staying online until midnight, one o’clock in the morning. At the time, I still didn’t really have friends in high school. I had only been in the United States for about a year and change. There was probably still some culture shock going on, in terms of the people I went to school with. The two who are now family to me wouldn’t be there until sophomore year.
It just made sense to find people I could relate to online.
And that’s how I met Sara. At some point, we simply started talking on the phone all the time. One of the many, many awful teenager things I did was monopolize our one cordless phone. It would hide out with me in my room. When someone else wanted to use it, the battery was almost always dead.
You just couldn’t say when Sara might call. It wasn’t uncommon to get a call at four in the morning.
A long-distance relationship never occurred to me. At least, to my best knowledge, we never talked about it. Asking her certainly would have made sense. We liked the same music. We both liked pro wrestling. Both of us loved horror movies. The more unrepentantly violent, the better. She had what I quickly understood to be a mild, non-specific southern accent. Her eyes betrayed the sarcasm and cynicism that she tried to express with her tone, her body language, and the corners of her mouth. I never asked her out, but there was definitely a foundation for a crush. She was so much smarter than I was. I loved that. Giving other people the space to talk has never been a strength of mine. I’m better at it now than I used to be. Much better. My memory tells me now that I was better at listening to Sara, than I was with most of the people in my life at that time. Since we have nothing else to go on, we’ll say that’s true.
We never dated, but after months of talking on the phone, we did decide that it was ridiculous not to meet. That’s how my first Greyhound run came together. To this day, I’m fairly impressed that both my parents and hers consented to the whole venture. Her parents agreed to let me stay for a few days. I would leave the day after Christmas 1999. Lots of information was exchanged by our parents for their respective peace of minds. Christmas immediately became less interesting. I couldn’t stop looking ahead to the day after.
At that point in my life, I hadn’t traveled a lot. There was the ferry ride from Victoria to Seattle. There was a flight from Seattle to Missouri. Then a car ride from Missouri to Virginia. The flight from Virginia to Canada. My first actual bus trip occurred in the last six months I lived in Canada, when I rode from Ucluelet, British Columbia, to Lake Cowichan. With that ride, I can recall fitful bits and pieces. Then the flight from Victoria to Virginia. That was it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but a Greyhound bus trip to North Carolina was only the beginning. In the 16+ years since, I have probably logged about forty thousand miles on Greyhound alone, to say nothing of cars or Amtrak. As inauspicious introductions in my past go, a short run to North Carolina would have to be somewhere at the top of the list. I had grown up dreaming of long stretches of travel. I felt this way 1999, but I didn’t really see a venture into North Carolina as anything more than just seeing a friend.
Was I nervous about the trip? Probably not. I had managed several of the flights mentioned above on my own. The only thing I was really worried about was missing a transfer. In the sixteen years since that trip, I’ve never missed a transfer. I can never decide if that’s impressive.
The morning I left for North Carolina, I threw up several times. That wasn’t due to nerves. Waking up with a migraine and substantial fever, there was a question of whether or not I should make the trip. I was committed. At five o’clock in the morning, when your bags are already packed, it just makes sense to go through with it. Nothing was going to stop me from meeting my best friend.
It would have been nice to have a cellphone in those days. Payphones were the only means of keeping my family and Sara up-to-date on the trip, which didn’t take much longer than six, seven hours. Whenever I’m breathing in a little too much nostalgia, I remember what it was like to not have a cellphone until 2006. It helps to keep me grounded in the present.
The sad thing about my first Greyhound trip is that I slept through most of it. I’m amazed now that sleep came so easily to me, as I left Petersburg, VA at approximately six-thirty in the morning. That was sure as shit not the start of a trend. I guess it was because of how sick I was. The migraine subsided between passing out, and waking up at one of the stops along the way. Even a quick bite was doable. The fever stayed true, but I managed the impressive trick of convincing myself that I was actually fine. It could have been youth. More likely than not, I suspect it was adrenaline. I was traveling to a new state on my own. Despite sleeping through most of the trip, I tried as much as I could to take in my surroundings. There was still so much of the American landscape that I had not yet witnessed. There’s still a lot that I haven’t seen, but back then, it was three, maybe four times what it is now.
Still, my energy being what it was, I couldn’t really pay attention to anything anyway. All I could really do was remain intensely aware of what I was doing. I was on the road. I was in transit to a mysterious destination (even if it was just North Carolina). As much as the trees, cars, and road blurred against the steady fury of excitement, I could at least keep all of that in mind. My childhood had devoted a large portion of its free time towards dreaming of constant travel. Nothing I had done up to that point had satisfied those dreams. This trip didn’t either. However, it did keep the dream to eventually get sick of living out of suitcases alive and kicking holes in the stratosphere.
