“…We did this. Conceived of each other, conceived each other in darkness which I remember as drenched in light.” – Adrienne Rich
Why are you going? friends ask. Because I must, I answer. I’ve wished this grammar school reunion into being. The day-lily-orange announcement card arrives in the mail an answer to my longing. For years, I’ve wondered what’s become of the ones whose childhood spilled into mine, inky spots now faded stains on the can-vas of memory. A 25th reunion of the class of 1973. I left Ensworth School in 1972, at the end of seventh grade. I missed that final eighth-grade year, just as I missed 12th grade, with all its pomp and circumstance, the long-awaited senior status, reveling in the glory of being top dog. Never alpha, always beta, trapped in the rung of inse-curity and isolation others may have mistaken as achievement. Preco-cious, yes. Prematurely mature, but no less terrified as I ventured onward, away from the familiar, if no longer safe regions of school.
I scan the second mailing, confirming plans, listing the ones who’ve RSVP’d. Focus on Caroline, former best friend. From second grade to seventh, we hung tight: played hard, shared secrets, emulated the bravado of older brothers. What a crush I had on hers. Countless weekends spent together, a string of Friday afternoons bowling in our own made-up league. The last snatch of conversation: I’m 23, perched on my cousin’s bed. I call Caroline’s mother to ask how she is. Yes, I’m back in Nashville visiting. Her mother insists I give Caroline a call. She’d love to hear from you. I’m not so sure. Such a painful parting lo, those many years ago.
The summer after seventh grade, my brother’s Porsche 911T careens into a tree. No doubt the impact kills him, but he burns in the flaming automobile anyway. The morning he dies, I ask my mother how we can go on living without him. The hole torn open feels infinite, as if the vast blackness of space suddenly splits open and begins to suck the sky out.
That night I call Caroline to see if now, in the wake of my brother’s tragic and fiery death, she will reconsider what she’d told me in art class months before: I don’t want to be your friend anymore. Stunned, I’d pressed her. She’d simply added, Go to hell.
I sit on the couch in my father’s apartment and dial. I thank her mother for the deli platter they sent and ask to speak to Caroline, a bit surprised she comes to the phone. Can’t you get it through your head I don’t want to be your friend anymore? I lower the receiver with the grav-ity of a coffin, experiencing more loss than I thought possible, even on that particularly devastating August day.
A couple of weeks later, I join my mother and 4-year-old sister in Florida, where my mother relocated to be closer to the college my brother had planned to attend. My mother enrolls me in another pri-vate day school, smaller than Ensworth, not as scholastically advanced. Good thing. My grades plummet. I stop washing my hair. I start smoking cigarettes. The girls in my new school are nice to me despite my greasy appearance. My mother encourages me to invite any of them over to play, but I don’t. I stick with the two boys who ride motorcycles and flick Marlboro butts in the apartment complex park-ing lot. Why? my mother nags when I shrug off her suggestion, opt-ing for the company of a kind-hearted delinquent and his foul-mouthed companion. How can you have friends when you smell like a bar? Why do you work so hard at making yourself ugly? she asks. I fail alge-bra, then French. My mother fills the space for comments on my report card. Leaf knows she’ll have to do better than this if she wants to stay at this school.
I like most of the girls in my class. They aren’t the kind of pretty that scares me. None seem preoccupied with make-up or fancy clothes. Bright kids with manners, nicer than any I’ve known. I can’t name, much less explain, how my self-loathing prevents me from befriending them. I don’t deserve their company. Too ugly, too ungirl-like, too busy treading the infinity of a black hole.
Winter break I visit Nashville to see my father. The thrill of stop-ping by Ensworth dressed in boy’s brushed denim jeans, Dingo boots, and a boy’s shirt, as flagrant a violation of the dress code as one could muster. Eight years of school in a skirt or dress. Finally, my moment of glory as I greet the women in the school office realizing how much I never, ever, fit in. Though I dislike Florida and miss my father, secretly, I’m relieved I don’t have to spend eighth grade in the shadow of Caroline’s rejection, listening to the chatter of cute girls with developing busts. Her new best friend has bigger breasts than some of the teachers. That must be why Caroline picked Linda, the girl who once admitted undressing in front of me was like undressing in front of a boy.
I return to Tallahassee where a kid named George with a bigger mini-cycle than mine lets me drive his as he sits on the seat behind me copping a feel. The other boys tease me, tell me to go to the garage to get my flats fixed, but George squeezes without complain-ing. He must be as hard up as I am. We loop around the parking lot on his orange Suzuki, encircled by silence, bound by need.
At 23, I force myself to dial the number, surprised by the perky voice on the other end. Higher-pitched than I remembered. So cheery as she tells me about her husband. He sells windows. They’ve been to Scotland. The conversation dissolves, print without fixer, a past without present, images fading to shadow before I can hang up the phone.
