Summer, 2002. Six of us are sitting in my mother’s darkened living room in New Jersey watching Grosse Point Blank, the film in which John Cusack – playing a hit man – attends his high-school reunion. The video was my choice. I am priming myself for my own twentieth reunion in Oregon next week.
From behind me in the dark comes my sister’s voice.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘but I just don’t see why anyone would ever want to go to a high school reunion.’
‘Our motto was Cruisin’ thru ’82,’ I say.
She finds this hilarious. ‘You know,’ she says, ‘the really interesting people don’t show up to reunions.’
‘I know,’ I say, ignoring the implications of this fact.
‘Why are you going?’
In my graduating class at Lake Oswego High School, there was a guy with rather permissive parents who used to throw toga parties at their house, in the most up-market end of town. (K is a television news anchorman in Indianapolis now.) Swathed in knotted bed sheets, we’d get drunk by the poolside, which was lit from underwater, blue and amniotic. (These nights are the only possible explanation for my adult desire to see, for example, Gordon Brown in a toga, his head ringed by a wreath of laurel.) We were an elegantly wasted bunch, at least that’s how I remember us.
Though my family inhabited this very wealthy enclave, we were not wealthy. Downward mobility had landed us in an area of our Portland suburb known as the Ghetto, which was not a ghetto at all, but a middle-class tree-lined grid of a neighbourhood. In the Ghetto, there was no crime, no homelessness, no poverty. Our house had five bedrooms and a large front yard. That was the Ghetto. We were glad we didn’t live in the Groove, which was at the opposite end of the city and a clear step down from the Ghetto. In the Groove, there were cars under repair hoisted on blocks, peddlers of soft drugs, and a gloom-inducing amount of shade.
Living in either of these neighbourhoods in no way excluded you from poolside parties. This wasn’t England, after all; it wasn’t even Massachusetts. So we mixed it up together, everybody beautiful and damned, if only by association. And now, getting ready to see us again, I expect our adult lives to have borne out this early promise. I imagine our misfortunes to be on a grand scale. I want to steep myself in the pathos of our dashed dreams, and to nod knowingly, as though I’d seen it all coming. As a little exercise, I have jotted down my guesses as to what’s become of some of those on the class list. I regard my former classmates as lab rats I’ve left alone in the dark for twenty years, scurrying through a world-maze. Now, I’m coming back to check on them.
My sister repeats her question. ‘Why are you going?’
I’ve recently read Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He describes a trip back to the suburb where he was raised and an encounter with some old high-school friends: ‘… what I really want is to just swim around in a warm baby pool of these friends, jump in their dry leaf pile – to rub them all over myself, without words and clothes …’
I know exactly what he means.
I turn in the direction of my sister, who’s just a shape in the dark.
‘Curiosity,’ I say.
One of the few drawbacks of having had an idyllic childhood, or at least a couple of very good stretches, is that there’s the temptation to believe that if only you could reassemble the parts – or their age-appropriate correlatives – things would feel that good, and that simple, again. You scratch your head and stare at life like it’s some gadget you’ve dismantled and can’t figure out how to put back together again.
The patron saint of disillusioned adults must be Proust. Referring to Proust’s take on paradise and the eviction from it, Roger Shattuck writes:
Is there an authority that ties us to our childhood more than to any other period? On this point the novel is clear: faith makes the difference. As children, we believe in the world around us as we never shall again … Combray possesses the one essential quality that transforms it for Marcel into Eden. The congruence of his faith in desired things with the real presence of those things close to him produces a wholeness of experience that stays in his memory. It provides the eternal standard of a world not yet sundered by soul error.
Before the Ghetto, and the decline that precipitated our move there, there was the house on the hill. The house sat on a wide plot of land, and if you walked to the edge of the backyard, which dropped off to a steep path leading down to a water tower, you could see a lake far below. It shimmered in the sun. Speedboats pulling water-skiers zipped across it, small as skimming insects. Sometimes we went swimming there, my brother loading us into the red Mustang. As we drove down the main street through town, we could see Mount Hood straight ahead of us, looming in the distance like a slightly flattened A; we felt majestic by association.
In our own neighbourhood, the streets curled and sloped into one another, as though in mutual admiration. The light was deep gold on our lawn and as it hung in the air above the lawn. The light seemed to inhabit what it fell on; things looked like they were glowing from within. If well-being had a colour, it might be that. A purple creeper climbed the trellis on the patio outside my sister’s bedroom. It was always summer. We had a pet bunny. The hedge at the side of the yard was big enough to play hide-and-seek in. A middle-aged lesbian couple lived next door to us, and at parties my father danced with them to ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’. We’d moved there from the much more conservative Deep South, and though everything was new and life had assumed a slightly ribald air, I felt safer, more complete, than I ever had before.
