I take a breath, open the front door and peer down the hallway.
My first best friend walks straight at me. It’s as if she just stepped out of 1986, popped into a badly lit movie and sauntered in for a close-up. It’s the 20th anniversary of my high school reunion.
“Rachel, you look beautiful!” I’m grateful for the facial I had before I left the Coast.
I grew up in the mediocrity capital of Canada. Peterborough, ON used to be a national demonstration site where weekly consumer products arrived via mail. If the latest trial-sized, newest and most improved measured up in our city, it would pass for a national standard within months. Corporations depended on our domestic demographic of self-imposed normalcy.
I step into the school cafeteria where I’m immediately swept into the past and feel mildly nauseous. Greasy, carb-addict flashbacks of pale yellow cartons of ketchup-drowned fries served by retired matrons in pale, sad, blue dresses.
Time closes in; this scrubbed sterile, Javex-bleached room still begs for chaotic interruption. I smile, relieved by the memory of seasonal food fights erupting on the patrolling staff’s lunchtime tours of dread.
Everywhere I turn I’m assaulted by the generic Ontario look of it all. I remind myself that it’s the people I’ve come to see and be seen by. The principal stands in the corner, this side of needing a walker. People come up to me thinking I remember them. I don’t.
One woman I vaguely recall reeks of a morning binge. It’s a bit much on everyone’s nerves.
And yet we’ve come back, each of us looking for something, something out of the cramped lost and found bin, each of us wanting to sift through the ghosts and memorialize five of the most intense years of our lives.
Everyone has an opinion as to why one should or should not attend a school reunion: the most common theme being “Why go back? I hated it the first time round!”
Months ago, despite the cost and inconvenience, I knew I had to return. There must be something I need to prove to myself or flaunt in front of everyone else.
What persists however is an elusive, familiar, anxious, unfinished feeling of missing out.
There are over two hundred of us. We’re all 15 and 40 at the same time. This is deep time-wrinkled weirdness.
They exchange pictures and stories of their kids. A handful live in the same neighbourhood, have remained friends for 25 years, even married each other and now nurse each other through their divorces.
A few even teach at the same school we all attended, the same brown brick I escaped from and had forgotten until now. People rooted in time and place. I am embarrassed by my freedom.
The dance takes place in a bomb shelter that doubles as a curling rink but is really just a self-refrigerating excuse for a beer parlour.
As usual, Rachel and I are first on the floor. The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” crackles over the sound system. I spin around as if we made it past the doorman again. I run to get the others and stop mid-life stride.
There they are: the note-passing band geeks, the over-the-top drama nerds, the hoofing-down-the-hall trouble seekers, the orgiastic laughers who could shut down a classroom as fast as a fake fire drill. There they stand in polite circles of conversation. I wonder how they all became adults.
Of course we’re the ones dancing, the musician and the fag actor; 20 years later and some things don’t change.
I have a pawn-shop-ticket theory about life. Each time someone takes or we unnecessarily give away something important, like our pride, laughter or dignity, we get the short end of a stubbed ticket. When and if willing we return to the scene of corruption we have the right to turn in the ticket and reclaim what is inherently ours, with interest.
This particular ticket I’m holding screams pink and tonight, I realize, is the night to cash it in.
I look pretty good in my hemp linens and pretty boy coif and decide to flirt with the hottest guy in the room. He comes up to me and asks if I’m married.
One of the rules to the ticket theory is you have to be honest to make the trade. I tell him about my engagement to my partner, Mark. Between sips from his plastic cup of scotch he shrugs, “I’m a metrosexual.”
He confesses he can’t hold a relationship together, that he spends his life designing boards, surfing and buying nice clothes between girlfriends and hopes to one day be happy.
There is only one other out returning queer in the room. She struts the room with her 20-something Goth girlfriend. We have so much to say and say little of it.
Instead, I confront the jocks and other popular untouchables. Unlike some, I didn’t give locker room blowjobs. Like many I avoided those potentially violent initiations, instead seeking people-pleasing positions of school power. Conversation by conversation I begin to recoup some of what I lost or never had.
The local paper later quotes me as quipping to the reporter, “I wasn’t out in the ’80s. Who was?”
The irony, of course, is that most of them knew. “Every time I watch Will & Grace, I laugh and think of you! Even the way you dance. You’re just like Jack,” some woman tells me. I don’t have a clue who she is.
I think about how, aside from family, this is where I learned about relationships, except intimate ones. Returning home, I imagine being 15 again and wonder how holding his sweaty hand in mine would have felt.