daily preciousness

Monday, August 07, 2000

reunion

Tonight I returned from my 10-year Baton Rouge Magnet High School. What an experience that was, to see again through new eyes the same faces that I knew as an adolescent. I was glad to be reminded of my old connections and make some new ones.

In terms of background, I should point out that most of my high school experience is shrouded by the fog of my poor memory. It was a blur. This might be a defense mechanism. Or it could be the forgetful nebulae that tend to cloud the Jeffreyverse. Maybe it�s a little of both.

Thankfully, there were some very memorable exceptions to my forgetfulness. The only times I really enjoyed myself was in:

English literature (where I really understood everything in class!),

Gymnastics (I competed on the team!),

Piano (I composed my own sonatas and variations on Chopin!),

Drama (I played a supporting part in a comedy!)

Geometry (when I understood math for the first time, ever!)

and Social Studies (I made it to the state finals!).

Besides these few outlets, I poured most of my energies into my class work, into my musical compositions, into anything, really, but social interaction. I was nervous when I stopped to speak with people, especially the other boys. My cruelest handicap was my speech impediment. (Did other people notice it as much as I did? I wonder. We�re so limited in our perspective during those years.) It was a st-st-stacatto, syncopated stutter. It frustrated some and evoked p-pity in others. It was my c-c-constant c-companion. My stutter erupted the second someone t-turned to face me.

I don�t know when or why it started. But it never seemed to stop. My mind always seemed to be traveling at a different speed than my mouth. I was a nervous boy with an uncomfortable laugh and a concentrated frown. I spoke too fast, with watchful eyes. I swallowed my words. I was much too shy to even attempt proper communication.

The stutter sort of led to other problems. All in all, I was about as outgoing as a deaf, mute leper.

I was a bashful, gangly and clumsy. It was pretty rough sometimes. I contemplated suicide for about five minutes once, then realized that it would be too wasteful. Most of my problems stemmed from plain old garden-variety low self-esteem. So, wrapped in a coat of insecurity, I hibernated, socially speaking, for the better part of those four years. Nervously, I wondered when I would ever wake from my slumber. Who would be the face of spring?

Thank God I came out of my shell in college. I�m not really sure what did it. But there was a gradual tempering of my acute case of bashfulness. (I heard they actually have a drug now for this kind of social anxiety. I suppose that I could have used it in school. If only I could have popped a magic pill back then!) But the sleeper in me awoke gradually from its snooze. Maybe it was just a matter of finding myself and getting to know that I was a person that people liked. That kind of confidence takes time to build.

I arrive at the picnic and Theresa White, the gregarious class president, greets me. She immediately cheers me up. (See, I volunteered to perform the public relations for the reunion a few months ago, but I discouraged because I had not seen any useful results on TV, radio or print.)

She informs me that the public service announcements that I wrote and broadcast to the local media actually got used. She got calls from people who had heard about the reunion from a handful of sources. So that was great news; the five or six hours that I invested in the project actually proved fruitful.

My next surprise was that I was very comfortable around the "popular people" who used to wreck my nerves and cause me to go all stutteriffic. (That word makes it sound like a swellegant speech impediment, doesn�t it? Well it�s not; it�s about as much fun as a kick in the crotch.)

No stutters. No worries. Good times: I was laughing, carrying on and having a great time. And my reputation actually preceded me � in a good way, for once � because most people had read the school�s homepage Jeffreybio or browsed my personal site. It was great.

Several asked me where my ex-boyfriend was... I had mentioned him in my bio, while we were still dating, of course. I told them that I am single now, but I've taken a great leap of faith and decided to investigate the possibility of meeting a perfectly delightful guy that I've met online. I got some raised eyebrows at that little revelation.

But overall, the electronica helped to jog their memories about me. In one case, it piqued someone's interest very keenly. One guy even did a little bow and feigned awe at meeting me: "Oh, is this the J-Blended Jeffrey? The one that I�ve seen on J-blend�s viewcam?!?" He then proceeded to kiss my ring finger, as if I were the Pontiff.

