Josh and I started laughing at the baggage claim, and I'm not sure we ever stopped talking. The only way one of us got a word in edgewise was when the other stopped for breath at what seemed to be a decent-enough conclusion to the story they were currently imparting. We didn't discuss the mundane stuff, we just did it like we'd been doing it forever. I had made dinner before trekking out to the airport. Josh sang while he did the dishes; I put away the food, and then printed out directions to Casey's house. Turns out that her parents--who were supposed to watch the three-year-old and the newborn--skipped town, so she was only going to be able to attend the reunion if she turned around afterward and drove straight home.
No way was I going to resign myself to three hours of Casey time while being distracted by the rest of the Class of '93. I begged Josh to make a slight detour to Charlotte so we could spend some quality time with Casey and Todd and the kids before heading down to Columbia on Saturday morning. He said yes, so that was our plan. We got up Friday morning, took showers, sang along to the Gin Blossoms when "Found out About You" came on the radio, threw stuff in the car, and headed out, like we'd been doing it forever. Like the decade plus we'd been apart had only been a day.
I-40 West through the mountians was beautiful, as always, except for the overcast skies and the sometimes rain. Not that it mattered, because the company makes the trip. I was so engrossed in our conversation, I would have forgotten to stop for gas had Josh not said, "Okay, we need to take a break now." Since there was an exit right there--I didn't even look at the sign to see where we were--I immediately pulled off. And I immediately had a sense of déjà-vu.
"Oh my god," I whispered reverently as I turned left. "Oh my god," I repeated as we pulled into the BP station.
"What is it?" Josh asked.
I opened the door and stood outside the car, staring off over the hills behind us, my flesh covered in goosebumps. "I've been here before."
"You have?" Josh said incredulously. "This exit?"
"This exit," I nodded, not taking my eyes off the horizon. "This is where I had my flat tire. Last June, on the way home from Casey's." I pointed down the road to the left. "Further down, there's a NAPA Auto Parts, and a barn with a cowboy on the side. If you take a right, you can get to the Wal Mart where the tire center is open until 8pm. It was pouring down rain that day. And on the way back I saw the double rainbow." I put my hands over my mouth. "My god, Josh..this is the last essay of Beauty & Dynamite. It all happened right here."
I had been prepared to dredge up all the old memories once we got to South Carolina, but I was not prepared for this, my own recent ghosts revisiting out of the book I had written. So much had happened in the year since I had seen that rainbow. I was the same me, only I was in a much different place. A much better place. And, standing in the same place, I realized that. I smiled at Josh, standing there with me. Right then, I could not have imagined a more perfect end, or a more perfect beginning.
We made it to Casey's; I drank about four gallons of water and let someone else carry the conversation for a while. We caught up more and laughed more, and I fell asleep on the arm of the couch in the middle of everything, surrounded by people I loved.
Josh and I made it to Columbia the next morning just in time for him to have lunch with his grandmother before she left for the beach. I was going to go find Casey's parents' house downtown and drop my stuff off. We planned to hook back up later, or at the reunion. I helped him get his bags out of the back, we said goodbye, and I sat for a moment in the driveway trying to decipher Casey's directions...only half of which had street names, and those that did I wasn't totally sure were correct.
There was a knock on the window, and I opened the car door for Josh's mom. "Would you like to join us for lunch?" she asked. I mumbled the obligatory line about not wanting to impose, but I'm pretty sure my face answered for me. She insisted, and then Josh insisted, and then Josh's grandmother insisted. I was officially outnumbered.
I hopped in the back seat, expecting to be whisked away to your average, generic sit-down restaurant of the Applebee's variety. "How about Rush's?" Josh's mom called over her shoulder, and my jaw dropped to the floor.
Rush's. Rush's is the local chain of fast food restaurants that I ate at just about every day when I worked at the movie theatre. Their burgers are huge, their fries are delicious, and they have the best chocolate milkshakes this side of the moon. After Casey's wedding almost eight years ago, still in my bridesmaid's gown, I had made my parents stop at Rush's on the way home. And Josh's mom didn't take us to just any Rush's. She took us to our Rush's. The one on my old side of town, right by the high school. I was positively giddy.
Caught up in the giddiness, after lunch Josh's mom took us the long way home, on an impromptu tour of our old stomping grounds. It was strange to once again see the places, the roads and the buildings I had dreamed about for so many years. You know how, when you're explaining a dream, it sounds sort of like: "You were there, but you weren't really you. Or, you didn't look like you. We were at school, only it was a different school, this massive multi-story brick complex, and we were waiting for the bus. And we drove by the orchard, only it wasn't an orchard, it was this huge shopping complex on both sides of the street..."
The strangest thing about seeing Northeast Columbia again after so long wasn't witnessing the parts that had changed (like the new high school and the shopping complex) and the parts that hadn't changed (Schiano's, Rush's, the entrance to my old neighborhood). What threw me for a loop was how closely the town I was now being driven through resembled the surreal amalgam of a town I had been dreaming about for the past decade. I was being given a tour of the inside of my head come to life, and it was almost too much to take in.
In the past two days, I had never missed an opportunity to remember out loud how much I had hated Columbia, and how very little I wanted to return. Three-quarters of the way home, I looked at Josh across the back seat and whispered, "I guess it's not so bad after all."
"See?" he whispered back.
---TO BE CONTINUED---
Me and Josh pre-prom, 1992