Sunday, November 28, 2004

Reunions Unlimited

(reprinted from NITTFAGATCTTAOTB)

A strange thing happened to me the week of my 10th High School reunion. It was so strange, I couldn't immediately come up with a word for it. I still couldn't come up with a word for it after 20 minutes of staring at myself in the mirror. Eventually, just as I was crossing the room in front of my computer today with a cup of coffee in my hand, I managed to hit upon the word "strange."

Genius, I know. 28 years old, and I am genius personified.

But the thing that happened in front of my bathroom mirror on Tuesday morning was so unexpected that I actually caught myself thinking in Latin. Not Pig Latin, either and not Latin dancing or Latin America. This was the real, hardcore stuff - Ovid and Julius Caesar and college mottoes - that kind of Latin. And I never took Latin, not even ten years ago in high school. I was way too cool for that Latin crap. I took Spanish for seven years instead. So why the hell wasn't I thinking in Spanish?

Not that either language was doing a whole lot to pad my extensive vocabulary. "Strange," I came up with. The blandest possible adjective in... the world maybe? Strange.


The reunion was on a Friday night. Tuesday morning I woke up and took a shower. And for the first time in the ten years since I left the tall brick walls of Ridgewood high school behind me, I started wondering what girls were going to think of me this weekend - especially with that little surge of acne on my face.


Acne? You can't be serious. At 28 years old? Who gets acne at 28 years old. Aside from baseball players or guys in the gym on steroids - two groups of people with whom I was in no danger of being confused. I wiped the mirror, but there it was still - small red spots here and there, little telltale patches like steam before a geyser. The tectonic forces of... what, adolescence?... were pushing little pink little volcanoes through the surface of my 28-year-old skin.

Apparently, the road to my high school reunion was going to take a little detour through puberty. Again. Dammit. As if the first time wasn't enjoyable enough.

Dammit, I thought. That sucks. I think about girls in high school and I get acne. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

That was when my thinking lapsed inexplicably into Latin. Strange.

But I don't know Latin very well, so post hoc ergo propter hoc was the limit of relevant things I could come up with. After that it was Julius Caesar. Ovid. Sol iustitiae, et occidentem illustra. That was my college motto. It means "the sun of righteousness, shine upon the west also." Seven years there, and I'm not sure, but that might be all I remember from college.

I could not recall the names of the teenage girls who drove me to wishing my face was clear in high school, the era before the sun of righteousness burned all my pimples away. And believe me, it took me a long time, lot of self-reflexive therapy, and a great deal of alcohol to forget those names. From the second I set foot on a college campus as a student, I was dedicated to re-creating myself so I would never again be the same person I was in high school.

I was going to improve. I was going to become a great and impressive specimen of humankind. I had it all mapped out.

All right, minus some of the finer points of achieving greatness and impressiveness. But I had time on my side. Like the Rolling Stones song, which I learned about from my college roommate. See the growth?

Nevertheless, I knew that from freshman year onward, my primary motivation had to come from somewhere slightly deeper than worrying about falling over and spraining my ankle in front of a cute, popular girl in a Lexus. That single thought was what powered most of my unfortunate time at Ridgewood High school, although the Lexus could really have been any means of conveyance. Falling over a girl on a bicycle, or on rollerskates, or in a pair of shoes, would have been just as rough.

The whole mentality had to go. My whole modus operandi (more Latin!) of harboring secret crushes and writing poetry about my clandestine heartbreak needed some serious revamping. Crushes themselves had to become something more meaningful, more adult, more than the fuel for my suburban teenage neurosis. I didn't even feel any particular warmth for the term "crushes" anymore. I had to go a step beyond the crush, while still keeping carefully on this side of stalking - another something I learned in college.

The bottom line is that a face without acne was something I needed to be able to take for granted.

I get told all the time that I look very young. My dad was like that too. He could still pass for 17 well into his 30s, which was not nearly as useful as, say, a magic sack of money would have been. Or telekinesis. Anyway, I'm not sure if dear old dad lost track of his portrait in the attic or whatever, but somewhere in the mid- or late 1990s, he finally started to age. He still does pretty great, though; even on the far side of 50, he can still pass for 40. Okay, 45.

Don't worry - this print is too small for him to read.

The Tuesday morning before my reunion was one of those times when my congenital youthful countenance was working against me, like five guys on the crew team suddenly pulling their oars in the opposite direction. (Something else I picked up in college, not that I ever rowed myself.)

Looking young is great. Having the skincare problems of the young is something else entirely.

When I graduated high school, I had four goals for the next ten years of my life. In no particular order, they were to become a) funny, b) charming, c) irresistible to women, and d) a great stage and screen actor.

When I saw the amount of dedication it took to become a great stage and screen actor, I cut it down to three goals.

When I saw the amount of dedication it took to become irresistible to women, I cut it down to two. Sorry, ladies. Being funny and charming is going to have to be enough.

"Alumnus, alumni," I said out loud to my reflection in the mirror, exhausting the rest of my Latin vocabulary. "Uranium. Plutonium. One-point-twenty-one gigiwatts. " Wasn't I being a little bith shallow about this acne thing? A little vain even? "Crater-facium. Acne scarium."

By then, I was making things up.

I certainly wouldn't suspect that anyone else coming to the ten-year reunion of the Ridgewood High School class of 1994 was facing similar issues in their bathroom mirrors on Tuesday morning - not that I had any way of knowning. I have basically kept in touch with three people from RHS, and one of those people was my twin sister. Biology (which I knew about before college) is involved in the transaction.

As for evolution, my high school classmates have had every excuse to do it however they saw fit to do it. Apparently, that evolution was destined to take place without me around. So I still wasn't sure why I was supposed to get excited about spending a lot of money to be in an enclosed space with people whose post-adolescence wasn't compelling enough to keep me in the audience in the first place.

