Beyond Ugly (a short story)

girl at crosswalk - beyond ugly

After 25 years it probably wasn’t even the same door, but it could have been. It led to the same school, the same fetid swamp of teenage cruelty. My grasping the handle unleashed a fresh deluge of memories. My arm trembled, and my knees went weak.

Obviously, the decision I’d been defending was a mistake. But it was also too late. It was too late not to go to my 25th high school reunion, because I was here.

I’d arrived in Stirton an hour early, having somehow missed the promised freeway construction delays. I freshened up in the tolerably clean restroom of a convenience store, then made my way to the campus where I’d spent the worst thirteen years of my education.

For the last half hour of my drive, my older sister’s voice in my hands-free car audio system had said pretty much what I’d told myself for weeks, even before I bought my reunion ticket online. Vicky and I were both right: “Kat, this is a bad idea.”

Stirton was a small town, where everyone knew everyone, and its only elementary school, only middle school, and only high school were right in a row, along one side of the state highway that doubled as Main Street. All three cinder block temples of learning had been built in the same decade, each just in time, give or take a year, for me to suffer in it.

I didn’t pull the door open yet, but that was procrastination, not decision. I might open it later. For now, I walked around the outside of the school, starting with the library expansion that hadn’t been there the last time I was. The outside wall was now labeled “Stirton Public Library.” The dual use probably accounted for the extra landscaping, including a bronze statue of a child reading and several wrought iron benches under trees.

I’d told Vicky I had things to prove: That I was past what my classmates did to me here from first grade through high school. That I had made a life for myself since then, no thanks to them, and now neither had nor needed any active, living connection with any of them. That I could attend my class reunion and feel like I was in a roomful of strangers, whose lives and cruel words no longer touched me in any meaningful way.

I hadn’t seen my last therapist in five years, but I knew what she would say. Didn’t my need to prove that I was past it constitute proof that I wasn’t?

She may have been right. Maybe I could prove I was past it by not needing to prove it. Maybe it wasn’t too late not to open the door.


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I turned a corner and came face to face with a wall that hadn’t been there before. There was probably a metaphor in that. I turned back and made my way to the furthest bench from the front doors of dear old Stirton High and sat in the welcoming shade of a locust tree.

A catering trailer and several cars, not just mine, were parked in front of the school, but I still hadn’t seen any people. I tried to breathe slowly and deeply as I looked around. The trees were mature and beautiful. I remembered them as saplings that weren’t good for much, but they had grown.

Stirton’s only city park was across the street. A midblock crosswalk led from it directly to the schools. The lines on the asphalt looked freshly painted, just as I remembered from first grade, on the day when the crossing guard signaled a dozen of us to cross the street, and my classmate Tami Bates pushed me back onto the sidewalk and said, “You wait here. You’re too ugly to cross with actual humans.” She turned to her friends and said too loudly, “Ick! I touched it! What if it rubs off?” They all laughed and said more things to each other, which I knew I was meant to hear.

The leaves were turning then, so it was fall, so that would have been the beginning or nearly so. For the next twelve school years, ugly was my brand, and some kids acted like it was contagious. A few of them found it necessary to remind me almost daily – a little less often in high school – so maybe they thought I was stupid too. Or deaf.

“Why would you ever go back there?” Vicky had demanded as I drove. “They treated you like a leper. Or one of those untouchables in old India.”

She wasn’t wrong.

Decades later, Tami’s jabs were still the most memorable. Mrs. Martin’s biology classroom, toward the rear of the building, behind the library, was the setting for a classic. “You’re a failed human specimen,” Tami said one day, when we were in the same small group for half an hour. “You should remove yourself from the gene pool. You know, in case some blind man, who can’t smell either, by the way, loses his mind too and wants to reproduce with you.”

I hadn’t truly wallowed in school memories in ages. Now they made me queasy and revived my fantasy of finding a dark room somewhere and hiding in it forever. But there was really nothing to do but get up and walk toward the pain, as I had done here for twelve ugly years.

The next time I touched one of the handles, I pulled the door open and walked in. It was still a bad idea, but I had paid for my ticket, and I had things to prove.

Full-color signs on easels directed me through the big common area inside the doors, then down a hall toward a cafeteria which also hadn’t been there before. I still hadn’t seen another living soul since I arrived. I paused to consider my reflection in the glass of an empty trophy case.

