I went to a high school class reunion last night. (This is not a pre-scheduled piece; it was last night.) I'd debated for awhile whether I would go. I was really hoping to find some old friends that I'd lost contact with over the years. But since I had lost contact with basically everybody, why go in the first place? I decided that the chance to find some old friends, even if only to say hi for the night, would be the deciding factor.
But I found myself wondering, "What if Steve and Jimmy are there?" At first I pushed the thought aside but the thought pushed back harder. Really, what if they were there? I'd have to be mentally prepared for that. Oh, in the big scheme of things, all they did was shoot off their mouths and say something cruel. But it is the most cruel thing anyone has ever said to me. It's actually on the short list of the most cruel things I've ever heard of one human being saying to another. In the years since high school, I've sometimes asked myself what I would say if I ever did see them again. And in general, I don't spend time thinking about what they said. But when things are dark -- well, you know how ugly memories are opportunists: they wait until you're feeling low to make themselves heard. I probably wouldn't be telling this story today except for one thing: I went to the class reunion last night, and Jimmy was there.
So what exactly was it that Steve and Jimmy said? Well, it goes back to the first semester of our freshman year in high school, and the (less secret by the day) neighborhood secret that during the semester I had been kidnapped by a pedophile, and it hadn't gone well for me. The news was spreading around school and I was getting sideways looks in the hallway, whispers behind my back, all that kind of thing. But Steve & Jimmy weren't whispering. In fact, on the way to our math class one day, they walked behind me and staged a conversation in loud voices -- as if they wanted to make sure that I overheard.
The one said, "Hey, did you hear that A__ A__ was raped? Funniest thing I ever heard!"(Cruel enough to take your breath away for a moment, isn't it?) I don't actually know which voice was Steve and which was Jimmy; I doubt it matters. But the rest of our time in high school, I can't remember either one speaking to me again, or looking me in the eye.
The other laughed back, "Yeah, she's so ugly, who the hell would want to rape her?"
So we're past the ugly part of the story, the cause of the content advisory at the top, and the reason why I was wondering what exactly I would do or say if I saw Steve or Jimmy at the reunion. On the one hand, what they said truly was inexcusable. On the other hand, they were fourteen, same as I was. By now, I know exactly what it's like to say or do something that I wish I could take back. So I made up my mind that, if there was some genuine regret or remorse from them (instead of doubling down), that I was perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones.
I spent the drive to the reunion (maybe a 20 minute drive) focused on more important things. Reunions have a bad reputation for people trying to judge the success of your life. So I was mentally rehearsing ice-breakers, ways to make it clear to people that I was there because I was glad for a chance to see them again. The preparations paid off several times. I ran into one of our classmates who had dropped out; I said she looked happy now and the rest hardly mattered. She held her head a little higher after that. Another classmate had a husband who had died tragically young, another had a job she wasn't proud of, so I just focused on making the rounds and making sure people knew whenever I had a kind memory of them, and looking for the low-key kind or encouraging word about where their life was right now. I ran into such a long list of people I was glad to see again, and collected the occasional contact information from old friends.
The "elephant in the room" -- everybody knew what had happened our freshman year -- only half-way came up one time. I ran across someone I had really thought was the cutest guy in the school, back in middle school ("before all that..."), but I didn't think he knew I existed. He spotted me and came over to me and said -- with more enthusiasm than I'd have expected -- that I looked great. I just thanked him and shrugged it off and said life had been good to me. For a second -- just a second -- you could see the shock ripple through him, that he was genuinely taken aback and he hadn't thought to hear me throw out a comment like that. So there was an awkward moment as he froze and looked at me in disbelief. But he recovered fairly quickly, and his ever-present grin came back, and we caught up on old times.
And then, towards the end of the night, as I finally made it back to one corner of the room I hadn't visited in awhile, there was a group of people I hadn't met yet, and it included Jimmy. I'd been meeting people with handshakes or hugs depending on how well I knew them. So as I got to that group I started with the handshakes, and ended up shaking hands with Jimmy as well as the rest of the group. He introduced himself, and I said I remembered him (in a voice that was so normal that it would have surprised me, a couple of hours previously, considering the last thing I remember him saying to me before that ...). He almost immediately distanced himself from the group that I'd just joined. And -- really, they were his friends, not mine; I hardly knew them. So I didn't stay long there, and moved on to another part of the room.
It could have been kind of anti-climactic, really, except that it was such a relief to be done with it. I wondered briefly if he had moved away from the group because he remembered what he said all those years ago, or whether he might have forgotten the whole thing ... or whether he just didn't like me then and still didn't like me now. And I realized that it simply didn't matter to me anymore.
The next time life is low and the ugly memories come back, it feels like that one memory has been disarmed. I looked Jimmy in the eye and shook his hand and spoke to him. And whatever else I might think about it, at least it went better than the previous time we spoke. At some point he'd become less of a nemesis and more just a person who I knew in high school.
This morning, praying "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive ..." I felt a strong sense of peace.