The above photo is from my 45th high school reunion. Truth be told, I couldn’t get anyone to stand next to me, with the exception of Frank T., an old friend from back in the day.
Otherwise I had considerable space around my person no matter where I stood, or walked.
It’s not that I have B.O. Or that I had just driven through that perfect mix of Florida revulsion: a dead skunk in the middle of the road, in high, humid summer. It fills your car with the kind of smell that might have ended the war in Syria had the military a lick of sense.
As I periodically made my way over to the groaning sideboard to fill my plate (with celery, the one thin offering made to those of us who care about these things) nestled next to the mini-sausages in tomato sauce and gooey grey meat balls, people just moved out of the way. The parting of the Red Sea, as it were (my town went for Trump).
The photos from the reunion later distributed didn’t include one shot of me. Not even an accidental elbow. This is how small towns express their opinions. It’s no difference than the ancient practice of shunning.
Truth is I do look one hell of a lot better than I ever did in high school. This isn’t such a good thing. Families and old friends have a bad habit of not allowing you to move forward, especially if you’ve improved, say, lost weight or gotten a good job, or you walk in with a hottie on your arm. I didn’t bring a hottie. Just a red dress.
It’s interesting, these exercises in small town politics.
Over the years, as I’ve developed my skills as a journalist, I’m increasingly interested in people’s stories. What they did. Who they are now. How life has treated them. Granted, I left home at 16, and unlike my classmates, spent time in the military. That launched a very different kind of life. Not better. Just different. It’s sculpted me in ways that staying in a very small Central Florida town would not have. Mind you, there are plenty of very good people in that town and in my class. I lost contact when I quit Facebook. Often they aren’t at the reunions. Those were separate connections. Some old friends I only saw during that weekend, which made it worthwhile to attend. To a point.
I’ll admit I have little clue who most folks are. Without the saving grace of the senior photo on the lapel, most of us are unrecognizable. However it’s not easy to get anyone to talk to me any more. Part of that is because the wives hate me on sight, and the men aren’t allowed to approach unless surgically attached to the wife.
Let’s be clear. Despite our proximity to Disney World, the is Deep South, the land of lard and grits and biscuits and gravy and pecan pie and RC Cola and moon pies and everything stupid wonderful and delicious. And fattening. I got fat, too. I just didn’t stay that way.
My classmate, George Kalogridis, started working at Disney World the same time I did. George is gay with a lifetime partner, and a terrifically good guy. He now runs the place. People are happy to talk to the CEO of Disney World. The Red Sea doesn’t part around George. George and I are friends, but the majority of the class…kinda not really.
There was one single exception of an uber popular guy, whose only nod to aging is a receding hairline, but not by much. He and I re-established a great friendship at the 10th reunion in 1981 when he returned to town after becoming a chiropractor. A good one, too. He also brought back a very pretty, beauty-queen wife, who was, up until about two years ago, also a good friend.
At some point, she saw a 15-year-old email that my doctor buddy had exchanged with me that made her think we’d slept together. Uh, no. I like the guy, but he’s my childhood friend. Problem is, he’s wandered before. An office employee, apparently. He told me, he was sorry. But it did a lot of damage. Not my fault.
So I got one hell of an angry phone call one evening from his wife accusing me of adultery. I’d been staying with them for many years, and considered them close friends. Family, even. So this came totally out of the blue with all the subtlety of an LGM–30 Minuteman missile on my head.
She’d already decided we’d done the deed. Didn’t matter what I said. She was like an Australian road train on its way to Cairns, killing everything in its path (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iFkKRh5kcM).
The night she called, I even looked up, and read to her, my journal entries from the night in question. It had been so long ago I barely remembered. But I keep a diary. A detailed one. Had I slept with her husband, that would have rated an entry if for no other reason than to rate the husband in bed (yah, we do that). Of course there wasn’t.
She’d been away that weekend. My doc friend and I had spent hours having the kind of deep and wonderful conversations that friends do. After that, he had tried to crawl into my bed in the guest room. I told him to go away. He’s badly behaved at times when there is temptation. That’s not my fault. What did I do wrong? Apparently I had sent a heartfelt email thanking him for the talks. She interpreted that as thanking him for a royal fuck. She didn’t buy my side of it. Okay fine. End of story. Thirty-plus years ended on a false accusation.
A lifelong friendship lost over a stupid misread. Some things never change, especially when it comes to small Southern towns. Or, for that matter, small towns or small-town mentality anywhere.
Even in our sixties.
Their kids had called me some years back to invite me to their parent’s 30th anniversary. It cost a small mint to fly down from Denver to do just that. Of course I did. They were lifelong friends. You don’t mess with that kind of friendship, especially when those friends replace a family I don’t otherwise have. That’s what made it even tougher when I got that blast out of the blue.
