“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.