My name ought to be mounted somewhere on this table, except for the fact that nobody but me would care, of course.
I’m sitting in a booth where I must have sat a thousand times before. It’s in a Whataburger restaurant in the Birmingham suburb of Trussville. Until I moved to a different suburb three years ago, this was my home away from home for many years.
When this place opened, it was the only restaurant near my house that was open 24 hours a day and had WiFi. Since I worked from home at the time and often welcomed the chance to get out, this became my second office. I was here at all hours of the day and night. All the employees knew me by name.
I have no reason to be over here today. I almost never come to this part of town anymore. But today is the second time recently that I’ve felt drawn to drive over here for no apparent reason. But I think I know why I’m here.
My everyday world is entirely different now than it was in those days. I have different restaurants where the employees know me. I’m working in two different offices and spending my time out selling real estate, too. I have no real connection to this world anymore.
But as I sit here in the late afternoon — with the sun starting to get into my eyes as it always has from this angle until it sinks below Chalkville Mountain — I find myself realizing that I’m trying to connect with something from the past. In an instinctive way, I’m looking for something familiar from better days — and I’m hoping that will somehow turn into something better for where I am now.
Consciously, I know how ridiculous this is, but here I am anyway.
I’ve experienced love here. I’ve experienced success of various kinds. I’ve been happy. I’ve made friends here.
I sat right there in the parking lot — just in front of the door, maybe 30 feet from where I am — and had a very important and meaningful phone conversation with someone who loved me. I was sitting at this table when I got the phone call that sealed a $25,000 profit on a political deal when I had rolled the dice and could have lost thousands of dollars instead. I’ve sat here with little children and played games and took pictures as they shrieked in delight that someone was giving them attention.
None of the stories matter to anyone anymore, but they still matter to me. They connect me to a time when I felt happier, when I had more money, when I felt loved, when I felt that I had a future family — when so much was better.
But here’s the thing. I don’t know whether it’s good to indulge this nostalgia or not. It’s an age-old dilemma. Do I need to look to the past for something I’ve lost — or do I need to cut all ties and thoughts of the past in order to find a happier life in the future?
I don’t know. I’m not even sure there’s a right answer. I could make an argument for either.
More and more lately, I find myself having to close the door on things from my past. It’s been a bitter experience and I’m not really good at it. As singer/songwriter Sam Phillips wrote, “I’m not good at things that I don’t want to do.”
I’m not happy to leave the last hopes of family behind. I’m not happy to give up on a love I desperately needed. I’m not happy about the feeling that I’m running out of time to start doing some things that matter to me.
So when I’m drawn here today, am I here to say goodbye to the past? Or am I hoping to find some piece of love or hope or success that I can capture in a bottle and try to grow again?
Unlike a lot of people, I’m willing to completely cut ties to the past if I’m sure it’s the right thing to do and if I’m sure of where I’m going. I know that what matters is my connection to people, not to places or dead memories. I could move away from this place and never look back if I had something better I was going to.
But since I don’t know where I’m going — and I don’t know who I might find love with — I’m stuck in this weird place where I’m looking to the past and hoping to find something better.
There’s a sweet nostalgia to sitting here and remembering what’s happened to me here in the past — but it’s also bitter to consider what I’ve lost and what I don’t yet know how to find.