August is the month for class reunions—that decennial ritual wherein otherwise rational people contemplate (voluntarily!) returning to the same social spawning pool they’ve spent so many years trying to forget.
If you’re like me, you approach the prospect with a horrified fascination –perverse curiosity toying with the wholly natural desire to run like hell from one’s cringe-worthy past. Education may be the “great equalizer,” but class reunions are its snarky handmaiden—for “X” can be a major movie star or run a billion-dollar conglomerate, but he’ll always be “Stinky” to those who of us knew him when.
Then there are the timeless questions—whose import is only exacerbated when run through the filter of our long-repressed teen angst:
What if I don’t recognize anyone? What if they don’t recognize me? What if they do recognize me but pretend they don’t and I have to sit off in a corner by myself all night long? How did my butt get so BIG?
Still, the call of reunion is compelling, and we answer if only to note the veneers and the dye jobs giving way to pot-bellies and crows-feet. To gawk discretely at the full-on throat ropes and mottled scalps until those of us left without a shard of our self-consciousness stumble into the Catalina Room with our walkers and our mumbled reminisces to congratulate ourselves on our longevity—united at long last by our common decrepitude.
It’s for those of us who never quite know where we fit in that I wrote this…
Every class has its Princess. Ours was (let’s call her) Shelly Anderson—the cheerleader all the girls wanted to be, and all the boys just wanted. Smart, sweet, gorgeous of face, bodacious of figure, Shelly was a fixture in every honors class and homecoming court, every awards banquet and civic presentation; her presence on campus more the stuff of myth than of actual substance. For although she walked among us, there was something otherworldly about her—as though her celebrity somehow defined us all.
We lessers gawked, our small hearts filled with a combination of awe and unbridled resentment as she strode down the hall and bounced up the stairways attended by her entourage of hot guys and unattainable girlfriends. I cringe to recall that some of the less evolved among us— those bedeviled with social demons and imperfect complexions –even had a pimple pool to bet on which days she might show up with so much as one teeny blemish on her lovely face. As I recall, no one ever collected.
The teachers were enchanted by her too, and Shelly always got A’s—even from the notoriously hard graders. For many of us, she was a first sobering encounter with the essential injustice of the cosmos. No matter how hard you work, or how excellent you become, no matter how many hurdles you jump or what sacrifices you’ve made, there will always, ALWAYS be someone’s brother-in-law or beautiful girlfriend waiting in the wings who gets the job, the award, the part, the promotion, the heartthrob…. It was hard not to hate her, but nobody did.
Fortunately, we nerdesses had our own Prince Charming as an offset. “Mark Chen” was tall and exotic, a graceful athlete possessed of a truly sterling mind—which he didn’t mind sharing on calculus exams. Best of all, he was never less than fully competent at anything he attempted–and he attempted a great deal. A real life karate kid who sparred with Chuck Norris, Mark was also a pilot, a musician, ballet dancer, lab whiz, sly wit, and ironic poet who crafted his pieces en Francais. He was, in short, one perfectly-faceted gem of a nerd. OUR nerd.
I nursed a secret crush from the moment I first saw him, but figured I could always get a boyfriend. A friend, however, was something altogether more rarified and precious– and friends we remained. I felt a kinship with Mark—as did a lot of us. Yes, he donned his letterman’s jacket on Friday along with the rest of the jocks, and yes, he belonged to all the right clubs and societies, but he seemed to prefer the company of us outliers—the ones with pocket protectors, and mismatched wardrobes, and an enthusiasm for intellectual mischief. Mark was one of us.
Twenty years later, our class was in its ascendancy. Law and medical schools behind us, brokerages and businesses established, albums and articles published, marriages in full swing with children popping forth, we’d risen with the 80’s and endured our first few hard smacks at the hand of our aspirations. The air was heavy with the certitude of our legacy — a fine time to reconnect and congratulate ourselves. With the 1990’s lurking on the horizon, reunion organizers sprang into action.
And boy oh boy did we turn out for that party! Such a glossy, ambitious group of privileged kids, now become privileged adults. Like most of the rest of the country, we were pretty full of ourselves back then.
I ate dinner with Mark and some of the old gang that night, and got a huge kick out of how our high school personas had morphed into our grownup pretenses. Mark was a doctor now, with the self-assurance of office, but he still had that same amused sense of ironic befuddlement that had carried him through the High School Experience. As I looked around the room at all the groomed and polished, the confident and accomplished, I felt a familiar apprehension. Although I’d danced with the stars and dined with presidents by then, I was still terrified by the kids I’d gone to high school with. In retrospect, I think maybe we all were.
But Mark’s easy laughter and snide banter brought me back to center. With him watching my six, I could face anything my social peerage had to throw at me. I took a deep breath, and set off to mingle.
It turned out to be a terrific party. I danced, I drank, I laffed myself silly, and at one point I think I even sang. As the evening drew to a close and I prepared to leave, I chanced upon Mark on my way out to the bathroom. Giddy, his eyes alight, he grabbed my arm, whirled me about, and steered me into a corner.
“Allena,” he said, his mouth agape in mock wonder. “The most amazing thing just happened! I think my life has finally been validated.” A bit tipsy, I scanned his face to see if he was kidding. He was– but not entirely. Then, his voice tinged with awe and quiet solemnity he said, “Shelly Anderson… just spoke to me!”
All I could do was snort in delight.
On some level, it was a benediction we had both been awaiting for nearly a quarter of a century. I was thrilled for him, and me, and for all nerds everywhere. Yes, there was hope! With the passing of time, the Shelly Andersons of the world may deign to bless us all!
For years after, my lasting memory of Mark was that shining face, that elegant bearing, that goofy schoolboy grin as he turned and walked back to the table to gather his things to leave.
Flush with the magic of this epiphany, I again started for the bathroom—and nearly stumbled into a breathless Shelly Anderson. Heartbreakingly beautiful, those gentle eyes still dancing in their sweetness, she flashed her fabled smile at me, and I was hypnotized once again. How could anyone be this perfect? “Oh Allena,” she gushed. “The most wonderful thing just happened to me”– and here her voice lowered as if she could scarcely believe her good fortune.
“I just spoke with… MARK CHEN!”
While I picked my jaw up off the carpet, she paused for a moment as if to let the enormity of this revelation sink in. “You guys were always so smart, “ she continued, “and I would sit there in class thinking I’d never fit in and you were only just humoring me. I was always so intimidated by everyone, but now– now that Mark has talked to me– I finally feel like I’ve been accepted.”
Every now and then, life graces us with a moment of symmetry so clean and so perfect it defies our poor attempts at dissection. Of such stuff is poetry born. Suppressing a whoop of karmic irony, I could only smile and watch as this lovely woman took the arm of her adoring husband and glided off through the hotel lobby and out into the starry August night.
It was one of those evenings.