I have been trying, for an entire day, to think about how to write about my 30th High School reunion. If I went all Kitty Kelly on its ass, I could write something that would enthrall, entertain and probably make some modest waves. If, on the other hand, I erred on the side of philosophical interpretative blurring I could produce a piece that hurt no one in any possible way, but said absolutely nothing true or important about the event, myself, or the way the world works. Things happened all right, things that don’t happen every day unless one resides in a particularly intriguing village that includes domestic drama, copious alcohol and an MTV style confessional booth. I have, in fact, received two private messages only this morning asking me to be careful about what I write. If I were temperamentally different this might infuriate me, and spin the bottle so that it pointed towards “screw ‘em and disclose all.” Instead, it makes me a little sad that anyone would attribute to me the same cattiness, bitchery and casual cruelty that “colored my world” throughout middle and high school, and made me so afraid to attend my own class reunion.
I wasn’t going to go to the reunion, and I was at peace with that decision. I had seen my out of town friends, and responded firmly to theirentreaties. I could not, it seemed, fully explain the cost benefit analysis that I had run at least fifty-seven times: I had no really close friends in my own class except for one who lived in town, who I see fairly often. I had nothing to wear. I lacked the necessary funding to get highlighted, manicured, pedicured, waxed and sprayed. I had not dieted. My only option would be to appear as the same frizzy, frumpy, round little person who set off all the teasing decades ago. On the other hand, there were people going who intrigued me, it was free, and it was solidly on My Turf – the restaurant where I eat at least once a week with my extended family, where Sam had his first cake-smushing birthday party, where they know our names, and that we like a round-top so we can talk easily.
On the third hand (bear with me; this is complicated) was deep, residual anxiety of a kind that I feel about nothing else in my current life. You know there’s the kind of anxiety you feel about real threats like public speaking or being pulled over? This was not that. This was vague, sickening, insidious panic about returning to the scene of a particularly heinous metaphorical crime. The criminals would most likely be hanging around in heels and ball caps, blithely unaware that they had cost me years of self-assurance, peace and a sense of fitting anywhere in the world. In the end, I looked at my grownup self in the proverbial mirror and advised her that it was unwise to allow anyone to make her uncomfortable about herself ever again. I decided that I’d attend as a free agent, able to make any affiliations I chose to make, not limited by any clique, reputation or memory. I dressed as myself, bucked up with three drinks of tequila from the bottle I keep for marinades, and told Rob it was time.
Wait, though: before I dressed as myself? I went to Walgreen’s, convinced that I would find something that would make me feel better. I bought false eyelashes and adhesive, new shampoo, conditioner and mousse, eye shadow and face powder that promised to make me “Photo Ready.” I do not actually know how to apply false eyelashes, and I didn’t, but just having them in the bathroom with me made me feel taller, tanner, and generally more Catherine Zeta than Kathy Bates. Then I thought maybe I would wear black Chuck Taylors with my skirt and sweater to make a statement about how very much I didn’t care. Then I thought I’d just be asking for it. Then I realized I didn’t have any black high-heeled sandals, and that I had to wear flip-flops. Then I had to touch up my toenails. Then I noticed that my midriff was looking worse than usual and I had to start again with firmer foundations. Then I considered contouring. Then I realized that no matter what I did I was still going to look pretty much the same.
When I arrived at the restaurant, the smokers were outside, and I immediately received a warm welcome from two “girls” who had terrified me. It was not false, they were not scary; they had, it seemed, read the piece I wrote about being unsure about attending the reunion, including the fact that I had thought I was actually being invited to help, but that the invitation was “a joke.” They thought that was awful, they were sorry, and they were so absolutely and genuinely kind and unthreatening and…real that I let my guard down. After a quick smoke with them I went in, wending my way past the bar, down the long hall to the actual banquet room. I saw people I had played with in elementary school, and the hugs were sustaining and renewing. I recognized maybe half of the people I saw, no one was particularly intimidating, and I was all glowy because I had been so well received in the parking lot. I pondered the fact that I would have been far more successful as a “burnout” than I was as a nerd, imagining for myself a past with black clothes, clove cigarettes, lots of Zeppelin and a few daily trips to the woods across the street from the school.
In the doorway to the “Banquet Room,” was another scary person. I breathed deeply, remained open; I had, after all, just seen lovely proof that people really can change. “Ann Graham,” she observed in the same tone one might use to identify the substance that has caused one’s shoe to stick to the tiles. She was not, it would seem, any happier to see me than was absolutely prescribed by basic civility. She was tan, trim, and hair-sprayed, and as we stood there her name tag fell off. “I need a new one of these,” she observed.
“It probably can’t stick to the pleats on your top,” I said helpfully. Lame, lame, oh LAME. I felt blood moving to my cheeks, and tried to ignore the fact that this woman was kind of guarding the room, and that if I couldn’t succeed at charming or interesting her, I was just fucking doomed.
“Really?” she asked in the same, desultory tone that let me know that that if she had been offered the choice of speaking to me or a basket full of dirty laundry, she would now be addressing a sock. “Do you think so?” Behind her, I saw a table with my newfound friends, and I walked away from her without a pang of remorse. Emily Post would have been unimpressed with me, but I had to save my remaining mojo.
