Class Reunion

Senior Banquet 1966

Fifty minutes remains until the time arbitrarily assigned for my departure. Fifty minutes until I load the backpack I’ve borrowed from my daughter into my car. It contains the clothes and shoes I’ll wear tonight and the clothes I’ll wear tomorrow, along with toiletries and other items I may or may not need. Fifty minutes until I ease down my rain-rutted gravel drive and traverse the dusty dirt road to hit the county road and then the highway and then the route north.

I will drive for two and one half hours, hours to fidget in my seat as countless half-formed scenarios scroll through my head along with tentative smiles, greetings, and snatches of conversation I imagine making. Hours to panic further about this long anticipated event.

My fifty year class reunion.

Despite the cliché in all this, I’m not sure I’ll survive. But then of course I will, unless fate takes some kind of wicked glee in choosing this time and place to terminate my time on this earth. I’ve soothed my frayed nerves with the image of myself back home tomorrow night—not that far away—where I’ll sit on my familiar couch with my TV remote in my hand and try to let the static die away.

Forty-five minutes now. Mental checklist—underwear, toothpaste, my morning requirements of oolong tea in its strainer and a mango ready for my waking in a strange hotel room in a town I haven’t lived in for fifty years.

A town where so much of the tangled fabric of my life was woven in ways I, even now, have not untangled. It’s a place sadly diminished in the thirty years since its major industry closed up shop, yet signs of revival dot Main Street. Public housing covers the block where our venerable red brick school building once stood with its red-curtained stage, with its hallways that smelled faintly of janitorial chemicals and teenaged angst, with classrooms haunted by teachers we still hear explaining the details of osmosis and conjugation. Long dead.

This will be the fifth time I’ve returned. The first was for the funeral of a close friend when we were twenty-two. The rest of the visits have been class reunions. Since the 30th in 1996, I haven’t been back. Too much to stand in a room full of strangers knowing that once I could have called them by name. Too much to watch their faces as they read my name tag then glance at my face as if they too are staring at a stranger.

The fiftieth is different. People who’ve never been to a class reunion before are coming now. Fifty is a milestone. An arbitrary line in the sand. Those of us still living will step over it.

A half hour until I embark on this journey. I’ve tried to convince myself that it will be good to get out on the highway. It’s been too long since I set out on a road trip, let the wind blow my hair, watched the lines fly past on the pavement. I could be going anywhere.

A half hour to feel my stomach tighten even more. The first man I loved will be there. The cheerleaders will be there. The jocks. The money kids. The fellow nerds—members of the band, the choir, the thespians and class clowns. The girls who married young. The ones I didn’t really know. There were 235 of us.

Only a fraction will show up, maybe fifty or seventy. They will look old. They will look like that unrecognizable person who stares back at me in the mirror.

I think of prom and the formals I wore. I think of the shops I haunted on Main Street, the places that sold Vassarette lingerie and dyed to match satin high heels and Evening in Paris perfume, aisles I haunted in search of what it might mean to be a woman. I’ll revisit the drive-ins at either end of town where cars loaded with friends made the turn to once again ‘drag Main’ and remember the hours we spent forging our place in a world we hardly knew.

I don’t want to think of these things. I don’t want the tears that will undoubtedly sting my eyes as I look around the room tonight and see people who are like family in my memory and strangers to me now.

I’m on the road. A high sky of intense blue frames my journey. The land shifts from wooded hillsides to flat prairie. The town comes into view, the town where so much has changed and nothing has changed.

I wade into a room full of people I once knew. The dinner where we gather narrows and concentrates the experience as I try and fail to hold myself apart from the emotion. Hugs, laughter, squinting down to read name tags. Joy in reconnecting after so much time.

Hours pass as each in turn stands to tell of his or her life. How many children, grandchildren. Jobs, travels. Each one speaks on what defines them. Or what they thought everyone expected them to say. Or what they could remember of hastily gathered thoughts now scattered as the microphone shakes in their hands.

In my hotel room at midnight, I realize these hours will be forever reduced to an ephemeral moment in time.

The beauty of our youth transformed to the sags, lines, and the weight of adventures great and small, hopes fulfilled, dreams lost, loves too great to calculate, tragedies too terrible to remember. Burdened and enriched, we glance at each other from a vantage we’ve only just now gained.

These are our lives framed in this moment between where we face each other in this banquet room and the time we faced each other in caps and gowns. It’s a marking of the passage of time in a way more visceral than we anticipated, tears standing in our eyes as familiar young faces from our yearbook appear as big-screen images, a slow scroll of those who have died. Like we all will die, the reminder too close for comfort.

In this room, I see women where girls once stood, men in place of boys, our gaze reflecting our singular paths through time. The girl who played flute, the guy writing formulas at the chalk board. The intellectuals. The invisible ones. That’s not who they are now. And yet it is.

This man I loved when we were young—we’re still connected in ways beyond time. I value the time we spend together, catching up. Looking at the town, the places we thought we’d remember, but no, wait, wasn’t it another block down, that house where he once lived, another that once belonged to my family? He laughs and says Sonic chili dogs have lost none of their outrageous charm, he the transplant to the glittering northeast where that uniquely southern talent for perfect chili cheese dogs remains elusive.

All of us share this struggle to reacquaint ourselves with who we once were. We try to discover in each other’s faces what if anything it means about who we are now. Our eyes reflect our grief in the inexorable passage of time, a ticking clock quickly marking off this momentary memorial to our youth and all those years we saw each other day after day in class, across the gym at sock hops, at pep rallies and football games, in the cafeteria where even now, if ghosts still walked, the smell of yeasty rolls would lie heavy in the noontime air.

The essence of what we were then is what we are now. We are gentle with each other as we seek that affirmation.