“You were on the plain side, like me,” Vicky had explained again, during our call. “But you weren’t ugly. You weren’t the worst-looking girl in your class, and they weren’t ugly either. Nobody deserved any of that.”

Ugly or not, when boys wanted to tease another boy, more cruelly than in fun, they teased him about having a crush on me, or me having a crush on him (which I sometimes did). Starting in about sixth grade, boys teased each other about having sex with me. It was the most disgusting thing they could imagine. By ninth grade, girls teased each other about that too.

They teased Donna a lot. She was my only true and constant friend through my school years, and she wouldn’t be here tonight. We’d bought our tickets the same Sunday afternoon, while talking on the phone, but her first grandchild was in the NICU, having just arrived six weeks early, and her daughter was struggling too. She needed to be there, not here.

She’d have been the one obvious exception to my reunion full of classmates reborn as strangers. Other exceptions were possible, perhaps, a few kids who were never really my friends but didn’t avoid me or torment me when they could.

I walked into the cafeteria and still saw almost no one, though I heard a muted clatter from the kitchen. By now I wasn’t that early, but besides me it was just one guy with a receding hairline. No doubt I’d see more of those before the evening was over.

He sat at the nearest round table to the entry, the only one without place settings. He had a laptop, what might have been a tiny printer, and a sign that said, “Name tags here.”

“Welcome,” he said in the instant I recognized him as Nate McConnell. An unwelcome, inappropriate thrill raised the hairs on my neck.

“Are you the entire reunion committee?” I asked. He’d sent out all the e-mails. If it had been anyone else (besides Donna), I might not have opened them.

“The others are down the hall, setting up the self-guided tour. What’s your name? Sorry I have to ask.”

“Kat McCowan.”

He looked puzzled, and I knew why, but I didn’t help him.

“Are you class of 2001?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Let me check my list, then I’ll print you a name tag if I don’t already have one for you. I’m sorry for not remembering you.”

I summoned my courage. That felt thrilling too. “I remember you, Nate,” I said. “For twelve years, plus kindergarten, you didn’t treat me like something to scrape off the bottom of your shoes.”

Recognition gradually informed his eyes. “Is McCowan your married name? I think I remember you as the girl with no vowels in her last name.” He scanned the list. “Andrea Vrbs.” He even said it right, after all these years: “VERB-us.” He looked up. “You’re Andi? Hello, former neighbor.”

“Hi. I used my old name to buy my ticket, but I go by Kat now. From Kathryn, my middle name. And yes, McCowan is my married name, but the marriage is long gone.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Divorcing Mr. McCowan is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Looks like you’ve done better; I see a ring. Is your wife here?”

Sadness flashed across his face, then was gone. “She’s ill. Can’t travel.”

“Sounds serious. Chronic?” I shouldn’t have been so nosy, but I was.

“Lately, both. Her MS relapsed hard over the winter. She has MS. We keep hoping the next remission will start soon. Praying, really.”

“Now I’m sorry,” I said. “But here you are. Such worries at home, and you still crossed whole time zones for a reunion. Tennessee, right?”

“Yeah. She pretty much insisted. Said nobody’s at death’s door, which is true, and each day is pretty much like every other day. Her sister flew in to take care of her for the weekend.”

“Must be good to get away,” I said.

“This is the first time I’ve been more than fifty miles from home in months.” He smiled faintly. “But I love being home.”

“Not everyone could say that,” I said too soberly. “Especially, you know.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I know it sounds scary, but we don’t live in fear. Our daily routine is unusual in some ways, but we have our joys. She’ll be the first to tell you we have a good life.”

I had to smile. “Will you be the second?”

“Absolutely.”

My growing urge to confide in him was familiar from our school years. There were two differences now: I could actually do it, and he was confiding in me. “I almost didn’t come tonight,” I said with only a little difficulty.

He spoke cautiously. “Truth is, I was surprised to see you on the ticket list.”

“I almost turned back at the front doors just now.”

“I wouldn’t have blamed you. Been thinking about you since I saw your name a few weeks ago. We were awful to you, all the way back to, what? Second grade?”

“I remember it as first grade.”

“Forgive me, but I’ve been wondering. Why even come tonight? I mean, I’m glad you’re here. But most of the memories must be unpleasant. Is this a profile in courage? Are you here to take your revenge somehow?”

I offered him a wan smile. “I think I’m here to prove that I got past all of that, and they didn’t wreck my whole life.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “To prove it or test it? Sorry. Not really my business.”