The third mailing arrives, a questionnaire. What do we remem-ber about sex education, gym class, a host of teachers long gone, a few still there. On the flip side, a battery of questions about marriage that begins, How long have you been married? How many boys and how many girls? No are you married? No do you have children? Tacit impera-tives. I lie awake nights wondering what to reveal. An alliterative ref-erence to Ensworth’s own Ellen? Or do I invent a life, a spouse, even children? A darling son who favors soft-bodied dolls, a daughter who looks just like her father. In the raw darkness, the heightened vulner-ability, and possibility of late, late night, I imagine passing, going undetected. Arriving as just another single woman. Am I tired of labels or just willing to explore? Do I ache to reinvent myself, really? Or do I just want to fit in, rose to the mauve of others, not hot pink. Always fushia, violet, or midnight blue. Never beige, never ecru, col-ors befitting a segregated private school. I don’t doubt my classmates got a kick out of my personality. I don’t even believe they would be scandalized by the superficial designation of lesbian, though the grainy specifics of my life might shock some.
The red numbers of the digital display keep advancing. I turn on the light and lie in bed, scritching my answers in micro-print across the page. I skip the section on marriage and most of the questions about current events. I jot down recollections of teachers and sex ed. I settle for saying I’m a writer and a vegetarian (in hopes the organiz-ers will factor that into reunion meals). I list the books on the bedside table-nothing I would have projected reading in seventh grade: Bishop John Shelby Spong’s “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamental-ism” and Kathleen Norris’ “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.” I add to the bottom of the questionnaire that my greatest spiritual teacher to date is a man I met in prison, where I taught and he served time. Secretly, I hope the person reading this finds me intriguingly complex. Fresh, unexpected. A bit like pad thai in the land of barbecue.
Why do I care what someone I went to school with 25 years ago thinks? Why do I journey from Maine to Tennessee to find out? Because those folks mattered once, for what felt like a very long time. They peopled a childhood that has in many ways shaped, if not par-tially constructed, adulthood. Their antics intersected with mine. Ensworth taught me early lessons in Jim Crow: my third grade teacher siding with the girl who noisily protested my proposed report on Martin Luther King for the schoolwide assembly; the fifth grade teacher who pulled me aside to give my oral book report on Coretta Scott King’s memoir, privately at her desk, after class; the custodians, the only brown faces in a very white school, who nodded and smiled at small children addressing them, men in their fifties, by first names.
The place I sold Bub grainy black and white photographs of nud-ist colony women sitting on bar stools, printed by my cousin Eddie in his rudimentary darkroom. The assistant headmaster summoned me from history class, where I had to slink past Caroline, and my favorite teacher, only to be sent back into the room again, to get the last of the pictures tucked in a large white envelope inside my book. Bub never got in trouble, another early lesson in injustice. I spent that mis-erable afternoon humiliated in various offices, certain the headmaster who socialized with my parents would scorn them for raising such an evil child.
So unlike Caroline who shared a mischievous streak but never got caught. Always polite when it mattered. A tawny beauty all the years we played Battleship and romped for hours in her golf course-green yard. Halloweens in her neighborhood yielded great bags of candy from houses boasting blacktop driveways and designer drapes. The year we were 10, she flew to Connecticut to join me for two weeks during the long, lonely summer I had to spend in a cottage with my mother and sister while my brother and father remained in Tennessee. Her family vacationed together; returned from skiing or snorkeling, smiling and tanned.
My anxiety increases as the date nears. Friends remind me I don’t have to go. But I do. I want to see Caroline and the other grownup faces of childhood. Discover what they will see of me.
I pack my new navy linen wrap-around skirt and cotton v-neck top, a cross between sweater and jersey. Casual, feminine, carnation pink. At the last minute, I toss navy tights in the bag, along with my nonleather multicolor patterned Birkenstocks which lend befitting funk. I may cover my ankle tattoos but not my basic spunk. No desire to escape the essence of who I am. Always a renegade, token Jew in a Protestant school. More transgendered than tomboy in fifth grade as I discussed an article from LOOK magazine on transsexuals at lunch. So excited to read about a woman sufficiently convincing in her maleness that she married another female. Bound her breasts, undressed in the dark, pinned a rolled pair of socks to her boxers. Leaf, the teacher scolded, stop talking about that.
The late afternoon sun glints off the plane as we land. My gay friend from high school, Stephen, fetches me. Lends me his restored Mercedes convertible to drive the mile from his condo to Ensworth School. I hope the wind doesn’t muss my hair. I carry my brush just in case, eager to appear as flawless as Stephen’s car. I pull in the park-ing lot, unsure what entrance of the remodeled Tudor-style school to use. Check my reflection in the windshield: good hair, acceptable fig-ure, snazzy earrings. Comfortable in my own skin. No one notices I’ve arrived.
