You need to understand two things about me going to my 35th high school reunion the first Saturday of October, at Holy Cross in Waterbury, Ct.:
1) I was actually a little nervous heading into this. I have no clue why. I mean, granted, it was the first reunion I’d attended in 15 years, and a lot of things had transpired since — two
cross-country moves, one huge, honking stretch of unemployment, four jobs and, oh yeah, one gender transition. But I’m through the worst of my hell now, at least as long as I’m able to keep my job. And I’m out and living in the everyday world and either people don’t read me as trans, or they do and they don’t give a shit. And I really don’t give a shit what people think anymore, which is huge for someone who always strove to please everyone for most of my life (and often failed).
But when I do think of it, maybe I do know why I was so apprehensive — because I was a good Catholic boy, went to a Catholic high school, and due to a depression brought on by a combination of the harassment by the kids in my hometown of Prospect growing up and the hormonal imbalance that lasted from puberty to my first hormone shot in 2010, it was four of the most emotionally turbulent years of my life. Not to mention four of the most formative. And these were the people I shared those four years with, for better and worse. And I was going back to Waterbury, a place as provincial — and in some ways nearly as right-wing — as Fresno, my home-in-exile for eight years. (Three of my school’s most notable alumni include a former governor and two former Waterbury mayors — all Republicans, all of whom are doing, or have done, or have done and will do again, prison time.)
2) Five years ago, as the 30th reunion was going on, I was 3,000 miles away, laying in the fetal position on my bed in Fresno — the Waterbury of California — in the room I was renting from, what I was painfully starting to learn, an alcohol-dysfunctional family. While the gathering of successful businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, moms and the obligatory movie star (Dylan McDermott finally made it to a reunion) took place back here, I was in T-shirt and shorts, a couple days’ growth on my face, alternating between bouts of sobs and trying to sleep. After an hour or so, I would get up off the bed and make my way over to the desk and fire up the laptop and play online poker, and when I was too tired to concentrate any more, I walked back over to the bed, went fetal again and back to bouts of tears. Lather, rinse, repeat.
At that point, I was out of work for seven months, and in the time since I was laid off from The Fresno Bee, I got not one nibble, despite a solid resume — no jobs to be had, no prospects anywhere. And it was a little over two weeks since the night I came out to my parents, and I was starting to feel the weirdness from them. (It would take another 14 months, and more anguish, before they were finally on board with 2.0.) This was not what I bargained for when I moved across the country five-and-a-half years earlier. Instead of being an editor at one of the biggest papers in the most populous state in the country, I was now an utter, absolute, total, complete, supply-your-own-creative-redundant-synonym-here failure. And in between sobs, I prayed to a god that had abandoned me and asked for the courage, the energy, to get up off the bed, grab the bicycle and go riding to one of the many grade crossings in Fresno and wait for a train to come by and hit me. And like my many other prayers, and many resumes, over the coming years, it went ignored. I wussed out, eventually drifted off to sleep at some point, and there was a morning after, and the sun came out.
So yeah, I didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into this particular Saturday night.
I actually almost went to class night two Thanksgiving Fridays ago, one of those off-milestone not-quite-reunion get-togethers that each graduating class has. As chronicled here at the time, I got to the 1249 Restaurant in Waterbury and chickened out — sat in the car out front for an eternity, finally walked into the restaurant and got within 10 feet of the room where the gathering took place, and, not seeing anyone I recognized, I left and headed to my hangout Starbucks down in Orange and, eventually, to New Haven. I wasn’t ready. I was ready for a job (and had had a six-hour interview at ESPN at the start of that month), I was ready for a girlfriend, I was fully confident in my everyday life … but damn it all, I wasn’t ready to go back to school. Even if it was in a wine bar/restaurant.
At the time, I told myself I’d be back for my 35th. By then, I reasoned, I would be over the last of my apprehensions, and on top of that, I would have a job at long last.
Or so I hoped.
It took me until this past January to finally land a full-time job again after five years in the hellish wilderness, so the last of my qualms about going to the reunion had gone by the wayside. I wouldn’t go back a total failure.
