A while back I drove to Texas and attended a high school reunion. Events like these are surreal for most everyone, but as I approached Wichita Falls on a cold and still Friday evening, the intensity of it all was overwhelming—the color of the sky, the emptiness of the prairie, the quiet roar of my tires on interstate asphalt. I felt like I was driving into someone else’s dream. I’d lived in this area for less than three years, and many more years had passed since I’d had contact with anyone I had known there. Hell, I didn’t even graduate high school in Wichita Falls because my family moved to Corpus Christi the summer before my senior year. The only way I’d known about the reunion at all is because I saw something about it on MySpace, and I wasn’t sure I should go since I wasn’t on the alumni list.
But I wanted to go. For a bit of nostalgia, sure, but also because I wondered if anyone would remember me. My family moved seven times before I left for college, and I hadn’t kept in contact with any of my childhood friends. Because of this I had romanticized these short-term friendships, imagined they were more meaningful than they probably were, and I assumed I was missing out on some essential quality of childhood that less-nomadic kids took for granted. I felt impermanent; if no one from those years remembered me, had I actually lived them? Were the memories real? Did the past exist anywhere else besides my own mind?
And of course there was a girl. There’s always a girl.
* * *
Relationships are mostly about geography.
Your childhood friends are the other kids who live on your block. Or you meet them in homeroom, or they play on your little league baseball team. You don’t choose these friends so much as you happen across them. Often you barely have anything in common at all.
As you get older, the schools get bigger, and it’s easier to meet people like yourself. In college you enroll in certain classes, you join certain clubs, you’re invited to certain parties. You aggregate and congregate and build relationships based on shared interests and attitudes instead of coincidence.
But in adulthood your world social world tends to shrink again. You work in this office and live in that apartment building. You pick up friends here and there, at work or at church or on your flag football team, and maybe you don’t realize the best friend you never had lives three blocks away. You both shop at the same grocery store and play the same golf course, but for nothing more than probability, you’ll never meet.
Now think about your very best friends—the few who understand you better than anyone else, the ones you practically share a brain with—and consider the astronomical odds you overcame to even meet them in the first place.
* * *
I wasn’t driving to Wichita Falls completely blind. I’d chatted on Facebook and MySpace with a few people who planned to be there. At the first event, a Friday night football game, the organizer of the reunion recognized me. I hadn’t known her in school, but that evening she smiled at me and made me feel welcome.
Inside the stadium, the night was bright and cold. Fans, thousands of them, were huddled under red and black blankets. I was expecting some kind of fanfare, a whole section of cheering alumni impossible to miss, but it turned out there was only a handful of us. Eventually I found another familiar face, an online friend, and sat next to him. I had known of him in school, but only vaguely. I’m not sure he remembered me.
Only a fraction of the graduating class made it to the game. The girl wasn’t one of them. And if she had been there, I probably wouldn’t have spoken to her. Not only because it was cold and everyone was rooted to their seats, but because I was mortified she wouldn’t remember me. She had been one of the most popular girls in school, and certainly among the most beautiful. I was awkward and painfully shy, my face burned with acne, a kid who appeared in the middle of ninth grade and disappeared before graduation. I knew her peripherally for a couple of years, and then, during my last semester before moving away, we sat next to each other in English class. She was the only pretty girl I’d ever found the courage to speak to, and every day I made her laugh. In my yearbook she wrote how nice it was to finally to get to know me, and thanked me for being so sweet to her. I allowed myself to believe, had I found the courage to ask her out, that she would have said yes.
* * *
Social networking sites recognize the problem of geography. Not only can you meet people of like interests, but you find them all over the world. The larger population makes it more likely you might meet a best friend or even a soul mate…at least in theory. The reality is a bit different because online personas don’t always match up with their real world counterparts. Often the qualities you imagined made the two of you so perfect for each other turn out to not really exist, or at least not the way you hoped. And since attraction is fickle, your online friend might be no more of a match than someone you stumbled across by chance in the real world.
And so we’re back to that random encounter, the probability-defying instance where you meet a person that, friend or lover, is the missing piece of the puzzle that is you. It’s not difficult to recognize a person like this. All it takes is a single conversation. And it’s the same where romance is concerned. Love isn’t a look across a room. Lust is a component of love, yes, but if that’s all you’re working with, you’re missing the real magic.
Because of the sheer math involved, we don’t meet these puzzle pieces often. You never know how or when it might happen. And when it comes to love, we often aren’t willing to wait. Circumstances trick us into assigning greater meaning to most of our romantic relationships than what is really there. This may be why friendships often last a lifetime, but marriages don’t fare as well. There isn’t as much pressure to force friendship as there is love. Your biological clock doesn’t care much about your friends. It wants you to find a mate, and the sooner the better.
* * *
I was only sixteen years old when I sat next to the girl in English class, but if she had wanted to get married I probably would have asked her. I couldn’t imagine being drawn to a person more than I was to her. But of course I was too young to understand that a pretty face and a kind smile don’t equal a match. In fact, it was a long, long time before I finally figured this out.
The day after the football game, Saturday, lunch was held in the high school cafeteria. Many more alumni showed up, and I saw plenty of recognizable faces. A guy I played basketball with. A guy who had lived in my neighborhood. Both of these men recognized me, and though they seemed more surprised than pleased to see me, I was nevertheless relieved. Their acknowledgment meant I really had gone to school with these people, that my memories weren’t built from illusion after all. The long hallways and institutional staircases and antiseptic smells were all familiar. These people and this place were my past, and they were real.
And then I saw her. Actually I first noticed her voice. The tone was a little deeper than I remembered, but unmistakable nonetheless. After a moment I made eye contact with her, and I thought her gaze lingered a bit, but maybe I only imagined it. She was as popular as ever. It seemed as though people were lining up to talk to her. I assumed at some point she might be left alone, a tiny window where I could approach her, but it never happened. She was in constant conversation the entire lunch, and even during the mingling period that followed.
One thing I should make clear: I wasn’t there to meet this girl in a romantic way. Far from it. But I couldn’t imagine leaving the reunion without speaking to her, not before I could compare my memories of her to the reality of the woman she had become. As the afternoon wore on, however, doing so became less and less likely. She was never alone, not even for a moment. What could I do? Walk up while she was talking to someone else and wait for them to stop? The past pulled on me like gravity, weighing me down, rooting me to where I stood. Not once during my nearly three years in this school had I asked any girl on a date.
I thought about giving up, walking away, but instead I summoned all the confidence I could muster and approached her. She glanced at me and then continued her conversation with this other person. Seconds ticked by, maybe minutes, and my skin began to crawl. Had I made a mistake? Did she recognize me at all?
Finally, she was free. She smiled the same smile I remembered and extended her hand. I shook with her and introduced myself, watching for recognition to flicker in her eyes the way it had with the other friends I had discovered here.
But no recognition appeared. She didn’t remember me. She even apologized for not remembering.
We talked for a while afterward, close to a half hour, about various political and cultural topics. It was a fine conversation, but we didn’t share similar views on very many things. Eventually we climbed into our cars and drove our separate ways, and that night, when dinner and drinks were served, when tables were cleared to make room for a dance floor, I made no effort to speak to her again.
* * *
I’m not sure I learned anything intellectually by attending the reunion, because what occurred there is pretty much what I expected. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It’s one thing to tell yourself how you should feel about a situation, but something else altogether to live it.
Because while it’s true that reality for each of us exists only in our own minds, the magic of being human are the odd and daily experiences you share with someone else.