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Jane sweeps a scattering of crumbs into a neat little pile. “You are quite a slob,” she says as she pushes the broom across the floor with a rhythmic swish-swish. “And so lucky to have me to clean up your messes!”
“I know,” I say, watching an ant crawl across the windowsill. “But if I weren’t so messy, you wouldn’t get the satisfaction of cleaning the apartment. I do it for you. For your OCD.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” she says. She props the broom against the wall and drops to her hands and knees, sponging up invisible spills, scrubbing our crummy kitchen linoleum into gleaming submission.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I continue, lifting my feet so Jane can clean under them. “I appreciate it. But it’s not a favor if you can’t not do it.”
“I can stop anytime I want to!”
“You missed a spot,” I say, pointing with my left big toe to a nonexistent smudge on the floor; in response, she squeezes a dribble from the wet sponge over my bare foot.
“I do appreciate your attention to detail,” she says, dabbing my foot.
“Well, here’s how you can repay me,” I say as Jane squirts a viscous blob of liquid cleanser onto the sponge. “You can come with me tonight.”
“And you know, my pretty, that there is no chance of that.”
“Why not? A, you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to, and B, if you do, people will find you charming and interesting.” Sometimes I think it’s helpful to speak in outline form.
“Willa,” Jane says, attacking the tabletop. “I will not go to your high school reunion. A, I’m not your boyfriend, and B, I didn’t go to high school with you.”
Excitement is the cousin of dread. Three weeks ago I agreed to attend my eight-year high school reunion. Eight-year reunion, yes: there it was, in my in-box, an Evite to a list of two hundred twenty-eight vaguely familiar names from one vaguely familiar name: Shelby Stigmeyer, who, the invitation explained, was supposed to get married tonight, but her fiancé called off the engagement, and Shelby couldn’t get the deposit back on the room. Aw, I thought. Awwww. And in this fleeting, unfortunate moment of sympathy, I added my name to the “yes” column.
I’ve spent the last twenty-one days regretting it. The only thing I liked about high school was leaving it—that and my best friend, Ben Kern, nickname “Pop,” but he’s just another reason I should have declined that invitation. I don’t want to go tonight, and I desperately don’t want to go alone. Jane is, in fact, the closest thing I have to a boyfriend, and with her, what promises to be an excruciating rerun of four years of shyness could be, instead, a party. But I know her well enough to know that she’s easily moved, right up until the moment she’s not. “Fine,” I say, defeated. I deliberately let a shower of crumbs from my granola bar fall onto the table.
She reaches around me with her sponge, unimpressed, then kisses me on the head. “It will be fine. It’s only one night. You can leave early.” She dabs at the last of the crumbs, her thin arm close to my face, her skin warm and bleachy. “Take good notes. I’ll wait up.”
The trip that should take twenty minutes takes me a good forty, as I deliberately navigate the side streets and drive ten miles below the speed limit, incurring the wrath of the old man in the boat-sized silver Chrysler behind me. I stop for gas, even though the tank is three-quarters full. Finally I have no choice but to pull into the restaurant parking lot and face the reunion head-on.
Inside the Hampton House’s private party room, the bass-heavy thump of an eight-year-old Aerosmith power ballad bores into my skull. I squint against the swirl of Christmas lights and the confusion of faces, their features blurred, take a shallow breath through my mouth to try to minimize the smell of heavily perfumed and aftershaved bodies. Women who haven’t seen each other in ages squeal with delight; men pound each other on the back like friendly apes. I’m pressed against the back wall when I spot him. I push my head forward, suddenly unsure.
It’s his walk that I recognize, finally, the way he moves through space like he knows in his bones that the world will never belong to him—his shoulders slightly rounded, head down, long strides meant to propel him to his destination as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. That’s him. I spent four years searching the undulating sea of high school bodies for Ben’s walk.
But everything else about him is a shock, electric and sweet. The man who is loping toward me, who is standing here smiling at me, is not the weird little wombat I knew years ago. He’s tall—well, he’s my height—and thin, angular, stretched out. His intense brown eyes are no longer planted deep in a round baby face; they stare out at me from a man’s face, a man’s face with cheekbones and not just a chin but an actual jaw. He’s Ben Kern, for sure, but new, improved Ben, Now with Bone Structure! He looks me up and down and then grabs me in a bear hug, and that’s my next surprise, the way he squeezes the air right out of me, and not just because he’s stronger now.
“Hey, dingbat,” he says, softly, into my hair.
“Hey, Pop,” I say. He smells good, too, like licorice, another welcome addition to Ben 2.0.
“Yeah . . . no one really calls me Pop anymore,” he says, still holding on.
“Well, not that many people call me dingbat, either.”
He puts his hands on my shoulders and takes a half step back. “Look at you.”
“Look at you,” I reply.