And actually, the groundwork had been laid over the past couple years, thanks to the magic of social media. And a visit back to Holy Cross a year before.
I had actually reconnected with several fellow Class-of-’79ers over the last three year or so, and I knew three or four would be coming. John, who carved his own path in local newspapers and radio, found me through my coming-out op-ed in the New Haven Register back in June of 2011. Salli, a way-cool, down-to-earth, earth-motherish soul, was intrigued when someone on the air at WPKN in Bridgeport (where I still sporadically do fill-in shows) referred to me as “she,” and, all confused, sought me out on Facebook. Through her, Trish, with whom I took acting classes back then and who has a powerful voice, found me — looking a lot different than the last time she saw me, at a Black 47 show at Toad’s in New Haven in the early 2000s.
And Martha, a classmate from both grade school and Holy Cross, I reconnected with last November on a visit to the school.
I had gone because McDermott was back in town to receive some sort of Waterbury Hall of Fame honor at a ceremony there, along with several other Waterburians (mostly long dead). Let’s face it — for years, before the interwebs, he was the only classmate whose whereabouts I knew: on The Practice, 10 p.m. Sundays, on ABC. And for the couple months I worked in Midtown Manhattan in the summer of 2013, as a part-time copy editor at MSN, I’d see his mug about seven times larger than life as I walked through the Rockefeller Center subway station — he and Toni Colette, in black-and-white, gagged in stars-and-stripes bandanas, as a promo for their short-lived CBS series, Hostages. Sure, I’d see him, not certain he’d remember me, but I knew I would run into some other classmates. I thought it would be a decent excuse to start reconnecting.
It was strange to walk back into the school that Saturday afternoon. It had been almost a quarter-century since I had been there, since covering some boys’ basketball game for the evil Waterbury Republican-American. It seemed hermetically sealed for 25 years — looked pretty much the same except for a new addition to my right, out front, which was an art gallery. But walking in was the same experience, and the building, 45 years old, was holding up much better than I was. To the left was the gym; turn right, and there was the trophy case on the left; straight ahead was the cafeteria; to the right was the auditorium. The place where Brother Francis Leary, our principal, greeted us — the first class in what had been founded as a boys’ school to go coed all four years — in a freshman assembly in September of 1975. The place where I took acting classes from Chuck Rinaldi, my senior English teacher, who was also the director of the school musicals. The place where I was a sailor in the chorus of South Pacific my senior year. (Solo line, from “Nothing Like a Dame”: “Has a soft and wavy frame, like the silhouette of a dame!”)
The auditorium was darkish and completely comfortable and familiar to me as I took a seat halfway back on a right aisle seat. A woman settled in with her daughter in the row behind me. I immediately recognized Martha. She also grew up in Prospect; we were in kindergarten together and graduated together from Holy Cross. She was nice to me back then — hell, just a nice person, period — but how would she take to me?
The ceremony ended and I waited patiently as she caught up with one of her former grade-school teachers from Prospect. Then, as she was about to leave …
“It’s been a long time — Fran Fried.”
“Oh my God! Fran!” Laughter of surprise and joy, followed by a huge hug.
I walked out with her and her late-teens daughter and we caught up on a lot of catching up. She was living the suburban life up in Watertown and had a family and was successful in her line of work. Life had treated her as well as she treated it.
And she still had the same smile I remembered from childhood.
As we were walking to the cafeteria for the post-ceremony refreshments — where McDermott would be doing a meet-and-greet — I walked past as Gary, a Waterbury detective and one of his friends, who was guarding the backstage area as dozens of kids and tweens waited for him to emerge.
