Updated: Jul 21, 2019
We recently took a family vacation to northern California, where I lived for five years in my twenties. I hadn’t been back since I was pregnant with my firstborn son, now ten, and I was looking forward to revisiting the places I had once called home and reconnecting with old friends. As it happened, even two of my closest friends from my Florida high school were living in California now, so I’d get the chance to see them, too.
I had left the Bay Area for the mountains of North Carolina when I was twenty-nine. Not wanting to drive a U-haul three thousand miles across the country, I’d sold my Cabriolet and bought an ancient Toyota pick-up, with hand-crank windows, no air conditioning, and no power steering. I held a small garage sale on the sidewalk outside my Oakland apartment, then piled what was left of my belongings into the truck.
“It’s like the Grapes of Wrath backwards,” my father laughed when he saw me two days later, at a pit stop in Colorado. He drove to the hardware store for two dozen bungee cords, which he used to reattach the tarp that had flapped loose a mere ten miles outside of Berkeley. Three days later, I drove the last fifty miles through the Smokies in a thunderstorm, peering through the rain-splattered windshield and silently thanking my dad.
When, in the summer of ‘08, I went back to California for my solo “babymoon,” the car rental company offered me a free upgrade to a convertible Sebring. I drove the dusty highways between the Sierra mountains and the Mendocino hills with the top down and the air-conditioning blasting, feeling, despite my growing baby bump, like a slightly rounder version of my youthful, California self.
On that trip, I had crashed at friends’ houses without a second thought, but it is impossible to be so thoughtless now. Wherever my family goes, we easily outnumber our hosts. My kids can devour a box of cereal in one sitting; a five-pound bag of apples is gone within two days. And we would be descending like the ravaging hordes on friends to whom I hadn’t spoken in a decade or more. I wondered if my memory was exaggerating the closeness of our past connection. Was I, to them, more a hazy recollection than a dear old friend?
I tried to recall the person I’d been in 2003, when I’d set out for Asheville in that overloaded truck. A few months earlier, perhaps a little reckless with my looming departure, I had had an ill-advised fling with a non-native speaker of English.
“You’re so shellfish!” he accused me bitterly, when things began, almost immediately, to turn sour.
And he was right; back then I did think only of myself: my desires, my happiness, my inalienable right to make whatever choices I thought best. Now I am the mother of three children, and, on any given day, I can easily fail half a dozen times at putting myself first.
But, despite the transformations that motherhood and middle age have wrought, I still feel essentially the same; the old (or rather, young) Erica Carpenter still rests at my core. Still, as I planned for our California vacation this year, I hesitated. How dear, really, was that Erica to the old friends that I emailed in anticipation of our trip, sheepishly asking if we could stay a few days?
Our first stop was with a friend I had first met at eighteen, when I went to work at a summer camp in northern California. I had just graduated from high school, she from college. Assigned to the same cabin, we spent four weeks together with a bevy of preadolescent girls. It was supposed to be a summer job, but I don’t remember it as work; I was too overjoyed to have met a kindred spirit, too absorbed in my own coming of age.
Time is a funny thing. At eighteen, a friendship forged in four weeks felt as solid and indisputable as bedrock. Even after we parted in August, my loyalty soldiered on; she was my friend, my mentor, my road map to the woman that I wanted to become. Still, I had not seen her in sixteen years; her elder daughter, whom I remembered as a toddler, would be off to college soon. It felt impossible to imagine my friend at the cusp of fifty, a few short years from an empty nest. I remembered her as I always had: shod in hiking boots or Chacos, the way her powerful shoulders would burst from the water as she butterflied across the swimming hole, showing me how.
I soon discovered that I needn’t have tried to imagine her as different than she was. Within minutes of arriving at her farmhouse in the woods, it was clear that she was not. My friend was the same as ever: her stride, her speech, her laugh, the way she drew me out and made me my best self.
So much is said of how much time transforms; this trip taught me how much there is it cannot touch.
Again and again, I learned it. Where were the so-called ravages of time? A decade, at least, had passed, and yet there my dear friends were, unchanged! On my own body, the marks of time are legion: the sunspots and the wrinkles, the poochy stomach and gray hairs. But my friends were as they always were. The way they ate, and moved, and talked— the same!
I have a dear friend in Asheville who, when we met, was already solidly in middle age. At times, hearing some story from her youth, I’ve wished I could have known her then. What was she like at fifteen, or twenty-five? It seems to me now I do know who she must have been: she was as she is, just with different hair and younger skin.
What is it that does not change? I know myself to be different than I was. I eat better, but sleep less well. I am less selfish, but more anxious. Less ecstatic, perhaps, but more content. I do not doubt my friends could catalog all the ways they, too, have changed. But still I find the truth is this: there is something about us all that does not change, an immutable quiddity that anchors us to ourselves and forever links us to the ones who hold us dear.