On the night before our 20th high school reunion (delayed a year, as all things were), in the back garden of my classmate’s parent’s house, after a visit back to the small, private, quirky, progressive school in Birmingham, Alabama we graduated from, I learned something new about myself.
I had brought up one of the most pivotal moments of my life - the afternoon in 8th grade that H and M and K and the other Cool Girls had taken me behind the modular units and told me I couldn’t be part of their group anymore. The reason they gave was that the previous night, Halloween, we had played some game and I didn’t know how to spell a basic word. I was too “ditzy” they said. And then they walked away.
On Halloween I had worn a giant foam Queen of Hearts costume, the kind you buy folded up in a bag at a party store that the creases never come out of. But everyone else looked cute - there were no more big, funny, themed costumes. Somehow that era had passed, but I hadn’t noticed. And the whole day and night I could feel the chill of their judgement and my sweaty desperation to still be included. After sarcastically trick or treating with some boys from the bigger public high school, we ended up in an attic bedroom, where I, wearing a giant foam costume, sat on a bed and it broke. Their reaction - badly hidden snickers, “are you oks” said through mean spirited giggles - cemented the sneaking suspicion I harbored, that apparently everyone else shared. I was an embarrassment. The spelling thing was just an excuse.
I remember standing there in the light of a fall afternoon and feeling, to this day, as lonely as I have ever felt. I walked back to Mr. Johnson’s science class in a trance, looking around like everything around me had been decimated by a bomb. I sat down and in the margins of my loose leaf I wrote every person’s name I could think of who might still be willing to talk to me. In a class of only 40 people, it wasn’t that many.
I went home and cried to my mom. If this was 8th grade, how will I survive real life? She did the best thing a mom can ever do, which is to say - this IS real life, honey. This is as bad as it gets. You’ll have other hard things happen to you, more tragic on paper than this, but it’s not like just because you are young the pain is somehow less intense.
The next day, as I wandered, untethered, through the minefield of a middle school cafeteria, HC kindly invited me to sit with and her '“horse girl” friends, thus beginning one of the most profound sisterships of my life. But the breakup with the Cool Girls stuck, and for the rest of our five years at Altamont I was on the outside, thankfully next to HC, peering inside a house I had once lived in.
As the years wore on and other big things happened to me, namely the death of my father in 10th grade, the dynamics shifted and most animosity or pettiness about that 8th grade fraction melted away. I took on a new identity, many new identities - in my own mind and in the culture of that school. And of course they did too, as their lives changed and shifted and hard things happened to them.
So here we are, red Dixie cup G&Ts in hand, on the Friday before our big reunion - me, H, M, K and others who lived through it all with us. And I bring this memory up, and H says -
That’s not what happened.
The truth, she says, was that I had stolen a boy (the boy was a baby faced kid from my church and “stealing” meant maybe holding his hand in someone’s basement?) that another girl in our class had laid claim to. That was a serious infraction, one I should have known better than to commit. And also - when I was the most popular girl in 7th grade (affectionately or begrudgingly called the Queen, which makes me think my costume was either incredibly witty and self-deprecating or insanely narcissistic), I stirred up all sorts of shit and then tattled to our French teacher “Mamzy” about the drama in our grade, thus necessitating an all-girls meditation session involving the school administration.
Apparently they dumped me because I, Jessica Baxter, was a backstabber. And thus I became, and was called behind my back throughout my time at Altamont, Jessica Backstabber.
News. To. Me.
Other things came out that night - people apologizing for past things they said that had haunted them for years, things that the other person doesn’t even remember happening. Memories misaligning. Statements like “well of course I wasn’t there, I was never invited” coming from people you idolized, had massive crushes on, thought “ruled” the school.
Had the past 21 years, the malaise and mental atrophy of the pandemic, caused our memories to wane? Or was it just becoming evident to us now, as grown ass adults and parents and people who had weathered some of the hardest seasons of life, that not one of us had an easy time of it then, that not a single person in middle or high school felt secure, that each of us had, in turn, felt like the other, the outsider? That there was no one objective truth about what happened but rather a bunch of unreliable narrators, their perspectives clouded by hormones and heartbreak and sweaty desperation?
It all sounds so shitty. So then why had the weeks leading up to the reunion sunk me with such a wistful, weepy nostalgia?
