Monday, October 7, 2019

A Sixtieth High School Reunion

Did anyone ever think at all, at all, about the prospect of a 60th high school reunion? Even 50th ? He certainly hadn't. It just kind of came at him. Class composition is a random event; some are great and close, some just suck. And people take them differently. His wife couldn't get away from her Southern California high school fast enough. An introvert, she thought she had been undermined by teachers whispering to selected students that she was the smartest girl in the class. That wouldn't bother lots of girls, but in that time and that place, it was, she thought, at least for her, the kiss of death. So she asked him about his pending 60th, “Are there any people you hope don't show up? People you hated?”

“No, not really. I can't think of anyone. When I look back, I'm more self-accusatory than aiming at others. I think about my mistakes, especially people I hurt because I didn't know any better, and things I didn't do right.”

She knew how much he had loved Lower Merion High, how much he loved his classmates, how he still kept in touch with many of them, how many had visited them in Berkeley, how one classmate was nearby and a friend. She knew how much he took pride in how smart his friends were, how collegial, how nice. She knew the legendary poker games. She could guess at the drinking, no doubt. Not going to the reunion would be stupid; he wasn't going to miss that. They had been friends when they were all just starting to differentiate into the beings they now were, but the root must have been pretty firm, because they all viewed themselves as related, still.

He didn't know what was going to happen now, but it wouldn't be riotous, for sure; that was for earlier reunions. He remembered at one reunion years ago, he was at a table with a girl he had gone out to a golf course with one night. “You want to be bad,” she said, and they returned to the car. Now, at the table, she said, “I was so stupid. Pause. How about now?” He hadn't been smart enough to say, “I'm so tempted, I wish I could, but I can't.” Instead he just said no. He had gotten a lot smarter, but still had a way to go. He knew he would always have a way to go.

They checked in at the reception table for the name badges that had the yearbook picture attached. His wife said, “Was that you?” The others were the reverse – they recognized the picture and thought, “Is this you now?” Picket posts of time, the continuous three years at LM, then the reunions. Reunions rekindle, and reunions retrogress. What is still, and what is no more. And increasingly, who is no more. Reunions are extraordinary because they bring together two distant points in time, then and now, what you couldn't have foreseen, what you can't rectify, what was really great then and couldn't be replaced.

All is temporary, all is fleeting, yet some things last, that's the amazing part. While the past is past, he wondered, is it still possible to fix some things, even if he wasn't sure what needed to be fixed? He thought that most people understood his feelings of warmth, and shared them, and that was really the whole story. Nothing had to be fixed.

The first thing he noted was what was missing – anxiety. He had expected that no one would be trying to impress or prove anything, at least not much, the tales had been told. Anxiety is about the future, and at this point, as he liked to say, most of his tomorrows were yesterdays. But what struck him was what he hadn't really realized before, that anxiety had been prevalent when they all first knew each other, but not recognized back then, as fish don't recognize that there is water that they are swimming in. He realized how pleasant it was to be without it.

Here in this hotel that hadn't even existed 60 years ago, he found his expected friends, those people who you pick up with and the feelings are still there, who give meaning to BFF. But then there were the other, random contacts. Blessed with a good, even terrific memory, he casted his mind back without effort and made contact. There was Larry, the ever-colorful Larry, in whose car he had been by the Narberth playground when the great Guy Rodgers came off the basketball court and said, “Hey, nice car!” Larry didn't remember, but he sure as hell did. Close contact with a major hero, favorite player ever (as opposed to best, just favorite, the memories, the flash.) Larry a Beverly Hills attorney – Larry? Larry, for whom a second rate college was too far a reach? Overwhelmingly good humor, such acceptance of himself, a sweetness mixed with gruff extroverted good humor. Surprising but completely in character that he said he had just met Friel, ne'er do well Friel, in Vegas. Vegas, for God's sake, at their age, Jew and Irish, still having fun, God bless them.

The others. Bob who who came up and said hello, do your remember me, and blessed the one school that would take him after high school, blessed it for saving his life, he thought. Strange and wonderful that he would share that intimacy. It was hard to know how to respond to that, but a smile and a squeeze on the shoulder conveyed the warmth.

Walter circulated freely, bring back drinks from the bar for obviously not the first time, newly voluble Walter. Complaining about his waning sex life, at 77.

“Playing any baseball, Walter?”

“I wish!”

“You were a great pitcher.”

Then he got The Look back from Walter, real appreciation. That was the hook for Walter, the best thing anyone could ever say to him. What mattered to him, the golden memory, and to think that anyone not only remembered, but who told him how he admired him. Priceless, said The Look. He noted it, and was amazed, and happy he had come up with it.

The usual set of happy friends, “the brains” said classmates, sat around, but someone new was with them now, Vicky. Vicky, pretty girl who had had, could we say, a “good figure.” Who had been George's girl friend but they hadn't survived as a couple. He had gone to Michigan State, but when he asked her where she had gone, maybe Penn State, she kind of deflected and said how she had gotten hooked up with a Jewish guy (she being of Italian heritage), and moved to Israel for a while with him. Must have been fish out of water, but you just never know. She now had all the reminders of how pretty she had been. Funny she was here with the others who, as far as he knew, hadn't been her close friends then, but everyone still referred to her with the one name, Vicky, and everyone was glad to have her. Was she more connected with everyone than he realized? He guessed he still didn't understand everything about class structure. Although with time, he knew, if through nothing else than through Romy and Michelle (underrated!), that the smart people get more prestige at reunions. But here was Vicky, from the popular clique, somehow mixed in and everyone not surprised that she was there, just mixed in. It was sweet.

