Nonfiction by Clare Czenchowicz
The human mind contains a seductive beast named Nostalgia. Many can relate to a time they heard a long-forgotten tune their fathers used to play when they were kids, or when they caught the familiar scent of an old lover’s brand of chewing gum. Eliciting dusty recollections of past experiences, this feeling can creep up at the most unexpected times and cause you to irrationally call up an ex, or set yourself up with expectations that are impossible to fill. And after you painstakingly come to the fact that all time is fleeting and even the most pleasant memories cannot be resurrected, Nostalgia, the aching feeling, will still be there to haunt us, batting its lovely eyelashes while biting at your heart with its terrible teeth.
I find myself now, in unstable times, letting my mind dwell on the past more than ever. During my expensive and irritating commute, for example, I think of back when school was an eight-minute car ride away and I had the luxury of driving home between classes if I should forget a book. Burned-out and banging my head against the piano keys in music school, I well with tears when I remember the doe-eyed freshman version of myself, who loved to sing and fell in love as she learned. When I realize that much of my family has become strangers, I recall when all eight of us lived under the same roof and it was sort of nice that we were forced to interact. When I can’t sleep anymore because my nocturnal and depressed aunt is crying and writhing in chronic body pain, I think of the nights my sisters and I all shared a room and would giggle ourselves to sleep. Days when life was safe and I always felt like I had time to dream. Everything could only get better in my mind and nothing could ever get worse. I still occasionally find myself curled in a ball during anxious spells, imagining the soft pink curtains my mother sewed for me that hung next to my bedroom window when I was a little girl. Curtains in a window on a house that was mine in a bed that was clean with a family who loved me. I find myself having an obsessive aching for quieter days next to those soft, pink curtains. Blurred and muffled sounds and images from childhood are like those curtains: sort of soft and pink. That was when Go Dog Go! was my literary work of choice and one of my bigger life challenges was the seam line in my sock that didn’t feel right when I put my shoes on.
When adulthood hit and I got the obsessive itch of Nostalgia’s bite, I did everything I could to try and regain a sense of a happier, more innocent time in my life. I texted old friends to see what they were up to-friends who were now married or had little interest in reconnecting after we had gone separate ways. But I really had an urge to visit my hometown. The place I lived since I was ten. My drive over there was full of eager anticipation, complete with Simon and Garfunkel singing “My Little Town” in the car, I was prepared to be thrilled with the simple images of the local baseball fields, and the tree where we found duckling eggs that hatched, my picture perfect elementary school where the summer air filled the chalk-scented rooms. I don’t know what hole I expected to be filled when I went there to try and dust off these memories. Of course, the images were warped from my skewed perception of my childhood surroundings. The trees were the same, the brick schoolhouse was much smaller, and, my whitish-gray house with blue shutters was now brown with red shutters and an added deck.
Tears in my eyes, I had mixed feelings. I was transported but nothing was discovered. What romantic idea was I pursuing by coming here? What could I possibly gain or what feeling of catharsis was supposed to sink into my struggling self after visiting? Yes, I got to marvel at how tiny of a world I lived in and I got to eat pizza from the place we would go to after our baseball games. But that didn’t change the fact that I still didn’t get to sleep in my old bed that night, and look at the stars in silence through those soft, pink curtains. My brothers wouldn’t be across the hall and I was no longer enrolled at Western Ave. Elementary School. I had reluctantly become an adult woman with bills to pay, and no real place to call “home” yet. The days feel shorter and I still didn’t know where I was going to sleep in three months. I was left with the heaviness of longing for an innocence and simplicity I no longer have. Nostalgia had seduced me into a wild goose chase and left me with a bigger bruise of longing.
Such a longing came back into my personal relationship this summer in the most innocent of ways. Paul and I decided to walk around the same town and have dinner in the same restaurant we had our first date over three years ago, again– what a romantic notion. On the car ride over there, our memories lusted over images of a black, chilly night, new lovers clinging to each other watching the warm glow of stringed lights on shop doors and the windows of homes, patches of glimmering gold against the dark blue palate of nighttime. Neither of us remembers if it actually snowed that night, but it felt like it did, regardless. We reminisced over the little Italian place we stumbled upon as we jogged through the chilly air. We recalled the face of our curly-haired waitress, a friendly brunette, who, ending our nervous anticipation, didn’t seem phased by a May-December couple. We recalled every perfect detail of a perfect night. The candles, the vintage photographs of a young Drew Barrymore and Frank Sinatra on the walls. My green cardigan. His blue shirt. The nervous and engaging conversation as we learned about each other. How fun would it be to go back? We arrived a second time to the same town, realizing that it was a different, sweatier experience in June as the humid air sailed well into the 90s. The sun was still out, and the daylight had stripped the mystery from the town, revealing a still charming but more touristy surroundings. The wine shop we first gazed at with glowing eyes looked somehow smaller. And I could have sworn it was on the other street. But we still walked in pursuit of “our place” to which I refer to it, in hopes of taking a moment to stroll memory lane.
It took a while to find it. We spotted the underground doorway right next to the place we had skipped out on, hesitant, because the sign in front of the door was missing. Expecting to be transported back in time by dim lights and a curly haired waitress, we entered a trendy, modern joint with steel tabletops and hockey playing on the overhanging televisions. We were seated by a teenaged hostess, who was perplexed by the looks on our faces. Sitting down and hardly saying a word, we glanced around our new surroundings. I pointed out the brick wall where Joe DiMaggio used to hang on that was replaced by grey paint. I peered down at the laminated menu. Bacon wrapped dates and tiramisu had been replaced by American cheeseburgers. “Our place” had closed down months ago. There it was again. Damn Nostalgia had come to give me some false feeling of longing that could be fulfilled. All I wanted was to reconnect with my partner in the simplest of ways and remember our first date. It wasn’t too much to ask. I was beginning to feel like the days of magic, of innocence, of newness, and of, essentially, “the best” of life, is always in the past. Again, I found myself chasing something that didn’t and couldn’t exist anymore.
Paul started to laugh a little. I joined him half-heartedly, a little disappointed as my expectations were clearly not met. We would never be in the place where we had our first date. The lights, the nervousness, the conversation. We would never get to revisit that magical time in our lives.
Silently agreeing to leave, we slipped out the door, thanking our hostess. Out in the street we looked at each other. Noticing my thoughtfulness, Paul smiled and gently took my arm. “It’s okay,” he said, “You can’t go back”. I thought about that. You really can’t. Even these small moments that remain fuzzy and romantic like velvet in a memory. Trying to recreate experiences exactly to how it was is impossible. You can wear the same thing, invite the same people, eat the same food, time it out with the moon cycles-no matter what you try, you can never have those same moments back. That’s what makes them so special. I took his arm as we walked down the strange and almost familiar street, hugging each other as tightly as we did over three years ago.
Nostalgia, while dangerous, can certainly be very seductive— and rightfully so, as it can often be a pleasurable feeling. It can make you laugh or cry or connect with loved ones. Remembering simpler or harder times can help you reflect on how you have grown, make you appreciate what you have, and help you to be a better person. Nostalgia cannot be destroyed, but it can be tamed. It is like a Gremlin that can only be fed at certain times or that friend who you can only take in small doses. Enjoy it, but don’t get lost in it. Savor the moment, but don’t rely on it. We can appreciate the past, but not live in it. We can live to make new happiness out of a time that will become nostalgic to us one day in the future. We can only truly move in one direction, and that is forward. And that is a good thing.