I’ve been reading sections of my old journals, because apparently I’m masochistic. (There’s nothing like re-visiting a 20-something version of yourself who spouts off assured philosophies that life has yet to test.) Still, despite the general cringe-worthiness, I re-read periodically, usually zeroing in on the same time frame.

I’m convinced that there’s a reason I’m drawn to certain times in my life. Personal history isn’t static; our perspectives of the past shift based on what we’ve learned in the present. This means I notice different nuances each time I read.

For this read, I seem drawn to people whose lives briefly intertwined with my own. These aren’t the friends who transition from one life stage into the next. They’re the ones whose destinies I can now glimpse only through the creepy wonder of Google.

There’s the office manager who drove me nuts on a daily basis as I learned to navigate my first “real” job. (So many entries mention you, yet I had no idea you’d left this planet nearly twenty years ago.)

There’s the upstairs neighbor in our first apartment, a musician who played at our wedding. (It makes me happy to find that you’re still playing.)

There’s the guy who started out as a moot court opponent and morphed into a daily fixture by my law-school locker. (You were more successful than your laid-back vibe ever hinted you’d be.)

There’s the roommate/friend I thought I’d never lose yet parted with on bad terms, the sort-of relationship that never should have happened. (I can’t look up either of you; social media will blow my anonymity and I’m not ready to go public.)

These are the people who never circle back. They appear in the rear-view mirror, muted in relevance by choices that propelled our trajectories in different directions.

And yet, their presence was vivid enough to inspire “what ifs”:

What if I’d toughed out that job for years and years instead of bolting the minute I could?

What if I hadn’t become so thoroughly engulfed by law school and band gigs that I’d cultivated time to remain an accessible neighbor?

What if I’d been unattached when my school friend’s path crossed mine?

What if I’d been astute enough to recognize who I was and what I needed in my world? (Take that, 20-something philosophical self!)

With one simple adjustment in each situation, people in my past might have played a different role, remaining onboard in an alternate version of my life.

But “what-ifs” cut both ways: what if my office manager’s abrasive approach hadn’t confirmed my growing belief that I’d never find a job I liked without grad school? What if my upstairs neighbor’s creative energy hadn’t underscored my love of life in the city? What if my law school friend hadn’t told me how capable I was at a time when I couldn’t see it myself? And without my relationship blunders, would I have ever learned to recognize the real thing?

I don’t think there are many “bit players” on our life stages. Even cameo roles have impact. While parts of my journals make me wish for do-overs, I’m grateful for the chance to re-visit people who spurred me onward without ever knowing they did so.

Sometimes, I just wish I could let them know.