How Attending My 20 Year High School Reunion Made Me Feel Like The Homecoming Queen
"There's no way I'm going to this" I told my friend Amy. It wasn't just that I was freshly dumped, and feeling tender about approaching middle age without a family of my own. I had also spent the last twenty years working as a waitress for a living; not quit the expected career outcome of a former gate student. And to top it off, in my spare time I was performing belly dance and burlesque in San Francisco nightclubs. For many of my conservative classmates still living in the valley, I might as well say I'm a stripper and call it a day. I'd already dealt with the small scale version of this reconnecting on Facebook, fielding questions like "What happened to you?" from those who disapproved of my lifestyle. The very idea of meeting scornful schoolfellows face to face sent shivers down my spine. I didn't have a husband, kids, a house, or even a decent car; the very hallmarks of adulthood. So what did I have to show for myself?
High school had been socially challenging. A rocky childhood had left me an introverted and insecure teen, outwardly rebellious and inwardly distrustful of people and their institutions. As a result, I never felt like I fit in, and truth be told, I still didn't. Go to my high school twenty year reunion? No. Absolutely not. But when the day came I had a sudden change of heart. For one thing, Amy had offered a sort of compromise. "Screw the reunion" she'd suggested, "who wants to pay for that kind of awkwardness and bad food? We're all going to meet at a downtown bar instead, and eventually everyone from the reunion is gonna end up there anyway." This idea really appealed. It was more like crashing the reunion than attending it. I could handle that.
But the fun of being a party crasher wasn't the only reason I'd changed my mind. It had dawned on me that the people we went to school with are a lot like family; we didn't choose them, and we may not even like them, but for better or worse, they were there with us during those formative years - through acne and braces - watching the interplay of forces that eventually made us what we are twenty years later. As such, our one time classmates are important mirrors in our lives; offering a unique perspective from which to reflect on who we have become, from the vantage point of who we have been. Few people are better suited to witness the epic scope of our lives. The fact that I was at a tender point in my own life's journey actually made this a perfect moment to take a long look at my path, by taking a short detour down memory lane. I realized I was curious what time would tell about me.
Thus I changed my tune and attempted to bolster my confidence with the following reminders. It's true, I'd always been a little different from the others, and probably still would be; but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I was, after all, the reigning "Most Individualistic" student of 1990. Didn't I kinda owe it to everyone else to keep representing "that" girl; the one that was always just a little left of center? As I drove my city beater into the valley from which it came, I stared into my reflection in the rear view mirror and reasoned, "You don't have to do this you know." But she merely stared back at me, nervous but resolute; we were going in and there was no turning back now.
So I headed into my hometown, and bellied up at the bar with Amy, waiting for the reunion to come to us. Looking back now, I'll admit that perhaps drinking all afternoon is not the way to go when you plan on having intelligent conversations with people you haven't seen in a long time; especially if you hope to convince them your life isn't in total shambles. Good thing for me, by the time the reunion aftermath rolled in; I wasn't the only one who'd been indulging in libations. Yet despite copious cocktails, at the sight of my old associates, I'll admit, my teenage anxiety came crashing in around me. I was frozen on my barstool, convincing myself with a cruel interior dialogue that I would surely be shunned, if not publicly ridiculed when suddenly Cindy Middleton called out my name and threw her arms around my neck.
As cheerful and sweet as ever, Cindy launched right in as if we hadn't missed a day. "You're in SF now right? Doing some sort of performance I think?" There wasn't even a hint of admonishment in her tone, so I relaxed and filled her in a bit. Much to my surprise, she lavished me with accolades. "I look at all your photos on Facebook. You look so glamourous for your shows!" she offered, adding, "You always were so creative." Wow. OK, not what I was expecting.
"Is that what you do full time?" she wondered. I tried to make the word "waitress" sound as appealing as I could, mentioning the name of the restaurant I work in as an afterthought. "Are you kidding? I've read all about that place. It's a hot spot for celebrities right? With a famous Chef?" True, I wasn't Flo taking orders while smacking on gum in a greasy spoon, but bragging about my job was a novel experience. "Yeah" I nodded, slightly embarrassed. "Gosh, I've always wanted to eat there" she gushed, "Maybe one of these days."
"What about you?" I asked, desperate to take the attention off myself. Cindy explained that she worked as a hairdresser and was now living in Fresno. "I really envy you living in the City!" she said, telling me of her lifelong love affair with San Francisco. "Wish I could afford it, but living there is just too expensive" she sighed. "I decided I wanted to buy a home, so I ended up staying in the valley." Did I note a hint of apology in her explanation? Maybe I wasn't the only one who was worried I'd be judged for my choices. "It's true" I agreed, "By living in the city, I've pretty much given up on the idea of owning my own home; especially now that I'm single" I told her.