This was distinctly not my style. I don’t get teary eyed over my children’s baby' clothes. As soon as they exceed the age on the label I gleefully whisk it away to Buy Nothing, proud of all of us for having survived, for having grown. I look back on their baby pictures and my heart swells with joy in remembering where we came from, but there is zero, less than zero, interest in rewinding the tape. I lived it all. I was there. It was an excellent season, and by excellent I mean incredibly hard and full of joy. And now the series continues.
I certainly have never wanted to go back to that untethered loneliness of being a teenager. No one, including me, considered those my glory years.
But we had a slideshow to put together, so I went searching for pictures within the fake white alligator skin sticky paged photo albums, and started remembering the first real chapter of my life.
A picture of us on a bus going to visit colleges evoked the way that blue ribbed polyester sweater set felt on my skin, the way the pantyhose made my stomach feel fat and left a mark under my ribs. A picture of us on a trip to Belize (one thing Altamont did very well, that our privilege allowed to serve us, was Trips), my nose browned from the sun, my hair in braids, a smile as big and unselfconscious as a person can have, my arm around a boy who had been HC’s boyfriend. And then, tragically, her ex boyfriend, and then another friend’s boyfriend. The source of so many tears, so much grief. A boy who now had a teenage son of his own.
I lay in bed one night after going down that deep rabbit hole of voyeurism into my own old life, one hand on my belly and one on my chest like we do when we R.A.I.N., and I felt a grip around my heart that was totally unfamiliar.
I didn’t want to go back, I kept reminding myself. The idea of never having to be 13 years old again, in desperate need of other people’s approval, in a body that hasn’t yet learned to love itself, in a mind still chasing every thought and taking it as truth, is a freeing, ecstatic gift.
I knew time was passing, I thought I was ok with that. I knew I was going to die. I had wrestled with that gator many times. But this new panic was something deeper.
It was, I realized with crushing sadness, that I didn’t want to die.
Not now, not ever.
How many more 20 years would I have left to live? If I’m lucky, two great ones. Maybe three, in a wild instance. It was sinking in that that was all you got.
When I’m 60, with children living their own lives outside of my home, will I remember sitting on my bed writing this, crosslegged in these pink sweatpants I bought in year two of The Pandemic? Would the next 20 years go by as fast as the first ones did?
On the night before my 21st high school reunion, after we had finished our red Dixie cup G&Ts, a small group of us went to a bar.
I learned that one of my classmates, a person I grew up alongside and sparred with and tormented and was tormented by, told me he had done five silent retreats. This person’s senior prediction was that he would become an anger management coach, a cutting joke about his true struggles with anger management.
Amongst other things, we talked about the passage of time.
“I read a thing,” he said. “There is a finite number of times we will do anything again. I may only see you three more times before I die.”
Helpful and heartbreaking, it was true.
We had been raised side by side, all 40ish of us. I could pick out the shape of their fingernails from a line up. If you bottled the smell of their living rooms, their mother’s laugh, their handwriting, I would be able to tell you with complete certainty who it belonged to. And yet I may only see them again a few more times before I die.
So I guess that’s why we have reunions. To say, I remember you. I remember it all, too. And - you remember it wrong! And - there was this whole other story, about you even, that you never knew. There is still more to learn about who you were, and who we were, and what happened to us when we were all learning how to be lonely, and how to love, and how to be jealous and fight and befriend someone deeply.
We can go back and reunite with what it meant to be alive then, a child then. We can go back to a time before 9/11 and George W Bush and Facebook and The Pandemic, before our kids were born and our parents died, before we knew ourselves and cried in bed realizing that we too, yes even us, were mortal.
When we reunite with all the selves we used to know we’re also reuniting with the selves we used to be. Jessica Baxter. Jessica Backstabber. The victim, the boyfriend stealer. The loser, the queen.
With every reunion it does mean, inescapably, that we are that many years closer to death. But as long as I can still learn things about the people I grew up with and loved and first kissed and fought with, as long as I can still learn things about myself, it means I’m not dead yet.
I definitely don’t want to go back. I’m sure of that.
But I hope it’s more than three more times.
I so enjoyed this. Stunning recollections woven with your strength of character and love.