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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Revisiting the past

jumper

This was my wardrobe for six years

Like many of you, I found a childhood friend on Facebook.

We were best pals in grade school, where we both wore our itchy wool plaid uniforms, stiff white blouses and knee socks. The two of us, along with a few others, formed a “Batman” TV show fan club. This involved tying our jacket sleeves just-so around our necks to double as super-hero capes. We made some type of “utility belt” out of paper and tape and staples. We often fought about who got to play Batgirl.

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I have other hazy memories of those days:

  • Pedaling my bike home as fast as I could to beat the buzzing, flickering street lights that awakened at dusk.
  • Marveling at how her big, happy family navigated a house the same size as our family-of-four home.
  • Wishing I could take her freckles, which she didn’t like. I thought freckles gave a face character and depth.
  • Planning out our whole lives and how we’d play a role in each other’s futures. 

Then my family moved after 6th grade.

My pal and I exchanged a few letters, called each other once in a while, then our fading friendship became lost in the fast-moving currents of life.

Earlier this year, as I was sifting through big boxes containing the relics of my life  I found a packet of letters held together with a rubber band. They were from my old pal. I wondered what had become of her. 

A quick search on Facebook and a mutual “friending” put us back in touch. A while afterward we agreed to meet.

As I drove to a little coffee house, I flashed back to last fall when I volunteered at a local campaign office. Turns out one of the organizers was a classmate of mine in high school. Had he not pointed it out to me, I never would have recognized him. I never would have known what happened to that well-muscled jock I rode the bus with freshman and sophomore years.  While I casually flirted with him on those bumpy rides to and from school, I knew he was out of my league. Last fall, I saw the future of a teen girl’s fantasy. Often, it features a cranky, balding fat man.

Meeting up with the past is always a tricky business. Exciting. Scary. As my friend waited for me to arrive, I’m sure she probably tossed around in her head some highlights of our friendship: How I was like a monkey on crack. A skinny, wide-eyed monkey on crack who logged a lot of time in the principal’s office.

Facebook does allow some idea of how a person looks today, where she works, and how she votes or what books she reads. So a meet-up shouldn’t be a total shock. But virtual connections are not the same as sit-down chats over steaming mugs of coffee. 

I stepped into the coffee house a few minutes early, hoping to at least place myself in a flattering way, armed with a cup of something caffeinated. It turns out she was even earlier. She’d already ordered her coffee and was engrossed in a book when I spotted her in the far corner. She was the same freckle-faced girl now living inside a grown woman’s body. Same smile. Same laugh. Same good humor and good nature. Whatever life had tossed her way, she’d caught it, dealt with it and kept on going.

We didn’t have too much trouble starting a conversation or keeping it going. We found that we shared similar views on a number of issues. Sure, our lives took very different paths, but not in ways so divergent that we couldn’t find common ground.

 I wondered if we would have remained close friends if my family had not moved.

I wondered how different I would be today.

I wondered if she still liked Batman.

The L Word

“So, who are the losers here?” asked Girl from the West.
We were seated on a wooden picnic table decorated with balloons, under a narrow sliver of shade in an otherwise sun-soaked waterfront park. As we nibbled on submarine sandwiches and sipped ice water, we both scanned the crowd of beautiful people gathered for Mr. Husband’s class reunion.
Losers? Here? Why, we’d just learned that one of the group had invented a very popular electronic device owned by nearly everyone in the world. Invented. Translate: rich and famous.
But I felt I had to address Girl from the West’s pointed question.
I thought for a moment as I looked around at all the beautiful people: Each one a success story, with enviable addresses, youthful figures and faces, rows of brilliantly white teeth, gleaming diamond settings, and children gorgeous enough to grace the cover of J. Crew catalogs. Did I mention the clothes? Did I mention that one of them invented something amazing that has turned him into a millionaire?

“The losers? My dear, they are the ones who stayed home,” I replied, stuffing the rest of my sandwich into my mouth to prevent myself from saying more than I should.

You see, I don’t do reunions. I have not attended any of mine. I’ve come close, at the pleading and cajoling of friends and one former boyfriend, but ultimately I’ve chickened out at the last minute, feigning a sore throat or some such ailment.

Class reunions to me are the equivalent of beauty pageants: Strut your stuff and be judged. No, thank you. Reunions have me feeling like Mary Catherine Gallagher: hair and clothes all wrong, prone to awkward hand gestures and explosive high-pitch giggles at inappropriate moments, saying too much and overreacting to everything.
Renunions have me feeling like Mary Catherine Gallagher in a room full of these people:

Conjuring up memories of times like these:

And people like this:

Being the sharp tack that she is, Girl from the West asked the next logical question: “Why didn’t you go to your reunion, mom?”
This is the moment when an entire snack-sized bag of Lay’s potato chips found its way into my mouth.
“Well, partly because none of the people I wanted to see were going,” I said. Knowing this would only beg the next question: “Mom, were you a loser?”
Well, it was bound to come up. No one wants to be called The L Word. Those of us who lived on the fringe prefer to call ourselves rebels or non-conformists or artists.
Girl from the West doesn’t get this stuff. She’s pretty and popular and makes friends wherever she goes. She’s a people magnet. She’ll probably be a reunion organizer some day.
Her mommy dearest, a.k.a. MomZombie, was not like that at all in high school. I was more like Darlene Connor from “Roseanne”:

Some of it was not my fault: We were “from the wrong side of the tracks” according to those who made such designations. I was too moody and brooding. My mom didn’t believe in putting me on the medication that may have resolved that issue.
Some of it was my fault: I was too moody and brooding. I had issues of inadequacy and anger management problems. Rather than conform or try to conform, I just aspired to go as far in the other direction as possible. If Goth were a group when I was in high school, I’d have been Goth.

I conclude to Girl from the West that all we can do is be who we are. Some of us are so lovable we are embraced by hordes of people. Others of us are more of an enigma. It takes time to discover the wonderfulness of us. And maybe we’re pickier about who we share it with. Life isn’t high school and high school isn’t life.

I really believed all that until I discovered the Internet. And blogging.

**sigh**.