The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek nóstos meaning “homecoming” and álgos meaning “pain.” It directly translates to mean “the pain of coming home,” and, for centuries, it was considered to be a disease characterized by melancholy and sadness. But since then, the word has evolved to describe a wistful longing for the past, often caused by an inability to let go.
The flat, concrete overhang reads: Anthony L. Fricano School. The building is predominantly brick with occasional stretches of windows and tan concrete. From one end to another, the complex spans almost a mile as it morphs from the elementary school into the intermediate building, the middle school, the high school; all of which are connected by occasional juts and protrusions that give it a modern appearance. It is a state-of-the-art facility. One wing of the elementary school extends perpendicularly from the other, and a playground spans the width of that second wing.
A few cars remain in the parking lot after hours, abandoned by owners that are nowhere in sight. Ghosts of children run around the soft-top covering of the playground, giggling as they run with joy to chase their friends. Imaginary teachers linger around the borders, eyeing the children closely, waiting for a discrepancy, and, occasionally, exchanging idle gossip between one another. When I blink, they all fade into the dark backdrop of the night, though children’s laughter is still hauntingly audible, floating on the gentle breeze that sneaks in through gap in the window.
Suddenly silence. Before me, the playground shifts into one that is more familiar, more comforting. The soft-top cover dissolves into a bed of woodchips, and the equipment transforms into its antecedent. Older ghosts take the stage. Children spring across the wooden structures, keeping their feet well above ground level. They rock back and forth on wooden platforms and cross monkey bars in single-file formation. The winner of “Do Not Touch the Woodchips” earns bragging rights for the rest of the day. To the left, a small girl grasps a metal triangle as she jets across the shiny blue beam to the other side. When she lands, she spins back around to do it again, but this time more boldly. The other children urge her on as she jumps up and latches her arms around the beam, declaring that girls can do it, too. She propels herself forward, one hand over the other, swinging her feet furiously and perching her lips in fierce concentration.
She nearly makes it to the other side before her hands slip, sweaty from the strain. A stark cry follows the heavy thud, and a teacher rushes forth, dissipating the crowd that surrounds the girl. The pained cry turns into a purple cast. When the doctor suggests pink, she turns up her nose—pink is far too girly. The sun rises on the next day, and the class is back on the playground. This time, the girl clutches a black Sharpie marker and retells the story in exaggerated form while her friends all sign the trophy.
Middle School hits, and a group of pre-teens stumbles over to the playground from a friend’s house down the road. It’s dark and they have the playground to themselves, running for the equipment as if it were the elixir of their youth. They jump off the swings at the highest point. Tackle each other to the ground. Run full-throttle because the world’s trying to catch up. But they won’t have it. They’re quicker, sharper, more youthful. So they run faster, reckless in their shouts of joy. And if the cops come—so what? They have the world at their feet, and they’re hungry for a confrontation. The night is theirs.
The group fades out, and three teenagers sprint by the playground, following their coach’s orders. One girl, two guys, and temperature below freezing. A dusting of snow covers the playground, and the runners are bundled in hats and sweatshirts, moving fast just to keep warm. Already a few miles in, and they’re breathing heavy against the cold. They pass a mound of snow, and one of the boys stops in his tracks. He shows no hesitation as he shoves the girl down into the snowbank, smiling valiantly before jumping in after her. The third follows, and the deepest laughter rings out straight from their stomachs.
When the snow fades, the grass grows tall, and the stars dance upon the sky. Below the palette of light, two new graduates lie next to each other on a grassy patch outside the playground, searching, with all their concentration, for the Little Dipper. The Big Dipper is easy to find; but the Little Dipper is trickier, more ensconced. Not that either of them really want to find it. Goodbyes linger silently between them, neither ready to face reality. Next week, she’ll move on to college in some small town miles away; and he’ll stay here at a local university, making other friends and starting a new life. But for that moment, all either of them can think about is how close their hands are to touching and how much they already miss each other.
Two years later, they meet back at the playground. Summer break. Two different people with a shared past. They run for the swings as they tell each other wild stories about parties they half remember and new friends they swear never to forget. The end up lying back on the same patch of grass as the night whispers between them. She mentions a new guy, says it could really be something special. He smiles and tells her to be careful, then briefly mentions the latest name in his life. They move on quickly to more comfortable topics, leaning on inside jokes from the past that nearly slipped away.
It all fades out, and I’m sitting behind the steering wheel of my car, looking past the memories at the scene before me. A new playground has encroached on the old with strange metal equipment standing where my beam once stood. The bed of woodchips has faded back into the soft covering that makes it safer for kids to play on—or so they say. My heart longs for the safety, the comfort, the promise of adolescence with all of its trophies; to set back the clock on my childhood. But the past always emerges in a stilted rendition, tricking us with its deceptive lies.
In my head, I play through the past years. The aloofness of family and friends after years away. Estrangement. Loneliness. The newly discovered friends who turned into family. Bold promises made in the dead of night, promptly broken by the break of day. And vice versa. Reckless nights followed by lazy days. Breakfasts at the diner in the town over. The excitement of falling in love with a set of golden eyes. The comfort of lying in his arms in my dorm room, in his dorm room. The paralyzing pain of letting go. Leaning on friends. Leaning on family. The confusion of a lifetime of emotions reaching their apex. Growing up. Learning. Experiencing. Changing. Growing.
One day, the pieces will come crashing together.
But for now, I throw the car into drive—my headlights shining brightly on the path before me—and move forward.