The summer I was ten-turning-eleven, my family rented a cabin in Cape Cod for a week. My mother possesses the uncanny ability to befriend even a sock puppet, so there were no batting lashes when she met a mother/daughter duo our first night there and enlisted them to become our extended family for the next seven days. I don’t remember the mother, but I remember the daughter vividly. Alison was sixteen or twenty-three; when you’re a kid you measure age by ‘coolness’ rather than by numbers. She had dreadlocks and a nose ring and I clung to her desperately.
Our families did everything together that week. We took car rides to Four Seas Ice Cream; we toured the Edward Gorey House. We ate saltwater taffy and mixed perfumed oils in an apothecary. We watched whales from a boat, moving beneath the water like seabound Greyhound buses. Alison and I would occasionally break away from the rest of the group and go mushroom picking in the woods that surrounded our cabins. She was soft and patient, and I admired her instantly. She didn’t recoil at the thought of spending time with a kid – instead, she treated me like I was worthy of her time, like I was interesting and fun and equal. For the too-tall, gawky and awkward ten-year-old that I was, having her company and attention was like hitting the overlooked-adolescent jackpot. Alison was the first positive role model I’d had – typically I looked up to girls who were tougher than I was, girls who would kick my ass if I thought otherwise. But isolated in the easternmost part of Massachusetts, I was free to look up to someone good, kind. And I did. I wanted to grow up and be Alison.
I would make an effort to channel her later on in life – at 17, I convinced my mom to take me to get my nose pierced (“Remember Alison from Cape Cod? She had her nose pierced, and she was always really nice to her mom.”) At 20, I, too, would rock the ‘White Girl’ dreads (feel free to judge me for this). Alison’s influence on me was so great that I subconsciously thought mocking her aesthetic would make me a conscientious, thoughtful, kind person. I outgrew the idea that I could become someone else by means of superficial emulation rather quickly; the dreadlocks met their fate after a month, the piercing didn’t last much longer.
The impression Alison left on me has long outlived my attempts to become her body double. I often wonder where she is, what she’s doing, if she still has dreadlocks, if she has kids of her own by now. I wonder what happened to her after that week and if she even vaguely remembers my family and the summer of 1997. These questions will go unanswered. I did get to ask Alison a ton of questions when we walked through the woods snatching up fungi, what it was like to have her nose pierced, what it was like to have breasts (mine were quite small back then). But the one question I never asked is the reason I’ll never know what became of her. I never asked her last name.
It started with MySpace. One by one, people I’d left behind earlier in life began resurfacing, like lost puzzle pieces that weren’t actually lost; they’d just fallen underneath the couch – covered in cobwebs and waiting to be unearthed. A fleeting sense of accomplishment accompanied these reconnections – “Here’s this person I lost touch with, we’ve found each other again and now we’re going to pick up right where we left off!” But the novelty would almost always be followed by disappointment. After all, people grow up, experience new things, change. They aren’t the seven-year-old kids you played Red Light, Green Light, 123 with. They’re not the children whose voices you could hear anxiously counting, “…forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty! Ready or not, here I come!” as you hid in the closet at someone’s aunt’s house.
No, now your former best friend, apparently born-again, is messaging you to inquire about Taoism, which you listed in your profile under “Religion Beliefs.” “I’m just wondering, seems interesting is all? Would you like to talk to me about it?” What? Shouldn’t we be handwriting the lyrics to the entire Crazy Sexy Cool album for no reason? I don’t want to discuss my tenuous religious beliefs with you. But this is what happens when you resurrect your relationships. Your former gym teacher is inviting you to play Café Farm with him. Your summer camp counselor circa ‘98 is commenting on a news article you posted to say, “STEPH HOW R U GURL.” Your fond memories are tainted by the queen of Debbie Downers – reality.
Social media has allowed us to ‘get to know’ someone by scanning their profile for five minutes. We can quickly grasp political views, favorite bands, and writing proficiency. This is well and good for evaluating the people we meet as adults – we’re getting to know them for the first time and have low expectations to begin with. It’s the ingrained cynicism that comes along with growing up. It can be disappointing to learn that the hot guy you met at a bar is rooting for Michele Bachmann, but it’s not as soul-crushing as the realization that the girl who taught you how to double-dutch has become someone you wouldn’t meet for happy hour.
Revisiting relationships that meant the world to us in our formative years is tempting, but it often affirms an idea that no one wants to fully commit to – the idea that people change – that we change. It scares us that we can feel such disdain or indifference toward someone we used to spend every waking hour with. It’s not just a testament to the other person becoming something else – it’s a testament to our own growth and development. We want to believe that we are concrete entities that are sound in our convictions and beliefs, that we’ve always been this way, and witnessing disparities where there used to be unbridled harmony can be unnerving.
If you don’t lose a few people along the way, if every person you were fond of as a child is able to make a cameo appearance via Facebook, you run the risk of manipulating your memories. They’re no longer our first crush; they’re our first crush who is on his second child and first divorce. They’re no longer our middle school teacher; they’re our middle school teacher who types at an elementary school level. And these newly-minted impressions have the capacity to engulf our memories, they have the ability to burn them alive.
I know my curiosity is unlikely to curb itself, but I’m glad that I don’t know Alison’s last name; I’m glad she’s unsearchable. If finding out what she’s up to involves combing through tagged photographs and scrutinizing status updates, if it means wanting to deny our walks through the woods and rejecting the way it felt to be in awe of someone, if it means reevaluating and weighing my Alison against a digital composite of the girl I met all those years ago, I don’t want it. I’m happy to keep my memories of her confined to a log cabin in Massachusetts, where there was no virtual reality, just reality reality; a place where the light was always flattering.