We watched The Tonight Show. We watched the Watergate hearings. There was a sense of we’re-all-in-this-mess-together. I was ten and didn’t yet know that it was possible to feel any other way. Nixon resigned. Franco died. They did these things in big bold-faced caps on front pages lying askew on our kitchen table, like the special editions that spun to a halt in Batman. The world was a place of large events and collective responses, and I was sure, without even having to think about it, that someone, somewhere, was looking after things.
My best friend was a girl named Isabelle, whom I met within a few days of our moving to Oregon. She lived across the street, and one afternoon I wandered over to her house. She was in the back seat of her parents’ station wagon with a girl named Julie. They were swapping shirts, or at least that was the explanation, and laughing – laughing, it seemed, at the fact that I had caught them in the act. I saw pink ribbed fabric, a flash of white girlish flesh. Did I see a nipple? I think so, but it could be something I’ve grafted onto the scene since.
This was a brazenness I had never before encountered in a girl. It was a moment that much hinged on. It was the moment I realized – however inchoately – that it was possible to laugh at one’s own misbehaviour, to be half-clothed in inappropriate, quasi-public places, and to find funny the distress it occasioned in others. Isabelle frightened me that day. I was shy and assumed – again inchoately – that I’d be too innocent for her. I needn’t have worried. Within weeks, Isabelle and I were inseparable.
Isabelle’s mother was all housecoats and cigarettes, like a woman in a Tennessee Williams play. The frosted hair upturned at the ends, the way she inhabited a room – not exactly with disdain, but as though she were a citizen of somewhere else who had recently deplaned and found things not entirely to her satisfaction. She displayed an ironic regard for her husband and children that was entirely contrary to my own mother’s solicitousness. I see her on their brick patio, an ashtray perched on her thigh, one eye squinting against the updraft of cigarette smoke as her husband cranks the handle of an ice-cream maker. She looks the way smokers who die of the activity often do in retrospect: to have been working out their bargain with the devil.
She got sick the summer Isabelle and I were ten. I had no idea she was dying, but over the course of that summer Isabelle sank deeper and deeper into the bosom of her family. Nearly every time I called her to play, she said, Not today. I’d say, OK, and hang up, bewildered by her sudden, inexplicable rejection.
One day, I trudged across the street, yet again, to seek her company. (I see myself in the throes of a lumpen devotion: I just didn’t get it.) I knocked and her brother Jonathan answered but did not invite me in. Instead, he came outside and stood on the front porch with me. He was eighteen. He had sideburns like Byron and hid Playboys in the top of his closet. Isabelle and I had leafed greedily through them, as thrilled by the unprecedented success of our snooping as by the nudity itself.
‘Isabelle can’t come out today,’ he said quietly. ‘Our mother passed away this morning.’
What did I say? I don’t remember saying anything, except perhaps: Oh. I’m sure I didn’t say I was sorry; I didn’t yet know the vocabulary of condolence. I just remember looking at the ground, then turning back towards home. Three minutes later, I asked my brother, ‘If someone passes away, does that mean they die?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Why? Who died?’
His voice was beckoning but hesitant. He was worried I’d heard some dreadful news that he had yet to hear. I told him who’d died and asked him what I should do. I had begun to cry by then and he sat me on his knee.
‘You can’t really do anything,’ he said, ‘except appreciate our own mother even more.’
He was seventeen. How many things do we say at seventeen that make any sense at all?
As far as I can remember, Isabelle never once said to me: My mother died. Or: When my mother died … She never mentioned a word about her mother. The death was a thing that took place off-stage, unseen but altering, irrevocably, the course of events. Because afterwards, it was never the same between us. She was suddenly far ahead of me in life.
And there was, it seemed, nothing I could do for her. What I felt was not so much her pain as the acute discomfort her pain caused me – discomfort that reached its logical conclusion when, eventually, I gave up attempts at contact and cast my lot with kids not yet touched by such large and confusing grief. By the time she emerged from her mourning – slipping back into the stream of school days and kid-lives, like a driver merging barely noticed onto the highway – she was a muted and uncertain creature, radically altered, and we were strangers.