I was on the Fresno Bee copy desk, in my short-lived second go-round at the paper, the night the Associated Press story came over about how the murder of McDermott’s mother, when he was 6, was finally solved. I made sure the story was as accurate as possible, and felt a sense of at least relief for him and his sister at long last. (The short story: He and his sister were raised by their grandmother in Waterbury, and their father owned a bar in Greenwich Village. He wasn’t part of the theater clique at Holy Cross; rather, he was going into the City on weekends, where he learned acting from his stepmother — Eve Ensler, long before The Vagina Monologues.). Dylan had gone to the Waterbury Police Department near the end of 2011 and had asked Gary to help solve, once and for all, the killing, which had been ruled an accidental shooting by a corrupt police inspector. (It was her mobster boyfriend, who himself ended up in someone’s trunk about 40 years ago.)
I introduced myself to Gary, a little apprehensive.
“Hey, Fran!” he said, with a look that seemed kinda perplexed. Maybe nervous. Or maybe it was just that he had his hands full with the kids waiting to see the star of the show. “We sure had some good times here, didn’t we?”
Well, my adolescence wasn’t that good, but at least I was treated pretty well at Holy Cross. But I felt a little uneasy. It just seemed awkward. Throughout this whole transition trip, I’d done my damndest not to trick-or-treat people with Frannie 2.0, but I guess I had done just that.
After spending a few minutes hanging out in the cafe, Martha, her daughter and I took our spot in line for the meet-and-greet. She had actually had a class or two with him, which I hadn’t. It took about 15 minutes, but Martha and her daughter said their hellos.
Then my turn to say hello. “Hey Dylan — it’s been a long time. I’m Fran Fried.”
He didn’t remember me. And, of course, I look nothing like I did in 1979. And he was in a situation where he was encountering hundreds of strangers one after the other, a stressful situation for anyone. And my camera phone, like most of the rest of my phone, sucks, so the photo with him came out blurry.
One thing he said as we were posing: “You seem nervous.”
That kinda caught me off-guard. I mean, I’ve interviewed and met a lot of people in my life, from pro athletes to rock stars to Oscar-nominated actors, and I’ve always had a poise about me. And I’m certainly no starfucker. My energy level does rise sometimes, though, when I meet/encounter people; the first time I met up with my childhood friend Shelby, for a cup of coffee in town four days after I moved home, when we hugged, she said, “You’re shaking!”
So I’m not sure quite what happened with him, but the brief encounter left me feeling a little bit off my base. It wouldn’t exactly be the crowning moment of my life. But I hung out with Martha and her daughter. Another person from my Prospect past with whom I’ve reconnected wonderfully since I’ve been home. And that was well worth the afternoon.
So why go to the reunion? Curiosity, for one — just the usual wondering who was still around, what everyone was doing, all that stuff we all think about from time to time.
Plus, at 53, there was the mortality factor. Fifteen of our class of 385 are gone now; since I last attended a reunion, that included my childhood friend Rick, a fellow Beach Boys fan who introduced me to surfing at Narragansett when we were 17, became an architect to the stars, a triathlete who, despite never having smoked a day in his life, somehow died at 44 of lung cancer; Spencer, the star of the basketball team, who led Holy Cross to the state Class LL semifinals our senior year and who died suddenly in his mid-40s; Ray, who grew up in my hometown, and Chuck, who built a good career selling insurance in neighboring Naugatuck — both also were sudden (I attended Chuck’s wake last November, the first passing since I came home); and, in March, Russ, who was in my homeroom and ran cross country, which I did for a month my senior year — he had built a solid career in PR and marketing before cancer took him. Who knows who’s gonna be around for the next one, as we’re now at that age?
Also, while it wasn’t a look-at-me!, look-at-me! thing, I figured that I’ve long been out in every other aspect of my life, and this is the first reunion since I’ve been home, so I might as well get it over with and be out as far as being an
alumnus alumna as well.
And hey — it’s just nice to reconnect with people from different times and places and phases of my life. For the most part, with a couple of sour exceptions here and there, my experiences re-establishing myself with people as Frannie 2.0 have been great. So why not high school, now that I’m in a different place, physically and mentally? It would at least be an adventure, y’know? And at the very least, if it was a bad time, I never had to see these people again if I didn’t want to.