I shrugged. “To test it? Yes. To prove it? I hope. I really hope.”

“What would proof look like?”

“Maybe feeling no remaining connection to anyone, by the time I leave tonight, and snipping any last threads I may find.”

“No one at all?”

Suddenly it felt like a sad thing, and I wavered. “At least not the ones who said cruel things, or the ones who laughed. Which was almost everyone. I remember you as one of the ones who didn’t.”

Instead of responding to that, he showed me the name tag he’d found in the box: Andrea Vrbs. Both me and no longer me. “Want me to reprint it as Kat McCowan? That’s what I’m here for.”

“Thank you, yes, please.”

He turned his laptop so I could see the screen. “Check my spelling.”

He’d guessed correctly about the K. “Perfect,” I said with a nod. “Thank you.”

“Will anyone here know you as Kat McCowan, besides me, now?”

“Donna would, if you remember her, but she’s not coming. She bought a ticket, but there’s a family situation. So nobody else, probably. Think anyone will recognize me?”

“I’ll be surprised. You look … different. I see the resemblance, now that I know, but yeah, different. They’ll just assume you’re somebody’s plus-one, probably, until you tell them otherwise.”

I peeled the backing from my new name tag, attached it to my shirt, instantly felt more like my adult self and less like I was back in high school, and asked if I could keep him company. “For a while,” I said. “If you don’t mind.” I was only a little bit afraid he might.

“Be my guest,” he said. “I’ll put you to work.” He slid one of his two boxes of printed name tags to me. “You can have A through L, unless you prefer M through Z. It’s by surname when we graduated, not married names.”

“Works for me,” I said, then hesitated. “If I’m here and they don’t recognize me, they might think I’m your plus-one.” It was a strange, awkward thing to say – but no guy in my class would have taken that risk when we were in high school.

He smiled faintly. “I’ll live.”

“Your wife won’t mind? Is she the jealous type?” I was kidding, but I was also completely over the top. He gave me the puzzled look I deserved. “Sorry,” I added meekly. “I don’t know her name.”

“Julia. We talked about you, when I saw you on the list. By your old name.”

In high school world, people talking about me rarely turned out well, but an odd electricity raced through me. My voice trembled a bit. “What did you say?”

He hesitated. “I don’t –”

I interrupted him. “Tell me the truth. I can handle it.” I hoped I could handle it.

I watched and waited for him to speak, but he didn’t.

“Please,” I said. “Please, Nate.”

He nodded slowly. “The truth is, I’m ashamed of the truth. Some of it.”

“Ashamed? You? On behalf of the whole class or something?”

“I told her we thought you were the dictionary definition of ugly, and I don’t even know where that came from, back in first grade. We hardly knew what a dictionary was. I showed her my old class pictures and yearbooks. That’s what I’ve been wondering about. Not the photos. Why did the ugly label stick back then, and for so long? Why did we ever see ugly in the first place? Why did we treat you the way we did?”

“I’ve wondered that ten thousand times,” I said. “Not so much lately. Did you come up with anything?”

He didn’t answer my question. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Very sorry.”

“Don’t apologize for the others,” I said. “That’s on them.”

“I’m apologizing for myself.”

Forty-somethings began to appear at our table, and we were busy for the next twenty minutes. Several of them stopped to chat with Nate, like it was more of a reception line for him than a get-your-nametag line.

Some of my old classmates said hi to me and scrutinized my name tag, but no one seemed to recognize me. I recognized most of them, with the help of their names. The twinges of pain were fewer and less severe than I expected, so there was that.

I was relocating a misfiled name tag when I heard a familiar voice, and something froze inside me.

“Do you have one for Tami Bates Wilson?”

I looked up. I could see most of twenty-five additional years in her face and her figure, but she was still beautiful. And I still remembered the pain.

“There should be one for Tad Wilson too,” she said. Tad hadn’t been among the humane few either. Not even close. He’d also never been with Tami when we were in school, at least not that I recalled. That must have happened later.

I found her name tag. Nate found Tad’s and handed it to me. Tad walked up beside Tami and put an arm around her waist. I held out their name tags, looked them in the eye, and said, “Welcome.”

She smiled sweetly – I wanted it to be nasty, but it wasn’t – and said, “Thank you.”

“Thanks,” echoed Tad, and they moved on.

I told my heart to stop pounding and my head to stop remembering, and congratulated myself on my exemplary adult behavior. Because I wanted to run, and I didn’t. I wanted to shriek, and I didn’t. I wanted to weep, and I didn’t. I wanted to go vomit somewhere, and I didn’t.

