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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Deal or no deal?

Someone I met recently shared some potentially deal-breaking information with me. The kind of information that makes you think you jumped in too fast. It was personal, but necessary, information. This made me realize how much I judge, shape an opinion, decide the worthiness of someone,  and how much of it is based on appearances.

In this case: my opinion was very high because this man is always very well-dressed,  mild-mannered, eloquent, and impossibly polite by today’s standards. It’s as if he just stepped down from a Victorian-era hansom with top hat and walking stick in hand. I mean this in the most complimentary way. He always appears to be the epitome of the true gentle man.

Then, because we are considering working on a project together, we began talking via e-mail. There came a turning point, when he had to bare a small part of his soul, something only those who need to know know,  in order for me to gauge whether I could take on the project.  I didn’t see it coming. I’ll admit I had to take a deep breath and process.  I was thankful this happened virtually rather than face-to-face because my expression may have betrayed my feelings.

The man he is today is the result of a painful process involving grievous mistakes and inescapable consequences. There’s probably a lot more that I don’t know — but might if I sign on to this one. So, what now? Walk away? Proceed with caution but draw clear boundaries? Forge ahead without prejudice?

Would I have been less shocked if he was a slovenly, ill-mannered sort of person? Why did appearances play so heavily in this matter? How well do we know anyone in our lives?

This got me thinking about my life and how I seem to others. If you don’t know my back story, you could come up with any number of conclusions about me. I’ve heard them all. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. I could go to the same store dressed two different  ways and receive very different treatment. If I go in a skirt, makeup applied and hair styled, I get attention. If I go in paint-splattered pants, bare-faced, hair twisted in a clip, I’m ignored. I’m treated one way when I’m with my children at the park, quite another when I’m at a concert venue in high heels. Is this fair? Is this right? I don’t know but it’s the way of things.

Recently I gave up trying to be friends with someone. I thought we clicked, that we would be fast friends. At first I think we were, then something changed. I don’t know what I did; I can only assume I committed a deal breaker. Slowly it occurred to me that she was dumping me.

She started saying things like: I thought you hated (insert name of my favorite band/food/wine/restaurant.) so I didn’t ask/invite you.  She started recalling details about me that were not my story: that I had carpal tunnel syndrome, that I was a homebody who never liked to go out, that I contradicted myself.

It hit me then: She didn’t know me at all and really didn’t want to. She just reached a hand into the junk drawer of her brain and pulled out scraps to form her idea of me. She had already made up her mind.

Deal breaker.

 

I need a sassy gay friend

Not since my youth have I had anyone resembling a sassy gay friend. In fact, I doubt I knew that the sharply-dressed-neatly-manicured-makeup-wearing-best-dancer-in-our-group guy was a sassy gay friend.

Sure, he was sassy. I liked the way he purred the word sass-ay.  He was a friend. But did I realize he was gay?  Probably not.

There was so much gender bender stuff going on in the ’80s, how was a girl supposed to keep straight who was gay, straight or on both sides of the coin? So many guys were wearing makeup, spraying their hair and wearing puffy shirts and tight pants. Some of the best dance clubs in town were inside gay bars. You’d think standing next to two guys locking lips would give me some insight. But how could I be sure they really were two guys? Sometimes it was two women who looked like men. Sometimes one was a man, the other a woman, and each looked like the opposite.

I’m fairly certain I was born without gaydar. It’s hereditary. My parents inadvertently subjected me to a weekend vacation at a gay resort. Not that there’s anything wrong with a vacation at a gay resort. It’s just that the other guests at the darling bed and breakfast on Cape Cod seemed a bit — puckered and clenched —  by the idea that Clark Griswold and clan were sleeping on those 2,000 thread count sheets. I’m sure we threw the whole aesthetic out of whack.

I have one gay not-so-sassy acquaintance who has given me an earful about all sorts of things I’d never have the nerve to ask someone who is gay. So, that’s been helpful. But would he advise me on the right jeans to purchase? Would he declare my landscaping trailer park? Would he slap the knife out of my hand?

Where are you,  Sassy Gay Friend?

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