After I sat down at the table where I spent the rest of the evening, I saw all kinds of interesting things, my mind moving between total absorption in individual conversation, and periods in which I visually cased the joint, took mental notes and drew anthropological conclusions. I spoke at great length with one of my parking lot saviors, her brother (three years ahead of us) and his wife. I was charmed. I asked my new friend, let’s call her “Marion,” about what it was like being popular in high school.
“I was one of those girls in the pictures you talked about in your post,” she said. She was.
“You were,” I acknowledged. “What was it like?
“If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have partied so much” she admitted. She went on to tell me that she had been insecure, had a good time, but felt that she had maybe traded away some opportunities for the privilege of being…privileged. I thought about the eighteen-year old girl in the pictures holding a smoke, a cup of beer, or both, laughing in a cheap Fort Lauderdale motel room, intimidating me across the years with her confidence, her cool and her beauty. She was still beautiful, but also grown up, generous enough to save me from my fears, a big enough person to sit at a table with me in front of God and everybody. I was moved, and I saw a glimpse of goodness in the universe.
I also connected with a guy who had been a fellow nerd but was now just a really funny, successful car salesman with beautiful kids. He observed, casually, that I had been “aloof” in school; a tossed-off line that spoke volumes to me about what had actually happened all those years ago. I also had great conversation with another guy who lived near my old Boston stomping grounds and with whom I had crossed paths many times in my life as a musician; I was enchanted by his beautiful dancer wife, and felt certain that if I had met them someplace entirely different I would still have liked them and wanted to know about everything from their artistic lives to their children. With those people, in those conversations we were not our pasts; we were meeting each other on newly turned earth with nothing behind us but blue sky. It felt very much like my real life, the one I live now, in which the benefit of the doubt is passed around like a joint at a Phish concert.
Across the room, however, I spied the Preserve of the Unchanged. Although there were “cool kids” at my table in a kind of astonishing number, there were more of them over there, all seated together, all looking very much as if they were between The Links and a tastefully prepared Dinner at The Club. They made not much pretense of outreach, although I noticed that untouchables were permitted to approach with tithes and offerings, and that they were received graciously. My pleated nemesis was there, along with others bronze of limb and well preserved. I cannot say that they looked terrible; they all looked damned good. They were attractive, well dressed, and in possession of the kind of easy grace that had marked them three decades earlier. They were The Chosen People, and although they seemed to have abandoned several previous members of the inner circle, they were largely intact. Could I have visited their table, re-introduced myself and sought common ground? I could have, and maybe I should have. I am not, however, Jane Goodall; I am a flawed and insecure human being whose own mulish insecurities screamed, “Why do you have to go to them? Doesn’t that just confirm that painful, inequitable status quo that stack ranks people based on their appearance?!” I made my field notes and stayed put.
Before you lapse into a coma, as surely you must at some point in this novella, I will tell you about one more encounter that made a difference in my worldview. I remember Sarah as stunning, possessor of the best Farrah wings, the longest legs in flared jeans and platforms. I am pretty damned sure we never exchanged a word in high school other than possibly “sorry” or “excuse me.” She was thrilled to see me. She reads my blog, she thinks of me as “famous,” she is “intimidated” by me. This was a lot to take in, coming from someone who had terrified me merely by virtue of her uber-cool presence back in the day. She told me about her life, she told me about her cats, her new husband, and her landscaping business. She told stories framed with craft and care, beginning with lines like “I was in my garden pulling up annual tulips when the phone rang.” I was mesmerized by her. She revealed herself to me in ways that I could never have imagined, like the best kind of writing, unfolding into something as complex and affecting as any character ever penned.
So it was a mixed bag, this reunion thing, and I can’t come up with the kind of sensible resolution with which I am sometimes able to conclude a “think piece.” I remain jealous of those who were able to walk into that party with no baggage, and who seem genuinely baffled that I struggled. For them it was just a night out, and a chance to reconnect with old friends. I feel nourished in ways that I have not yet processed, by the deep conversations I had, and by the insights I had into what was behind the artificial perfection that frightened me into sullen, aloof detachment. It is not a cliché to say that some of them were as desperately insecure as I was, because they clearly were. We all have different ideas about what constitutes “success,” and it was astonishing to me to find that people who had dominated my unconscious standards for over thirty years actually saw value, enviable value in things I have done. Chip removed.
There are also people who, for whatever reason, choose to circle the familiar wagons of beauty, privilege and shared outlook, and to remain protected from any emotionally expensive social commerce. Perhaps they were just thrilled by the opportunity to live one more night as the “wild and rebellious” Class of 80, the class that wrecked the Country Club at the Senior Party, and that was so famously drunk at graduation that new lock-in policies were established the following year. Baby, They were Born to Run. I suppose that if you remember something as wonderful, maybe as a peak experience, it is an appealing prospect to return to it, and to reassure yourself that you still have whatever “it” was that you had then. I can’t really judge them, because there are days when I would gladly return to being a creative, uninhibited little girl or a young mother; those are the times in my life that draw me back and make me a little wistful. I have to say, though, that there is no part of my own nostalgia that involves exclusion or my own superiority. It’s all pretty free love and open arms in my Gallery of Fond Remembrances.
So I am judging them, and maybe that’s just human. I also think they missed a great reunion.