A quick prayer. Let it be all right. No more than I can handle. A sandy-haired man extends his hand. Leaf? I’m Rodes. I squint at the tiny face on his name tag from 1965. Another man extends a hand. More squinting. Slowly, I recognize the 6-year-olds in these 39-year-old men. A new headmaster. The woman from the development office, no doubt hoping we’ll all be moved to give. A French teacher from my by-gone era who still teaches there. Inside the library, I inadvertently gaze into my own dark eyes: posters of photocopied yearbook pages everywhere. Back when I had two eyes. No one notices the green-blue eye in my left socket, colors of my choosing, the end result of an accident at 4. Too bad; I love my quirky unmatched eye.
The men sell commercial real estate or own construction compa-nies or manage the family business. The son of a doctor, the first boy who invited me to play after school, now makes a living as a urologist. The boy who drew military aircraft in all his margins now practices land management law. Bub sells heart catheters. Perhaps there is some cosmic justice after all.
Twenty-five years later, I still hang with the boys, observing females from a distance as if they are another species, gestures and dis-course so different than my own. They hug, manicured nails on a sleeve, or lingering in air, punctuating a sentence, making a point. Expressing intimacy that blooms in a flash, that split-second when petals unfold into flower.
I edge closer, but never enter the circle of women, even though I am dressed to play the part.
A flashback. Two and a half months before, I sit in the “ladies’ parlor” of the Unitarian Universalist church I attend, part of a discus-sion group convened to generate a worship service about women and men. The facilitator asks the women to sit in a tight circle while the men surround us. We talk about girlhood while they listen. My breath grows shallow, labored. My stomach knots. I fight the urge to bolt from the room. I don’t belong in this circle. I never really felt like a girl. I knew as a child others considered me one, but secretly I knew there’d been a mistake in utero. I was supposed to be a boy. I pawed my body for clues. I suspected my boyness would miraculously drop into place, like undescended testicles with a timetable all their own. It didn’t and at 12 or 13, utterly betrayed, I willed myself to accept the femaleness so erroneously bestowed.
I scan the room. Two-liter bottles of soda. Tortilla chips, a multi-layered messy dip. Coiffed women I wouldn’t have recognized on the street. I watch the door, waiting for Caroline. Will she remember our last call? The one 10 years before that?
When she appears in the entryway, I hang back. She spots me immediately, offers a brush of a hug, politeness posing as intimacy- So good to see you-then greets someone else. She chats easily with the other women. Perhaps they have kept in touch. I retreat to the snack table, fill my cup.
The science teacher who’s been there 30 some years gives a tour of the school. Somewhere in the underbelly, between new wings, Caroline walks with me. She tells me she adopted two children. I ask if they go to Ensworth. They attend a Christian school instead.
Were you nervous to come here? she asks.
Yes, I reply, gauging how much to say. Desperate for real exchange-beyond the superficialities of What are you up to now?-I admit my concern about fitting in, mumbling something about not playing golf. The rest of the list goes unsaid: I don’t vote Republican; I don’t play tennis or ski; no country club memberships; no garden club; no children; not one heterosexual date; Hope Magazine and DoubleTake in my mailbox. Okay, I also subscribe to Bon Appétit.
I was nervous, too, she responds.
You were? I say, hungry for details. I want to shake just hard enough for the grit beneath her tan-as-ever complexion, honey-blonde hair, and stylish linen trousers the color of tapioca, to fall out. I want, but don’t get the story of her children, her marriage, her obvious devotion to God.
As the tour continues, we drift apart. I find myself next to Tommy, so handsome I stare. Married, two girls. He speaks of his daughters with such gentle concern, the way he might handle a seed-ling. Sweet and dashing. If he were single, would I know how to flirt? Would I be brazen enough to try? He smiles graciously. Enough to fuel a momentary fantasy. Yes, I would flirt. I hear the entire lesbian nation of my late adolescence sigh.
By 8:30 p.m., I am ravenous. It’s 9:30 p.m. my time. I scarf a few tortilla chips and look for a phone on the library desk. Maybe I can catch Stephen and wrangle dinner. Some of my classmates talk about heading over to Kelly’s house. She’s graciously offered to host the first of two reunion dinners. I’ve already decided to skip Saturday’s. I waver about tonight’s.
I can’t find a phone. Caroline offers me a ride. I consent. I’ve come this far. We hoist into her Chevy Suburban. Big enough for a ball team. She apologizes for its ostentatious size. I smile and buckle up. On the drive over she tells me her mother died five years ago. Lung cancer. A smoker’s demise. I express regret, acknowledging her mother’s kindness, unsure what else to say. The conversational clues a familiar adolescence and early adulthood would provide, irretrievable in the dark moving cave.
