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  LIFE AS A LOSER #165: "ALOHA, GRADUATES!"  
   
   
 

We used to have dances in junior high school. This doesn't seem right. Kids are gawky and awkward enough in junior high without forcing them to wear skinny ties and ill-fitting jackets while roaming like bison through a cramped gymnasium. Life is full of insecurity and fear, and we should be allowed to avoid that in junior high as much as possible. But no. They make us go to dances, where the boys have to stand on chairs just to dance with girls a foot taller.

I usually spent these dances hiding in the corner and making poop jokes, hoping desperately that a girl would come over and want to dance to "Kokomo" and knowing that if one actually did, I would run away at first sight. But the last dance of eighth grade, I worked up the nerve to ask Emily to go with me, and she said yes.

 

 
 

Emily, by a quirk of unfortunate scheduling, had six different classes with me, and I did what I could to make her vividly aware of my presence in each of them. I had an enormous crush on Emily, and everybody knew it, particularly her. To say that I would relentlessly flirt with her is probably being too generous; to call it that would be an insult to the practice of flirting. I basically would try to snap her bra from the back and put wadded-up notebook paper in her hair, and then sprint off when she realized it was me. It was smooth.

I had asked Emily to the last three school dances, and she always told me she wasn't coming, only to reveal herself halfway through the night anyway, usually on the arm of a high school freshman named Spike, or Buzz, or Toad. She would smile and laugh playfully, touch me on the arm with a "Oh, Will, you're so sweet," and then I would go home, depressed, and listen to Vanilla Ice, who made it all feel better somehow.

It became a running joke, really. I would sit behind her in class and pass her notes, asking if she wanted to go out with me. Every time, she would say no, and laugh, and I would laugh and ask her out again, and she'd say no and laugh, and on and on, ha ha, quite jovial, not painful at all, no no. One time she even left a note in my locker saying that yes, she would go out with me, and then to turn the note over, which blazed "JUST KIDDING!" in bright red bubble letters. All in good fun. Yes.

Then the last dance of the year came, and I wanted her to know that I meant business. My mom gave me a clip-on tie to wear to school, and I'd spent the night before composing the most flattering, romantic note I could muster. If she was going to turn me down for this dance, she would have to do so seriously. In our last class of the day, I handed her the note. She read it, turned around and said, "Yes, yes, I'll go." And then she smiled, and the soles of my shoes blew off.

This was junior high, so my mom dropped me off the night of the dance. It ended at 9:30, and Mom would be waiting outside. I walked into the gymnasium and saw Emily, talking with a bunch of other girls. She looked at me, and giggled, and looked away. What did she mean, with the giggling, with the looking away? Had she changed her mind? Did she not want to dance with me after all? I was very confused, for no apparent reason. The right move would have been to come up to her and say hi. That is not what I did. I turned the opposite direction and hid in the bathroom for most of the evening, until my friend Andy pulled me out, kicking and screaming, as he informed me there were only two songs left. "Go talk to Emily," he said.

And I did. I walked up to her, the confident walk, here we go, here's what you've been waiting for, and I asked her to dance. She looked befuddled, and said sure. We danced, my first dance ever, in silence, to Bryan Adams' "Heaven," which was the theme of the night. At the end of the song, she whispered in my ear: "What are you doing after this?"

What was I doing after this? I was going home, of course. Duh. Where else was I going to go? I mean … my mom was waiting just outside. I had to get home somehow, right? And she was the boss, right?

I told Emily so. She sighed and told me a bunch of kids were going to Dairy Queen afterwards. "Sorry you won't be there." And then, before the song was over, she let go of my shoulders and walked away. In high school, Emily and I ended up not having any classes together, and I don't remember speaking with her much anymore. I still always kind of had a crush on her, though.

***

I saw Emily at my 10th year class reunion this weekend. I did not have a good time at my reunion. In retrospect, it was stupid to think that I would. To me, coming back to Mattoon and seeing people I haven't seen in a decade was enticing, something different, something special, a way to show off to everyone that I had succeeded, that I had thrived, that I was in New York City, a big important place, where I was doing big important things. If you had asked me before the reunion if that's what I was hoping to accomplish, I would have said you were full of bunk. But, frankly, that's exactly what I was doing. It was foolish, and conceited, and pompous, and pathetic.

It should not come as a surprise that the fellow graduates of the Class of 1993 didn't give two cow chips how I was doing, or what I had accomplished, or whether I was happy. Why would they? It's not that I particularly cared what they were doing; I only cared what they thought about what I was doing. Not only did I not have a good time, I didn't deserve to have a good time.

Even my close friends, the ones in my little clique, were a disappointment of my own doing. To me, they're my fond old crew, my people, occasional characters in my loving, nuanced portraits of life on the prairie, or something. To them, I'm the annoying creep who never comes home any more and occasionally makes fun of them on the Internet. Some were cold to me, some were indifferent, some were openly hostile. None were impressed with me, or what I've been doing, or how my life is going. And why should they be? Who the hell am I? Their scorn was merited and, ultimately, appreciated.

I ended up spending most of the reunion hiding, depressed, like a school dance where both the boys and girls dislike me. I let me old friends all chat with each other, trying to kid myself that they even cared enough to talk bad about me when I wasn't around, knowing deep down that they had better things to do, better people to worry themselves with. I had helped organize the reunion, so I just figured that if they even noticed I wasn't around, they'd think I was helping plan something, or troubleshooting a reunion activity. But I wasn't. I was standing outside, smoking a cigarette, hiding, alone. And I deserved it.

So, anyway, Emily. I was the only person who recognized Emily, probably because I was the only person who remembered her. She was quiet and aloof in high school, and mostly spent her time with her small group of friends. When she arrived at the reunion, her once-black hair was bleached so blond it was almost white. Her teeth were dazzling, she was tanned and she might have been the only person from our class whose body looked considerably better than it had in 1993. She was a knockout. Everyone thought she must have been the wife of someone from our class, someone popular probably, but I knew who she was. Naturally, I walked over and said hello.

"Will! Wow! Hi!" Emily remembered me. I have a girlfriend about whom I care very much, who makes me very happy and settles me when I am frantic and makes me want to jump up and down in joy when I am able to make her smile, but I nevertheless will not pretend that Emily's immediate recognition of me did not make my 12-year-old heart flutter.

We chatted for about 20 minutes. The last I had heard, she was living in Mattoon, working in a non-descript office somewhere. What had happened? She explained that seven months ago, she realized she was unhappy with her life. She looked around and saw that other than her family, she had no real connection with her town or anything in her life, really. She could just go. Anywhere.

So she did. She just said fuck it quit her job and moved to Hawaii. There, she is a waitress. "My life is just great," she said. "I mean, I live in Hawaii."

I smiled and told her she was living the American Dream, and that I respected her bravery in making a decision that most are too gutless to even fathom. She said thanks, and then we talked about New York, and high school, and so on, and then she said bye, and I told her to have fun in Hawaii, and she said "I will, I will have fun in Hawaii." I told her to stay out there and never come back here. She said that's precisely what she planned on doing.

Mattoon is not the place I thought it was, my friends are not the people I thought they were, and I'm not the person I thought I was or wanted myself to be. For some people, reunions are a chance to relive old memories or catch up with old friends. For me, my class reunion served as a reminder that Mattoon, and my old friends and classmates, not only got along just fine without me, but actually appreciated my absence.

The message was sent, understood and noted. I'm going to go home now, and I think I'm going to stay there. I'll see my family from time to time, and I think I'll just leave everybody else alone. Emily has the right idea; fuck it, you know?

 

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