But I was far away from thoughts of my J-blend cam as I wandered around my school after lunch. I strolled through the halls of my alma mater, which had the same comfortable but slightly run-down smell of hardwood panels, wood cleaner and adolescent hormones that I so vividly remember. It wasn�t smaller or bigger than I remember. My visual impressions were very accurate. So were my other sense memories.

The marble stairs still had the shallow valleys subtly carved by nearly a century of wear. The hallway floors still shined with the high-buffed wax that reflected sunlight to the very center of the building. Brightly colored stained glass, in carefully designed geometrical shapes, still adorned the second floor windows. The bathroom air still stung my olfactory centers with the scent of industrial cleaners. Overall, the entire experience was quietly and distinctly cozy.

At the picnic, the jambalaya and salad weren�t bad. Toddlers in Gap Kids clothes and sunglasses wandered around, stumbling on the old oak tree roots and watching the squirrels. Some of the childless couples brought their dogs. One of the dogs sniffed a kid and the little girl kissed the bulldog�s nose. A chorus of surrounding mothers and pet-owners deafened me with aah�s and "How cute!�s" at this point. I laughed at their reaction as much as I laughed at the unexpected pooch-smooch.

The heat was a bit on the oppressive side, but most everyone was used to that. The classmates� stories I heard were mostly very upbeat and positive. Only one stood out as a little sad. While we had our share of up-and-coming dot-com creators and bankers, doctors and lawyers, I met a guy who was in the army and completely loved it. Then he was honorably discharged (he didn�t go into why), and is now a McDonald�s manager: that, I thought, was a little shocking, especially for a Baton Rouge High School graduate. (It is a rigorous preparatory school with high standardized test scores.)

My favorite alumni jobs included teacher-come opera singer, a federal agent, a folk music artist, a teacher at the Rutgers university lab school, a beach bum in Hawaii, a housewife in Southern France, and a poverty-level graduate student with little or no direction in life. Wait � no -- that�s me. Sorry. Did I type that?

I enjoyed talking with the teachers in the crowd. I suspect we had a disproportionately high amount of teachers per capita, since the school had a real academic focus and booted out students who couldn�t maintain a certain grade point average. I spoke with several teachers, who all enjoyed the job immensely, but bemoaned the high energy level the profession required, and the all-day, every day nature of the work. I just nodded and empathized. Sharing a few of my experiences about my time in Japan, I entertained them with the similarities and differences that I noticed about their educational system.

Everybody was spewing out invitations to visit them. I garnered invites (from mostly sober speakers!) to cities as close to home as New Orleans and as far flung as Hawaii and France. I was genuinely touched by this display.

Another odd development was that more people remembered me than I thought would. (I don�t care if people�s pity circuits were kicking in when they spoke to me � white lies are perfectly acceptable since I�ve morphed into a truly different person since then. Case in point: I was referred to as "the quiet one" about a dozen times. The title suited me circa 1990, although I doubt that adjective would ever be applied to me these days.

I was especially happy to spend time with Ly, who was a member of the gymnastics team and the most markedly OUT member of our class. He�s been in a relationship for more than eight years and has bought a house with his sweetheart, Steve. Ly�s a federal agent and Steve is a police officer. It�s not your traditional household, to say the least. They seemed like an interesting couple and I was pleased to spend time with them. (Ly and Steve also gave me a ride to the evening social, just in case I wanted to drink.)

Just as I was packing up to leave the midday picnic, I ran into Ly arriving. He�d mistaken the e-mail invitation to read a start time of 2 rather than 12. The night before, at a reception that I passed up, Ly and Steve arrived at a seafood restaurant across the street from the actual meeting place. Fortunately, I explained to him the exact time and place for the evening reception. (He was planning on going to a restaurant next door! He would have been batting 0 for 3 in the accuracy department.)

