Old Haunts

Sometimes you return without really knowing why.

After hitting U.S. Route 50 East on my way to Chestertown, instinct told me to stop the CD I was playing on the car stereo and switch to the radio. I bought this car in 1998 at a Toyota dealer in Easton, Maryland and, ever since, the first bank of preset stations has always been reserved for Maryland ones. When I moved back to Virginia in 1999, I added the Richmond stations on bank two, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

As soon as I tapped the button for 103.1 WRNR, I heard Steely Dan’s “My Old School.” Apparently Damian knew I was coming.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I wouldn’t even have set out from Richmond this afternoon had it not been for fried eggs. I had been making breakfast one morning about a month ago—fried eggs, toast and orange juice. The day before, I had made a triumphant trip to the grocery store, where I had spent some cash for my food instead of using the gift cards I’ve come to depend on lately, and so I was rewarding myself with some good Saturday-morning grub.

While the toast top-browned and the eggs sizzled, I poked around in my cupboards and came across a slightly beaten old box that has been in the kitchen of every apartment I’ve lived in since college. The first time I seasoned fried eggs with Old Bay was one of the first mornings in my first apartment. The salt and pepper shakers weren’t in reach, but that box was.

Five years and two more kitchens later, I dug out the Old Bay again. Different taste sensations leap out depending on the food you season with Old Bay. On steamed crabs, the seasoning creates a warm, spicy texture, but for some reason, eggs taste sort of sweet. Like a madeleine soaked in tea, the first bite of fried egg that morning sitting at my dining room table brought everything back: the newfound independence, the responsibilities of my first post-college job, the Christmas carols pealing from the bell tower on the church across the street, the 45-minute commute that became a two-block walk to work when I transferred from my first reporter gig to my second.

To be fair, the mouthfuls of egg also dredged up unhappier memories. Rapidly running out of people I knew in town as students left on vacations or as classes graduated. Trying to scrape by on a general assignment reporter’s salary. Essentially making a career out of using tragedy to sell newspapers, and then losing my own grandmother in a major multi-car accident that was covered heavily by local news here.

I lost my taste for hard news reporting right then, and lost my taste for Chestertown not long afterward. But that morning at breakfast, the fond memories outweighed the bad ones and I realized I was excited to return to Chestertown.

Walking around the campus this afternoon, I am struck by how familiar everything feels. Standing in the bricked-in square and taking in a panoramic view of that end of campus, it could be any of the years I was there as a student. No, that’s not quite right — any of the years I was a student, there would be much more activity on the campus on a Friday afternoon.

Today it feels more like a Sunday morning, when most students are either still passed out from the night before or they’re away for the weekend. The library is closed for the duration of the weekend, as is the campus snack bar. I’ve arrived too late to pick up a newspaper in the bookstore — that’s closed, too.

Walking back to the east side of campus, I wander into the Literary House and find many new framed posters on the walls replacing ones I would have recognized. The house appears deserted, doors left ajar. I cannot place the voice I hear upstairs talking on the phone. I don’t want to disturb anyone, so I decide against sitting down at the piano and walk back across campus to the theater.

Walking in one of the side entrances, I make my way upstairs to play the piano in Room 4 — my favorite practice room, with the big window. Two professors are in their offices working late, not playing music in the background. Thinking I’d disturb them, I retreat back to the dorm where I’m staying, check my e-mail on a communal computer that’s downstairs, then head back out to find something to eat.

If I could somehow work in a trip to the laundromat, this afternoon could stand in for just about any Saturday or Sunday afternoon I spent in Chestertown in the months I weighed the option of whether or not to renew my apartment lease for another year.

I’m scratching this out in a reporter’s notebook, sitting at a desk in a tiny single room in a dormitory that’s normally reserved for sorority girls. $40 bought me two nights in this minimum-security prison, a pillow (a small miracle — something I incorrectly assumed the college would provide the time I came up to see the class of 2001 graduate), bed linens and several tiny towels. From the looks of them, all of the amenities might be on loan from a Red Cross shelter.

In lieu of mints, I found a complementary lollipop on the bed when I arrived. Heart-shaped, it carried a sugared message: “Hug me.” I still don’t know what I’m meant to do here, and it seems the lollipop doesn’t understand its place, either. The thermostat on the wall appears to be decorative — the needle points to 60 degrees, but it feels much colder. The girls across the hall from me are graduating in two days. (I caught the mother of one of them off guard when I walked in on her primping in the bathroom.) Techno music blasts from their room.

Old Bay seasoning helped lure me back to Chestertown this weekend, but once I got here, it didn’t take me long to remember why I’d left. It wasn’t the fact that I didn’t know any of the customers in line at the China House, or that the harried woman and her two sons behind the counter no longer recognized me and immediately knew what I wanted to order.

It wasn’t because I couldn’t find anything better to do after dinner tonight than to duck into the local movie theater, sit through The Matrix Reloaded and hope that none of the candy whizzing through the air would hit me.

And afterwards, when I wandered into the bar a few doors down from my first apartment, it wasn’t because the first two beers I tried to order weren’t on the menu.

But in a way, it was for all of those reasons.

Article © 2003 by Marshall Norton