It wouldn’t have been my idea for a yearbook title. Too banal, I’d have sneered had I been a member of Aklan, the body that produced the annual volumes that no one seemed to have brought a copy of. I was snotty then, in 86’. I’m still snotty, but out of the blue I appeared at my high school reunion, the first one I’d attended in 35 years. Out of the blue: I think the meaning was layered. We were out of the blue, as in graduating from a high school whose colors were blue. The other meaning was…well, maybe that was it, actually. Were we really coming out of nowhere, as the metaphor implies? Anyway, fast forward 35 years to the present, to the reunion with blue Acalanes. The first setting of two planned events was strange enough: a tidy picnic area within a park ensconced within a retirement community that portended our shared future. The roughly one hundred-deep residue of our class of 86’ from Acalanes High had gathered with some looking a bit paunchy and slow while others seemed lean and bouncy, pushing back middle-age with new age diets and Peleton vigor. Amongst the women there was a disproportionate wash of blonde hair suggesting a camouflage of grey terrain. The assembled men seemed less defended against age, allowing fringes of salt to pepper the flanks of hairstyles that hadn’t changed much since the mid-eighties.
I have to say that in this respect I hadn’t changed much either. With my own budding paunch and snowy edges to an auburn hairline, I waded into the picnic area, penetrated pockets of chatter, moving freely, glancing about for a recognizable face before hitting a dead end. Actually, the cul-de-sac came in the form of a wide-eyed, friendly figure name Chuck whom I knew to be a one-time football player, which allowed for an immediate point of conversation. That plus the obligatory review of marital status, family stats and career bullet points consumed roughly ten minutes, after which Chuck genially moved on to other reunion potentials, people he knew or remembered more than he did me. That would’ve meant just about anyone, I thought at this point. I was new at this, I declared, and in thinking that I’d exhaust my familiarity within an hour, I’d planned a soft getaway—a discreet sidling away, disguised by a detour to a bathroom that gated the park’s entrance.
It was time to get a drink, the first of many that someone else had generously proffered. There were soft drinks on offer and I had a hand-preoccupying water bottle with me, but with a long hour or so to go, I looked for green or brown glass buried in ice containing a bitter yet smooth brew that would stir a gentle, mind-lubricating buzz. En route to the chest of chilled libations I heard my name being called. It was one of the organizers, an amiable leader when he was thirteen, never mind what he would be today. What was he today? I didn’t actually find out, but Matt had the look and sound of someone who was either a city mayor, head of a board of trustees, or a president of something. Inviting me to don a nametag, he enjoined me in an exchange with someone who also seemed to recognize me, though the feeling wasn’t mutual. John, the second figure, reminded me of one of the guys in my men’s therapy group: shy, taciturn, and a bit awkward, he’d be the kind of guy I will have sat next to in electronics class—not saying much but still doing better than me in that class.
Matt was just like he once was: a chameleon at ease with the full spectrum of high school personalities, from the so-called jocks to the nerds, the troublesome bullies or stoners; the mean-spirited yet popular girls; the decent, diligent, middle-of-the road pack that somehow ended up leading things at my school. As dusk fell, Matt gathered the pockets of alum for a structure of activity. First up would be a quiz about high school and middle school trivia. Unbeknownst to me, the evening would conjoin those who had attended the middle school that fed Acalanes as well as high school alumni, so there would be a surprise or two in the offing. In the meantime, the exercise that privileged the once-involved and therefore more knowledgeable of school folklore proceeded. I didn’t know a single answer to the questions posed, though in keeping with the memory of many classes I took at Acalanes, I’d recognize the answers after they were given to us.
