Full circle

Caricature of the graduate

I went to my 30th high school reunion and I didn’t get eaten alive.

Not only did I survive, but I also walked away with a smile on my face. That the smile was mostly vodka-induced and not steeped in reality is a story for another day.

In the three decades since I marched to “Pomp and Circumstance” and walked away from the hell of high school, I’ve had an irrational fear of attending any reunion.

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I felt if I were to attend any reunion at all, the 30th would be the one. The reunion is no longer a one-evening event; it’s an itinerary from which you can choose your level of involvement. I chose the informal bar night. The price was right and I had an exit strategy tucked in my pocket.

Filled with enough false bravado to fuel five teenage boys at their first middle school dance, I sucked in my stomach, ordered a cocktail at the bar, took a deep breath, and stepped onto the patio.

I survived the abrupt halt of conversation, all heads turning, and the first of what would become the evening’s refrain, this time from the mouth of a busty redhead with a cigarette dangling from her mouth: Who are you? Did you graduate with us?  

It was at that moment that I realized how far I’d come. There was a time (in high school) that if someone said that to me it would have simultaneously pushed all my buttons, triggering anger, disappointment and despair. Now? Someone else’s bad behavior is a reflection of that person and not a measure of my worth. I answered her in a light and breezy tone with a smile on my face. She shrugged and turned away. Everything was OK after that. I am OK with me, just as I am. I don’t need her approval or anyone else’s to be here.

Sometimes being in a room full of people who remember snippets of you at your worst is more excruciating than helping jog the memories of those who didn’t know you at all. I gave up trying to convince one person that I was not goth in high school, just depressed.

Back then I didn’t have the maturity or perspective to understand that the extreme dysfunction of my family life bled into my social interactions.  I was angry and inappropriate. I used alcohol and drugs and outrageous behavior to cope. Every day was a struggle of fear, hopelessness, free-floating anxiety and self-loathing. My only friends were other social misfits or rebels. We spent most of our time as far away from our idyllic suburban landscape as possible, preferring the gritty neighborhoods of Detroit.

In the years since high school I’ve slowly overcome my crippling anxiety and shyness. I’ve come to understand that my past does not have to color my today. I’ve mostly accepted that I will never be a sunny blonde, long-legged, of the proper lineage, and have a button nose. I am me, good or bad, big nose, wide hips and all. Over the years people have loved me for it. Imagine.

I treated the night like a cocktail party of strangers with possibility. Here’s what I learned:

  • Very few people still look really good 30 years after high school.
  • Shared experiences are priceless. I didn’t have any with the people at this gathering. While I had great cocktail party conversations, there wasn’t a bond between us that erased the years and reduced us to hugs and laughter. I realized how much I had missed of mainstream teenage life.

Of course I had my people and our memories. They just weren’t at this partyI don’t know where most of them are in this world or if they are in this world. (In fact, a good number of them are dead; I had a phone call in April telling me of two deaths this year.)

  • I walked away a bit smug at all the free drinks bought by men, who as boys, would not give me the time of day, and who wouldn’t quit until they figured out why we didn’t connect in high school. What a fun guessing game.  I was a bit rattled that some of them were so forward until someone told me most of them were out-of-towners traveling solo and reunions are famous for the hook-up potential. Oh.

Reunions are a step back in time but they also are a chance to affirm — to yourself — where you are now.  I don’t spend a lot of time with people my age. It was good to see the familiar signs of latefortyness on those around me, to know that even if I wasn’t like them at all back then, we had some things in common now, if only because we are parents, spouses, have aging parents, underwater mortgages or fears of aging and death. No longer are we the future; we are dangerously close to being the past.

What pleased me most of all was that my exit strategy never left my back pocket. I stayed until last call.

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