Every so often over the years, I would flash back to one of most (in)famous commercials in the history of the Super Bowl — January 1997, Super Bowl 31, Packers-Patriots, right after Desmond Howard returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown.
A woman came striding across the screen as some generic ’80s electronic pop cheese played in the background. Spiky bleach blonde, siren red lipstick, leopard-print dress with her (very) perky chest nearly spilling out the top, shapely legs in black pumps, and heads turned as the voiceover listed all the work that had been done on her and how much it cost, comparing it to the billion Holiday Inn was spending for its own makeover.
And this guy in a business suit, looking like a schleppy insurance agent, stopped her and said, “Wait! I never forget a face!” And as he scanned her features, his face turned to a gasp of horror.
“Bob? Bob Johnson?”
“Hi, Tom!” she said with a toothy smile that could kill from 30 paces.
And a flash back to Tom looking as if he had seen his worst nightmare. Or confronted one of his deepest phobias.
The “religious” “right” had their panties in such a twist over this spot that it never ran again, though you can easily find it on YouTube. But it secured its spot among legendary Super Bowl commercials.
For years, I thought that I would make that sort of statement if/when I returned to another reunion. Except I got too goddamned fat. And the weight has been a real struggle the last four years, but not as much as it has been this calendar year; when I went back to work in January, rather than going to a good place, I started stress-eating like a fucking pee-aah-gee. Guess this is what happens when you’re struggling to get up to speed in a new job, doing something different than you’ve done much of your life, and you’re always thinking that the executioner is but one step behind you, ready to take your job when you least expect it. Something I can’t really ever go through again.
The upshot is that I would not be slinking into any reunion — or any other place — in any skin-tight dress. Besides, my boobs are too small for that. And I’m not planning on going pneumatic, though my midsection might disagree with that.
I thought I saw, at some point during the year, that the reunion was taking place at the Country Club of Waterbury, down the street from the school, on Thanksgiving weekend.
Then, as August turned to September, I turned to the HC website’s alumni page and hit the link to the reunion info — and was mortified to learn that it was Oct. 4, and at the school. Shit!
Not only was I much much fatter than I wanted to be — a combo of the above-mentioned anxiety eating and some stomach/digestive problem that made it hard for me to breathe when I did the elliptical at the gym or tried to ride my bicycle — I figured I’d have until Thanksgiving; instead, I had four weeks. I gave up my feeble, dumbass attempts at trying to pretend I was gonna lose a ton of weight and decided to go with the flow.
So that weekend, I settled in on the couch with my wife, the laptop, and decided on getting a dress and a new pair of shoes.
Thank God for the interwebs.
I put out the girl equivalent of a fashion SOS on the Book of Faces and asked my girlfriends for suggestions for websites where I might find some cool stuff, and to get some general ideas on what would look good on me. And much to my surprise and delight, I got responses in the dozens.
Two of my New York rock’n’roll pals, Sandy and Cheryl (aka one of the dearest friends I’ve never met), suggested a wrap dress. I have a mock wrap dress I bought in a Target in Fresno ages ago, but I wasn’t sure I’d fit into it right. This way, I could adjust it to fit my body by just tying it. This seemed the best way to go, and I found one from ASOS on its site.
The shoes? Well, it is all about the shoes, innit?
I had just bought a killer pair of fuchsia Madden Girl pumps with a slight platform at DSW a couple weeks before, but I was a little leery about heels that high, with my weight, which has thrown off my balance and added a strain on my knees. Had I weighed a few less pounds, they would’ve worked. I started looking more for kitten height. And eBay, which has always been my best shoe store, came through with a winner: Joan & David pumps, heels about 2 inches, slim bow, four cutout teardrops … and candy apple red metallic patent.
Bingbingbingbingbing! We have a winner!
Except they were $90. With shipping, they would be $100. Which would be about $20 less than I paid for the dress. I’d never spent that much for a pair of shoes before. What was I thinking?
