MY HIGH SCHOOL'S TWENTIETH REUNION was at the airport Sheraton which meant it was totally doable to have another bloody Mary in the airport bar I’d situated myself in two drinks ago by the window. I watched the loading and unloading of luggage outside when I wasn’t thumbing through the yearbook I’d brought to help me identify old friends and foes. Many in the book were with me all the way from middle school to senior year. For all I knew, none of them blinked an eye when I decided to drop out near the end due to an incredibly slight oversight on my part to the tune of about six credits. They weren’t there to see me procure a G.E.D. a few years later, nor my bachelors after, and certainly not my masters or my first teaching job. Definitely not a teacher, not Eric Day, class clown and drop out.
But here I was, in from Arizona to overcast Oregon, having suited up in the airport bathroom, and taken the time to sit in one of those high chairs to have my scuffy brown teacher shoes publicly shined by a man that snapped his towels and moved his brushes as deftly as any Hollywood stereotype. They were Clarks, the same brand worn by about 90% of male teachers, and the same model as my mentor before me. I looked at them now, proudly, and thought about what lie ahead, already hearing the questions.
“What do you do?”
“How have you been spending the last two decades?”
“Phoenix? Really? Phoenix?”
Portland’s late summer dusk was roiling over with a gray sheath from the west. The hurling luggage outside looked like salmon arching upstream, and the oversized clock on the wall said it was about time I went upstream myself.
It would be the first time I talked to anyone from high school in twenty years.
I left my bag with the concierge and headed down the fancy wing to the hall. I could hear the 80’s music as I approached, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” all the doors open to it, showing darkness, lasers and strobe lights. A wave of laughter rose up and I thought: oh God, which middle-aged person is break dancing? I made it to the greeter’s table where name badges were lined up alphabetically. Just a glance at them filled me with terror. I sidestepped this and worked my way through the crowds to look in at the darkened hall. It was smaller than a gym and a DJ was laying down more 80’s beats, currently Duran Duran’s “Rio”, while people stood in groups by the dance floor and sat at the round tables. A few peered at the playlist illuminating the DJ’s face with iPod light and snickered.
Outside the hall was the bar and further down a glass wall of exits and enough room for some stand-up tables and the occasional potted floor plant. After pinning my name badge to my chest I went directly to the bar, got my rum and Coke and wandered. From the back of the bar line to the hall entryways there was about fifteen feet of congregated people. Clusters, it seemed, of already established friends. What we used to call cliques. I avoided them and stood near the greeter’s table with my drink, watching for new arrivals.
I heard someone in the crowd say, “Oh, my God, is that Eric Day?” but I pretended I didn’t hear. I felt a creeping self-consciousness and didn’t want to make it worse by appearing desperate. No one else seemed to be alone and I noticed all wore the opposite sex closely on their arms, like shields. I could make out alumni from spouse by the possessiveness with which they clung, and I wished my wife and I could’ve afforded to bring us both; I missed her dearly. I remembered my friend Matt’s words, though, spoken to me some weeks earlier. We were on the bench after three sets of tennis in the July dusk back in Phoenix. I’d told him about the reunion with a scoff.
“It would be awful,” he agreed.
“I know,” I said.
“But you have to go,” he said. “You just have to go.”
The guy who called my name was Jim K—, a man I remember as a boy whose earnestness was matched by none. When that earnestness was betrayed, which was all too often, his face would turn bright red and bitter barbs would fly. Then it would pass and he was back to his old earnest self. We often called him a dweeb. Now he looked exactly the same, just a little wider in an expensive suit. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me.
“I just said to Mark A—, hey is that Eric Day? And then here you are, Eric Day.”
He did not have a spouse on his arm, despite a very handsome wedding ring.
I beat him to the punch. “Hey, Jim, what you been doing?”
“Cell phone towers,” he said in a way that made me fear he was going to pull out wallet sizes. “My own business.”
And as though on cue up came a tall blonde who wrapped her arm around Jim’s waist. “My amazing wife,” he said, sheepish. “This is Eric Day.”
She held her hand out like a person at the perfume counter; she was soft as a peach, and a few inches taller than already tall Jim. “Where are you from, Eric?”
I told her Phoenix and this made Jim stand at attention. “Hon, Eric here’s from Phoenix, okay?” Then he turned to me. “Tell her, how do you like it?”