There was no one behind them. I took a deep breath and glanced at Nate. He was staring at me, looking concerned.

“How’s your proof going?” he asked softly.

“Of complete disconnection?” I stalled for time, knowing it was pointless and wondering how vulnerable I could afford to be tonight.

“Yeah, that,” he said.

“I think I was fooling myself.”

“Yeah. Look, we spent 180 days a year for a dozen consecutive years with mostly the same people. Seems to me like cutting ourselves off from that completely would require cutting off big parts of ourselves. I don’t mean to wax philosophical. But I’ve been thinking lately how many of these people affected my life, and how much, even though it was 25 years ago and I’ve hardly seen any of them since.”

“You always were smart,” I said.

“Takes smart to know smart. At least my high school memories are mostly happy ones. You’re really brave to be here.”

His phone vibrated. He glanced at it and smiled. “Sorry, I should take this.” He tapped the screen. “Hi, Jules. Perfect timing. Having a lull at the name tag table. What’s up?”

He sounded happy.

He listened for a moment, then said, “Bob Polzer’s here; remember his toast at the groom’s dinner?” He laughed softly. “I’ll tell him. Wish you were here. Miss you.”

I realized I was eavesdropping and tried to tune him out. Focusing on the remaining name tags in the box helped. They were in perfect alphabetical order, and checking them distracted me with more memories. Not happy ones.

“Sorry for the interruption, Kat,” Nate said a minute later, after he put down his phone.

“No worries,” I said. “How long have you been married?”

“Nineteen years last week.”

“Happy anniversary. That’s really great. Not the life you imagined, though. With her MS, I mean.”

“Kind of has been, actually. She was diagnosed when we were dating. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. I guess marriage never is, but in our case we knew a big reason up front.”

“You must have loved her a lot.”

“Still do,” he said.

“I know. I heard it in your voice. I tried not to eavesdrop.”

He just smiled. I could see his thoughts were still back at home.

“I only made it to six and a half years,” I said, “and I’m not sure he ever loved me like that. You have kids?”

“Three,” he said. “You?”

“Two. Do you like yours?”

He chuckled. “Yeah, most of the time.”

“Me too. Forgive me for backtracking, but tell me why you said you were apologizing for yourself. Why would you need to?”

His smile disappeared. “Tell me why you think I wouldn’t need to.”

“That’s easy,” I said. “You never said an unkind word to me. You had more chances than most, living three doors down, and our parents being best friends and all. I never saw you laugh at me when someone else did. You never even refused to dance with me, when it was girl’s choice. Why should you apologize?”

“I wanted to do those things,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t. But I pretty much thought what they thought about you, even if I couldn’t say it or act it out.”

My surprise and dismay somehow caused a confession. “I had a crush on you for a while,” I said.

“When I realized that,” he said. “I tried to avoid you even more.”

That brought a twinge of a remembered pain. “I never saw you show any interest at all, and believe me, I was desperate to see some. Granted, you were usually interested in someone else. As I recall, it was always someone smart and pretty and kind. In fact, none of those girls ever mistreated me.”

“That wasn’t one of my criteria,” he said with a wry smile that didn’t last. “Well, not directly. Unkind was a turn-off generally.”

“That narrowed the field for you quite severely,” I noted with a clinical detachment I didn’t feel.

“Yeah, but here’s the thing. Even when I was between, well, interests,” he said with obvious reluctance, “I wanted nothing to do with you. On the inside I was as bad as the others, and I’m sorry. So before you disconnect completely here tonight, please consider forgiving me.”

His confession was worse than I expected, but there was a redemptive side to the memories too. Perhaps he’d forgotten. “I recall you defending me a couple of times,” I said. “I heard of a few more times when I wasn’t there to witness it. That’s partly why I had a crush on you. You were my hero, even if you didn’t want to be.”

“I didn’t want to be, and I wasn’t heroic. I still thought what I thought.” He shifted in his chair. “I mostly didn’t want to be ashamed of myself when I saw your parents. I cared what they thought of me.”

“How about now?” I asked.

“Your parents?”

“No. How about I forgive you now? And even if your thoughts were worse than I knew, thanks for telling me. And thanks for not telling me back then.”

More people came, and we were busy for a few minutes. Then we weren’t.

He turned to me. “What if we had treated you better?”

“That would have been nice. What do you mean?”