I was thinking they would be comfortable enough to walk in, though a friend warned me that Joan & Davids tend to be on the narrow side. And they would make a statement. I had a pair of candy apple red metallic patent Connie pumps back in my Fresno days, but they were a higher heel, they were a little worn, and they were buried in my storage bin.
I spent a week deliberating back and forth — feeling I needed to do this to look as just-so as I could, feeling guilty for spending that much when I was still, ahem, getting on my feet.
I waited ’til the final minute of the auction and finally made the decision. Aw, fuck it. Sold!
I felt more a sense of relief than guilt. After all, again, it is about the shoes, right? (Hey — shoes were my first visual cue as a kid that I wasn’t quite a boy, even if they were black patent Mary Janes instead of red pumps …)
Okay … black wrap dress, black tights, red heels … and a candy apple red patent clutch I found on eBay new for $15 … now for the necklace …
My absolute favorite piece of jewelry — a necklace with a tiki head, a bone and a pirate’s coin of some sort, with red and black beading, a labor of love made for me by my cousin LouAnn when I came out to my relatives four years ago — was out of commission. I broke it last winter for the second time. My friend Marcy, an artist and jeweler and guitarist (currently in a killer quartet of local women who call themselves Stark Raving Lulu) I’ve known since the days of New Haven’s fabled underground music club, the Grotto, in the mid-’80s, repaired it for me when I twisted the wrong way getting out of my car at Cafe Nine two Thanksgivings ago, and she made it stronger than it was, with a thicker-gauge wire. But damned if I didn’t do it all over again. So that was out of the question.
When she knew I was looking for a cool necklace to wear to the reunion, she messaged me. She suggested we barter; she needed someone to proof and edit and streamline her resume and I needed jewelry, so one Wednesday in mid-September, I went over to the farm where she and her husband live, and after she made some pizza (yum) for lunch, she and I got to work at the dining room table. I dug all the pieces of my shattered necklace out of the plastic Target bag in which I’ve been keeping all my jewelry (these things happen when you’re living out of a small bedroom) and brought them to her for a rainy day when she had time to try to salvage it again.
And in the interim, she had me pick out some beads and odds and ends to wire together. I found some Chiclet-sized rectangular red stones, some huge links of silver, and the occasional tiny red beads. And Marcy threw in a centerpiece: three discs of descending sizes — one copper-colored, one silver, the small one at the top layer red-colored. Bingo. This was gonna be classy and elegant, not to mention unique. And for good measure, she gave me a pair of huge silver hoop earrings that were sitting in the box o’beads. This was gonna be good.
I had asked about a dozen of my classmates who were Facebook friends who was coming. Trish responded right away that she and her husband were going and she couldn’t wait to see me. John said he didn’t know; it depended on his news assignments that day. And Salli clocked in a day later: “Oh, what the hell. Why not?”
I let my mind wander a little bit in the couple weeks before the reunion. I was wondering who would be there, and what they would look like, and what they were up to — the usual points of curiosity. But when I started thinking about specific people I was hoping to see, I cut myself off.
“Don’t project,” I told myself. “You don’t know who’s gonna be there, and besides, there might not be that many people coming if they’re holding it in a gallery. You know a couple of people who are gonna be there, and that’ll be cool. Anyone else you connect with will be gravy.”
Besides, if the reunion sucked, I had a Plan B in place: The three surviving members of one of my all-time favorite bands, The Reducers, now perform as The 3-Pack — all new material, none of the old songs — and would be heading in from New London to play at my musical watering hole, Cafe Nine in New Haven, for the first time that night. Of all nights … but it would be a great fallback if I found myself dealing with the reunion from hell.
Saturdays are workdays for me, as we lay out several newspapers in Connecticut and Upstate New York (and since then, two papers in Vermont and one in Massachusetts as well) for Sunday. I asked my boss for reunion Saturday as a vacation day a month before, as soon as I knew the date, but one person would be on his honeymoon and another was out awaiting surgery, so that would be a problem. But he was kind enough to let me come in that morning instead and work on any advance pages that were ready to be laid out.
