“Connecticut Huskies?” the older one asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, knowing she had read the words and logos on my gray hoodie sweatshirt. “I live in Connecticut.”
She looked me up and down.
“But you’re from here,” she said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
The first here she was referring to was Bangor, Maine … a/k/a home.
The second here was Tri-City Pizza, a little hole-in-the-wall pizza joint that nobody would go to if they hadn’t lived in Bangor, Maine, and knew it was perhaps the best pizza in the city.
The two ladies in question were spot on and we talked for a bit. The older one graduated five years ahead of me from the high school I had attended for three years. I knew a handful of people from her graduating class and rattled off their names easily. A few teachers, too.
Then, I got my pizza, and disappeared into the night.
I was home, but I wasn’t.
I haven’t called Bangor “home” for almost 20 years — at least not in an official hang-your-hat capacity. That’s nearly 40 percent of my life, believe it or not.
Coming back, I barely recognized her.
Bangor has changed, I’ve been told, by people who have lived their whole lives here.
I sense that. I can feel it as I drive the streets, knowing exactly where I am going even though so little looks the same.
Technically, I didn’t live in Bangor until I was 18. I left when I was approaching 32. But this city of 35,000 in the heart of Maine was the hub of my world growing up.
Stores. The mall. My high school.
I remember going to Sears and Roebuck when it was downtown, hovering high above the Kenduskeag Stream. That was before the Bangor Mall was even an idea. The Freeses building. Standard Shoe. Zayres. Shop n Save.
Growing up, going to Bangor meant something.
There are ghosts to dance with at every turn as I drive through the city, from my formative years to the day I bid her goodbye.
A building I used to work in, gone. A bar I’ve danced at and gotten drunk in, gone. A rooming house where the most adorable red-headed girl sat on my lap in a moment I wanted to hang on to forever … gone. The apartment where I asked my ex-wife to marry? Yeah, that’s still there, with new tenants making new memories that hopefully won’t sour over time.
And that was just last night, making one roundabout trip.
It was Natalie Merchant who once sang, “And I’ve walked these streets; In the madhouse asylum they can be” and I remembered how I once knew every nook and cranny of Bangor, from border to border.
I never thought Bangor would become so distance, but over time and over circumstance, it did.
There was a time, not that long ago, when I seriously thought I’d never return.
Some of the ghosts were just too painful.
But here I am on Christmas Eve, about to make another foray out into the city I once knew so well.
The memories and the ghosts will rise up at an alarming place. Some I will embrace with a smile. Maybe even a hearty chuckle. Others, I’ll ward off best I can.
Bangor is nothing like it was when I left.
Neither am I.