I glanced back at the glass doors, which were shimmering with rain. “I love it,” I said. “Lots of sunshine.”
Jim’s wife then stepped across him to get confidentially close to me. “Yes,” she said, drolly. “But what about the ants, aren’t there biting varieties there, fire ants?”
A bit flummoxed, I conceded. “But it’s the opposite of Portland, there you get 300 days of sunshine,” I said, but it was too late. The point was decided upon ants.
“Okay, okay,” Jim said, granting all over the place his wife had won the point. “We have a second home outside Phoenix, see, and I love it, and want to make it our primary residence, have our kids go to school. Spend our summers in Oregon. But she’s, well, doubtful.”
“That sounds great to me,” I said. “The best of both worlds, right?”
“See, hon, that’s what I’ve been saying.”
Jim’s hon narrowed her eyes at me. “What do you do in Arizona, Eric?”
“I teach high school English.”
She looked vaguely impressed—maybe surprised that her entrepreneurial husband cavorted with such types. “I’ve looked into it, but how do you, being one on the inside, think the school system compares? You do teach public, yes?”
“Yes, charter. An art’s-based charter.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, and lifting her drink over those nearby she fluttered away from us.
I thought Jim, down two points now, would be upset. But I found him smiling at me from ear to ear.
“I can’t believe you teach. I mean, imagine the karma. You were the clown, the one throwing spit wads and when the teacher turned his back, you’d screech, remember, Caw! Caw! Caw!”
Watching Jim flap his arms and impersonate my bird sounds without a trace of self-consciousness for the many who were staring, I sure didn’t feel like a teacher. I saw, though, that he could do anything he wanted. He had confidence, the kind athletes possess or those who are on certain types of prescription drugs. Or those with a lot of money.
“Hey, Eric Day here’s a teacher!” he announced, lifting his arms up and down like a great eagle.
Some around us frowned and then laughed as my pranks came back to them and Jim was swallowed up now in a new circle. I turned and headed to the glass doors, thinking I just may head straight back to the airport when I was stopped by my name being spoken by a female.
“Eric Day,” she grabbed my arm. It was Gretchen B—, my old girlfriend in the 8th grade. She was showing cleavage she never used to have. Again, she looked the same, only bulkier, puffier about the cheek and jowls.
“658-3012,” I said, reciting her old phone number.
“Oh, Eric,” she said. “Will you call me after you get off the bus?”
“Even before snack,” I said. “Until our ears get sore.”
She gave me the terrific laugh of old, one that managed to say all at once that she was totally with me, that I had her, and that she was absolutely joyful in giving it.
“Just got here,” I said. “What’s going on tonight?”
In the space of a second, she got more serious and factual, and I imagined her sitting these many years in some corporate center under the rainy skies, sitting that brought an end to such humor, that rendered it unprofitable. She gave me a very clipped inventory. “There’s the music, shuffled by our very own Stevie R, his was the Motley Crue cover band that opened the festivities, a dance floor though no one has yet to partake, and a slide show of days past and days present, and of course the buffet. We’ll be eating shortly. Have you got yourself a table yet?”
“I have a table back in Phoenix,” I said.
The inventory-worried Gretchen faded as she laughed again. She squeezed my elbow—a uniquely adult action, I thought. “Eric Day, I’m sure glad to see you. I had the biggest crush on you.”
“Me, too,” I said. “I mean, on myself. Anyway, would you like a drink?”
“Actually, it’s back at our table. Why don’t you come on in to where all the action’s happening?”
It was so dark in the hall I instantly felt better. My white shirt seemed to glow, my dark tie a cut down the middle. Her table was located right up by the dance floor. “We used to slow dance to Journey,” I said. “Foreigner.”
“That we did,” she said, looking into her drink and stirring it. “That we did.”
Right now it was a new wave offering, the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now.” People in nice clothes were everywhere, but we were sitting below their radar, giving us a certain kind of privacy. The slides up on the screen showed people with 80’s hair, followed up with contemporary versions embracing 2.5 children in front of snowy or pine-laden cardboard backdrops.
“So tell me everything,” she said. “I always wondered about you. What happened to you?”
I tried to tell her everything, and just like on the phone when our ears got sore, she was on every word, not one iota of detectable wavering.
“Wow, a high school teacher, really? English, obviously, as I could see you really being good at that, actually.”
“I try, sometimes,” I said. “What’s been up with you?”