“I guess, what if some of us had decided that you always being ostracized meant we should go out of our way to include you? All the time and in the middle of things, not just on the fringes. Would you have welcomed that?”

“It’s kind of a moot question.”

“The thing is, Julia would have done that. She actually did.”

“I’m sorry. She did what, exactly?”

“Her family moved a few times when she was a kid, and she says there was someone like that in her grade in every new school. Always a girl, someone all the kids thought was ugly and gross, with no real cause she could see. So she befriended them. I first heard about it from some of them at our wedding reception, so I asked her about it. She said it was easy to reach out to outsiders, because she was new, so she was an outsider too.”

My stoicism was slipping away. I wanted to cry, and I was about to.

“We should have treated you better,” he said. “We could have. We just didn’t. I know hindsight doesn’t help much, but as humans we kind of sucked. As Christians too, mostly.”

Emotional detachment was my only hope of keeping it together. I thought of my last therapist – and the one before that, and the one before that. “I’ve been told it doesn’t make sense to expect our younger selves to have already known what we learned in the process of becoming our older selves.”

He looked like he was chewing on that. I was about to restate it more clearly, if I could, when he finally spoke.

“There’s a lot of forgiveness in that, if you really believe it.”

“My mind has believed it for a long time.” I grimaced and looked around. “My heart wavers.”

“Mine too. Mostly when I remember my own younger self. Seems easier with other people.”

“I have to ask,” I said. “Do you still remember me as being ugly then?”

He didn’t hesitate. “No. I don’t know what we were thinking.”

I felt my cheeks flush. Before I could consider how he’d take it, I said it. “How about me now?”

His eyebrows arched. “You look good.”

“You’re not just saying that?”

“No.”

“Why don’t single men see me that way?” My eyes went wide. “Did I say that out loud?” Now I was really blushing. “I know I’m not a great beauty.”

He smiled. “Here’s some hard-won wisdom from the Gospel According to Nate. Some women are conventionally beautiful, superficially at least, in ways that are easy to see. Hard to miss, in some cases. Julia’s like that for me, except her beauty is more than superficial. A lot of other women are like the Mona Lisa. If you look for a while, you learn to see the beauty other people miss. External beauty, I mean. If she’s beautiful on the inside, and you get to see that too, it’s that much better.”

“So I have Mona Lisa beauty?” He must have heard my disbelief, with its undertone of wonder. We were talking about the most famous painting in the world.

“I’m going to say yes. But even at first glance, superficially, forty-three looks good on you.”

I actually laughed. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, cowboy. I’m forty-two for a few more weeks.”

He smiled again. “My apologies. Forty-two looks good on you.”

Another batch of classmates and their partners appeared. None of them recognized me, as far as I could tell. Then the formalities began, and dinner was announced.

“We tried to make this as different from our memories of school cafeteria food as we could,” said our class president, Susan. She smiled at the ripple of laughter. “We hope you enjoy it.”

Black-clad servers filed into the cafeteria, and before I knew it, one was at our table, smiling graciously. “Ma’am, sir, would you like us to serve you here, or did you want to move to one of the regular tables?”

“Here, if it’s okay,” Nate said.

“Works for me too,” I said.

“Is anyone sitting there?” She indicated the third chair at our table.

“No,” said Nate.

“I’ll be back with two place settings and your salads,” she said.

He thanked her, and I turned to him. “So it’s a working dinner for you.”

He smiled. “There may be stragglers. But any dinner I don’t have to make is not a working dinner. I shouldn’t say that. My kids are pretty good in the kitchen.”

“Mine are dedicated consumers but poor producers,” I said. I summoned my courage again, which seemed to involve alerting every last nerve. “Back to that other topic. Short version of a longer story: My freshman year of college, my roommates gradually did a makeover on me – looks and clothes first, but socially too. First they sat me down and told me they could see I was prettier than I looked, and we needed to fix that.

“It’s the nicest thing anyone ever did for me. They changed my life. They taught me how to look different. Still myself, but better. The dark side is, as grateful as I am to them, I retroactively hated everyone who didn’t do that for me sooner. My mom, my older sister, girls at church who didn’t shun me. Church youth leaders, even my female schoolteachers. Any of them could have seen what my roommates saw. They could have done the same thing for me years earlier, but no one tried.”

“Do you still hate them?” he asked.

“No. I gradually realized some of them did try, in their own ways, but I resisted. So it was partly my fault that I didn’t get rescued from myself until college.”

