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“Time must have become a very odd kind of mirror-maze for her now; and mazes can change at any instant from being funny to being frightening.”–Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

“Pope Benjamin just announced ordaining women is like pedophilia. So that means he’s okay with it?” I consider then reject this as a possible ice-breaker at my Catholic high school’s 25-year reunion tonight. The event was announced months prior and I’ve received several Facebook reminders, but I only confirmed three days ago, after nudging from my mom and aunt, who pointed out I’ll enjoy seeing those I loved and in some cases still do, that my career is going well and that I’m frequently mistaken for being younger than I am. (It’s ridiculous to glorify youth but I’m not above being flattered when associated with it.) A kind pal, Marley, volunteered to drive and says we’ll bail after an hour if it’s lame. With good humor, I agreed to go. I’m touched they care whether I attend but mostly that they don’t see me as I’ve seen myself the past nine plus months: shrouded in grief, a facsimile of who I was before TJ undertook what would be his final climb the first week of October.

Marley and I meet at our appointed time at the coffee house by my home. We haven’t seen one another in 15 years and didn’t know each other well during high school but had reconnected online before October and since then, have exchanged dozens of emails. She gets it and, unfortunately, as is almost always the case, her understanding is derived from experience. We walk to her car and fall into an easy rapport. She starts the car and though we’re quickly ensnared in traffic, we joke and speculate about which former classmates we’ll enjoy seeing and which will be goons. I ask Marley how she and her husband met and she tells me an endearing tale about a fire drill at the University of Washington. TJ and I met at the UW, too, I think, but don’t mention it. When I go out, I don’t pretend he hasn’t died, nor do I dwell on it. How would that be fair to anyone?

We reach our destination, a popular but low-key ale house, and score one of the few parking spots available in the tiny lot. (I have CFIDS, akin in many ways to MS, and have been walking with a cane again since April. So it’s a coup to trek only a few steps.) We enter and head past the bar into the outdoor, cordoned-off area where the presumable reuniting will commence. We’re greeted by the evening’s three organizers: one’s off-kilter humor I recall fondly, one I’d swear I’ve never met, and one de-friended me on Facebook after I skewered the fraudulent insurance giant, AIG. Marley and I exchange pleasantries with them, pay our entry fee and receive our name tags.

We discover we’re among the first two dozen arrivals and the next half-hour stretches like pull-taffy. A former cheerleader, one of the wealthiest members of our class, sheepishly asks if we remember her. Assured we do, she shifts gears and announces in a tone only slightly less boastful than a pro wrestler’s that she has four children. “The oldest one starts college in the fall and she wants to be a writer. I told her she needs to think about making some money.” She turns to me. “You’re a writer, aren’t you? What do you think of this?” I tell her that writing is hugely, almost ridiculously competitive but that if her daughter has the talent and drive, nothing will dissuade her. I say 18 is too young to map one’s entire life and that I left law school after my first year and never regretted it. “Really?” she asks with disbelief. “You really don’t regret not being a lawyer?” I repeat that no, I really don’t, and add that several of my loved ones are attorneys and most of them hate their jobs. This seems to convince her and she asks if her daughter can contact me. I give her my email address and hope her daughter proves her wrong.

What’s surprising about the evening so far is how little it differs from most days since he fell: everyone seems interchangeable and while I banter and listen and share anecdotes, with few notable exceptions, I don’t really care. And I’ve always been someone who cares passionately. That I’m unfamiliar to myself has begun to seem familiar.

“Why do you have that thing?” a red-haired woman asks and points to my cane. I look at her name tag and this stirs a vague recollection, though I remembered her as shy, not hostile. The cane always elicits questions and I give the truncated version of my medical history in a matter-of-fact tone. I’ve had CFIDS for 19 years and learned long ago that chronic, incurable illness prompts some to react with a mix of kindness and curiosity and others to freak the fuck out. Red clearly falls into the latter group and I’m bemused. My demeanor is that of a healthy person–I’m often described as “energetic”–and TJ was one of two people who understood how sick I am. But the most excruciatingly ill days are still dwarfed by the enormity and unalterableness of his absence and I’m sanguine about those who misapprehend my health because what possible difference can it make anyway?