"What about love?" I asked. "Married? Relationship?" "Ugh, don't ask" she groaned. I recently ended an engagement. Turns out; he was already married! Can you believe that? I was supporting this guy too; bought him all kinds of clothes……. paid the mortgage, everything. One day, he went home to visit his family in Eastern Europe, and just never came back. When I called him, I thought it was his mother who answered. Turns out, it was his wife." I was stunned. Sure, I'd just had a breakup too, but damn! It wasn't like that. "Wow, I'm sorry." "Oh well" she chimed in with a resilient chuckle, "What are ya gonna do? I still have my home, and I"ll get over it."
As I ended my chat with Cindy, I had several epiphanies. Once upon a time, I too wished I would someday live in San Francisco, and now it was actually my home. True I didn't have a "career" in the traditional sense of the word. But I did have a job at a cool spot that afforded me a life in the city I loved, and gave me enough time off to pursue my artistic interests. Looking at it again through Cindy's eyes, I realized that perhaps I'd been a little hard on myself. Sure, my old friend was a bit drunk and most likely just being nice, but after several more minutes listening to her describing my life as fun and exciting, I was really starting to feel more like a rockstar than a reject. I was so thankful we'd reconnected; if only for a moment. Perhaps attending this reunion wasn't so bad after all.
Soon, however, I was sharing a table with the ever popular, miss Jennifer Jones. We'd been friends in 7th and 8th grade, but by the time we'd reached High School, we existed in such different social spheres we might as well have lived on different planets. Encouraged by my conversation with Cindy, and getting more intoxicated by the second, I was ready to put my fears aside and shove off my status as a social outcast. But regardless of how many times I looked in Jennifer's direction, she refused to make eye contact with me. I knew I shouldn't let this get under my skin; but it was starting to feel like high school all over again. She wouldn't have acknowledged my existence then, why now? Bracing myself for rejection, I decided to force a conversation. At my clumsy greeting, she turned towards me with a somewhat exasperated sigh and a roll of the eyes and finally gave a dour "Hello."
"What's up Jennifer, Long time…… how are you?" I asked, feeling stupid. Small talk is already just about the most gauche thing I can imagine; and twenty years later small talk with someone who clearly doesn't want to have a conversation with you is in a category of social awkwardness all of it's own. Where do you start? What do you say? It seems what would be expected is a play by play of our life achievements, a body count of kids, and a declaration of how happy we are. That was exactly the conversation I was hoping to avoid. When Jennifer answered with something far more deep and intimate, I was absolutely shocked.
Seeming somewhat fragile, she began filling me in on the story of her life. She'd married her High School sweetheart, and had never left our tiny hometown. In the years that followed she had two sons. While the story started off sweetly enough, it soon took a turn for the worse. Jennifer's first love developed a serious drinking problem, and after many hard years, had run her family into ruin. After a messy divorce, he'd then tragically committed suicide, leaving her with a huge amount of debt, and two unruly boys to raise alone. She admitted, "I never thought I would be this kind of parent: but I just can't control them. My kids run right over me, and there's nothing I can do about it……" Eventually, she did meet someone else; a kind man whom she loved; but their relationship had faced challenges. She admitted to feeling unworthy of finding love again and guilty about bringing anyone new into this admittedly difficult situation.
I was floored. I knew only too well the pain alcoholism inflicts on a family; having grown up with a drunk mother, but I'd never imagined that Jennifer Jones, who had seemed to have one of those magically perfect lives, would ever share a similar fate with me. Earlier, I had assumed that Jennifer still considered herself too good to talk to me. It had never occurred to me that maybe she was the one who felt insecure about exposing herself to me. While I was genuinely touched that she'd chosen to share such intimate details of her life, I had to wonder, why me? Perhaps she remembered childhood stories about my shaky family and felt that I would relate. Maybe it was the Cosmo she'd been glumly nursing. But could it have been my status as an outsider that made her feel like she could say anything without fear of being judged? After some heartfelt words we parted ways, not necessarily as friends, but as two people who had shared an honest moment; one that had really made me reconsider both my own situation, and my assumptions about others.
I was still reeling from this dose of reality when an unfamiliar voice sang out my name and suddenly Blake Roberts was sitting beside me asking, "How's life?" I looked at him incredulously. "By that do you mean my whole life?" I asked, bewildered, "Because, if I'm not mistaken, we've never spoken in our lives." Blake chuckled and offered me a drink. "I guess you're right" said the varsity swimmer, and big man on campus who, before tonight, I was certain didn't even know I was alive. "Doesn't mean we can't start now right?" With that, the best all around, and the all around geek toasted to our new friendship and began chatting about our very different lives.