“Did you hate yourself for that, just to be consistent?” I couldn’t tell whether his tone was gently ironic or just gentle.

“Not just to be consistent,” I said.

He winced. “Do you still? Is that too personal?”

“I seem to have grown out of it about halfway through law school.”

“Good,” he said.

As the serving began, so did the introductions. They passed a microphone from table to table, so everyone could take half a minute to reintroduce themselves and introduce a partner, if they brought one. Our table was last – so I had time to escape, and I wanted to, but I didn’t.

I tried to sound casual and confident. I’d worked on what to say, when I was driving and not on the phone. “I’m Kat McCowan. You don’t recognize my name, because Kat is from my middle name, and McCowan is from my ex-husband. You knew me as Andi Vrbs, the girl with no vowels in her last name.”

I heard a gasp from the nearest table. Tami was there with her husband and some old friends, staring at me, looking stunned and distressed. Others had milder responses. I instinctively believed the scattered whispers were mean.

“I have two boys and two cats,” I continued. “And approximately two-thirds of a grandchild. I went back to school part-time when the younger boy hit middle school, got my law degree at Denver.”

This time the murmurs sounded appreciative.

“Now I work as a civilian attorney attached to the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps, assigned to Peterson Air Force Base at Colorado Springs. I guess that’s about it.”

I wasn’t tempted to say it was good to see all of them. But I had survived the introductions, even mine.

For a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky, what happened next came quietly.

I was finishing my very respectable chicken scampi when a soft voice asked from beside me, “Andi, sorry, Kat, could I talk to you for a minute?”

It was Tami, but in a meek, earnest version I’d never met. My heart was all confused, and my head with it. I nodded automatically. “You mean here?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Kat, should I excuse myself for a few minutes?” Nate asked.

I glanced at him and back at Tami, who had never needed privacy to talk to me before. “No need.” To Tami I said, “Have a seat. Talk.”

“Thanks.” She sat, and I told my heart to stop pounding. I wasn’t alone in the Alaskan wilderness, face to face with an angry grizzly bear, like my ex-husband in his most tiresome old story.

“We were just talking about you,” she said. “I didn’t recognize you before. You look really great.”

“I get it,” I said. “I think I’m actually flattered that you didn’t recognize me.” I could see in her eyes that my words hurt her. Or maybe it was my tone.

“Kat, we were awful to you, and I was the worst. I’m so sorry.”

“Lots of kids were awful,” I said.

“He wasn’t.” She pointed at Nate.

“He was no knight in shining armor either,” he said.

She put her hand on mine, and I was too shocked to pull away. “I was married to a man for a while who told me I was ugly almost daily for more than a year,” she said. “That’s what it took for me to learn what I did to you.”

It was her tears that made me say it. Her tears and the way that she just let them roll down her cheeks, instead of wiping them away. “He was lying,” I said. “Or blind.”

She nodded slowly. “So was I.”

I saw the notecards in her hand just as our class president spoke again. “Tami Bates Wilson, chair of our reunion committee, will speak to us for a few minutes and introduce what comes next.”

There was applause, but Tami didn’t move. She just stared at me. “I’m sorry. Excuse me. I have to go do my thing.” She hesitated. “I’ve been working on this little speech for a month, and it’s still not ready.”

Eyes still wet, she stepped to the mic and looked down at her cards. Then she looked toward me, and I broke into a cold sweat.

She held up her cards with a sheepish smile. “Hi, everybody. I can barely see my notes. It’s so good to see all of you twenty-five years later, to see the people you’ve become and hear about the things you’ve done and the things you’ve endured. You’re amazing, all of you.

“We weren’t always kind to each other in school.” Her voice had a higher pitch now. “For example, I was frequently cruel and incredibly stuck up. I thought most of you were losers. I don’t think that anymore – about any of you. So please forgive me for that, if you would.”

We could have heard a cloth napkin drop.

“I think I needed time and some big struggles of my own. I didn’t mention during our introductions that I flunked out of college the first time. My first husband was a huge mistake. And I started drinking on the way home from work, until I scared myself by almost hitting my boys in the driveway once.”

I heard gasps. She took a deep breath, and her voice was steadier when she continued. “I got my 15-year chip last month.”

She smiled at the applause. “Thank you. I’m pretty proud of that. My depression and anxiety got a lot better too, when I stopped self-medicating. And even if it took me too many years to grow up, I’m so happy to have finally learned to look for the good in people, the beauty. I love seeing it in you. It’s easy to see, and there’s a lot of it. I wish I’d seen it sooner.