A few hours spent traveling to North Carolina prepared me for later Greyhound trips. It made me know what I was signing on for, when I ran away from home in 2002 to visit my girlfriend at the time in Chicago. That trip helped with the momentum I needed to get from Virginia to Santa Fe in 2005. Hindsight creates connections all the time, and then breaks them down, and then builds something else entirely. Maybe, that’s where all the memories go. Construction projects usually involve throwing things out.
Obviously, it couldn’t be the mild concussions and binge-drinking.
That’s just ridiculous.
Most of the three, four days I spent at Sara’s place remain fresh to me. One of the best consistencies of the entire visit was how much we laughed at all of the stupid, stupid things we would say to each other. Towards the end, it got tiresome for both of us. I was just starting to learn how exhausting my personality could be for people over the long-term. It was around that age of fifteen that I began to suspect that maybe, a lot of the bullying I took as a kid was because people couldn’t respond to me in any other way.
For the most part, every dumb joke, every insult, every single inane thing Sara and I said to each other was funnier than it had any right to be. Her parents, who were very sweet people, couldn’t believe two people who were supposedly friends could say those things to each other. We watched a lot of movies. The unfairness of having a best friend who lived several hours away came to mind again and again.
And, no, in case you’re wondering, nothing happened. That never bothered me for a second. Hindsight suggests to me now that she simply wasn’t interested. Then again, I never said anything to suggest that I was as in love with her as a stupid, deeply unreasonable kid could be. I was. Paralysis sounds like a good excuse for not at least taking a shot against the likelihood that she would just blink, laugh, and change the subject. Really, I think I was just content to be her friend. That has always been the case in my life. I’ve never really understood guys (or girls) who couldn’t live with just being friends. The heart wants what it wants, I suppose, but trust me, friendship is usually better than nothing. If they are as extraordinary as you think they are, more often than not, the light that comes from knowing that is more than enough.
But she did flash me. I wish I had more context than that. The immediate before and after of that visual are lost to me now. I’m sure there was a lot of stammering. If I could change anything, I would have said something funny, or perhaps even something kind.
Instead, I made a lot of jokes about how one breast was larger than the other.
At first, she laughed. I’m sure she meant that. Everything was funny. We were dumb. Eventually, the joke lost whatever charm it allegedly had. There is no question that I was such a spectacular bastard in those days. We’ll never know if lifting up her shirt ever meant anything to her. I never asked. It may not have. Wondering doesn’t really mean anything now, but writing this, it’s impossible not to think about it a little.
Over the years, I’ve learned that teenage girls put up with a fantastic mountain of bullshit on an hourly basis. Yeah, they’re pretty annoying as a collective, but that doesn’t mean they deserve everything they’re made to go through. The scorn they get for their music tastes, their writing, their art, their bodies, their language, their conversations, their energy, and everything else is astonishing. Between the way I’ve treated people over the years, and the stories I’ve heard, I really don’t want to ever have a daughter of my own. The world isn’t suddenly going to become kinder, even though, as I get older, I work at being kinder. I’m still failing at that a lot. My sense of humor still combines nicely with my mean streak on rare occasions. Back then, it was even worse. Hindsight does not help me with the people who can tell you when I went from amusing to cruel. I’m sure Sara could tell you, if that moment came along. A few people can. I can let go of a lot of things. That’s one of the ways you work at being an adult. The nine hundred mile warehouse that stores every dumbass thing I’ve ever said will never burn to the ground. Not completely.
It would be nice, if Sara and I were still friends. I’d love to ask her about those days in which we were such good friends. We remained friends for a couple of years, but we never hung out again. It just didn’t come together. Eventually, we dropped out of touch. These things happen. If I could remember her goddamned last name, I could look her up. We could catch up, realize that too much time has gone by to pick the friendship back up, and drift off again. I’d like that.
As it is, I don’t even know if she’s alive.
Probably, she is. Since I never bothered to memorize what I recall being a fairly complicated last name, I’ll never know for sure. I should have memorized that name. I misspelled it constantly, and I was forever asking her to run it by me again. Never stuck. That might be funny now. It’s hard to say.
It’s likely that she’s fine. I’d like to think she’s doing something that makes her happy. That’s the best you can do for anyone you can’t track down, or even choose not to contact, even in this allegedly glorious era of social media.
Over the course of the Greyhound trip that took me back to Virginia, the flu bug I had magically held at bay came back. Vengeance would be a complementary description. As a result, I missed out on staring out the window of those older Greyhound buses you thankfully don’t see any more. Since that is no longer the romantic postcard it once was, I wish I could have enjoyed the scenery. Riding along, looking out the window, and pretending every last one of your thoughts is a line from a novel that everyone is going to enjoy reading. For the first few Greyhound trips I took after that first one, I got a lot of mileage out of thinking like that. When you’re a teenager, you can entertain yourself with thoughts like those for days and days.
I spent most of the rest of Christmas break hallucinating, playing Final Fantasy V, and waiting for Y2K to destroy us all.
Final Fantasy V was great, for what it’s worth.
I do wish Sara and I had taken a picture together, at some point.