I would bring my change of clothes and makeup bag with me in a huge old DSW bag. And at 9 that morning, I made my way down to the office. Where I had a window seat to an hours-long downpour. Sheets. Torrents. Dark, ugly, windy.
And somewhere around 2:30, I took something mildly resembling a lunch break to go downstairs for 30 minutes or so to get ready. The bathrooms in our new office, three weeks after moving in, were experiencing technical difficulties, so for a few days, we were forced to use the first-floor bathrooms of the supply company with which we share a building. (Yes, sign of the times — our newspaper office is in an industrial park.) The ladies’ room was older, kinda skeevy, and the dank, yellowish lighting wasn’t conducive to doing a good job with makeup. But you make do.
The smoky eye shadow went on right, which it doesn’t always. So did the eyeliner — which is much more difficult than my friends think, owing to wrinkly eyelids. (Liquid liner is an adventure; let me tell ya — pencils and crayons are much safer.) The dress was a little bit of an adventure. I tried it on a few days
before, after I got it in the mail. I’d never had a real wrap dress — it was like tying on a kimono, except that in this case, getting the wrap right was essential. I didn’t want to look cheap, after all. The first time I tried it, on that Tuesday, it was if I’d been doing it my whole life. But when it counted? Of course not. Took three times wrapping and unwrapping before I looked respectable.
Then back upstairs. More pages to plop. Didn’t want to leave my coworkers in a lurch, or at least in more of one.
By the time quarter to 6 rolled around — the reunion started at 6:30, 45 minutes away — I had done 15 pages for the next day. My conscience was clear. And the sky was starting to get there. I put on my heels, my colleague Paul took a couple of phone shots for posterity — aside from the extra chin, I think I looked pretty damn good — I put on my vintage cardigan and headed out the door to Waterbury.
And keeping busy with the job at hand all day had kept me from dwelling too much on the reunion. In the car along the way, I had my Best of The Shangri-Las CD to do that.
I was pretty loose on the way there.
I turned on to Oronoke Road, the street on which the school is located, and I felt one last short, quick wave of anxiety hit me. Totally irrational, replaced quickly by a certain bit of tempered excitement. It’s that moment, finally.
I pulled into the parking lot and saw a blonde in a black top and white pants. Trish, with her husband, in from upstate New York. I called out to her before I was even out of the car. She looked up, puzzled, then came running up to me after I got out of the car. Huge hug.
“Oh, Frannie!” she beamed; huge hug and kiss. “You look fucking gorgeous!” She always did wear her heart on her sleeve; you always know where you stand with her.
And she was waiting for Salli, who was making her way down from the Northwest Corner of Connecticut. And who pulled up just as I got out of the car. More huge hugs. And Salli, in a short black dress, had the body most of us abandoned in our twenties. (She runs nearly every day; simple enough.)
I had pictured walking in the door by myself and some sort of nightmarish scenario of walking through a tunnel and everyone stopping and looking at me. Instead, it was me and Trish and Salli. And it was already a good night, regardless of what happened inside.
So here goes …
Stopped at the registration table just inside the door where Mike, the alumni director and current baseball coach, was checking us in. I was kinda hoping they would have have name tags with our class pictures on them, which would’ve been a total goof, but hey … I wrote my name on a tag and stuck it, not so conspicuously, on my cardigan.
The first classmate I encountered was Jean, our reunion coordinator; a simple “Hi, Fran, how are you?” and a hug, and she seemed unfazed by 2.0; that was a good start. Same with Kyle, who grew up in the same town as Jean.
And then the night kinda tumbled into a blur of one encounter into another.
John did show up after all; he was able to make the time in a very busy day. Barbara, in a gorgeous floral print dress; now a nurse, she and her prom date went with me and my prom date to Riverside Park (long before it became the monstrosity known as Six Flags New England) the day after the prom (and by the way, in which generation did “the” get dropped from “prom”?). Another huge hug. Dom, who played guitar in the jazz and pit bands, now a probate judge. Mary, who later worked with my father at Uniroyal Chemical and asked how he was doing. Her bestie from high school days, Ann Marie, whose late father was my orthodontist from eighth grade into freshman year. Carmela, who’s been working in fitness instruction most of her life and has not an ounce of fat on her. Pete, who sat directly in front of me in homeroom all four years; his once-curly hair now combed-back and salt-and-pepper. Ann, whose late mother was a nurse who worked with my mom, who was a secretary, for our family doctor; she’s now the school’s cafeteria manager, and was working the event running the catering.