I consider asking Marley if she’d be comfortable if I grabbed a cab home when Jake arrives. He and I have been friends since childhood and though we’ve woven in and out of each other’s lives several times as adults, an indelible shorthand and trust remain. He is smart, amiable and effortlessly witty and Marley seems glad to see him, too. He has the requisite depth of one who has survived much and soon the three of us are cracking each other up. And then, as if on cue, my other closest friends from this era, Andy, Tom and Josh wander in sequentially. Varying degrees of connection have been maintained over the years, but this is the first time since 1995 we have all been in the same room and for me, at least, it packs a surprisingly strong punch. Initial awkwardness vanishes like the California Coolers (God help us all) we used to drink at parties and much hugging and cheek-kissing transpires. Andy’s practice is going well, Tom is running the family business, Josh and his wife own a noted design store. It’s both remarkable and bittersweet we can still finish each other’s sentences. It occurs to me I must go back this far before I have memories that pre-date TJ but it doesn’t bother me because for now, at least, I feel safe. We swap family tales and fondly recall bouts of adolescent and collegiate mischief. We laugh for hours. We make plans to rendezvous soon.

I’ll save my Pope joke for then.

All names except TJ’s and mine have been changed.

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LITSA DREMOUSIS' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, Filter, Hobart, The Huffington Post, McSweeney's, Monkeybicycle, MSN Music, Nerve, The Nervous Breakdown, New York Magazine, Nylon, The Onion's A.V. Club, Paper, Slate, the Seattle Weekly, on NPR, KUOW, and in sundry other venues. Her essay, "The Great Cookie Offering", appears in Seal Press' anthology, "Single State of the Union", she has a piece in Smith Magazine's HarperCollins anthology, "It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs" and she's completing her first novel. She frolics at on Twitter @LitsaDremousis and you can read her archived published work at http://theslipperyfish.blogspot.com/.

35 responses to “The Mirror Maze”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Litsa,
    This post is remarkable for what it says and what it doesn’t say. The surrealistic quality of grief. The fact that we can laugh even though we are not as we once were. The fact that we can smile and wake and eat and live another day even though the loss of our loved one sits in our bones like painful marrow is remarkable.
    I am so sorry for your loss. I am so grateful for your words.
    Zara

    • Thank you so much, Zara, for your empathy and kindness. I really appreciate them.

      Underscoring the veracity of your points: it’s difficult to write about him but more difficult not to. And as w/ all my work, I wanted to send this to him went it was completed.

      All my best to you and yours, Z. Litsa

  2. Judy Prince says:

    You kept me keenly sweeping through this memory-scape, Litsa, strongly identifying with your initial jitters about going to the reunion, your negative responses to the sharp comments/questions of some former classmates, your seeing everything through a strong and understandable filter of grief, and your ultimate warm, brilliant, humour-filled reuniting with well beloved friends.

    I’ll be unable to attend the 50th reunion of my high school class coming up soon, but have just submitted a bio summary for a CD of classmates’ post-high school lives. I’m truly eager to know how their lives have unfolded, these folks whom I still see, naturally, exactly as they looked and acted in high school. Your evoking your classmates’ very relevant, loving relationships fitting into your present was strongly hopeful and helpful. Thank you!

    • Judy, the CD sounds like a potentially funny and moving way to catch up w/ those w/ whom you spent your youth. And that really is the gist of reunions, isn’t it? Like you say, we all tend to picture each other as we were then. I think the most compelling part is discovering who has changed and how.

      “Filter of grief” describes the current state beautifully. Thank you for understanding, Judy. Means a lot. Litsa

      • Judy Prince says:

        I appreciate your response, Litsa.

        Now that you mention the compelling part about seeing who has changed and how, I remember a silly bit from a 15-year reunion: The women were instantly recognisable, but the men were not! I kept wondering why, then it occurred to me that they had changed their hairstyles, but the women had not. Sounds counter-intuitive, but…..there it is.

        Any observations about who had changed and how?

        • Judy, it’s funny you make that observation about women and men at reunions b/c I’ve found the same to be true, also. I think you’re right: part of it is that guys can grow bald, grow beards, etc. My hunch, too, is that b/c more pressure–both external and internal–exists on women to look good, that women either prepare for the reunion accordingly or skip it all together. I could be wrong, though. Like I said, it’s just a hunch.

        • Judy Prince says:

          You’re right, Litsa, and I’d forgot about the beard and bald changes.

          I also have a hunch you’re right about women wanting to really good or they won’t attend the reunion. Yeeks, have we not given up all that rot? Nope.

        • I agree, Judy. It’d be swell if all that “rot”, as you aptly put it, were behind us. Eventually, maybe?

        • Judy Prince says:

          You’ve raised a HUGE issue, Litsa. Women and how they think they look. An effect of patriarchal societies? Females’ inherent delight in beauty? Darwinism gone mad?

