With the haunted look of a midnight rider I stare into the mirror, bloodshot eyes staring back at me. I can see in the reflection cracked plaster and unoccupied bathroom stalls. This is my third gas station in two days, and they all look the same. Each station sells the same wares, has the same tiled floors, and each station attendant wears the same tired smile. I can’t tell if I am in Wisconsin, Wyoming, or Grayville, Missouri, which in my sleep deprived brain has become Gravyville and an inside joke with my passenger.
I picked up a highly metaphorical man in Joplin, Missouri and we are driving toward the rising of the sun and old friends in new locales. This man I haven’t seen in ten years, yet we slipped into casual conversation and deep affection as easily as we slipped into sleeping bags last night for a brief respite, he on the left, I on the right, at least until I started snoring an avalanche of nasal somniloquys and he was forced to vacate the premises.
Where was I again? Oh yeah, a gas station bathroom in Grayville, MO. I blink my eyes again, sigh again, and turn off the water faucet. I stumble out, not quite as tired as I make out, and consider buying one of a dozen different snacks. Eventually I decide against them all and purchase an overpriced bottle of SmartWater, the only brand of bottled water I enjoy. $2 later I’m back in the car and ready for more driving. I have to traverse Illinois and Indiana before I will enter Kentucky and be close to my destination. When all is said and logged, I will have driven nearly 1000 miles to be where I was this past weekend: Cincinnati, Ohio.
I spent the weekend with fourteen of my high school mates, not counting assorted spouses and adorable children named Ender and Zaya. We met, once upon a long ago, in the country of Papua New Guinea, out upon the western rim of the world. Our parents were there collectively for mission work, and we were there to be shiny, happy children attending missionary school. Then there were 42 of us, and like the good book says, we were the answer to life, the universe, and everything, at least in our own minds. There was little we could not accomplish, or reach out and grasp and have as our very own. And to some extent, we have accomplished much. Some of us are nurses, or aide workers, or family therapists. We are salesmen, teachers, and studying to be so much more than we are currently.
It was an almost overwhelming experience when I first walked into our reserved room at the Marriott and saw old, familiar faces. It is amazing how fast ten years comes rushing back into your brain with just a glimpse and a glance. The next forty-two hours were far too short a time to spend amongst such excellent and admirable people. We played games, hung out in a brewery, walked Oktoberfest, talked amongst ourselves, took a river cruise and ate more bacon than we should have, considering we are not getting any younger, and not speaking for anyone else, it was a blast from the past and the time of my life. As a culminating event of the summer, for me, the reunion was the absolute best I could have hoped for from life.
You see, I’d been struggling to find my identity again in the wake of a divorce. I needed to know again who I was and where I had come from. Who I am is still a bit of a mystery, but I can now say again with confidence that I have come from Papua New Guinea. I have a life I left behind there, and fragments of that life were embedded in the women and men I saw this past weekend. Having them all there, celebrating life and the past ten years was like putting the pieces back together for me. Part of my identity now looked like more than jagged edges of a half-completed jigsaw puzzle. It looked like me, once upon a long ago. And I liked what I saw.
On the long journey home, between discussions of blue wizards and ancient beings from myth, my compatriot and I stopped off at another gas station. There, in another mirror, streaked with grime and fingerprints, I saw a younger man, a man full of purpose and self-awareness. And after he walked out I saw myself as I once was: young, with the world at my fingertips and life ahead of me.
Ten years down the road, I’ve found a part of me I had lost. And it feels good to be just that little bit more whole again.