“You look exactly the same,” he says, and then mumbles something and glances away nervously: this is the Ben I remember, indecipherable and endearing.
“You look completely different,” I say. He meets my eyes again, and we both laugh.
“Well, I’ve had some work done.”
I squint at him, considering. “You had your lips plumped, didn’t you?”
“Plus, a little Botox.” He stares into the distance, his eyes wide. “See? I’m raising and lowering my eyebrows, but you can’t tell.”
I want to say that I’ve missed him, that I’ve been furious and confused and, finally, resigned to his absence from my life. But it all adds up to too much, and I can’t tease out anything reasonable from the mess. “I didn’t think you’d come,” I say finally.
The room is quickly filling up with our former classmates; I watch as each of their faces seems to register a preprogrammed sequence, from apprehension to eager recognition, uncertainty to confidence. They move around the room like amoebas, forming and re-forming into the social configurations of 1999. “Because we hated high school.”
“We did,” Ben agrees, following my gaze.
And that’s when I realize that I came here tonight to see him, and he to see me, a sudden and visceral understanding, shocking both for its obviousness and for the fact that I didn’t know it until this second. I take a deep breath, inhale the woolly, crowded warmth of the room. “Why did we . . . what happened?” I ask, but the background noise is a din of voices, and I’m not sure he hears me, because it’s at this moment that Alexis Moody glides up and flings her arms around me in an unexpected hug. Alexis and I sat next to each other in homeroom. She was the kind of girl who pasted the inside of her locker with words she cut out from magazines to describe herself: SPECIAL! OUTRAGEOUS! UNIQUE! WOW! For two or three minutes every day for four years, she shared the juicy details of social dramas I had no part in. Her self-assurance was like a big umbrella. She could shelter anyone under it.
“Wendy?” she says. It takes me a minute to realize she’s talking to me.
“No, it’s Alexis!” she says loudly, laughing, tapping her name tag. “Poor Shelby, huh? Awww!” Then she looks at Ben with frank admiration but not a hint of recognition. “Is this your boyfriend?” She pronounces the word like it’s something she’s just spotted bobbing in the ocean: buoyfriend.
“Yes!” Ben smiles brightly at her, offering his hand.
“Oh, my gosh!” she says, her own smile twitching a bit. “Mine is over there! Actually he’s my fee-ahn-say!” She points to a group of identical-looking men in casual wear. “Rich!” she says proudly, and I’m not sure whether she’s telling us his name or describ- ing him.
There’s an awkward moment when nobody has anything to say, and, with a measure of relief, I’m plotting my escape (Is it 8:05 already?), when suddenly a cluster of women in little black dresses swoops down on us, arms waving, fabric flapping—a colony of pretty bats. They emit a strong, collective odor of fruity perfumes with names, I imagine, like Delicious and Happy and Adorable. (Mine, if I were wearing any, would be called Wary or Irritable.) The bat-ladies simultaneously surround and ignore Ben and me, and I find myself moved along, Alexis’s hand gripping my arm, into the larger crowd.
A woman I don’t recognize holds a camera up to her face and starts snapping photos; she looks like an emergency vehicle, the camera flashing over and over. “Okay, everyone!” she shouts, and I remember who she is—Leah Reilly, former student council president and friend to everyone. “I just had a totally great idea! I’m going to take pictures of people with their former crushes!” She starts laughing maniacally. “Who did you like back in high school? Who did you like?”
A few people chuckle uncomfortably. All of our shoes are suddenly extremely interesting.
“Oh, come on, you guys!” Leah says again, her left hand on her hip, and somehow, from her, this chiding is amiable, more misguided camp counselor than plotter of evil. “We’re all grown up now! High school was eight years ago! Come clean. Who did you like back then? Who did you like?”
Alexis turns to me and leans in close. Her lips brush against my ear. “I forgot how much I hated high school,” she whispers, and I think that it is endlessly surprising, how everyone has a secret life. A short, dimple-cheeked woman giggles and points to someone on the fringes of the room, and Leah grabs her and takes off, warning the rest of us to stay put, that she’ll be back.
A few of the women are murmuring to each other and flipping their hair around, clearly beginning to enjoy the opportunity to rekindle a thing or two, and I’m feeling like I actually am back in high school, complete with the attendant stomachache. I’m thinking about Ryan Cox, track star, math whiz, occasional contributor to the magazine Ben and I edited and secret hero of my fantasies (I never knew you were so pretty behind those glasses!); I’m thinking about how loneliness starts growing early and takes root like a weed. I’m starting to feel very sorry for myself.
And then Ben reappears and taps my shoulder. I automatically look down to find his face and then, seeing only torso, tip my chin up. “Let’s make like a banana,” he says, and I remember what it was like, ten years ago, to be rescued from myself. As fast as I can unhook Alexis Moody’s fingers from the flesh of my upper arm, I’m following Ben out the door and into the wintry night.