Ly and Steve came by before the evening party to change into their dress clothes. They were properly semi-formal, while I was nothing if not casual. (This is typical for me.) We arrived and immediately started meeting warm and friendly classmates. The amicable mood showed me immediately that everyone had mellowed out really well and we�d all become more accustomed to social interaction in general. It was very pleasant.

Ly pointed out how many people had ballooned up and how many people looked exactly the same� The latter was the larger group. Some people just filled out a little like me.

Going to the bar to get a drink, I ran into Nathan, who was a chunky kid in school but had slimmed down nicely now. He was in flirt-mode, full speed ahead. I was shocked at how forward he was. Right after he kissed my hand, he dove for my neck and planted a sloppy, tongue kiss. He didn�t give me time to brace for the impact of that kiss and I sort of flinched. "Why didn�t I notice you in high school, baby?" he asked. It was rhetorical, in a drunken sort of way. "You! You! Look at you!" he screamed. I slowly stepped back, trying to protect myself from another unwanted lip-planting.

As soon as I could, I gracefully slipped away from Nathan. But just ten minutes later, he cornered me while I was dancing to "Like a Prayer." During the "/just like a muse to me/" line he grabbed my left nipple and pinched it really hard. It was painful and traumatic!

I�d never been physically attacked like that on a dance floor. And I�ve logged hundreds (if not thousands) of hours at hundreds of dance clubs. No one has ever grabbed me or pinched me like that, without my consent. It was totally inappropriate. Luckily, I�d come with a federal agent and an off-duty police officer. I knew I was safer than I�d ever been before from any sort of weirdo in a club setting.

At the evening event, the class president thanked her student body officers and the people who helped plan for the reunion. This included five girls and me. We lined up on the stage, under the bright lights, looking a little bit like the finalists in a beauty contest. (These are the moments when I never know what to do with my hands.)

Theresa explained our various volunteer contributions we made to the event and we got a light sprinkling of applause. Then we all got Blockbuster video store gift certificates. It was not a bad reward for a few hours� work.

Next we took a group photo. The laborious ritual was incredibly disorganized. The chaos made me long for the days of the lightening fast 30-second prep time group photos in Japan. (I swear, those people know how to take pictures!) People don�t assemble well in this country, compared to Japan. Of course, many of the people at the festivities last night had been imbibing, so I shouldn�t be too critical of them. The entire process of the photo took about 10 minutes. I stood towards the rear, on the "tall guys row," as the Cajun photographer called it. I was standing on chairs, trying hard not to lose my balance or cause some other catastrophe, being very thankful that I haven�t had anything to drink. I�m rubbing shoulders with two of the other members of the tall guys row and I begin talking with them, complaining that I feel like I�m in the third grade again because these kids around me don�t really follow directions well. The guy to my right laughs in agreement. It turns out that he�s an elementary school teacher and I couldn�t have made a better comparison.

We start talking and I realize that he was one of the five other Jeffs, Jeffreys, Jeffereys and Geofferys in our 240-member class.

Jeff, with his sparkling deep-set brown eyes, had an easy-going manner about him and a beautiful speaking voice. It was course enough to be interesting, although it wasn�t gravelly or raspy. He had dark blond hair and was about 6�2", just about my size and shape.

He�d just finished his master�s degree in education and he was teaching 5th grade in Texas. I was just beginning to enjoy our conversation when Nathan stumbled up to me again and wrapped his arms around my neck and started issuing not-so-subtle remarks about my package. Eyes rolling and cheeks flushing, I make a hasty retreat back towards Jeff, who is standing nearby. Nathan senses the futility in further pursuit and flanks back. Annoyed by this second incident with Nathan, I brush him off with an, "I�m talking with Jeff right now, can we talk later?" I issue an embarrassed smile to Jeff and tell him that I hate to give people rejections because I know how painful that is, but I don�t want a drunk guy touching me too much. We are unanimous in this concern and he then asks if I�m gay.