No sooner do we enter Kelly’s home, my anxiety flutters. A house reminiscent of Caroline’s-a litter of puppies penned in the breezeway, spacious kitchen and front entryway, walls papered with children’s art. I feel utterly alone wandering through it. The minutiae of someone else’s life so encompassing it strips me of mine. I find Rodes and search for small talk, anything to feel less invisible, less alone. Someone offers us wine in plastic cups. We decline. He’s prob-ably holding out for beer. Another classmate extends Chablis. Rodes waves it away and leads me to the cooler with Perrier and pricey soda in blue bottles. John joins us and Rodes says, Did you know we stopped drinking within two weeks of each other, 15 years ago?
I’ve been sober almost 10 years, I blurt, marveling at the moment unfolding, an answered prayer.
I’m so relieved I stay calm when I sip the tomato bisque and Kelly tells me it’s made with chicken stock. She pulls a pint container from the fridge and heats my soup, a hearty vegetarian concoction I devour as soon as it hits my bowl.
A bunch of us swap school stories in the dining room. Not Caro-line. The volume increases as we reminisce. Jimmy asks if my brother died. I’m grateful for visibility rising to the surface, the way grief floats upward when I try to pin it down.
At 11, Caroline finds me talking with Martha on the couch. To my surprise, I’m having a good time. She needs to get going so I bid my classmates farewell. A couple insist I come back tomorrow for dinner at Hill’s house. I am touched by their amiable pressure though I suspect I won’t succumb.
Weariness, one eye in the dark, and the lightheadedness of not enough food make me a tad unsteady as I cross Kelly’s lawn. Caroline flicks the auto-unlock button and I open the door, climbing onto the high passenger seat, knowing before we pull fully onto the road I must speak.
I know it’s been 25 years, and it’s fine now, but I have to tell you, when you told me you didn’t want to be my friend anymore in seventh grade, it broke my heart. I want to gobble the silence before she says; I’m sorry. Did I say that?
It’s OK, I assure her. Does she think me daft for bringing it up? I rush to fill the gap with words. It’s a hard age when the girls are supposed to start attracting boys. I always figured I wasn’t cute enough. …
Her profile barely visible, she looks over for a split second, as long as driving will allow.
Now I remember. Yes, I did say that.
I strain to see her in the dark.
Everyone always talks about how lovely my mother was, how nice it was at my house, but she was an alcoholic, my sister was bulimic. My brother got into drugs and no one talked about anything at home. I felt so alone. I wasn’t sure you’d understand. It was easier to be alone with superficial friends.
That’s what I hear anyway, riding back to Ensworth in her cav-ernous truck, the years collapsing like a pinpoint of light. Not once since 1972 did I consider what Caroline felt. Only my loss, my sad-ness at what felt like betrayal: not hers, the cosmic kind that destines some kids to unpopularity. Confined to the corridor of my own pain, never glimpsing hers.
Vision restricted by the enlarged perimeter of self.
So much I want to say. I dream of the common language Adrienne Rich writes about. Where to begin? How to forge words that join two pasts so fractured within themselves, edges abutting?
We sit in the Ensworth parking lot until 1 a.m. talking about God. I marvel at the distance spirituality spans: her family splinters lodged below the surface, my differences tattooed on top. I tell her I pray many times a day, hoping for connection. I talk to the trees, to the universe.
In a loving Sunday School teacher voice she asks, And who made the universe?
You would say God, I answer. And we are off. For a few moments, together.
In all things, I tell her, I find a spark of the divine.
But let me ask, what do you do with your sin?
Sin? I repeat. A question.
Pride, anger, Caroline responds. I ask because I struggle with my own.
A digression. A negative from long ago. I used to live with a woman who believed in God, at least some manifestation of the divine. I didn’t recognize what masqueraded as my secular skepticism at the time. For every expression of faith she offered, I countered with a question or trivializing remark. It took many years in recovery to understand the source of my snide comments and raised eyebrows. Envy.
What do I do with my sin? Resist calling it that. So much of it boils down to fear. Not one of the seven deadly sins, but surely the most potent of mine. Fear of not belonging. Fear of being judged. Self-centeredness.
She looks right at me. You’re not so different. We all have pain.
Yes, Caroline, we do.
Suffering. Sin. Struggle. Separately shared. Little resolutions, she says. Little reconciliations. What you would call the spark of the divine. That’s what I think we get here, in this life, on earth.
I reach out my hand, rest it on her shoulder. We both lean toward center and lightly hug.
With effort, I meet her eyes.
*Leaf Seligman is working on a collection of personal essays and short stories and has written two novels. A teacher of writing and women’s studies for 14 years, she will begin divinity school in September. “Reunion” was a semi-finalist in the Creative Nonfiction best essay award competition.