They told him that he should go say hello to her because she lives close to him in the Bay Area. They eventually met, and he introduced her to his wife, telling her that he didn't know if Vicky knew it or not, but all the boys had looked at Vicky with a certain longing. Vicky turned away but in doing so, gave him That Look. “Did they really?” she thought as she stammered something else. The same smile that Walter had given. Was that connected to her suggestion later on, when they were alone, that they get together back home? “Absolutely!” he responded, but knowingly failed to exchange phone numbers.

He remembered the time when he and his wife had run into Bruce, a graduate school classmate at Berkeley, who turned to his wife and said what a terrific basketball player her husband had been. His wife replied to Bruce, “You couldn't have said anything else that would please him so much!” He thought that what she had done was to give The Look by proxy.

How many thought at the 60th, these are our real roots, the real friendships, the earliest that are true? He didn't know, but the warmth was very real.

Then there was such a surprising connection. Angela has been a constant friend of his close friend, Lynn, in New York. They drove over together for the event. She had gone to Bryn Mawr College – he remembered that – and majored in French literature – of course he didn't know that. Then had gone on to grad school in French Lit at Yale, then taught French Lit for years at Sarah Lawrence. Then they talked for the longest time. He told her his theory of Madame Bovary, with what he thought might be a feminist interpretation, and how much he liked The Red and the Black, and she responded with verve and vigor and interest and passion, and they both discovered, unexpectedly, their common interest. She told him a basic book to read (Mimesis, by Auerbach), which he ordered immediately. She told how she hadn't been around in high school for all the social stuff because her parents were in the midst of a world-class toxic divorce, and she lived with her mother an hour and a half away, and how she was upset most of the time. Both mind and body were elsewhere.

How did their relationship start, he asked Lynn? She said that they were in the same homeroom and their last names were close so Angela sat in front of her, and how Lynn went through all the sturm und drang with her. He hadn't heard anything about it, only that Angela's mother wound up marrying Claude Rains years after the divorce. Angela said Rains was a difficult man with a difficult Cockney background, and told the story of how he was chosen by George Bernard Shaw to star in the only film version of one of his plays. He was called to meet the great man and was appropriately respectful and self-effacing. Shaw took the whole time staring into the fire and stoking it, while Rains stammered behind him. As the meeting came to an end, Rains, thanking him profusely, observed that meeting him for the first time was a thrill. With this, Shaw finally wheeled around and told him that this wasn't actually the first time they met, and asked him if he knew why he had chosen him for the lead. Rains had no idea.

Shaw asked him if he remembered the first time they met. No, no idea. Do you remember when there a man who was suddenly taken sick in the boxes during a show, and you were called to help, and you went to the other side of London to get a doctor and bring him back? That man was me. And I've been looking for a chance to express my appreciation since then.

Or so he remembered the story, as told by Angela. He wondered how frequently it happens that new friends are made at 60th reunions. He, old and dear friend Lynn, and newly dear friend Angela, sat together on the deck for about an hour as the event came to an end, departing people walking past them and saying goodnight, and were very comfortable.

So much had happened, and was still happening. John's daughter is suffering from a recurrent brain tumor, using the new immuno-therapies. How does anyone stand that? This excellent man has to contend with this most difficult and unfair attack by nature, and it showed, strong as he is. He remembered when John's Mom and Dad were divorcing when John was in college; he remembered when John's mom was dying of ALS. As they spoke, John became even more impassioned than ever. John reached out to him, old friends whose appreciation of each other has only grown. John told him that he was probably the one person who got him best, who said things that mattered. He told John that he did get him. He knew about John that, in a group of people, John would be the one who identified the one who needed help and would try to give it to him. It had taken him a long time to realize this, even though it was John who inevitably reached out when he needed help when they had been roommates in college, but he now saw it so clearly. John had been king of the high school class, the inevitable class president, and he had always been a good one. Now, in older age, the appreciation only increased. John still tried to help everyone he could. He was even driven by this. They held hands briefly at the table as others looked on.

The non-locals who had stayed in the hotel overnight met for breakfast at a long, wooden table in the dining room that had been opened only for them. He felt the love they had for each other, all of them, knowing they were coming to the end together as they had started out together. Lorraine had said that this would be the last reunion, but maybe not, huh? He said to the group, maybe make it three years, as time is running out. Old, dear friend Bill, who had sprouted 6 inches one summer and came back a center rather than a guard, a great poker player not inhibited by excessive feelings for the pain of others, stood up at the end of the table to leave and go back to an event at home in Virginia. He wasn't going to let Bill get away with that; he got up and walked around to very tall Bill and gave him a big hug. Surprised, but delighted, Bill bent his legs and returned the hug with brio. Not to be outdone, short but solid Bob also got up and came to hug Bill, which was harder, since they were about one foot different in height. They wound up theatrically kissing, from close and afar, to the amusement of all the good and old friends.

Doubtless others felt differently, even though turnout was excellent there were many missing, but for those who were there, at this time and this place, he felt that there was a satisfaction with themselves as a group, with one another, with their connection, with their joint history, with their fidelity to one another. Such times are rare. They are the lucky ones.

Budd Shenkin

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