While I was a working class artist, residing in a city, single and without kids, Blake had married the "expected" girl, had two children, and moved to a small town on the East Coast to focus on a well paying career and caring for his family. He showed me pictures of a pretty wife, a beautiful house by the water, and two adorable kids. I described what it was like to live with 16 people in an art collective, and the backstage antics of my world as a performer in variety shows. Then as now, we shared little in common, but nonetheless we had an easy report. Perhaps rendering each other's gardens greener, each of us seemed to enjoy existing vicariously through one another's stories. Still, I was slightly taken aback when Blake offered this; "Don't get me wrong, I love my kids…… and my wife for that matter. But being married and having a family?" he shrugged his shoulders, "I don't know. It's hard! And having kids takes a lot of money and a lot of work. What we have is a lifestyle, and it requires a substantial income. I'm lucky if I even get to see my family I work so much to afford them." I sighed, "I would have given anything to marry my X and have kids, but it didn't work out that way." "Guess we always want what we don't have" he said with a grin, raising his glass to mine again. And with that, we toasted, and he bid me farewell; heading off to continue circulating around the room.
Perhaps he was right, I pondered, knocking back the rest of my cocktail just as Amy pulled me onto the dance floor. As we boogied down to classic hits from our era, I overheard other bar patrons chortled under their breath, "What's with all the drunk, old people?" To this I simply laughed. I guess it was true; twenty years past graduation, well into our rich and varied lives, we weren't kids anymore. Each of us had a story to tell; and not a single life was without some sort of hardship or regret. Tomorrow we would go back to our regular routines, but tonight here we were, drunkenly shaking our asses and having a great time like we we were 18 again and didn't have a care in the world. As the group on the dance floor grew smaller and more faded, Blake came bursting back onto the scene like a ball of energy. "Where we goin' after this?" he beamed at the exhausted revelers, groaning their refusals. Most of these folks had kids to wake up with in the morning, and were unaccustomed to late nights. I, on the other hand, had no pressing obligations; no little ones waiting for me. "Nobody?" he pushed, not wanting to waste a rare night of freedom. When it was obvious nobody else was game, and I was decidedly drunk enough to no longer care what the others would think, I finally piped up. "Well, I have a joint." "Fantastic!" he exploded, taking my hand as our former classmates looked on in stunned horror. "Blake Roberts is leaving here with her? To smoke pot?" I heard one girl say in shock, watching as our most unlikely duo headed out the door.
Soon we were sitting in his parents SUV, hot boxing like Cheech and Chong. In a cloud of smoke, Blake was recounting a wilder time in his life when he and an ex girlfriend had moved to Mexico on a whim. "Living on the beach, taking each day as came", he recalled with a dreamy sigh, "that was the most free and happy time in my life." Suddenly overcome with his revelry, he leaned excitedly into the backseat and pulled something red, white and blue out of the depths of the vehicle. In a flash, Blake was barechested, removing his polo top and replacing it with an old high school Patriots sweatshirt. "Still fits!" he stated proudly, as we both pretended to ignore just how snug it had actually become. As our laughter faded into an overly long silence, I noticed him giving me a funny look, and before I knew what had happened, he'd swooped in and kissed me squarely on the lips. I think we both sat there slightly shocked for a minute. And when I smiled and said I'd better go, he didn't disagree. As I walked away, he called out after me. "Hey! Thank you. This has been the best conversation I've had all evening. You're a cool girl, and I really enjoyed finally getting to know you." With that, I kissed my hand and waved goodbye, leaving him staring after me as I disappeared into the night.
It's probably a blessing that there's not a single photo of me from the reunion, or it's after party; no proof that I was ever even there. What I remember as profound, probably appeared drunken and messy. Even here. But regardless, these unlikely conversations enabled me to remember that I actually had realized several of my life goals; to get out of my home town, to live in San Francisco, and to be an artist. While I romanticized the idea of having a career, a husband, children, or a home, the truth was that no path was necessarily better or easier than another, and each road came with it's own set of costs, challenges and obstacles. Perhaps I was still different from my peers, but that merely gave me and my life character, and allowed others to interact with me in ways they might not have otherwise. I had to admit, attending my twenty year reunion was a detour worth taking. Maybe I'd never been a homecoming queen, but as I headed back SF, crossing the sparkling Bay with the triumphant sky line looming behind, coming home had rarely felt as sweet.