“I want to tell you how wonderful you are, in case no one has told you that lately, and because I’m sure I never did. Thank you for being forgiving enough to share a happy reunion with me.”

She sniffed and swiped at her eyes.

“This video we’re about to see is a montage of photos and videos sent in by a lot of you, plus some things the yearbook still has on file, plus a tribute to seven of us who have passed away, one as recently as last month, as you know. It’s about ten minutes long, and I don’t know about you, but I’m going to cry even more when I watch it. So at least I got to give my little speech before the video.

“I have these two quotes I want to read, and then I’m done.” She wiped her eyes again. “If I can read them.”

“The great writer Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘True terror is to wake up one morning and realize that your high school class is running the country.”

There was a burst of laughter and applause. Her smile seemed shy at first but rapidly grew almost to the megawattage I remembered.

Strangely, I remembered it without pain.

“Nelson Mandela said, ‘There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.’”

No one laughed at that. I saw some nods.

“Thank you,” she said. “For listening to me and for being part of my life, then and now. Thank you.”

She returned to her table. I found myself applauding with the rest.

They had technical difficulties with the video. Some lights went back up, and Tami reappeared at our table while they worked on it.

“Hi,” she said meekly. “Me again.” She looked at Nate. “I’m sorry your wife couldn’t come tonight.”

“She missed a fine speech,” he said.

I thought Tami should appreciate something about Nate. “His Julia is home with MS,” I said. “She’s had it a long time.”

Tami looked at Nate with concern. “You never told us. That must be so difficult.”

“I try not to compare people’s struggles,” he said.

She just looked at him for a moment, then nodded slowly.

“Besides,” he added, “I have a perfect excuse to spend lots of extra time at home with an amazing woman.”

He was a freaking saint, I thought but didn’t say. He wouldn’t like it. Or believe it.

Someone announced that the video was about to start “for real, this time,” and the lights were about to go down. Tami looked at Nate, then me. “Thanks for coming. Both of you. And helping with the name tags. And Nate, everything else you did. Excuse me.” She returned to her table.

I wasn’t in the video, which was fortunate. I felt enough like an outsider that I could watch without crying.

Nate smiled through the whole thing, until the tributes to deceased classmates. The pictures reminded me that one of them had been his closest friend. When the lights went back up, I pretended not to notice his tears, until he could dry them.

“Are you staying for any of the dancing and mingling?” I asked, as the buzz of conversation rose above the many sniffles around us.

“I have an early flight,” he said. “I met everybody on their way in. Talked to a lot of them when we were planning this too.”

“Back to Julia.”

“And three teenagers,” he said.

“As difficult as it is, you really do miss her tonight, don’t you?”

He didn’t get all the way to a smile. “Is that pathetic? I’m only away for one night.”

“I think it’s sweet.”

Now he smiled a little, and I waxed bold. “Before you go, could I talk you into a dance or two?”

He hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah, I think you could. Right now?”

“Soon. I’ll let you know.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not stalling,” I explained. “I’m waiting for a slow dance. Not to be romantic. I just look stupid trying to fast-dance. I’ll keep my distance, I promise.”

They played a slow song next. He leapt to his feet, held out his hand, and said, “Andi, Kat, may I have this dance?”

I wondered if he realized my smile was thanking him for asking me, as I always hoped he’d do when we were in school.

We danced in silence, until I couldn’t bear it.

“I don’t have a crush on you anymore,” I said.

“That’s probably for the best,” he said.

“But I think you’re a very good man. I’m glad we could get reacquainted.”

He smiled the same little smile as before. “Thank you. So am I. Good to catch up.”

“I saw the Mona Lisa once,” I said. “I think I need to see her again. For longer this time.”

The song was ending. “One more for the road?” he asked. “If it’s slow?”

“Sure,” I said. “Thank you.”

It was slow, but the first few measures turned something inside me dark and cold. “No, actually. No. I can’t. Thank you, though.” I started back toward our table, and he followed.

“Are you okay?” he asked, as he pulled out my chair for me.

“They should put trigger warnings on these old songs,” I said, dismayed at my voice for trembling again.

I sat, and so did he. “Is this Celine Dion?” he asked.

“Yes. ‘To Love You More.’”

“A penny for your thoughts,” he said. “A quarter, since they seem painful. And for inflation.”

