Feeling Like The Homecoming Queen 20 Years Later
"There's no way I'm going to this" I told Amy. Here I was: freshly dumped. Racing towards middle age without the husband, kids, house, career, or even a decent car. The very idea of the reunion forcing some dreaded tally up of my cards in the game of life. Somehow, I'd spent the last twenty years working as a waitress. Moonlighting as a belly dancer and burlesque vixen in my spare time. Aside from some tattoos, and a litany of incriminating, half naked pictures, what did I have to show for myself? High school had been challenging enough. My home life a wreck. My status not even on the chart. Nobody needed to pay for bad memories, bad food, and side of reheated awkwardness. But meeting Amy at a downtown bar instead, getting loaded, and letting the reunion come to us??? Well, that was a different story.
So there I was. Hometown. Bellied up next to Amy. Frozen on my barstool. Several courage cocktails in. Battling a cruel interior dialogue that I would surely be shunned and publicly ridiculed when Cindy Middleton squealed my name and threw her arms around my neck. I'll admit perhaps drinking all afternoon is not the way to go if you plan on having intelligent conversations with people you haven't seen in 20 years; especially when you intend to convince them your life isn't in total shambles. But this is how we were rolling. So I went with it.
"Cindy!" Did I slur? As cheerful and sweet as ever, she launched right in as if we'd been dishing and drinking our entire lives. "You're in SF now right? Doing some sort of performance I think?" Not even a hint of admonishment in her tone. "I look at all your photos on Facebook. You look so glamourous for your shows! 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 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 gum in a greasy spoon, but bragging about my job was a novelty. "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. She worked as a hairdresser and was living in Fresno. "I really envy you living in the City!" Wish I could afford it, but it's just too expensive" she sighed. "I wanted to buy a home, so I ended up staying in the valley." Did I note a hint of apology in her explanation? Guess I wasn't the only one worried I'd be judged for my choices. "It's true" I agreed, "I pay a mortgage worthy rent each month and have completely given up on the idea of owning my own. Especially since I'm now single....".
"Ugh, don't need to tell me about being single!" 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!"
After that we smashed our glasses together and swore off of bad men forever. And after several more minutes watching Cindy paint my life as fun and exciting, I was really starting to see a different picture. That is, until 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, our social spheres existed on different planets. Bracing for rejection, I sent out some probes. She turned towards me with an exasperated sigh and a roll of the eyes and finally gave a dour "Hello." Encouraged by whiskey, and my scorned lady bond with Cindy; I forced the conversation,
"What's up Jennifer, Long time…… how are you?" Yep. Sounding as stupid as I felt. Small talk is already gauche; twenty years later small talk with someone who clearly doesn't want to have a conversation with you; beyond. Where do you start? What do you say? I was expecting a play by play of life achievements, a body count of kids, and a declaration of happiness. But when Jennifer answered, I was shocked.
Seeming fragile, she began. She'd married the high school sweetheart, and had never left our tiny hometown. In the years that followed, had two sons. But later, her husband had 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……"
I was floored. Having grown up with a drunk mother, I knew the pain of alcoholism only too well; but I'd never imagined that Jennifer Jones -- who seemed to have one of those magically perfect lives -- would ever share a similar fate with me. Earlier, I'd assumed Jennifer still considered herself too good to talk to me. It hadn't occurred that maybe she was the one who felt insecure about exposing herself. I had to wonder, why me? Perhaps she remembered my shaky family from childhood and felt that I would relate. Maybe it was the Cosmo she'd been glumly nursing. But could it have been my outsider status that made her feel like she could say anything without fear of being judged?
I was still reeling from this reality dose when an unfamiliar voice sang out my name. "How's life?" I looked at him incredulously. "By that do you mean my whole life? Because, if I'm not mistaken, we've never spoken." Blake Roberts chuckled, nodded his hello's to Jennifer who took that opportunity to slip away, 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.
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 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 were enjoying a moment of vicarious voyeurism. Still, I was 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 isn't so much a life; it's 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.
With that, Amy pulled me onto the dance floor to boogie. I laughed when I overheard other bar patrons chortled under their breath, "What's with all the drunk, old people?" I guess it was true; twenty years past graduation, well into our rich and varied lives, we weren't kids anymore. Each of us 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, drunkenly shaking our asses, we could have been 18 again without a care in the world. Or not.
As the group of dancers 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. These people went to bed early, and had kids to wake up with. I, on the other hand, was a creature of the night with no pressing obligations whatsoever. "Nobody???" he pushed, not wanting to waste a rare night of freedom. 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 high school nemesis say in shock, watching our most unlikely duo dash out the door.
Soon we were in the parking lot, hot boxing in his parents SUV like a couple of teen agers. Well except there was a baby car seat in the back and a hint of gray at Blake's temples. But there was something youthful about him as his eyes flashed and he recounted a wilder time 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 revelry, he leaned into the backseat and excitedly pulled something red, white and blue out of the depths of the vehicle. In a flash, Blake was barechested, and pulling an old high school Patriots sweatshirt over his once muscly arms. "Still fits!" he stated proudly, both of us ignoring just how snug it had actually become. As our laughter faded into an overly long silence, I noticed him giving me the look, and before I could say "Gooooo Patriots!" he'd swooped in and kissed me squarely on the lips. We both sat there in slightly shocked silence 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.... in fact..... in a very long time. 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.
Truth be told, the fun of being a party crasher wasn't the only thing I'd enjoyed about the reunion. It dawned on me; the people we went to school with are a lot like family. We didn't choose them. Hell! May not even like them. But for better or worse, through acne and braces - they were there. A chorus to the interplay of fate and action that eventually made us what we are. Few people better suited to witness the epic scope of our lives. Here to offer a unique perspective from which to reflect on who we have become, from the vantage point of who we have been.
It's probably a blessing that there's no single photo of me from the reunion; 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. Whether by choice or design, perhaps I was still an outcast; but that 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.