        • I think it’s a sandwich of all of your astute points, Judy. Definitely fertile ground!

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    School reunions, to me, are inherently American. I don’t know why it is, I think because I’ve seen them on TV and in movies and never actually been to one of my own (I have little to no interest in going).

    This was so interesting to read, the way you weave little details of people through the piece: “one de-friended me on Facebook after I skewered the fraudulent insurance giant, AIG.”

    Now there’s a picture worth a thousand words.

    As Zara has pointed out, it says just as much in what it doesn’t say. I, too, am so sorry for your loss.

    • I think you’re right, Simon, that there’s something inherently American about reunions. (I skipped the 20th: I’d been asked to read in San Francisco and that was infinitely more fun.) But I’ve gotten something from the ones I attended, too. This one in particular.

      And you’re right: there was an additional line about the woman who de-friended me for my comments about AIG, but I realized it was superfluous. If someone thinks you’re “too negative” about AIG, well, that tells you all you need to know about her.

      I appreciate the condolences, Simon. Thank you.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Geeze, Litza.

    All this time I thought I sort of generally, faintly, knew you.
    I did not know that your Partner, TJ, recently died.
    I did not know you suffered from CFIDS.
    You appear so young and happy-go-lucky in your picture.
    How you got the nerve to go to your reunion amazes me, especially since you chose not to mention your grief and heartbreak.
    You are a stronger person than I.
    What you have been through would devastate most people.
    I wish I had better words to use than: I’m so, so sorry for your loss.

    • Thank you so much, Irene, for the your eloquence and graciousness. I’m really moved.

      I’m incredibly lucky in that I have astounding family, friends and colleagues in my life. There is so much good in the world and I’ve been touched by it in the worst of times. (And the best, too, of course.) Also, as everyone in this thread knows, there is so much protracted horror throughout so much of the globe, whether it be decades of war in Congo or the abused neighbor across the street. So I’ve got my pain, like all of us do, but I’m really lucky to have healthy meals, clean water, comfortable shelter and to live in a part of the world w/out mass killing or starvation. Dad lived under Nazi occupation, so I don’t even have to look far to realize how fortunate I am re geography and how much of this comes down to chance.

      And while I’m touched by your compliment, you’ve struck me as incredibly strong, Irene. So there’s no way I’ll agree I’m stronger than you.

      Re the photos, thanks. As I’m sure you know, part of the paradox w/ CFIDS, MS, Lupus, HIV and certain other illnesses is that often the person w/ one of them usually looks healthy. Which is great, of course. The flip side is that when I’m too sick to leave my home (I work here) almost no one sees me. Also, what’s bittersweet: TJ took the photo that accompanies my bio. It’s not posed: we were laughing and he shot it.

      • Irene Zion says:

        I’ve been feeling so bad about how bad the writing was in my comment. I was writing in a speeding car on my phone, which I can barely see, with DooWop playing extra loud, because Victor thinks I hear “too well” rather than his having a hearing problem, and it’s impossible for me to rearrange my sentences to be anything close to coherent. Calling that elegant was akin to calling an elephant “slim.”

        I once, in a time of stress, painted a self-portrait of me drowning, in my hand are two keys. The message, pretty dense, I’m sure, was that the way to get from a bad, bad feeling that won’t go away to feeling all right. The keys were companionship and industry. (At least I made that the title, so it was at least conceivable that someone seeing it might understand.) In any case, this long-winded preface is my way of saying that that is what you already do. You keep busy and you allow lots of friends and family to love you and be with you.

        You are smart, (and you do look so very young and beautiful!)

        • Irene Zion says:

          OMG! My first sentence has two “bads” in it.
          I shouldn’t be allowed to write when I haven’t had much sleep or when I’m in a car!

        • I love that you titled the painting “Companionship and Industry”, Irene. Also, you nailed it: “You keep busy and you allow lots of friends and family to love you and be with you.”

          I’m cracking up that Victor says you hear “too well” b/c my dad says the same thing to Mom, my brother and me. Also, he never forgets anything. We simply didn’t tell him.

    • P.S. Irene, there were a few times at the reunion when some of us discussed TJ’s death. And b/c of FB, many of my classmates already knew. Coincidentally, one of my friends at the reunion and TJ went to grade school together in a different city many years before I met either of them. That conversation was too painful to relay here. I didn’t want his death to be the main focus of the night–and he wouldn’t have wanted that for me, either–but I didn’t treat it as the elephant in the room.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Litsa,

        Understand it is 5 in the morning and I’m in a cheap motel and I am REALLY tired.
        I’m sure this is all typo-city.

