Thursday, August 20, 2009

A prom queen's (not!) rite of passage

Oh yeah, I'm never, ever, going to my high school reunion! I mean, why? I don't get it. What is this absurd American ritual, anyway? Eeeeeewwwwww.

I said this for years, without really exploring why I felt so strongly about it. I tossed the invites, never sent my forwarding address, even changed my maiden name (for other reasons, another story).

This summer, my mother sent me the fateful letter, and this time the number of years between then and now got to me. I started talking to people about reunions, heard their stories, their enthusiasm. Like Grace, who just had to go back and see what happened to the friends that helped her dig her retainer out of the cafeteria trash bins. Or Jay, who was in email contact with former classmates and contemplating going to his 40th reunion on the other side of the country.

Not letting myself think about it much, I sent off the check two weeks beforehand. Then, the day of, this strange thing happened. I began to understand why I'd been feeling so awkward, grumpy and over-sexed for the past week or so. This constellation of emotions reminded me of how I high school! Funniest of all was the sign-up form: in a space of about an inch we were asked to say what we'd been doing since graduation. Oh dear, where to begin?

Packing my bag, I struggled over that eternal question: what to wear? Then I realized that if I wore something that I felt made me feel unattractive, that would be the perfect reminder of my adolescent angst as well. (Yes, I know, it's pathetic, the grief of a mildly neurotic American teenager, 70's style.)

But we work with what we have, and this is what I got: Midwest to California diaspora of job-seeking soon to be divorce-seeking disaffected adults, tidy tract home, public schools, the suburbs, the malls, the funny hair and ridiculous clothes of the time. Aside from books, a few good teachers, and drinking ice tea with my Mom (sitting on the kitchen counter, dispensing advice at the tender age of 13) it, basically, sucked.

So, I didn't want to go back. But something magical happened when I did: it wasn't so bad. Ah, I thought afterwards, this must be the rite of passage part. I connected with a few people, some I remembered from before, some only when I saw them, wearing their name-tag pictures from years ago. We laughed, about who we'd been then, and who we are now. Add to this hugs, dry humor and storytelling and you get a night out that is refreshingly real.

Since I was a hold out, people thought I'd been traipsing about remote corners of the globe for decades, making films. "Didn't you do something with drama?" someone asked and I replied "well, I've certainly done drama in my life..." And again that familiar laughter. "Oh, I remember you, you were one of the super-smart kids," I said to a man who I recalled was also horribly awkward in those years, "Yeah, I think I peaked in 9th grade," he replied as we both sipped our drinks.

That part was fun, too. Hey, we can all drink like fishes together now, legally! The class photo was a bit eerie: all these same spirits together again, on a different planet now, in terms of life experience. Sad faces, thoughtful faces, glowing faces. There was that familiarity, that ever-so-faint whisper of who we were then.

Happy to have my husband with me, we began the evening on the edge of the crowd, looking in (another echo of the past), cracking jokes. In addition to an award for greatest number of children, we decided there should be one for, say, greatest number of sexual partners! Or extra-marital affairs, with bonus points for children out-of-wedlock!

And at the end of the night: pay dirt. A woman emerges from the crowd, and I recognize her first. I grin and watch her face change as she looks at me. "Oh, you brat!" she exclaims, "we were so close!" and we embrace. Her face is the same, her body, larger and softer. My husband sparkles at her, and I see a sudden kinship (she's Welsh, like him).

This is Julie, the pretty young woman I fell in love with when we were both about 9 years old. We were in Camp Fire Girls together, we had sleepovers, we went to Pt. Lobos with her parents, and tidepooling with them one Saturday morning stayed in my consciousness for decades.

We head to the bar together, order drinks, but don't get our talk in because one of those guys, the kind who ignored us when we teenagers but who can't get enough of us now, chats us up. You know the type: married but friendly and quite possibly available for the night. His senior photo on his name-tag literally sends me into a time spiral (or maybe it's the Tequila).

So now, Julie and I are friends again. She has a 19 year old son, an ex-husband, and is about to go to Lake Tahoe on vacation. I have a husband, a great dog, and a wild life in Big Sur. Life, as they say, is strange, wonderfully so. Or, (and you've probably heard this before) as one of my classmates (who no-showed to the reunion) said beneath his photo in the senior yearbook: "What a long, strange trip it's been."

And a photo of me, on the edge of the crowd, (picture #2) big smile on my face (just like in 1979.)


Bob T. said...

Ah, nice story L. I'm at the point of facing a 40th reunion with all the same misgivings. And the old adage holds true, the people I most want to see wouldn't be caught dead at a reunion. Still with a class of 654 (Go Ygnacio Valley) there might be someone fun to reconnect with. Only they're all so OLD. Maybe I'll hold off and just crash my son's 10th (Go Pacific Grove) in a few years.
Hey Sweetie, thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Having gone to two different high schools in two different states, I am in the position of not having established close enough ties in that time to go to a reunion to see people who wouldn't remember me anyway.

That said, to this day I still wonder if Trisha from AP English class is still hot.