“Brace yourself,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
I uncrossed my legs and put my feet down flat. Now the music was Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer.”
“Got married after high school and had two kids. Now I’m a legal assistant.”
“You still live in Oregon?”
“Oh, yeah. You bet. Look around you, everyone does.”
“Wow,” I said. I tried to look impressed. “Wow.”
Then I asked, “What’s the best part of your life?”
“My family,” she said. “Yep, definitely my family.”
“Nice,” I said. “I bet you’re a great mom.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
She may’ve been tearing up; with all the disco ball shimmer it was hard to tell.
Luckily I was saved by a skinny albino I didn’t recognize who plunked himself down right between us. “Eric,” he said, looking at Gretchen. “Don’t you know everybody in their right and wrong minds had a crush on Gretchen, and still does? Give us a little time, quit hogging her.”
“Agreed,” I said, and I got up, indicating my need of a drink. After smiling goodbye at me, Gretchen gave her full attention to her newest confessor as I wended my way through the tables and out.
By the time I’d gotten my drink something ridiculous had begun in the hall. A squat, spotlighted fellow in a letterman’s sweater stood up front speaking into a microphone. “It’s late in the 4th and Barlow High is down…”
The slideshow continued to loop, old shots mixed with new, lean and scrawny to bulk and puff, married and kids. So many kids. Most in the hall were seated and I realized I had nowhere to sit. Gretchen was next to who I guessed was her husband and the rest of the table was full. At the table closest to where I stood there was a spot, but when the guy sitting next to it saw me looking, he covered the seat with a purse. No one comes to these things alone, I thought, and began to sink into a self-pity that emptied me faster than I could empty my drink. Looking down at my shoes, a drum roll knocked me loose. The squat man put down the mike and performed several handsprings across the dance floor. He landed on his feet some time later and after a cheer went up that was half relief and half gasp, the man lifted a megaphone of school colors and said into it, “Bruins, dinner is served!”
The applause died down as people rose and headed toward the steaming buffet tables. Again, this kind of thing was best done with a significant other, I thought, and felt everyone was looking at me. Finishing my drink, I got in line and grabbed a plate, disappearing among the hungry. I hoped to solve my problem of where to sit on the way through the hall with my full plate. I didn’t. Looking everywhere as I pretended looking nowhere, I ran out of options and simply went out the doors, pretending for the bar man’s quizzical look as I passed him that I had a pressing matter that not only required my attention but a steaming plate as well. I walked to the lobby. It was a big place. There were other wings. Could I meld into another party? Be accepted by new strangers? Under the lobby’s massive chandelier I realized I lacked silverware.
I went down another wing toward the sounds of a different hall, hoping to find a fork along the way. There wasn’t. I saw a room full of swaying Orientals with loosened ties singing karaoke en masse and drinking from bottles of liquor. Everything else was shut. I checked the ground floor suites for room service trays left outside the door—nothing. So I took the first side exit I found and stood under a dripping bough beside a garbage receptacle and ate with my hands in the rainy night. I devoured every last new potato and broccoli floret, all the flaccid penne and peas, half out of drunken hunger, half out of wanting to get something tangible out of the evening.
I dropped the plate in the garbage receptacle and went back in. Washing my hands in the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and wondered how much further I had to go before I hit bottom. I dried my hands and headed back to the festivities to find out. At the threshold of the hall, I saw some antics going on as people dined, recreations of scenes on the football field maybe, or else teacher impersonations. It was hard to tell.
A group of athletic guys got up and headed out, and when I nodded at them as they went to the bar behind me, their rambunctious attitudes seemed to lessen. I felt they were blaming me, even whispering about me, that I was sapping their good energy and filling it with my shame and loneliness. Then I did something I couldn’t believe. I drew away suddenly to the glass doors as though positioning myself for optimum reception and proceeded to take a call on my nonexistent cell phone. I used my ear closest to the wall and talked into my hand. I thought it funny and a little sad, as I noticed the jocks weren’t looking at me anymore. They were giving me privacy, respect. Being alone and quiet is perceived as a weakness in our world, but whip out a cell phone and suddenly you’re invulnerable, a person of some importance even, mystery. I actually said things out loud:
“Well, that depends.”
“Ha! You would say that.”
“Overcast now, some rain. Big surprise!”
“I don’t know how long.”