In the years that followed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had failed her in some ignoble and unforgivable way. In high school, I felt frivolous beside her. She went without make-up and didn’t style her hair. Her best friend was a boy. They went their dressed-down way together and it was to him, presumably, that she confided her sadness, her dreams of becoming a vet, and any memories she might have had of our little heaven on earth.
I don’t recall ever having had a single genuine conversation with her in high school (though it was certainly never the case that we ‘weren’t speaking’). I felt guilty when I saw her in the hallways. Maybe it was because, after those early years in which we’d shared everything, I kept on having a mother after she’d lost hers. Whatever the reason, I have wanted for a long time to tell her that I didn’t know what to do or how to console her. I’ve wanted to be forgiven, though I’ve never been sure what it is I did.
One of my brothers is dropping me off at the reunion. Friday night’s gathering, the first of three events over the course of a weekend, is held at a country club in Portland. As we pull into the parking lot, I spot a group of four women walking towards the party, all of them looking – from behind, at least – like supermodels. I sink lower in my seat.
‘What if nobody talks to me?’ I say, only half joking.
What if I have that awful feeling I sometimes have at a party: that not only is no one talking to me, but they are all talking about the fact that I have no one to talk to.
My self-consciousness is heightened by the fact that I have developed an oozing blister above my upper lip – some unprecedented and unidentifiable infection – which my nieces have been referring to as my ‘leprosy’. Since my arrival in town three days ago, we’ve all been working feverishly to alleviate it, applying all manner of ointment and vitamin treatment, but to no avail. The first thing they ask each morning is: ‘How is your leprosy today, Aunt Molly?’ And in their sing-songy voices: ‘It won’t be gone by the reunion.’
The only thing that makes it bearable is the way it heightens the whole high-school feel of this evening.
My brother forces me out of the car, and I head towards the clusters assembled at the door of the club house. Outside, there are two tables facing each other on which small badges are lined up, waiting to be collected. Pasted onto them are our yearbook photographs. I stare at the table, feigning absorption.
‘Oh my God!’ someone behind me cries.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘We thought you were, like, missing!’
‘Don’t you live in Eye-ur-land?’
‘Did you come all the way here from Eye-ur-land?’
‘Just to go to the reunion?’
‘Oh my God! You came all the way from Eye-ur-land?’
‘Just to come to this?’
‘Oh my God!’
The first ten minutes are surreal. These people, none of whom I’ve seen in twenty years, who have existed only as snapshots in my head, have suddenly acquired dimensions. I feel a definite resistance to their new 3-d personae. It’s like in a dream when figures from the past appear, do something inane, and sink back into the murk. I smile, waiting for them to dissolve, but they just keep standing there.
Then, suddenly, I relax. I slip into my old character like it’s a default position. I giggle, and with the same people I used to giggle with. Likewise for flirting. I don’t know whether to feel confirmed or disheartened by my consistency. I keep assuring people that my oozing blister is not an STD. I notice that the men all resemble linebackers, from excessive working out. And those who’ve aged noticeably look like actors in a movie who have been aged artificially and unconvincingly. Those who have lost their hair appear to be wearing bad fake scalps, like the ones you buy for Hallowe’en. The women have fared better. To my surprise, nearly all of them have ‘married names’.
Isabelle, I’m told, will be there tomorrow.
Moving through the room, I feel mildly amnesiac. I was sure, coming here, that at least a few people would be angry with me, and I know who they are. But I’m fuzzy on the details, or perhaps am hoping I’ve misremembered them. I have only a vague intuition of wrongdoing. I know, from having read case studies of amnesia, that even when the particulars refuse to stick, an emotional conviction can linger. I recall the story of a Dr Claparède who, in order to illustrate the presence of such unconscious or ‘implicit’ memory, concealed a pin in his hand when he shook hands with his amnesiac patient. Within minutes, the patient forgot that Dr Claparède had stabbed him, but nevertheless refused to shake his hand a second time.
I have some idea of how this poor patient felt. And yet I’m Dr Claparède too. I’m like Dr Claparède with amnesia, looking around at the people I half suspect I’ve stabbed.
Then even my implicit memory begins to fail me. I greet someone and can’t remember if my basic rapport with her was good or bad. Had I spent my school days taunting, shunning, snubbing her? Apparently not, for she greets me with a warmth that seems sincere. Perhaps she snubbed me, and I should be carrying the grudge, or at least letting on that I remember but making it clear that I am big enough not to carry a grudge. Who knows? Fitzgerald remarked that we tend to imagine other people’s opinions of us swinging wildly between extremes, when in fact other people hardly think about us at all. On the basis of that, I decide to assume the best.