At this point, I took some offense to the fact that someone might mistake me as straight. (This can never be perceived as a compliment. To do so would be to incorrectly equate masculinity with a certain mode of speech or manner and to perceive so-called gay speech or mannerisms are somehow of lesser value. ) I didn�t say protest being mistaken for straight, however, deciding that the most direct approach would be the best: "Yes, I am. Big-time. How about you?"

"Well, I haven�t told anyone here this, but I�m gay, too," he confided, somewhat sheepishly. I was touched that Jeff felt comfortable enough to share that with me, although we didn�t even know each other in school.

Jeff went on to say that he�d just recently opened up to himself about his sexual identity and he�d never once dated a guy. I was wide-eyed with shock and pity. Here was this intelligent, well-spoken, attractive guy who loves teaching just like I do, who has never even been in a real relationship. Not only did I feel sorry for him, but I also felt concern for all the relationship possibilities that were contingent on his socialization, which he had not yet begun to explore. What a waste! I didn�t stand a chance a relationship with him, yet I felt cheated, as well. But I suppose my selfish concerns weren�t limited to just the present situation. No, my selfishness traveled back in time to the year 1990�

I knew that in a better world, he and I would have met in high school at the gay lesbian and bi student association meeting. He would have been my secretary and I would have been president. He�d have given me his class ring while he would have worn my letter jacket when we were "going steady."

I would have sat in his family living room, on the leather sofa across from his Dad. I would have drummed my fingers apprehensively on the coffee table, as his father told me his curfew rules. "Don�t worry, sir, I�ll have Jeff home in time," I would have brown-nosed my way into his parents� hearts. I would have been nervous as I pinned the nosegay to his lapel. (The baby�s breath would have shaken from my excited hands.) We would have gone to the dance together, with no one batting an eyelash at us. I would have made a connection during high school and joined the normal social order with Jeff�s name inscribed in my dance card.

This sudden wrinkle in the fabric of my high school existence startled me. Alternate time lines emerged from the depths of my stubborn imagination. Oh, if only I could leap through a wormhole and explore that glorious bifurcation from reality! But I couldn�t and I knew it. It wasn�t the fault of science, but that of slow social progress.

I had to laugh at myself. My imagination is a great asset, but in moments like this, I admitted, it�s also a great liability because it cruelly explores the "might have beens" that taunt and tease the romantic mind.

As these romantic notions flood my mind, Theresa takes the stage. I�m drawn back into reality � the here and now. Solemnly, she announces that one of our classmates has passed away since graduation. As she and a few others described him, I recall him vividly. I always remembered him as being very cheerful. Walter, the deceased, had participated in choir in school. I remembered he had a wonderful voice and I recalled thinking that he looked and sounded a lot like a Baptist preacher, with his soulful, mature eyes. Four people came up to eulogize Walter and their words were genuinely moving. "Such a loss � he was so full of possibilities," I thought to myself.

After a moment of silence, happier news followed. The awards were handed out. They were for the most- and least-changed since high school, for the person who had been in school the longest (thankfully, not me!) and the person who came the farthest to be at the reunion. Smiles all around. More drinks for everyone.

Jeff and I chatted a little more. Before long, the DJ began spinning some slow songs. They were 80s vintage. Automatically, I�d already shifted my weight to stand up from the table where I was sitting, about to grab Jeff�s hand. "I never got a chance to ask this in high school, so I�d like to make up for lost time� Would you join me for this dance?"

Awkwardness. I sense that I�m robbed again of possibility.

He apologized that he wasn�t comfortable enough with himself to do it. The tinge of regret in his tone is sincere. I was disappointed but not hurt. No. I am hurt, but not by his cowardliness. I�m hurt by the fact that Jeff is forced to work up courage simply to engage in a normal social ritual.