Gary, who, since last I saw him a year ago, traded in his shield after 25 years for
a job as an investigator. John, who was in my homeroom all four years, a family man and still a hardcore North-End-of-Waterbury guy. Tom, who went on to be a competitive roller skater for years. Tim and Vicki, high school sweethearts, still happily married, living in Massachusetts. I was one of the first-ever photobombers — I was walking by and flashed devil horns over Vicki’s head as they stood together in the hallway, and the picture made it into the yearbook. (The smartass gene was installed early on and was still working its way to the surface at that point …)
Bobby, who was also in my homeroom — he was a badass back then, cocky and wearing an Italian ‘Fro, but this night, he was looking great, very trim, hair shorter and darker, and a big warm smile; he’s also working a state job. Billy, one of the class cutups, who I didn’t recognize at first with his shorter, salt-and-pepper hair. Dave, who was in several of my classes, and came down from New Hampshire with his wife. Lisa and Char, neither of whom I really knew back then but were great to me. And Martha was there, looking just plain stunning and full of life; we caught up over the past year, and she had, as she did before, some words of encouragement for me.
The turnout was small — probably 60 of us — and many, even the married ones, came by themselves. And interestingly enough, only one faculty member from our time attended — Sister Pat, who still worked at the school; I never had her for any classes, but I remembered her as being nice, and she still is.
The school itself was much better for the wear than we were. Trish and Salli and I walked through one of the doors of the gallery and found ourselves in the band room. Spent lots of spare time there as a junior and senior, between a failed attempt at piano lessons, and rehearsal and the backstage area for South Pacific my senior year. Save for the door to the gallery, it hadn’t changed a bit. Trish was a little overwhelmed by the memories; I just felt a sense of never-thought-I’d-be-back-here, along with a wow.
Somewhere amid the tortellini and the wine and the Coronas, the development director rounded us up and took us on a tour of the place, and memories did tumble back into place. But things do change, of course. The library had been remodeled, and I was stunned by its, well, lack of books. The science wing downstairs had been renovated for the better. The athletic facilities were now top-shelf; the workout area was named in memory of Steve, who played football and who was the first of our class to depart, in a work accident in the late ’80s.
We walked up to the gym, where several people took photos of us in the bleachers. And the former sportswriter in me, not to mention someone who attended his/her share of basketball games as a student, felt a little sad. The bleachers were new — but considerably smaller capacity, only going about half as high as when I was watching the Crusaders play in the very-competitive Naugatuck Valley League. It just underscored the fact that enrollment is now much, much smaller than when we went there. (Maybe it’s because the tuition is a quantum leap over what we paid — our freshman year, it was $450 a year; it’s now about $13,000.)
Anyway, back to the human element. There were a couple of polite hellos and definitely a couple of people who were uneasy with me, one of whom I wouldn’t have expected to be. But hey, I anticipated this. It didn’t put a dent in my night one bit.
What I got, for the most part, were several long conversations, since, well, a lot had transpired since my last reunion. There was a lot more of living in the present than the past. Very little recalling the good old days, or feeling as if we needed to. Some joy, some contentment, some job security, some kids grown up, some concessions to middle age, some divorces, some tragedy. And the classmate who, over the last six years, came out as female and lost her job and career and had to claw back. The things that are, well, everyday life.
And most of the classmates to whom I talked had one common question: “Are you happy?” And that made me very happy. And leave it to Pete, who always was a wiseass, to just blurt out as we were entering the gym, “So Fran, what’s with the transition?” In the two dimensions of print, to you who don’t know him, it might come off as him being a jerk; in 3D reality, coming from a guy who always did have a wisecrack, it was his way of saying he was down with me.