Everybody has two kids and a ‘wonderful life’ for which they are ‘so grateful’. They strike me as distressingly happy. And so nice. I can’t trust it. Wasn’t high school a vipers’ pit of envy and anxiety? Or was I the only one who felt that? Or has everyone else who felt that stayed away from the reunion?
It’s not that there haven’t been tragedies. There have, and because we’re all still eighteen in my eyes, the experiences people relate sound dreadfully premature. C’s ex-wife is a heroin addict and he has sole custody of their boy. H’s young son was killed at a local tennis club when a tank of helium fell on his head, crushing his skull. G is in a wheelchair, for reasons I never learn.
And some of our classmates are dead. D fell out the back of a pick-up truck while on a hunting trip. T was eaten by a shark while kayaking off the coast of California during graduate school. The inseparable N and S died together in a car crash. M dropped dead of a brain haemorrhage after hanging up the telephone one day.
So there have been tragedies. But strangely, there is no sense of the tragic, just as there is no undercurrent of suspicion or resentment. I expected festering tribal antipathies, as though we were all the veterans of dark and senseless rural conflicts. But no. Life is fun. People are happy. They render their ups and downs in tones of genial acceptance. They are, I realize, grown-ups. They have lives. How did they get them? Do I have a life? I feel like I don’t (because I don’t have two kids?), and yet they seem to think I do. I have won second prize, after all, for having travelled the farthest. But have I ‘moved on’? And if so, why do I want to swim in the warm baby pool? Is it because I’m disappointed by life? No one else seems disappointed and yet they’re all here. But maybe they’re not here to swim in the baby pool. I don’t know what to believe, but one thing is sure: nobody is wrestling with demons. They’re too busy working for Nike.
My cachet comes from living in Europe, if only in the fifty-first state that is Ireland.
Again and again, I hear, ‘You live in Eye-ur-land? That is soah coah-ul.’
‘That is totally coah-ul.’
‘Doesn’t it, like, rain all the time?’
‘Is it just awesome there?’
‘Do you, like, totally love it?’
‘Actually,’ I say, ‘I’m not sure anymore.’
Later someone tells me I speak ‘the Queen’s English’. It reminds me of something Edmund White wrote about physical beauty at literary gatherings. It’s easy to shine at them, he said, because the standards are so low.
I had been planning to go to the first night only, to breeze into view and breeze out again. Back to Europe, or wherever. But with an enthusiasm that worries me, I attend the second night’s gathering as well. The party is in a small ballroom in a downtown hotel. When I go in, I see that there are booklets in the school colours scattered on the tables. They are our memory books. They remind us that in 1982, Gandhi won Best Picture. Barney Clarke received the first artificial heart. The FCC dropped limits on the duration and frequency of TV ads. Soft Cell sang ‘Tainted Love’. The minimum wage was $3.35.
There is an individual page devoted to each person who sent in his or her details. Everybody lists favourite high-school memories, present occupation, current favourite pastimes, and the highlights of life since high school. A number of people, I notice, mention the parties around K’s swimming pool. No one, I notice, says anything about togas.
I circulate, and while last night the talk seemed to centre on what we’re all doing now, tonight it consists mostly of reminiscences. I am shocked by how many things I’ve forgotten. Good things, wacky things, adventures that imbue a previous version of me with a devil-may-care attitude I have unfortunately abandoned in favour of a pointless and free-floating anxiety. L reminds me of a series of champagne breakfasts I organized in the spring of our final year. A select group – which included only my then boyfriend, our mutual friend L, and me – gathered in a house under construction before heading happily into school, our heads all fizzy with life.
Someone else reminds me of the night I drove off the road and into a ditch while fiddling with the radio in my mother’s car. It was after a football game and we could see headlights beginning to switch on just above us in the parking lot.
‘Remember,’ she says, ‘we had to try and push it out before the crowd started coming down the hill. You thought it was so funny.’
Two people tell me they knew I would be a writer because I was the only one who wrote something in the school yearbook.
I was? I did? I have no idea what they’re talking about. In fact, I don’t remember any of these things. How could I forget champagne breakfasts, the sun shining in the Pacific Northwest, all of life lined up before me? A perfect morning in that perfect year. I didn’t even know I was lucky. I just got what I wanted and didn’t stop to wonder if other people did too. At some unconscious level, I assumed they did. Because life was like that and things had a way of working out. Life was a constant round of accomplishments and celebrations. It was easy and fun and it was going to last forever.
