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"Louie Louie" was exploding from the loudspeakers, doing its damnedest to compete with the screeches of a few hundred forty-some-year-olds. And I was sweating all over my best-occasion velvet jumpsuit, dancing with Tommy Johnson--no--Jenkins, a kid I hadn't seen in twenty-five years.
"Roar, roar, mmm wawwa mo--"
At least I thought it was "Louie Louie."
I threw my arms out in the spirit of '68 and executed a free-form twirl under the disco lights. A tendril of crepe paper caught me halfway through, flapping onto my moist forehead and sticking there for a moment, then pulling away with an intimate little suck as I completed the turn. The spirit of '68, all right.
"The hotel even did the decorations in Gravendale High colors!" Tommy shouted, pointing at the profusion of purple and red streamers floating under the pulsating lights. Tommy smiled, exposing the gap between his otherwise perfect teeth. "Cool, huh?"
"Yeah, cool!" I screamed back, wondering how a kid that had looked like Alfred E. Neuman twenty-five years ago could have turned into such a good-looking man. Well, not all that good-looking, I told myself guiltily, and glanced over his short shoulders at my sweetie, Wayne. (Twenty-five years might have done a lot for Tommy's looks, but they hadn't added any to his height.)
Wayne was holding his own, gyrating in place across from Gail something-or-other, another classmate I hadn't seen in twenty-five years. And a woman he 'd never met before in his life. Of course, Wayne hadn't gone to Gravendale High School. This was my twenty-fifth highschool reunion. But Gail had looked so damned lonely as the other couples had stood up to make their way onto the dance floor that I'd whispered to Wayne, "Ask her to dance," without even thinking. Then I'd watched the ambivalence play out on his homely face. Wayne was used to rejection based on nothing more than his low brows and cauliflower nose. But he was a sucker for anyone needy. So he took a big breath and popped the question. When Gail leapt out of her chair with a big smile of acceptance, I knew it was worth it. A two-for-one cheer-up special.
Actually I was feeling surprisingly cheery myself, out there wiggling my ever-widening hips on the dance floor, sweating all over the most expensive outfit I owned, and feeling some--just a few--of the layered remnants of my teenaged pain, self-consciousness, and insecurity slip-sliding away.
The music felt better too that night than it had twenty-five years before. "Wooly Bully," "Dancing In The Streets," "Shotgun," and "Satisfaction." All I remembered from official high school dances were the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
A few hours ago, Wayne and I had come rushing in late to the ballroom of the Swinton Hotel, nervously snatched a Where Are We Now? booklet from a smiling reunion organizer, and plopped down randomly at the nearest big round table to have dinner. I'd only remembered about half of my tablemates. And they'd changed. Tina Reilley, who'd been so shy and plain that I'd worried about her, was currently a gorgeously glowing physicist. Not glowing from radiation, I hoped. And former troublemaker Frankie Weems was a corporate attorney. Actually, maybe he hadn't changed.
But no one at the table had been from my old gang of friends. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. For a moment I'd wondered why I'd seen so little of the old gang in all these years. Not to mention the rest of my former classmates. But I didn't come up with an answer.
After dinner, the music started. And hunky Jim Hernandez asked me to dance. And then Zack what's-his-name. And then Tommy. And suddenly I was glad I hadn't given in to my initial impulse to rip my reunion invitation into tiny pieces and flush them down the toilet. I certainly hadn't been this popular in high school. So I danced, telling myself I'd hunt later for the people I'd hung out with twenty-five years ago. I already knew my old best friend, Patty, wasn't going to be here. And there had been over five hundred kids in my graduating class. It wouldn't be easy to separate out the fifteen or so of them I'd been really close to. If any of them were even here.
"Louie Louie" ended abruptly, and suddenly I could hear people talking around us.
"This is my fourth husband, he's a keeper..."
"And white lipstick. And those awful madras shorts..."
"I cheated off you in third grade, do you remember? I copied your paper, but I copied your name too..."
"Thanks," I panted to Tommy. Not only was I soaked with sweat from dancing but my legs were wobbling. And my ears were ringing.
"You always were a really cool dancer, Koffenburger," Tommy said. And then he shouted as another song began, "Wanna do it again?"
It sounded like "Brown Sugar." And Tommy had said the magic words, "really cool dancer," even if he had used my dreaded maiden name, Koffenburger. You would not believe all the bad jokes that can be made out of a name like Koffenburger.
I looked over at Wayne. He was still dancing with Gail. What the hell, I decided. My legs were going to hurt tomorrow anyway. I kicked them out in a fancy two-step and started swinging my arms and hips again. And thinking about my old boyfriend, Ken.
Had Ken thought I was a good dancer? Ken who had driven a motorcycle--really a motorbike--but it still had seemed romantic. Ken who had sported shoulder-length brown hair by the time he had disappeared into the cosmos of communes after his first year at Stanford. Ken who--
I looked guiltily over Tommy's shoulder at Wayne again.
Was Ken here in the Swinton Hotel ballroom? I danced faster, avoiding crepe paper. Probably not. I had yet to see even one person from the old gang. I smiled across at Tommy and wondered why he hadn't been part of the group I'd hung out with so long ago. They'd been a mixed crew. A bunch of kids who were smart, maybe smarter than Tommy, but not necessarily super-smart. Kids who were a little on the wild side--that was probably the answer. Tommy had been pretty straight. And most of us had thought of ourselves as hippies, or at least near-hippies, as we banded together to eat lunch on the front lawn and split into smaller groups to talk intimately and earnestly. About sex and society, the Jefferson Airplane, our parents, sex, the Grateful Dead, the war in Vietnam, drugs. And sex again. We even talked about love. And peace, of course. Lots of talk. Very little action.
The Rolling Stones screamed to an end, giving way to the sound of people chattering around us once again.
"I'm really feeling dislocated, you know, I don't mean to be a downer, but my therapist said..."
"Remember when we found that shark on the beach and put it in the swimming pool..."
"Your hair has changed, but your aura is just the same as it always was..."
"That was really great, Tommy," I said after I caught my breath. "You're a real cool dancer yourself."
He smiled widely this time, revealing the full extent of the gap between his teeth. With a little jolt, I realized I might have helped him shed a layer of insecurity. It was so easy to forget that other people were vulnerable too. I gave him an impulsive, sweaty hug and then watched as he walked away under the pulsating lights, limping. It looked like I wasn't going to be the only sore ex-dancer tomorrow. Then a woman's voice from behind me caught my ear.
"Whatever happened to Robert Weiss?" she asked someone.
"Don't you remember?" that someone answered. "He blew himself up, right before--"
My whole body clenched. I remembered. I couldn't not remember.
Because Robert Weiss had been one of our group, a talented boy: theatrical, artistic, and elegant. A boy who'd loved magic. He'd promised us all a fireworks show on the weekend before graduation. And he'd given it to us, wearing his top hat and black cape, pulling festoons of light from inside the cape's folds, then making sparklers appear from our ears and our pockets and our noses. Gradually, he'd worked up to the big rockets. Really big rockets, bought out of state. And for the grand finale, he lit the biggest one of all and stepped back. Nothing happened. A frown creased his elegant face as he stepped forward, bending over the malfunctioning rocket to pick it up. It blew up then, blasting away his shoulder and his heart in a huge roar of light and sound and blood.
I don't know how long it was before I realized it wasn't a trick and began to scream.
Twenty-five years later, I shivered under the pulsating lights of the Swinton Hotel ballroom and remembered why my initial impulse had been to rip up my reunion invitation. I felt sick. Sick and cold. I wanted to go home.
I lifted my head to look for Wayne.
Posted April 4, 2014