The directions to the place where our 15-year reunion was being held were a street address, along with the words “across from the rocket.” Deep in the bowels of downtown Columbia, past the industrial middle of nowhere, lie the fairgrounds. Smack in the middle of those fairgrounds is a garishly painted rocket, the landmark to beat all landmarks. Upon arriving at the fair, parents go one way and kids go another, with explicit instructions to “meet at 4pm back at the rocket.” Throughout the sweltering day, between bites of your elephant ear, you’d hear the announcements over the PA: “John Smith. John Smith. Please meet your party at the rocket.” So when Brad’s invitation said “the rocket,” we all knew what that meant.
Margo went to pick up Matt at the airport; she called me afterward and ordered us directly to her mother’s house in West Columbia. It was as good a place to meet as any, since it was just across the bridge from downtown and only a few miles from said infamous rocket. As an added bonus, Margo ended the conversation with, “We can’t walk in there alone. We need a posse.” I completely agreed with her. Josh and I tossed our party clothes in the car, drove over, and changed at Margo’s mom’s house. Her not-so-little sister was there to provide babysitting service for Mia. We were all set. We were all gorgeous. It was finally time.
Casey called while we were en route and confessed that she couldn’t wait to go to the bathroom, so she and Todd were heading inside the building. Matt and Margo were one block away when they realized they had forgotten to go to the bank (there was a cash bar). So our posse once again ended up being just me and Josh, arm-in-arm, trying to find the right door to the building.
Brett Serbin met us at the nametag table and handed me my sticker while he looked for “Rowdy Rayner’s.” Mr. Oberly had given nicknames to everyone that attended his Calculus classes–who’d have ever thought we’d be immortalized that way? I made a beeline for Casey and Todd, and we staked a claim on a table by the stage where the band was playing. (Ironic, of course, that the smart kids would select a place right next to the speaker, and then attempt to yell over it.) Matt and Margo sat down with us and we were soon joined by Jim Scott and his longtime girlfriend Hillary.
Hillary summed it up best: “When I asked Jim if he would be seeing some of his old friends here, he said, ‘Not friends. Adversaries.'” It was true. No one in our group challenged us more than we challenged each other. It was always Who could get the best grade on the Chemistry exam, or Who could score the highest on the SATs, or Who was going to sit on the stage at graduation. When all was said and done, I ended up 14th out of that 600, and I would not have been able to sit on stage had Ranjith Vellody’s family not swept him away to India. The last time I had seen Jim Scott was on that stage. I had hugged him fiercely and told him how much I hated him. He had tried to say something else in return, but I stopped him before he could get the words out. “No you don’t,” I said. “You hate me too.” He knew what I meant.
I kept an eye on the door and flew out of my seat the minute Chris arrived–my Kit, my fictional brother, and King to my Queen of Thieves. That was it; that made all of us, like the planets and stars in a syzygy I hoped wouldn’t be as impossible to reproduce as it seemed. But for now we were all here, in the same room, in the same tine zone, at the same table, and life was good.
I could have stayed at that table the entire three hours, but eventually I put my foot down and forced us to go mingle. There were other people I wanted to see, and I knew they were hiding in that sea of thirtysomething strangers all milling around the bar. Before I could even cross the dance floor I heard, “Allie Kat!” — another Oberlyism, this one remembered by Eric Warren, our jovial former class president. Eric hugged me and we caught up. He looked great. We all looked great. The beautiful people were still beautiful, and the insecure people were more confident. Fifteen years is not such a bad thing.
I tried to say hi to everyone I passed, and I took lots of pictures. I’ve done the con circuit so many times I’m prepared for one at a moment’s notice: my bag boasts a camera, a brick of business cards, and a stash of pens in case anyone asks for an impromptu signing (no one did). After fifteen years, three hours was not enough. I didn’t get to see everyone, and I didn’t have nearly enough time with the people I did. I caught up with Richard Trewhella and Mark Hill and Robert Lyday and Heidi Pozick-Catron, and Bridget Metzger, who I just wanted to put in my pocket and take home with me. I saw Tripp Riley, met his beautiful wife, and learned about their two children. I have to say, I was torn between relief and disappointment when I heard that neither of the boys had been dubbed Charles Anderson Riley the Fourth. And then I elbowed Casey in the side.