* * *
Isabelle looks remarkably the same. She still has long straight hair and wears no make-up. She greets me with uncomplicated warmth, says she’d been asking around for me and had hoped I’d be here. We exchange details of what we do – she’s a physiotherapist, married, two kids. As we talk, I wait for some indication of a long-nursed grudge, but can detect none.
Oddly, she raises the subject of my mother – about how after her divorce, when she was nearly fifty, she got the job writing for the local newspaper and re-invented herself as a single mother and a breadwinner. How she was always in good spirits.
‘I really admired her,’ Isabelle says.
This is the perfect opening for me to say something about her mother. About how sorry I was – or am – about her death and about my twenty-seven-year silence on the subject. But I hesitate and we begin to swap grade-school reminiscences. She reminds me of the time I had a large matt in my hair, which I cut out and hung from the ceiling of my bedroom.
‘Oh my God,’ I say slowly. ‘I actually remember that.’ How appalling. How Tracey Emin.
I remind her of her shirt-swapping escapade in the back of the station wagon. She shakes her head. No recollection of it whatsoever.
‘How could you not remember that?’ I say. ‘It was one of the defining moments of my childhood.’
I remind her of how she led me astray over those years, of how innocent I was until I met her, and she shakes her head again and says matter-of-factly, ‘No, it was the other way around.’
The whole time we’re talking, I feel the spectre of her mother hovering. But there’s nothing to indicate that she does too. Bringing up death, in this context, seems melodramatic, or just rude. I don’t do it. I never mention her mother and I don’t make my apology. There is no startling denouement to our meeting, no sudden comprehension of old confusions. One thing is clear: she is not angry with me, and I leave not knowing if she ever was.
In the weeks that follow I think often of Isabelle. I’m ashamed to say that one of my most abiding memories is of the two of us mercilessly teasing a certain boy in our sixth-grade class, when we were eleven. I also remember Isabelle’s boyfriend that year, and my own. I remember our classroom and our eccentric bleach-blonde teacher who treated us as a pair, and who travelled during breaks to places like Madagascar. My family had moved to the Ghetto prior to that school year and I no longer lived across the road from Isabelle, but Isabelle and I were still going strong, still getting up to our old tricks.
And then, for the first time, I realize that if these memories of her come from the time after we’d moved, they also come from the time after the summer of her mother’s death. Which means that our friendship did survive beyond that point. But if her mother’s death wasn’t what came between us, what did happen to our friendship? And why did I write the history of its demise the way I did?
I wanted big events to have had big consequences. Like any conscientious story-teller, I wanted internal coherence. I wanted to make linear what was jumbled, to create a simplified tale of cause and effect. And yet I also cast myself as someone at the mercy of forces beyond her control. I constructed a narrative of paradise lost, of incomprehension and abandonment, and of emergence – chastened – into a more precarious reality.
I designated the day of her mother’s death as the beginning of the end of Eden. Within a year, my father had lost his job, we’d moved from our idyllic house, my eldest brother had begun to manifest symptoms of schizophrenia, and my parents had separated. The soul errors were multiplying; things fractured, then fell apart. But in my final year in high school, all the pieces of the world temporarily fell into place again.
I couldn’t say to my sister, when she asked me why I was going to the reunion, that I wanted to revisit the paradise I’d regained. That I wanted to remember what it felt like to trust life.
On Monday, the anchorman who used to have the toga parties gives me a lift to the airport. We were buddies in high school and now he is strange and familiar at the same time. Meeting him is like meeting my younger self. What would it be like, I wonder, to meet the dear friends of our future? It would tell us who we’d turned out to be.
I ask him to detour through the neighbourhood where Isabelle and I lived, and he obliges. The phases of my life nest one inside the other: the present, myself at eighteen, myself at ten. We stop in front of my old house and together peer into the silence. It’s dark, it seems insistently sombre, this place that is only ever framed by summer in my mind. The house next door to ours, which belonged to my father’s dance partners, has been levelled. In its place, a mock castle with huge hideous turrets. And then Isabelle’s house. The tree we hung upside-down from, the driveway where I met her, the front porch on which I’d stood that morning. Everything looks the same, in the way things hardly ever do. Her house is still itself, much more than mine is.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 11 Summer 2003