I’ve been single most of my adult life. That’s nobody’s fault but my own, and the simple fact that my lifestyle has made me a bit hard to pin down. However, it is beyond the beyond that I would wander into the bedrooms of close friends and cherry-pick sexual partners. The doc is a handsome guy, but he’s not on the menu. That women assume that I’m on the prowl is their problem, their fear, their anxiety, not mine. I do my level best to speak to and include absolutely everyone. In fact I make it a point to spend more time with the wives for this very reason. To a degree it feels like pandering to their fear.
But it’s our humanity. I understand.
That I look healthy at this age (I was 63 or so at the time) and she is no longer a beauty queen is a factor here. The sheer terror that any of us feels as we begin to wrinkle, the waist expands (she’s had multiple kids, all of them terrific, but I can no longer be in touch with them any more). We made different choices, and neither is better than the other. In many ways I deeply wish I had the kind of longevity and security she has enjoyed with the doctor and their extended family. I know she envies me the shape I’m in, but she won’t commit to a workout program. That’s not my fault, either.
There is no question, for we used to talk about and laugh at this before this nonsense, that she yearns for her old body and the massive tumble of long, sun-streaked blonde hair that made her so breathtakingly beautiful. Truth is, she still is. She has that kind of ageless beauty that time doesn’t touch. However what is happening in the basement of her heart is far more damaging that anything time can do. What she sees in the mirror isn’t what I saw. Still see. Anger is aging her far worse than the years.
I’m not the author of that. She is.
And while I am deeply sorry that her husband was a philanderer, I am more sorry that it cost us all a lengthy and at least, for my part, very warm connection.
I always saw the beauty queen. Admired her greatly. She was smart and funny and very accomplished in her own right. Loved them both for their willingness to work through the hard times.
When I go back to my reunion I’m a pariah. The old popular group structures still hold even after all these years. After all, it is a very small Southern town.
I miss the long conversations over their breakfast bar. The laughter and tumbling with their energetic boxers. The long talks with my doctor friend with whom I had a lot in common. Sex wasn’t one of them.
But you can’t convince his wife.
High school has a way of informing our behavior for the rest of our lives if we’re not careful. The petty jealousies and childish, churlish behavior that often marks our formative years can linger and rise out of the swamps of our fears like an angry anaconda. This is one reason I left my small town.
I’d have suffocated there.
But it’s not the town, per se. It’s the small-mindedness. The inability to leave behind the homecoming king and queen, the handsome quarterback, the cheerleader crushes and the internecine struggles of who likes who this week, and who is carving who’s name on the bathroom stall metal wall. We didn’t have social media back then. Thank god.
My best friend Jill tended to her mother-in-law in her last days. At 93, she was choosing to go out on her own terms. However, even as Jill sat with this dying woman, all the elderly woman could talk about was how, when she was in high school, her older brother had married an American Indian women to the shame of the family. The son had gotten to go to college, not her.
I’ve heard that story endless times. Told with the kind of deeply embedded bitterness and anger that only the self-righteous and entitled can bring to bear. The grandkids had long deserted her out of exhaustion in hearing about what, to her, was such a massive scandal that it had ruined her life.
It had ruined her life.
Because for nearly eight decades she let bitterness, blame, anger and resentment inform her. In that way, she had never left high school. She died an elderly 16-year-old woman, full of hate and heartbreak.
There is that piece of all of us that is still a teenager. That wants to do a one-up on our classmates in one way or another. That is jealous of the pretty girl or the guy who got the scholarship. Especially if high school had been hard (it was for me), and there’s this petty piece of us which yearns to just show everyone they were wrong. Interestingly, what I’ve found is that if you have accomplished some things, that fact in and of itself can accomplish just the opposite. Especially if your motivation for heading back to the reunion is to hurl your perceived superiority in their faces out of spite.
My 50th is coming up in a few years. Truth be told, I’m not eager to wear a nice dress to the opening ceremony only to have it stained if the doc’s wife decides to douse me with a glass of red. She’s just that pissed, just that unpredictable, just that vengeful.
Just. That. Childish.
More people enter weight loss programs the last few months before their high school reunion than just about any other time. It speaks to our desperate need to rewrite history, to impress those who have known us the longest, and who knew us when we were nerds, nebbishes, and nobodies.
I was one of those. A part of me still is. Happily, there are far larger parts that outshine whatever teenager continues to exist in my personality. I feel for my friends. I miss their friendship. But if it was that tenuous to begin with I have to wonder what kind of friends they really were. Just like we do in school.
Age doesn’t deliver maturity. Personal work does. Many of us continue to function as high school children right up to the end.
I think for my 50th I’m going to hang out with some horses, likely down in South America. I don’t mind the way they bite.