If I had to rank the #1 strangest experience from my 20th high school reunion last weekend it would be the black hole of memory.
Often you see a person from long ago and after a few seconds you can begin to remember their face, if dimly. Or if they’ve physically changed too much–weight, gray hair–the name can somehow ring a distant bell, even if there’s no depth charge of emotion behind it–kind of like “oh yeah that guy.”
But some people are just a void. They recall nothing to you and the nothingness can be astonishing.
It was such a person who saw me and recognized me and pointed and said loudly, “You!”
Me? I tried to recognize him, his name. Nothing. I was on my 4th Jack and Coke at this point of the evening, and woozily considered the profundity of such an absolute lack of recall as he continued:
“You! You’re the only person who gave me shit about my Buckwheat costume!”
I barely had time to process a response but he kept going–“The three black guys who went to our high school, they didn’t have a problem with it! They were like, ‘naw, it’s cool.'”
Ok. Ok ok ok ok ok. I have no memory of this. Though it does sound like me.
My San Diego high school was, straight up, Clueless. I remember being in the theater with my friends when that movie came out, shrieking with laughter at its sarcastic portrayal of our SoCal teen milieu. We were the only ones laughing because no one else in the theater seemed to get that it was a satire.
Torrey Pines was every Cali high school cliche, the kind of place where the surfers surfed, the stoners stoned, the kids drove new Mercedes, the girls got drunk date raped on their way back from Tijuana, and the administration had a Christian theater group come do a play for a school-wide assembly whose lessons were: 1) all guys want to have sex, 2) no girls want to have sex but they do because their boyfriends pressure them into it. The girls then 3) always regret it, 4) get pregnant, and plus by the way 5) ABORTION IS BAD. (As a nascent theater director, I seem to remember that play pretty well, including a maudlin final scene where the lead girl lights a 1st birthday candle on a cake for the child she gave up for adoption.)
It was the kind of place where someone might think it’s ok to dress up as Buckwheat for Halloween. And yeah, I guess the three black guys didn’t say they had a problem with it because if you are one of three black guys in a school of 2000 mostly white kids and you’ve essentially been brought in by some wealthy dads to play on their sons’ football team and some aggro guy comes up to you and says “Hey, man, do you have a problem with my Buckwheat costume?”, you’re probably not going to say, “Yes. In fact I do. It’s offensive and stupid, and let me explain to you why.”
I’m sure that guy was right, that I was the only one to give him shit for it–although now that I think about it–didn’t the teachers or administration say anything? Probably not. And that is why, perhaps, this one event doesn’t stand out in my memory–because this kind of offensive bullshit happened so often. The culture I grew up in was deeply offensive to me.
And now that I think about it, I’m starting to remember something. Which was that I was angry all the time. I felt trapped in the culture, targeted and humiliated for being an outlier, judged, too smart for these idiots, not pretty enough, counting the minutes, the seconds, until I could escape to the mythical land of college where there would be other people like me.
I lashed out a lot–at my enemies and my friends too–because I did not yet know how to pick my battles. At that age, everything felt like a battle. Battle was my daily state of being–little relief from the fight or flight instinct. As you can imagine, this made me not much fun to be around. It made me not much fun to be.
Anyway, for the most part, the reunion was a quite innocuous, lacking in much viscerality. A bland, perfectly pleasant affair. It’s been a long time. It’s too early for entertaining plastic surgery (either that, or people have excellent surgeons who keep a light touch on the Botox). Some of the guys, hilariously enough, did look like the douchebag golf club extras from the movie Caddyshack. You realize that 38 years of age looks very different on different people. And there were a surprising number of people whom I felt very warmed to see.
But that story–even though it remains a void in my memory–reminds me of everything and everywhere I was 20 years ago.