“Holy crap, look!” I tilted my head to the corner of the room. “Erik Younginer!” Casey craned her head to see him and giggled.
It had always been that way, Casey and I whispering and giggling on one side of the room, and admiring Erik Younginer from afar. He was “that guy,” the cute, unobtainable one who had been the object of our affections since the seventh grade. When we passed notes back and forth to each other, we referred to him in secret code as YKW (you know who), so that no one would find us out if they were ever intercepted. Not like it was much of a secret anyway–I would think it’d be kind of hard to ignore a couple of simpering nerds fawning over you. Then again, it seems I have always underestimated the sheer obliviousness of the opposite sex.
“We should go take our picture with him,” I suggested. Casey agreed. But we didn’t. Twenty years later and we were still chickenshit. How pathetic were we? And then we turned around to see Todd up on stage, singing with the band.
If Todd had gone to Spring Valley High instead of being sequestered wherever he had gone to school in Knoxville before Casey snared him, he would have been one of us. All the proof was right there singing on stage with the band. “Dammit!” said Josh. “If I’d known he was going to do that, I would have gone up there first!” Not to be swayed by a little thing like timing, Josh leapt onstage and joined Todd in “Mustang Sally.”
We cheered and hollered and danced like wild things. It couldn’t have been more obvious that we were having the time of our lives, and it bubbled over like champagne. After a few songs, the guitarist walked up to me, the rabble rouser in the party dress that seemed to be the center of it all. “I know you can sing,” he told me.
“Not what you play,” I answered. It had been an odd set: selections from the 50’s and 60’s mixed with Nelly and Nora Jones. Nothing at all from the 80’s and 90’s, which had struck us all as strange, but it didn’t matter. All those years in ALERT had taught us to be flexible. Had I been able to think of a song I might have suggested something, which tells you what kind of mood I was in. I haven’t sung in front of people since Elementary School.
“Do you have any Patsy Cline?” Casey said chipperly. She had to be kidding, right? It was a PARTY. People were HAPPY. They were DANCING. Now she wanted to sing some sappy downer love song? “How about ‘Crazy?'” she suggested.
“You got it,” said the guitarist.
Casey gabbed my hand and started pulling me toward the stage. “Come on. Sing with me.”
Now, I’ve lived in Tennessee for almost ten years, and Patsy Cline is in the water along with Elvis and Hank Williams Jr. But put a gun to my head, and even then I would have been hard pressed to remember the words to that song. I had a general idea of how it went, but it’s nothing I’d ever sung before. Or ever wanted to. “But I don’t know the words,” I pleaded. Casey didn’t hear me. She was already halfway up to the stage. I ran to catch up with her. I might have never heard that song before, but like hell I was going to let my Best Friend in the Whole Wide World get up there and sing it by herself.
The guitarist flipped to the page in his book that had the words…well, that was some small help. I held on to Casey’s left hand, she held the microphone in her right, and we proceeded to sing possibly the worst rendition of Patsy Cline ever performed in the history of the universe. They probably thought we were both stinking drunk, Casey the nursing mother and I the virtual teetotaler. I didn’t care. I was havingthe time of my life.
To our credit, after the bridge I pretty much knew the basics, so (barring a couple of sour notes) we nailed the end of that song. Josh grabbed my camera and snapped a couple of pictures. Chris stood in front of us, swaying back and forth, his beer bottle held high as if it were a lighter. Goober.
During the saxophone solo, Casey started talking into the microphone. The monitors were pretty horrible, so I couldn’t understand what she was going on about until I heard, “…and Erik Younginer, we were SO in love with you in the seventh grade…”
My heart jumped into my throat, and my stomach fell into my shoes. There, in front of the entire Class of 1993 (at least, the ones who showed up), my best friend had just outed our biggest, secretest crush of all time. And there was no turning back.
—TO BE CONTINUED—
The Fab Five: Josh, Alethea, Chris, Casey, & Margo