It made me laugh and want to cry. I spoke into my empty hand near a potted plant and a window full of rain, walked the lazy pace and made the facial expressions I’d seen on people talking on real phones.
The bar crowd dispersed when Frankie Goes to Hollywood blared forth and the laser beams multiplied. I stopped playing airphone, but not before checking the time and pocketing it. I went to the bar and saw the money in my hand trembling. It had given me a sick rush and I needed to sit.
The establishment seemed to expect more business; a second bar was assembled as though from thin air and two bow-tied, stripe-shirted men with large cases started putting together roulette and blackjack tables down by the glass doors. And soon they came, crowds upon crowds of the vaguely familiar, heading to the bar and casino tables, some to smoke in the night. They gathered around until I was dwarfed. 80’s music still blared, now Howard Jones’ “What is Love?,” and I guessed there was dancing going on, but clearly thirst had gotten the better of most. Booze, easy wins, or rainy air—I chose the latter and began snaking my way through the crowds. But I was stopped again, this time by the extremely large hand of the event’s coordinator, a guy named Ryan I’d exchanged emails with a few times before coming. He’d been the kind of red-haired nerd who was so smart you couldn’t tease him. Now he was a towering, beaming capitalist. I imagined his spouse to be somewhere around eight feet tall. He clapped me on the back, and even though we were of equal height, I felt that I was his child.
“Eric Day,” he said. “The teacher.” The way he said it, even I was convinced I was not a teacher. “Dean C— is looking for you. He’s got late stage, very advanced arthritis.” This announcement made him highly amused, and I could smell the bait. He waited for me to say something mean, like I would have about twenty years ago.
I just managed to thank him as behind me I heard “Caw! Caw! Caw!” and there was Jim K— waving at me at the bar. I figured I’d find less intimidating types outside smoking. I did, Dean C— among them.
Dean, who ran into a barbed wire fence riding motorcycles in the 8th grade that left a scar across his face like the darting tongue of a snake. He was a nice guy through and through, but his Iron Maiden and Triumph sleeveless shirts coupled with that scar let you know he could kick your ass five ways to Sunday, if he so chose.
I found him outside surrounded by women and standing beside a bench toking on the last specks before the filter. He was bent and craggy but when he saw me his face lit up as bright as the coal in his crooked fingers. He stomped it out with his braided black loafer and headed over.
He wore frameless glasses and a gray suit that looked like it was pulled out of a 1992 Penny’s catalogue that very morning. His hair was thin almost to a point of nonexistence. His scar had melded into his skin, pale as a waning bruise. “Eric Day,” he said. “Eric Day.”
I repeated his name twice as well and he appreciated the gesture.
“What are you doing now?”
“Teaching high school.”
“Really! Teaching high school. Wow.” His voice was high as he tried to refrain from laughing, not meanly, but more to keep his from blowing apart. “Man, that’s great.”
Then I heard from behind me, “If he was my teacher I’d shove an apple up his motherfucking ass.”
I turned around to see someone with short black hair and a black beard, like a fit Bluto, standing at least six and a half feet tall, and squinting at me.
I stuttered when I recognized who it was, Joe F—, a guy who’d hated me for the minimal acclaim I got from my constant attempts at wit and smart cracks. My jokes went over well with most, but Joe knew a cheap joke when he heard one. Feebly, as though he’d just pushed me into a locker, I held out my hand. He looked at it like it was a dead fish. His arms were crossed over an expansive leather coat whose blackness matched his beard and eyes.
The women at the bench were watching, silent now. In my peripheral I saw many people moving about inside, decent, law-abiding people. He looked over my shoulder and smiled.
“Ah, shit, man,” Dean squealed, and proceeded to sincerely lose it. “You had him, man. You had him!”
The two shook hands and whooped it up as I slowly fit the pieces together. The women smiled, lit cigarettes, one of them warning, “Guys, teacher…” and pretending to hide the smokes.
“I see nothing!” I said in my best Sergeant Shultz, a reference to the old TV show Hogan’s Heroes which was picked up by no one. Joe came near as Dean sat, apparently from necessity, on the bench among his harem.
“Dude, you’re a teacher?” Joe asked, his tone turning heads.
I said, “I guess they’ll let anyone do it.”
“Yeah, didn’t you, like, drop out?”
“Not a problem,” I said to universal amusement. “The teaching profession’ll take anyone, as long as you can hold a piece of chalk.”
