The day I walked through the doors of Gifford Grade School at the beginning of third grade, I entered my sixth school. By then, my father’s career in the military had taken my family from:
- McChord Air Force Base in Washington State to
- RAF Brüggen in Germany to
- Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois to
- Castle Air Force Base in California, to
- Ludwigsburg-Ossweil, my mother’s hometown in Germany (where we stayed while Dad was stationed in Thailand for a year), and then back to
- Chanute Air Force Base—only this time, we lived and went to school in Gifford.
Gifford was a Lake Wobegon sort of town. It had around 600 inhabitants, and we lived there for three years—long enough to put down roots. We caught fireflies, got lost in endless fields of popcorn, and actually knew people where we trick-or-treated. We skied down snow drifts, became Cub Scouts and Brownies, and sang for the residents of the local nursing home.
Then, Dad retired from the military, and we headed west in the station wagon, towing a travel trailer behind us. I loathed the forever place to which my parents retired and missed Gifford terribly.
At 11, I was on my way to my seventh school, and something snapped inside me. I had said so many goodbyes over the years that I couldn’t bear the thought of saying any more. So I addressed the problem by building a fortress that surrounded and protected me. By preventing hellos, it would prevent goodbyes.
It worked. It kept me safe—and very lonely—into adulthood, and despite my best efforts, still exists today. Occasionally, someone breaches the wall, but it’s relatively rare, and I wonder sometimes what makes it so effective, especially now that I no longer want it to be.
Recently, however, I was minding my own business at a coffee shop, when I turned to find a stranger inside my battlements, fiddling with a cream pitcher. I had no idea who he was, or how he got there. We exchanged a few sentences over the course of the evening, and went our separate ways. I was shaken.
The stranger appeared inside the battlements several times after that, and each time I felt a sense of joyful recognition that was completely inconsistent with how well I knew him. Then, one day, he skittered under the portcullis just before it closed and declared his love for me from the other side.
What am I supposed to do with that? Leave? The fortress?
I am intensely and inexplicably drawn to the stranger. Can I work up the courage to leave these walls I’ve come to know so well?
And will he be there if I do?