Bittersweet thoughts rise and fall in the late afternoon sky that frames my journey home. Tattered white clouds drift across a faded azure dome. The road winds as I re-enter hill country. I’m tired. I want my own bed.

Overwhelming sadness edges in. The event has come and now gone. I doubt I’ll ever see most of these people again. There may be more reunions—a fifty-fifth, the sixtieth. When I took my mother to her seventy-third, no one else was there.

I am thankful to have shared a brief moment in time with others who remember the same teachers, the rattling locker doors and dim hallways, the same gossip and scandals. We shared a time in our lives when all things were possible, when everything seemed larger than life, rife with pivotal moments.

I have lingered too long in the past. Long ago when I left that town, I made a point to live without regret. I rushed out to embrace the adventure. What I knew then I know even more strongly now. I stand on all that came before. But life only moves forward.

Best Burger Ever

Brenda’s Bigger Burger circa 2012. The metal railing was added when a street widening took half the parking lot. Photo from an article by Dustin Bartholomew, November 8, 2012, in the Fayetteville Flyer, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Today was one of those days when I came face to face with the passage of time. In traffic at a stoplight, I studied my surroundings and realized that Brenda’s Bigger Burger property sat vacant with a big ‘SOLD’ sign on the parking lot. A pang of nostalgia twisted in my chest. I knew it had closed. I just hadn’t thought about what it meant.

Through no fault of its own, the place always marked a pivotal moment in my life.

I never knew Brenda’s Bigger Burger existed until December 1970. Never mind that it stood on the corner of 6th and South Hill, an intersection I had passed countless times growing up. Several blocks further down South Hill nestled the modest little white building where my parents dragged us kids to church every time the doors opened.

On this particular weekend, my church-going days had long since passed. Finally. Now at the end of my first semester back at university after nearly three years living in California, I sat in the front passenger seat of Sam Holloway’s white Ford Galaxie waiting impatiently for our food. I was starving.

In retrospect, I realize that my ravenous appetite had not just a little to do with my first marijuana ‘high’ the previous night.

Momentous enough in its own right, my initiation into the drug culture hardly topped the chart of radical changes that occurred that night. Even more staggering was the fact that I had unexpectedly become unfaithful to my husband.

I could lay all this at the feet of Sam Holloway, a friend of an old friend whom I’d encountered on campus just a few days earlier. Old Friend and I were both married, him in grad school and me finishing my bachelors. We agreed to get together sometime.

‘Sometime’ turned out to be one evening a few days later when he called and wanted to stop by with a friend. They brought a six-pack. I was on my second glass of Chablis.

When Old Friend and Holloway arrived stamping snow off their shoes at my carport door, I was baking banana nut bread to send to my husband. He was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines earning a captain’s hazardous duty pay as a courier flying in and out of Southeast Asia with top secret missives. Our separation had begun in late September, an eighteen-months’ tour for him before he could get out of the military and enough time for me to finish my degree.

I’d been lonely. I’d fretted over whether to dally, an inclination I’d fought even while still in California. We’d been together five years, married for nearly three. We’d discussed new ideas like open marriage but hadn’t made any moves.

That doesn’t excuse what I did. In an open marriage, there would have been an agreement. This was more delicious and awful than that, unplanned, unexpected, and entirely outrageous.

Old Friend passed out on his fourth beer and snored at the end of the couch. Having no other furniture, I sat in the middle of the couch and Holloway leaned back on the other end, his hand-tooled alligator cowboy boots crossed at the ankle. Twirling one end of his elaborate mustache, he pulled a skinny yellow cigarette out of his jacket pocket and flicked his Zippo. Sweet smelling smoke spiraled from the tip.

Several minutes later, the ‘high’ hit me with a warm caress on the back of my neck. My forehead floated upward. Lights dazzled. Colors like the black and white plaid sofa and the big red and yellow candlesticks I’d made out of flower pots began to pulse. Even more intriguing were Holloway’s green eyes.

Incredible as we found it, we’d been born on the same day in the same town. His mother and my father both taught school at Rogers before we moved away. My father was remembered there, Holloway said.

It was the Chablis. It was the weed. It was the strange coincidence of our connections and the scintillating repartee that flew back and forth between us. It was a slice of time cut from both our regular lives and set aside for this experience.

The next morning every icy surface including the streets glistened in bright sunshine. The ground had been white with snow for two days. Just driving across town to Brenda’s had been an slippery adventure. He insisted on Brenda’s, so that’s where he took me.

The food came out steaming hot, a sizzling beef patty on a big round bun. My teeth sank into the burger and saliva instantly flooded my mouth. Yellow mustard! Fresh sliced onion! Dills lovingly arranged so that each bite included just enough pickle. Tomato when real tomatoes were all you could get.

The burger and fries came wrapped in thin tissue paper, enough layers that when Holloway spread out the fries on the seat between us, the fat didn’t seep through to the upholstery. Heaped in long limp strands, the fries were salty golden treasure.

My hands trembled as I ate. I savored my Dr. Pepper down to the last crunchy nugget of ice. For the third time in less than 24 hours, I died and went to heaven.

I broke two more promises before it all ended. One I broke immediately, my promise never to smoke cigarettes again. After we’d crumpled the mustard-stained tissue papers, Holloway pulled out his pack of Winstons. My brand.

The other, the promise to myself that I’d never do that again? I lasted ten days. The affair lasted a scant two months before we both moved on. The marriage lasted another three years.

When the day arrives that Brenda’s building falls before the bulldozer blade, I can tell you right now—I will shed tears. Not only for Holloway or what we had. Not only for the marriage or the man I never quite stopped loving.

My tears will also fall for the fact that there’ll never be a better burger than the one I ate that day.

[From an untitled work in progress which may or may not see print in my lifetime…]