One of the questions pertained to standard awards that were given at the end of school years and then posted in yearbooks. The best-looking couple in 8th grade, or simply girl and boy (don’t know if they were a couple), included a girl I only vaguely remembered, and a boy that I most certainly did remember. As his name was read out, Grant raised his hand to recognize the crowd, his burly frame and bald head fronting a sheepish acknowledgement. Grant would later say to me that he hadn’t taken the best care of his physical life, but truth be told, I’d always thought him humble and wary of a spotlight regardless. The speeches, games and reminiscent mischief continued while I was distracted, thinking I’d approach Grant and ask whether he’d remember me. After all, he and I had not been close friends, and he’d not even known me in high school, so the prospect of a gleeful reunion seemed thin.
But that proved to be irrelevant. Spotting a gap in social movement, I moved toward him, re-introduced myself and began a dialogue that proceeded intermittently over the next two hours, interspersed with an exchange with another unlikely reunion prospect—a guy named Rick—who found himself reflecting on a broken marriage, half-spurred when he learned I was a psychotherapist. During that spell, Grant listened in, adding his perspective, which also featured doses of romantic heartbreak, and demonstrated an adult version of the generous, giving spirit he’d exhibited as a kid. When the opportunity came, I took a moment to observe this to him, and in particular, to remind him, whether he was aware of this or not, that I was one of his peers who was once bullied in a raucous and tense school atmosphere, but felt safer because people like him existed who had the backs of underdogs.
Grant was moved. Grant bit his lip, pressed a fist to his chest and then shook my hand, giving me brown-eyed blessing. Hey, if I’ve helped just one person in this…that sort of thing, he said. He asked for a business card, was gonna supply me with a client or two, he hinted. Rick nodded in agreement. The next night, the latter flicked his chin at me, satiated by my serene listening, and asked if I accepted Venmo for the impromptu session about his broken marriage. Of this group, only Grant and John stuck around for a joker in the pack, an eccentric named Eric who came down from the hillside to wax metaphysical with the beery entourage. Whether he’d had a few or more seemed not to matter. Eric had had plenty of beer perhaps, but more especially plenty of life, it seemed, and would spend the remainder of this night and much of the next regaling entrapped onlookers about…well, that would be hard to say, actually.
Having ducked out around ten, I resolved to return the following night, if only to reunite with the reunion crowd, especially Grant, the fraternal, salt of the earth savior from sixth grade, who earnestly requested to meet my wife, who wouldn’t come the next night because she didn’t want to play wallflower, nodding along at platitudes about the bygone pleasures and stressors of adolescent life. So I showed up all alone at the Round-Up Saloon, clutching a copy of my 86’ yearbook entitled Out of the Blue. By this time, I was nervous anew, thinking patterns that my psychoanalysis has called into question: namely, the tendency to expect sophomore efforts at joy to collapse into anti-climax. I figured I’d see Grant again at some point, and maybe connect with one or two from the night before whom I’d sort of recognized but not spoken to. Again, I’d given the evening short-shrift, allocating just two and a half hours before which I’d abscond and head back home. I may have been out of the blue, re-entering the fray of an old ambience with a new middle-aged persona, but this was just like the old me: ever looking for the exit door.
My next dose of pleasure came in the form of Steve, another gentle soul whom I remembered as a gentle soul who resembled a blend of Steve Martin and Rick Moranis from some eighties movie that only those who were teens in the eighties would recall. With Steve I got a proper reminiscence of teenage life, eighties style, with Bay Area centrism. There was mature recollection, a meaningful insight or two about teenage group psychology. This was my kind of talk, I thought—the kind I started back in high school, as a matter of fact. It was in the cuts of the hallways that such talk occurred, or else in the woody barracks of drafting class: I spoke incipient philosophy amid languid senioritis, and played old soul with others who othered themselves from the amoeba circles of popular gathering. Back to the present day: By mid-evening, the replay of aged group dynamics began to pall slightly. There were isolated dyads of stalled conversation, bereft expressions; people wondering in the back of their minds whether something else from back in the day would get replayed. Would anyone get left out before this night was over?