Back in their good graces, I then gingerly asked Joe what he’d been up to. “Prison time,” he said, with a hardened pride, and loud enough so everyone could hear. “Brief prison time before working construction.” Then we heard about him entering a toxic marriage wherein he’d inhaled enough toxic stimulants to down a cow. Hell, a herd of cows, and the Jolly Green Giant to boot. He reached in his pocket, looked furtively around the grounds. “Smoke, anyone?” he whispered.
Dean, a former pot head of epic proportions, explained that his arthritis and diabetes meds rendered weed a non-doable. Joe held up his hands, said, “Just kidding,” and everybody laughed.
Then Joe clenched his teeth. “The fucker!” he said, and all heads followed his squinting eyes to the goings-on inside. “How dare he show his face here!”
“Harrison,” Dean said, breaking out laughing. “Shit. Are we busted?”
It was old coach Harrison coughing up dough at the roulette table. He spent most of his time teaching health and coaching football, but everyone remembered him for his parking lot duty busting us for smoking out and ditching. Joe crushed his plastic cup in his hand, ice cascading to the ground.
“I’ll kill him,” he said. “The dick!”
Dean, curled up like a monkey in the crotch of a tree, lit a kazoo-sized pipe in the wind and inhaled, his face going hard as he held his breath. Cracking up at my stare, smoke blasted forth. “Teacher,” he said. He passed the pipe among the girls, who freely partook, ending with Joe who sucked on the thing as though it was his mortal enemy. I went in to the bar before I had to publicly refuse marijuana, always an awkward affair. I intended to come right back, but I heard someone say, “Eric Day!” as I stood in line. I took my drink over to the stand-up table Mark A— occupied by himself, a supremely confident and kind-looking guy. We’d shared a locker our freshman year, though after that we didn’t talk much. He was the kind of geek that watched Dr. Who and could quote Monty Python sketches verbatim with an accent, yet listened to Rush and The Police before anyone else thought it cool. I spoke to him for a good 10-15 minutes and in that time we were interrupted 10-15 times by passers-by saying hello to Mark and looking at me strangely, and Mark would issue a genuine greeting and smile. It was like talking to a governor.
“So you’re teaching now, is that it?” he asked. “That’s great.”
“Yeah, I like it,” I said, but I sensed he thought I was lying. After all, how many showed up to these things claiming they were, say, an architect and the dame on their arm was a rental from the escort section of the local yellow pages? How would anyone know?
To my inquiries about him he said he worked for a “major credit card company, marketing division.” In answer to my MFA he announced he’d just earned his MBA, for the heck of it. “Just one letter difference, though,” he said.
“And how many tens of thousands in salary?”
“Right,” he said, the confidence blooming in his chest and face. I could see my former comrades outside, shivering and smoking, pedestrians of a different world. Dean was up on his feet showing Joe his twisted hands and laughing at them.
“All right, folks!” we heard from the hall and suddenly everyone started to leave the bar area and go in.
Mark seemed to feel pressure to join the rest, as if votes depended on it, and began edging away. He offered me a very warm and soft hand. “Nice talking,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, and wondered what to say next: “Seeya later? Take care? If you’re ever in Arizona?” In the end I said nothing, and let myself be swept in with the flow.
Corralled inside, we gathered on the dance floor for a new class picture. There seemed to be a lot of camaraderie and private joke making as I stood in the back in the tall section. People laughed and I had no idea why. So I laughed right along with them. Everything was funny in the glimmering dark. The ironies were abundant, the remembrances bitter sweet, the flashes washing us with white light. I almost pulled out my airphone to place a call to everyone I knew to notify them of these amazing happenings, of this most dazzling of nights.
The 80’s hits were left behind, replaced by celebratory contemporary pop, as though to say look at us now, how we on the dance floor have arrived, triumphant, all grown up. I watched the dancing from the outskirts. There was Gretchen with her husband. She caught me staring and looked away. Jim K— and all the other former nerds, geeks, and dweebs, now rich execs with business degrees and trophy wives, were cutting it up with abandon, snapping their fingers and jiggling their hips in full view.
My old tribe never found me. Only Joe did, coming in stolid as ever, finding me in the dark. He came nearer, his eyes lit up, beaming with a grin, then his laugh came next, which overtook the poppy soundtrack and was a laugh that said it all—just like always, those who danced were fools!
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by James Grant