More specifically, I started wondering if any of my secret crushes would mention my splotchy forehead to their friends, or laugh about my hideously pockmarked face. Or worse, what if they only remembered my acne, and not the funny and charming parts of me that I had worked so long to develop?

This is what comes of not being irresistible to women. This is my lack of dedication at work again.

I don't blame the people I went to high school with for losing track of me. I don't blame them for anything at all. We were thrown together by virtue of geography, socioeconomics, and bad timing. I can't begin to start talking about the degree of coincidence that was responsible for putting us all in the same place at the same time. We had it all at RHS - the druggies, the drunks, the burnouts, the serious art students who all wore memorably quirky outfits, the calculus students who all wore glasses, the cool rich kids who drove their parents' Mercedes to school right past the losers with a two-mile walk. We had parties every weekend, we had fights after football games, we had school plays, proms, the mandatory embarrassment of high school health classes, and the constant crush of growing up with no Cold War, when our parents could really pay attention to us, especially those of us with twins.

Fast forward to Friday night - November 2004. The dot-com wave has come crashing onto the beach of Financial Reality along with so many of the dreams of people our age making it big. The Cold War has been replaced by color-coded terror alerts and fear of brown men. Kurt Cobain is dead. Jerry Garcia is dead. Phish broke up. George W. Bush got re-elected. The Red Sox won the World Series.

And set amid this ridiculous backdrop was the unholy mixture of the Ridgewood High School class of 1994 - the 'Ten Years Later' edition. Research scientists would rub elbows with news reporters. Bartenders and web designers would buy each other drinks and reminisce about the hot World History teacher they had in 9th grade. The walls would be lined with teachers and investment bankers and teachers and police officers and hedge fund managers and more teachers, all waiting to drink from the same punch bowl.

Republicans would be digging chicken marsala out of silver chafing dishes alongside those of us with brains in our heads.

But ten years ago, for no reason more noble than having been born in the same year, we were all baptized into the voting-eligible public right around the same time. Especially those of us with twins.

What was Latin for chicken marsala? Better yet, what was Latin for pepperoni pizza, which was what my face was rapidly turning into. I had serious doubts that this mess could be cleaned up in three days, which made it awfully hard to get excited about going.

Why was I supposed to be excited about the reunion anyway? What was going to happen once we stuck a bunch of people in a room whose only familiarity derived from having been stuck in rooms together a long time ago? Granted, the decorations would be a lot nicer this time around. But that wouldn't change the fact that most of us chose to leave, to depart the friendly confines of our childhoods and seek out our fortunes in The Real World.

(I don't mean the TV show. I mean the sad, ubiquitous truths our parents never told us about, like car insurance and corporate layoffs and alimony. No one from RHS '94 made a The Real World cast. Although there was a guy from our class on the first season of Survivor who naturally didn't show up.)

It's been ten years since I saw any of these people, and most of my former classmates have taken the intervening decade to remove me from their little black books, if not entirely erase me from their recollections. I don't think I've made the cell phone directories of more than five Ridgewood High School alumni. I have made other choices, other amazing and disappointing choices. I have paid for car insurance. I have been laid off by a corporation. I have studiously avoided alimony. I have bought any number of cell phones myself, but I never went hunting for their numbers either.

In the journey through my own personal wilderness, I thought, I never bothered scattering bread crumbs behind me.

Then came the strange part.

All these seismic things kept going through my brain (not to mention my face), and suddenly the reunion started to seem like a pretty interesting notion. Why not go, if for no other reason than it seemed like a good opportunity to spend a night out with three hundred almost total strangers (give or take the ones who were too cool for school... reunions)?

I had no idea who these people were!

Well, not entirely, though. Certainly there would be countless opportunities for corny jokes like "how long has it been?" which you can really only ask a person you've actualy met before.

But still, there was a distinct possibility was that the number of cell phones containing my number would at least double. I have no idea when or why that became a yardstick for anything, but there it was. I would have my cell phone too, and I could reasonably see myself filling up a few more empty spots in the directory.

Maybe all my charm and humor would finally pay off a little, just for a change of pace.

Sure, there were still blemishes on my skin, marking me every bit as much on Tuesday as the dog-eared pages in the story of my life since 1994. But why worry about it now? I didn't get where I am today worrying about my skin, I can tell you that much. Just please don't ask me where I am today is all.

I don't miss high school or anyone I went there with, not anymore. But how great will it be to see those people again? Even without a single screen credit to boast, even without being voted onto People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful list (yet), even without having finished my first novel (yet either). Maybe I don't have half a dozen diplomas, or a multi-million dollar contract, or a house, or a wife, or a kid, or even a full-time job to show for the past ten years, but I have no expectations, either. I come free of the burden of judgment.

Maybe those girls who made me worry about my skin ten years ago and whether or not I was going to fall over would have grown more gorgeous over time. Maybe they'd look terrible. It had already stopped mattering long, long ago.

It stopped mattering again in front of the mirror in my bathroom on Tuesday. I picked up my toothbrush, spread paste across the bristles, and started imagining Friday night, entirely comfortable with the ten-years later version of myself who would be attending.

Still, it would have been nice to be a movie star. Or irresistible to women. Or an Olympic gymnast, which was a goal I came up with after I graduated high school. This reunion was a second chance to make a first impression. A medal around my neck would be so cool.

I turned off the light above the mirror and wandered back to the bedroom, totally at ease with whatever condition my skin was in. It would clear up eventually, anyway. My hair, well, that was another issue. I picked up my cell phone, paged through the directory, and called my hairdresser to make an appointment.