I stared at him with what I imagined were hooded eyes. I couldn’t and shouldn’t be too specific.

“You don’t have to tell me,” he said. “I don’t think I have a quarter anyway.”

We listened to the song for a while. Or he looked like he was listening. I was Andi again, and shriveled inside.

I finally spoke. “For a while this song was kind of the dark anthem of my life.”

“Uh-oh,” he said. “Bad memories?”

“There was this guy once, and this was our song. My song, actually. I was waiting for him, so I thought. To notice me that way. I wanted to be the one to love him. I knew I could do it better than the girl he was with.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That would hurt.”

“I don’t know why it was so intense at the time, but I was in agony for, well, it seemed like a long time. I guess everything’s exaggerated when we’re teenagers.”

Oops. Too specific as to time.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said.

He didn’t appear to suspect he was the guy. I didn’t remind him that “To Love You More” had been the theme of one of our school dances. He’d asked a girl I didn’t know he liked, a pretty athlete from the girls’ basketball team. A different guy asked me a week in advance, then told me it was a joke at the last minute, when he was due to pick me up for dinner. He said I was an idiot to believe anyone would ever want to go out with me.

In lieu of dinner I cried for a couple of hours, sitting in my best dress, then went to the dance alone just to spite him. Or to spite myself. I wasn’t sure. I spent at least half an hour there, sitting in my dark corner, stealthily weeping, watching Nate and his date. They danced to my song like it was their song. They were in their own little world, a happy, beautiful place, a paradise clearly visible from my corner of hell. I went home without even sampling the refreshments.

Nate snapped me back to the present. “Why does getting past everything have to mean disconnecting?” he asked. “Is it just too painful otherwise?”

“Funny thing,” I said. “The pain tonight is less than I remember.”

“I just watched you during that song,” he said. “I’m not sure I believe you.”

If he only knew.

“It’s not all gone,” I admitted. “Maybe it never will be. Maybe that’s okay.” I attempted a smile.

“So what’s the status of your proof now?” he asked. “If you don’t mind my asking again.”

“You may be onto something,” I said. “I’m starting to think there’s a necessary step after severing all the bad connections. I’m kind of making this up as I go along.”

I didn’t continue right away, and he didn’t jump in to ask.

“I think the next step” – I hesitated, checking to see if I really did think it, and I did – “might be to replace the old, bad connections with new, good connections. With some of the same people, if possible, bizarre as that feels.”

This time, it was a big smile. “Sounds like you’re glad you came,” he said.

“I kind of am. Thanks for letting me hang out. It helped.”

“I enjoyed it. Thanks for forgiving me. And the rest of us. Not kidding.” He stood. “I should go.”

I stood too. “You sound tired,” I said. “But I’m glad you got to come. Have a safe flight home tomorrow.”

“Thanks. You driving home tonight?”

“It’s only an hour,” I said. “Ish.”

He took my hand and squeezed it, and for an instant I was Andi – but the Andi I’d wanted to be, not the Andi I was. I knew he didn’t mean anything romantic. I was Kat now, a realist who specifically didn’t marinate anymore in old, impossible, long-expired hopes.

“When you see the Mona Lisa,” he said, “tell her I said hi. It’s been a while, and it’s probably going to be a while.”

We hugged awkwardly and said goodbye. I stayed a little longer and actually talked with a few old classmates near the refreshment table. No one else offered any apologies, but they were friendly, which felt somewhat apologetic to me. Two of them asked if I knew where Donna was and how she was doing, so I caught them up.

I walked out to my car, sat behind the wheel, inserted the key in the ignition … but didn’t turn it. Not yet. I needed to cry my eyes out, for completely contradictory reasons. The old pain. The new, different feelings. Nate caring for his ailing wife and loving her so much all these years. Tami, of all people, apologizing to me. Tami conquering her own demons. Classmates remembering Donna and caring enough about her to ask.

I waited a while for the tears to start, but they didn’t. Dark memories lurked nearby but out of reach. Happy thoughts hovered just beyond my grasp. I sat and wondered what it all meant.

I smiled faintly in the darkness.

“See you at our thirtieth?” Nate had asked. “You better come.”

“I will,” I’d promised with a restrained but honest smile. “You better bring Julia. I hope she can. I’ll pray for her, if that’s okay.”

He said it was, thanks.

I started my car and headed home.


Photo credit: Alexandra I. on Unsplash


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David Rodeback

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