        I’m glad you spoke about TJ, regardless of how painful it was.
        You have to keep talking about TJ.
        I know this stuff.

        • “You have to keep talking about TJ.
          I know this stuff.”

          This might be one of the smartest, most insightful things anyone has written to me in the past nine months. Thanks so much, Irene.

  5. Diane says:

    Sounds like you handled it beautifully, Litsa, and I’m so glad you connected with some old, real, friends. I find it so hard to handle those illness-related freak outs, but I can well understand they pale into insignificance alongside the pain of grief. I’m glad you’re a writer rather than a lawyer, too.

    • Diane, so good to see you here! (Everyone, click on Diane’s blog: she is a wonderful British writer. For that matter, Diane, you should submit to The Nervous Breakdown. If you’re interested, the info is at the bottom of the front page.)

      Undoubtedly, you’ve experienced others’ illness-related freakouts. After a short period of time w/ a chronic illness, you discover you’re a reminder of what can go wrong and some people will always lose their shit. (I’m employing “you” in the general sense here.) You’re right, though: in my case, at least, I find grief worse than illness.

      And thanks so much: I’m glad I’m a writer and not an attorney, too.

  6. kristen says:

    Ah, Lits–thanks for sharing. Told w/ your trademark poignancy, and I love that your old group came together in the end–transcending initial awkwardness, cracking each other up… Beauty in that.

    xo.

    • Aw, thanks, Kristen. Cheek kiss, sweets. And there is beauty in the way old friends still crack each other up and connect.

      Side note, I love that you and I both write for TNB. (For those who don’t know, Kristen and I were in a writing group together a million years ago when she still lived in Seattle. I told Brad this months ago and he thought it was great.)

  7. kristen says:

    I know it! Was thinking the same thing earlier today re: our overlap. ‘Tis neato.

    I’ll always hold those amply-caffeinated, sugar-spiked Uptown meetings dear…

    God I miss their shortbread.

  8. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Aw, the pope joke deserved a larger audience. Then again, you’ve shared it with TNB, so…check 🙂

    I might have to steal that one for the next party.

    I’m glad you found a spot in the mirror maze that rendered some escape through reflected light from earlier in the journey.

  9. Re the Pope joke, some classmates have said the same thing. By all means, use it.

    “…that rendered some escape through reflected light from earlier in the journey.” Beautifully put and helpful, too. Thank you so much, Uche.

  10. Matt says:

    Ah, Litsa, this is sad and lovely all at once.

    My 10-year reunion was in 2007. I had obsolutely no interest in going, mostly because I loathed the entire experience of high school. It’s too bad–it’d be nice to have a group of people to reconnect with in this fashion. Though I suppose, given enough time, my college chums and I will be able to do so.

    • Thanks, Matt. I appreciate it.

      I hear you: I think most creative people hate high school w/ the force of a meteor. My friends and I were a trope of arty misfits and when I recall happy memories from this time, it’s often b/c of them. Underscoring your point re college, I’m still very close w/ a number of college friends. Brain damage is the only valid excuse for preferring high school to college.

  11. The usual tropes are almost impossible to avoid in a reunion essay, but you’ve done it nicely, Litsa. Almost any comment could start “At my reunion…” but I’m not even tempted to do that, because I’ve been placed in yours so solidly. And you definitely should have busted out the Pope bust.

  12. Thanks so much for the detailed feedback, Sean, and for noticing, as Zara and Simon did, that I deliberately sidestepped certain aspects endemic to any reunion. One of the things I love most about TNB is the interaction between writers. Delectable. Really hope all is well w/ you and your work. (I’ll be in contact soon re the newest details re September 23rd’s TNB Seattle!)

  13. Joe Daly says:

    Litsa, having just skipped my 20th college reunion, I read this with tremendous gratitude for the similar vignettes I was able to avoid. I applaud your move to leave law school after the first year to do something that felt right to you. It took me 2.5 years of practicing law to realize that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Think of all the time you saved! But it sounds like we both got the experiences we needed to move to the next phase.

    Very enjoyable piece.

    • Joe, I like your attitude re each of our experiences w/ law: that we received valuable experience. And you might feel this way, too: that if you’ve done something you hate (law), what you love (writing) becomes that more valuable and you keep the occasional bumps in perspective b/c you know you’re where you belong. All the best!

  14. Erika Rae says:

    I am so impressed by the grace with which you write about all of this, while at the same time not hiding your pain. It’s good to see you here, Litsa.

    I love your pope joke.

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