Has it really been that long since high school? Am I really that old? I still kind of feel the same, at least after ten hours of sleep and a couple cups of coffee. I still look about the same, when I wear my mullet wig and sing Def Leppard songs into my hairbrush in the mirror. But it has been that long, and I am that old. That’s why I was in MD a few weeks back for my 20th high school reunion.
That Saturday afternoon, I sat on my dad’s couch watching the Disney Channel and killing time before the the big event. Who could’ve guessed Saved By The Bell would spawn a whole network of beautiful teens running around sanitized, microcosmic worlds making bad jokes? Screech would be so proud, Mr. Belding too. In one episode, restaurant advertising mascots – a hot dog, salad bowl and baked potato, to be specific – have a “food fight.” Get it… food fight? They’re food, and they’re fighting. I stuck my finger in my eye, repeatedly, to stop the pain.
The episode also involves a ping-pong tournament at a school for wizards, located right in the heart of NYC. Given that television is always factually accurate, I was surprised to have never heard of this place. It must be one of those newfangled magnet schools, or magic’s answer to Bronx Science. Regardless, if you ever see a kid in funky glasses and a cloak getting into hijinks and ballyhoo near your apartment, discreetly walk the other way. That kid is a wizard in training. And he might cast a spell that forces you to go back inside and waste your Saturday afternoon.
Next up was the first Harry Potter movie, which had me saying “Harry Potter” to myself in a faux British accent for the next week. Wifey was lucky I wasn’t around enough for her to hear it; she might’ve lost her s**t. All the new Hogwarts students are wide-eyed at this enchanted world where staircases move, pictures talk, feasts appear on tables and magic is everywhere. Two decades ago, about to embark on our lives after high school, we were excited too. The sun is coming up behind the bleachers in my senior class picture, which someone posted on Facebook. We’re laughing and talking and posing. My eyes are closed.
My teen years don’t seem quite as absurd as those of these characters. We wore ridiculous clothes and hairstyles and attempted to woo members of the opposite sex. We told stupid jokes and laughed until tears dripped from our eyes and soda from our noses. We played sports and worked degrading after-school jobs in food service. But it all seemed pretty normal at the time. That’s what teenagers do, or did. And then the ’80s, and the next 20 years, disappeared. Now we’re all older than we ever imagined we could be. And teenagers are these strange, magical beings who are decidedly unfunny.
I carpooled to reunion with a good friend, who, unfortunately, is also unemployed. We’ve both had tenuous job situations these last couple years. He’s had more luck getting interviews; I’ve had more luck getting freelance work. We help each other out, critiquing resumes and websites, exchanging job leads and listening to complaints about how much this whole situation really sucks. Neither of us is where we want to be. But both of us are getting by.
He had a more positive outlook going in. Maybe he just knew that he could get loaded because I was driving. My feelings were a little mixed. Many people I like – or liked once upon a time – would be there, including some who remain good friends to this day. But I’d have to explain, over and over, who I am after 20 years of life. And I didn’t know what to say. Would the truth – or some version of the truth – cut it? Maybe a story of international intrigue and espionage was the way to go. A reunion elevator pitch that summed up things up in pithy little bullet points would’ve come in handy either way.
It didn’t matter anyway. No one seemed to care that much about the specifics; and those who did already knew my tale of woe. The music was so loud that involved conversation was near impossible anyway. My Norm spiel came to me two seconds into my first conversation. It included phrases such as “freelance marketing professional” and “billionaire playboy.” I sprinkled in a few names of current and former employers and exotic locations to add some flavor. Then I flashed a business card showing my face Photoshopped on the Monopoly guy’s body. And that was that. The conversation turned to my classmate, who is a real estate lawyer in Florida, a state hit hard by the economy. She deals with foreclosures day in and day out, which is depressing but also fascinating. My first reunion conversation, and I didn’t even have to feign interest. Personal human suffering caused by a floundering economy is a personal hobby of mine.
Subsequent conversations tended to be similar. Some lasted longer than others. Some meandered and explored a little more. But most were standard and perfunctory, progressing through the five basic stages of reunion discourse…
- My story
- Their story
- Awkward lull
- Excuse to go talk to someone else
I remembered everyone’s name, except for one person’s; I didn’t know him that well. A stolen glance at his name tag saved me from obvious embarrassment. Everyone looked about the same, or at least recognizable. No one had lost a limb or gained 400 pounds. People didn’t even seem “puffy,” which is how wifey describes the look of someone moving into middle age. A few people have fancy jobs, but most have turned out kind of like me.
Life is hard, but I’m working through it. We all are. And things aren’t really that bad. Sometimes we just need the opportunity to step back and take stock. I’m lucky in many respects. The conversations I didn’t want to have that night seemed innocuous by the end. It would’ve been nice to pick up where we left off 20 years ago. But that wasn’t possible. We aren’t those people anymore. The jokes aren’t as funny now as they were then. We don’t wear those costumes anymore. The magic years are gone. But the present is where I want to be, even with all its difficulties.