I always expect to see someone I know when I visit my hometown. This makes almost no logistical sense: San Antonio is home to 1.3 million people, making it the seventh-largest city in the country, and the odds of seeing someone you know while navigating a crowd that size are laughably small. But the feeling has nothing to do with reason. Whenever I go home, I feel more exposed than I do anywhere else, as if the years have peeled back and I am still, for all my struggles not to be, a confused and not very endearing 18-year-old. The thought that I will see someone I know is born more of fear than hope: fear that I will happen across someone I once knew and not have the time or capacity to explain to them who I am and what I do. The places I’ve been, the things I’ve learned. All the billion pieces of information people communicate to each other over the course of years as they develop friendships. I have none of that to share, and so any chance meeting with a figure from my past is inevitably a kind of puppet show. Going home is the worst kind of time travel: You’re back in the past, but unable to affect any change.
I was standing in the Majestic Theatre, waiting for the lights to go down and a comedy show to begin, when I saw a man I’d gone to high school with sitting three rows behind me. It feels weird to even refer to him as a “man”; in my mind, we’re all past childhood but still not fully formed as adults. I knew who he was the instant I saw him. He’s one of those people who looks almost exactly the same at 30 as he did at 18: sharper angles, more solid-seeming, but mostly identical. I looked at him long enough to catch his eye. It had actually, finally happened: I’d stumbled across someone I used to know. He and I weren’t friends in high school, but we weren’t enemies. We just ran in different circles. He was smart, like I was, and cool, like I wasn’t. I’m sure we had some classes together, though I can’t be certain.
After the show, as my wife and I filed out, we passed his row. He was gracious enough to actually step up and talk to me: Had I gone to MacArthur? I said I had, and he (re-)introduced himself as I reminded him of my name. We introduced our wives and shared a few brief sentences as we walked up the aisle toward the exit. He’s an elementary school teacher now. I had no idea this was something he would ever do, but then, I had no idea about anything he wanted to do. He was just a guy I knew at school. He could have told me he’s an accountant or a construction worker. Anything would fit.
He told me his name, but I didn't need help remembering it. I remembered him better than I probably remember most people from high school. He briefly dated a girl I knew who was two years younger than us, a girl I knew through my church’s youth group and who was close friends with my sister. It’s possible he even came with her to a church-sanctioned event or two, but again, I can’t be certain. I don’t remember anything about them as a pairing except that it was one of those high school relationships that seem to come and go. I don’t even remember when or how it started or ended, and I never knew how serious it was.
The only reason I really remember a high school relationship that’s been dormant for 15 years is the girl died when I was a freshman in college. It’s very likely this man was at the funeral: she was so young, and my church was filled that day with so many faces I thought I’d left behind after high school, creating a cognitive dissonance that added to the afternoon's general confusion. A part of me isn't even sure they were a couple, and wonders if I might have invented the whole thing and added it to the narrative of my youth so long ago that I'll never know the truth. I don't know why. I don't know. I find myself tempted to say he was at the private viewing, too, the hot hollow night when we all gathered at the funeral home, children so recently sent out into the world only to come back before we’d had a chance to understand what we’d left. It’s possible he was there — they’d dated, after all — and that he took his turn to walk up and stare down at a girl whose body seemed like a weird mimicry of the one we’d remembered. He'd have shown up that night and seen her small body, her dark dress and light sweater; the way her neck was puffed and swollen because it had broken when the bus slammed into the side of her car as she hydroplaned on rain-slicked asphalt; the manner with which the mortician’s makeup had done the best it could to color gray skin with something like life. He might have been there, but I can’t be certain.
“It was good to see you, man,” he said politely as we reached the atrium, two couples breaking away and merging into their own parts of the river of people fighting for bathrooms and exits. “You, too,” I replied. These are the kinds of nice things you say when you find yourself suddenly talking with someone you haven’t seen in more than a decade and about whom you know essentially nothing. In the car, my wife asked if he and I had known each other, and I told her that we had and hadn’t. It’s possible he remembered my name and face the way I'd remembered his, or merely that he saw me and knew there was something familiar about me. (Since high school, I’ve grown a beard, let my hair grow, and changed the style of glasses I wear. Not a lot of change, but still, cosmetically different than what it once was.) I told her we weren’t friends, but we weren’t not friends. We were just two guys who knew of each other. “I don’t even think we’re friends on Facebook,” I said.
But we are. I logged on that night and went to his page. According to Facebook, we’ve been friends since 2007. That tracks: I joined the service in 2004, as I was graduating college and Facebook was expanding its reach to stomp out similar social network sites that were targeted at their own universities. I didn’t start to add more friends and acquaintances from high school for a few years, but in your mid-20s, you grow weirdly nostalgic for people who remind you of some of the worst and most confusing times you ever had. It’s how we process growing up and start to gain perspective, seeing our existences on a longer timeline than just the institutional memories of our alma maters.
He and I have actually been connected via Facebook for six years, though we’ve done nothing aside from accept the initial connection request. (I have no memory of who added whom.) I looked at some of his pictures and realized again that I had no idea who this man really was. I didn't know what he liked, or where he liked to go. I could not give a remotely accurate account of his personality or passions. He seems like a nice guy, but I don't know him. He is a bit player in my story, a character whose motivations were never clear and who exited the scene long ago. Yet I'm the same for him: some weird guy he might or might remember, connected to a girl he probably thinks of from time to time, like I do. We're foreign objects to each other, providing definition by how much we don't quite belong.
My high school doesn't exist anymore. Anyway, not the one I went to. Campus-wide construction projects were already under way by the end of my junior year. The fine arts building was renovated first, but greater change came after I graduated in 2000. The new campus is more tightly planned but also appears more sterile from the street. The country sprawl of the original campus, founded in 1950 as a high school for a broad rural area, has been replaced by a gleaming quad.[footnote]Compare the image above with this one from 2009, which shows the new campus. The track is a good way to orient yourself.[/footnote] A giant sycamore near what used to be the English building, and that was once the oldest sycamore in town, was removed for the new layout. My freshman English teacher, who'd often taken us outside to hold class under the tree, wept when it went.
The summer I graduated was also when my family moved to a new house. I didn't want to deal with the hassle of unpacking and repacking my belongings six weeks before going to college, so I spent half that summer living out of boxes in a bedroom that became a guest room after I left. When I went home to visit afterward, I'd sleep on a twin bed next to an old desk and a filing cabinet that weren't mine, and the high school down the street didn't look anything like what I remembered. The city had conspired to physically remove the things I'd remember most about it, which only adds to the vertigo of going home: in addition to feeling exposed, I'm left with nowhere to hide.