The pitiful irony here is that there are two guys that always danced together in high school that actually did so at the reunion a few moments before I asked Jeff. The two guys always frolicked about with a playful, distinctly platonic, but non-homophobic manner that bespoke a tightly knit friendship. "Why then, can they do it and not Jeff and me?" I thought angrily. Their silly, paltry dalliance mocked Jeff�s and my authentic attempt at flirtation. I took a deep breath and cursed those outmoded, arbitrary social constructs and the people, like Jeff, who were unconsciously fettered by them. I wanted to shout at Jeff, "Fuck the stigma! We�re going to have a good time tonight whether anyone else likes it or not!" What I lack � what I so sorely lack � is the intensity and strength to speak up and speak out against this kind of simple injustice. I take a deep breath to swallow my hurt. "This is how people get heart attacks," I tell myself. So I ask Jeff again, in a cajoling tone, if he won�t just dance a little. He declines. But he offers a compromise: I can walk him to his car.

We talk some more. I urge him to date a little, if not for himself, then as a public service to his community. Grins. He�s properly flattered. I turn the charm full on and he graciously welcomes it. Embraces it, even. We�re mentally holding hands soon. The eye contact is intimate and gives my heart a little flutter. Soon, he leaves me to say his good-byes to people around the room.

I am pulled into the dance area by B-52�s "Love Shack" song. I joined a girl that I remembered from drama class. She wore too much eye makeup then. But she�s gotten that under control now. Now, this bright-eyed marketing executive for Community Coffee, blonde and sassy with a distinctly club kid vibe, peers at me, cocks an eyebrow and gestures for me to join in on the 80s music fun. I comply. We have a great time, swaying to the catchy music. I get compliments from the circle of girls around me. One of them, a petit Vietnamese girl, whom I�d never had a class with, has a brief chat with me and then asks the pre-question, "Can I ask you something personal?"

"Yes, I�m gay," is the pat response I always offer to this query. I�ve never been off the mark yet with this reply. (Although I�m sure one day somebody will just blush and then ask another question entirely.)

"Great! I love dancing with gay guys," she raves. "You�re the best! You guys rock!" So we danced to some hip-hop and had a great time. After ten minutes, I exhaustedly thank her for the company and she invites me to visit her in Austin to go clubbing and insists that she and I went to elementary school together, which we didn�t. I concede after I notice the liquor on her breath.

By this time, Jeff comes by and asks me to walk him to his car.

It was a short walk. I was struck at just how little I knew about him, since we�d only talked for half an hour or so. He said he had to drive back to Texas the next morning, so he had to leave early. I didn�t try to argue. "So now what?" he asks bluntly as we�ve said our good-byes.

"So now I give you a hug and a kiss goodbye, if that�s okay." His smile is all the answer I require. We embrace and I�m immediately sorry again that I�d not known him in school. Feeling him next to me, just like this, would have staved off much teen angst on my part.

We kiss. It�s a simple one. I brush him lightly with my lips and taste the roughness of his stubble and the moistness of his lips. His eyes are open wide, glittering. I wonder if he can sense my irrepressible regret. I hope he can�t.

I tell him that he was the best part of the reunion. It�s not just a line. He was. My brief moments with Jeff were an essential element to the experience. He added an element to the affair that I won�t soon forget: a connection with the past and the present.

But upon reflection, perhaps the best part of the experience was actually not an external at all. The best aspect for me was simply the re-examination of Jeffrey at 17 by the Jeffrey at 27. I have never before thought about my growth experience in such concrete terms. I tried to pin it down, but I couldn�t do it: "When did I alter my course?" Was it my academic work in college? My extra-curricular affairs (double meanings galore)? Or was it the adventures of my Japonic era? It�s impossible to say.

The reunion experience, for me, was like the unearthing of an emotional time capsule. I burrowed through the strata of the silent years. I discovered the many colors and facets of my former self. I contemplated the definition of Jeffrey in 1990. Like a high school English test essay question, I compared and contrasted the two characters�

They were basically the same, but the older one has more glide in his stride. The mature character better understood his place in this world.

He can properly triangulate and navigate the social geography of his peer group.

Jeffrey at 27 is a little bolder, brighter, more unapologetically himself. He is stronger and wiser. He is definitely on the right path toward a happy 20th reunion with old friends in 2010.

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