So far, I’d left out the women, and you might admit if you’ve made it this far into this thing that you’ve wondered the same. With all of this male-bonding, mansplaining and woman excluding, like it was all a Drones club scene from a P.G. Wodehouse play, you might wonder where all the women were on this second night of happy reunion. Well, they were there all right, mostly schooled in the center of the bar’s patio, looking huddled and ready to pounce outwards. Above the music, which got steadily louder as the evening wore on, there were bursts of cackle and shriek. The gals: they seemed to have more to laugh about, to point fingers at. With conspiratorial gazes, they peered about the milieu, appearing to scrutinize the wanting males who stood upon the periphery, stroking chins in poses of erudition while others gaped and ogled in dazed awe.
See, the thing about leaving early is not to get out when the going is tough, it’s to quit while you’re ahead. So far, my milk was not sour, I was still ripe and the feeling—a well nurtured and not excessive buzz—was riding the crest of a wave. But I caught the whiff of gender politics in the air, be it the shadow of feminine rivalry or a touch of epater le masculine ego, and I’d not gotten the requisite vaccination for that. Even the women I did speak to at close quarters seemed to be on recess, taking a break from a dense rapprochement. I know. What’s with all the French all of a sudden? Must have been a class I once took that didn’t prepare me for life after high school. Anyway, it was a once Russian but then British (or was it the other way around?) woman who was drifting between packs who gave me an impression of fraught history. Nadeen was the first of two that cast a distrusting eye over the sisterhood, implicating a past unforgiven. She had been shy, soft spoken, Nadeen said. Damn right, I thought. Couldn’t hear a word she said. I didn’t remember her, and no, that’s not because I only remember girls I made out with. That’s what I’d have said had the imputation of not listening to women been directed at me. I never even made out with girls in high school, I might have said.
I would have liked to make out with the last woman I spoke to. Back in high school, I mean, not today. I wouldn’t do that today, buzzed or not. Never. Wait, is my wife gonna read this? I’m not giving the full names, and even the first ones may bring trouble. However, after a group picture with its collective squeezing in, I turned to my right and stabbed a guess at the name of the woman before me. No multiple choice. No sliding scale. No subsequent four years at Cal reflecting the privilege of kids from mid-Contra Costa. Yes, she was remembered, her big bright eyes exclaimed, giving me an A for social achievement. The eyes, my eyes, had not left hers before saying this: there had been no scanning the downstairs for the nametag that spread across the banks of the…you know what I mean. It was eyes up here all the way and I was rewarded with a rich talk about rock and roll, a boozy bout of twenties collapse (hers and mine), followed by our redemptive thirties, then the winning slide into war weary middle age.
Ugh, it was 9:30. Time to leave. Yeah, who leaves this kind of party at 9:30? I do. I do because I’m a good boy, a good man. So, despite permission from you know who to stay as long as I liked, I cut out, taking my monogamous behavior if not quite monogamous thought with me. That lasted for about a minute before my unconscious was betrayed by a policing reminder. My yearbook. I’d left the yearbook somewhere in the mix of the patio, there to be passed around, my gift to the throngs. For a moment I thought to leave it behind, not bother with its rescue. It wasn’t selflessness as much as embarrassment. See, you can’t go back. Not really. Once you bail you gotta keep going, otherwise it’s bad form; shows you don’t mean it, that you can’t let go. I couldn’t let go, so I sneaked in, brushed past folks whom I hadn’t spoken to, then evacuated a second time. I didn’t quite get out untouched. Eric, eccentric, lost Eric, paused me at the door, and while he scrambled for my name he nonetheless spread his arms, proclaiming his indiscriminate, democratic love for an Acalanes brother. I skipped past without a goodbye, just a shallow, 21st century “gotta go”, with a glance over my shoulder at his seeming disappointment. Don’t take it personally pal? That’s what it says in the self-help books that I won’t write but I’ll say it to you now. I’ll be back—I think—five years from now, I was poised to say. Right then, as the buzz was already fading, I needed to get back, back out and drive away. I think I sped.
Graeme Daniels, MFT