The reunion started at 6:30, was over around 10:30 — relatively short and definitely sweet. Lots of hugs, especially with my small circle. In-person is a hell of a lot more fun than Facebook. Some of these people I will definitely see and talk to again.
I got in the car and headed down to New Haven to catch the rest of The 3-Pack. Got there close to midnight. Only to find, much to my astonishment and disappointment, that they were done playing already. Guess we’re all getting old or something. But I caught up with the guys, so that was still a great way to end an excellent night.
The photos started going up on the Book of Faces — well, during the reunion, Trish posted one of her, Salli, John and me. The rest went up over the next three days.
And with that came several friend requests. From the reunion itself, Barbara, Mary, Ann Marie, Lisa and John from the North End. From beyond, there was another John, a native Englishman who moved to the States when he was 8, and these days lives and works in Saudi Arabia; he hadn’t known about Frannie 2.0 until he saw a message thread. Eileen, another classmate who seems to be doing well, happily married with family. Joan, who was also in my homeroom the four years and in several of my classes, and who lives two towns over. And for a homeroom sandwich, bookending with Pete, there was Lucia, who sat immediately behind me in homeroom our last 2 1/2 years; she’s doing well and living in Florida.
And then, there was a friend request and message I wasn’t expecting.
She wasn’t very friendly to me in our time growing up. The bus home from high school to Prospect was an exquisite form of torture. She and her bestie sat in the back of the bus while bestie’s brother, in conjunction with my asshole neighbor up the street, acted out his role as my chief torturer. There’s lots of talk, of course, about bullying these days. For a kid about to plunge into a decades-long depression (hormonally induced, as it turns out), the anxiety and dread and I felt about going home every afternoon, and the constant smashing of self-esteem I felt, plus the self-hatred I felt for not fighting back, were not healthy things.
But this is what I found in my message box:
Nice to see you on FB! You look great and I hope you are happy. I was reading some of your blogs you are a incredible writer! Your life has been so interesting and fascinating. I see some sadness in there too and wanted to say I am sorry for anything I did during our school time together to cause you pain. When you write about hating the town you grew up in it breaks my heart and I probably was one of those who made you feel like that and for that I am also sorry
Talk about having a verklempt moment. Just flat-out floored.
This isn’t the first time this has happened since I’ve been home.
When I signed up at a nearby gym 13 months ago, a guy came up to me as I was registering (as my 2.0 self) and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” It was a guy who also grew up in Prospect, who also didn’t like me much. He had seen my school photos on a Facebook page about Prospect and, well, he was hoping I would post more.
On a subsequent Saturday over the winter, I ran into him again, as I’ve done infrequently since. We got to talking, and he apologized for being a dick to me.
When I moved home two years ago August, I thought it was because I needed to be closer to my parents (I always dreaded getting that call and being unable to afford to come home) and because I might be able to get a job.
At the time, I didn’t anticipate being here more than three months; I was hoping the job would happen sooner than later and that I could get back on with my life. I’m still here.
Well, Mom’s illness the last year and a half reaffirmed some of my reason for coming home. But I didn’t realize that my life had to come full-spiral — not full-circle, since nothing’s ever the same, but with a lot of parallels nonetheless — on so many fronts. I had to come home to live in the house in which I grew up, and live with my parents again. I had to live in the town in which I grew up, a place I hated and which seemed to hate me. I had to come back to work at the paper I left 10 years ago, even in a lesser capacity. And I had to go to my high school reunion.
All in the name of confronting the rest of my demons, sometimes painfully, so I could move forward as a person, discard much of my baggage at last, and hopefully live a great and long and wonderful last act of my life.
Am I a success yet? I don’t think so. But I’m not a failure at this point. And we’re all works in progress.
I’m Fran, in all its permutations and facets and experiences and moods and qualities and faults and, yes, genders — and all the spaces in between.
As I say at the stroke of midnight every January 1: Onward. Class dismissed.