I traveled 3,000 miles recently for an old friend's wedding. I have known her since nursery school, and though we don't keep in great touch or have much in common anymore, it felt important to be there. I remember lying on her bed while she explained the mechanics of ovulation to me; she was the one who checked to see if my bra showed through my white shirts every day before school. Every year she made me a lumpy Betty Crocker cake for my birthday.
This friend is still in touch with many people we went to high school with, all of whom came to the wedding. It's been less than 10 years since we were in high school together. No one is gray yet, no one has kids. A handful have married and several are engaged.
Deciding to go to her wedding meant choosing to deal -- not just with old friends but with my old self. Why was it that the day before I went I couldn't care less that I was single? In fact, I'd been relishing my freedom, my time alone after two bitterly failed relationships. But as soon as I walked into the ballroom, I became unnerved -- ashamed almost -- that I was there solo. These people remember me as the sad, unsure girl with "so much potential." I wanted someone between them and me, a personification of how far I've come since I left.
Unlike reunions, where we stand around our softly lit hometown bar using beer as a shield, at the wedding we have to keep up appearances. We are on stage. The ballroom lighting is bright, revealing. We are dressed formally in black dresses and tuxedos. Skin shows. We surreptitiously check each other out to see who has gained weight. We talk, nervously, about safe topics -- our careers, who we're in touch with. "Did you hear Carrie moved to L.A. and made a movie?" "Did you hear that Robert married someone three weeks after he met her?" No one talks much about high school. The topic is too embarrassing, too messy for an occasion like this.
I find out that Marcy is a fourth-grade teacher in the local school system and is marrying her high school boyfriend Greg at a country club this summer. Rhonda is in business school and has brought along her boyfriend of seven years who people say she will marry. Kim stands next to Paul, with whom she eloped last year. Ever the tomboy, her hair looks like it hasn't been combed in days, and she looks ridiculously uncomfortable in the cream-colored suit she borrowed from her mother. The bridesmaids, all friends from high school, tug at the bodices of their gray gowns so their cleavage doesn't offend and drink to take the edge off. They have too much makeup on.
After we have all kissed each other's cheeks hello, after cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, we find our tables. I am seated with a smattering of other singles and a few couples. When the music starts, Eddie, my eighth-grade boyfriend, asks me to dance. Years ago I asked him to dance at a junior high formal and he rejected me -- even though we were "going out." Eddie didn't do dancing. I hope I had the sense back then to get up and dance furiously with my girlfriends anyway, nonplused by Eddie's coolness, but I probably went into the bathroom, mortified.
Eddie went out with a lot of girls after me, but I have always been secretly proud that I discovered him, that I had taken the leap into the world of dangerous, brooding men before everyone else. Eddie was inexplicably attractive. He didn't say or do much, but he had a mischievous, crinkly smirk that drew all of your attention to his mouth and made you think about kissing him.
"How many women in this room do you think you've slept with?" I ask him, teasing, the champagne urging me to be provocative. My dress has an open back and it is oddly thrilling to have his hand on my skin all these years later. He gives me the smirk. "A lot." We start to tick them off by name, and the number is frighteningly high. I wonder if any of these women are jealous, even now, that I am in the arms of Eddie. "You know what I remember about your house?" Eddie says. "You had that great make-out room downstairs and your mom never knew when anyone was over."
Eddie leads me outside and we sneak a cigarette together. I feel guilty. There are adults inside who drove me to school and coached my soccer teams. What if one of them walks out? I ask Eddie if we can walk and smoke so we won't be seen, and we head down to a pier overlooking Boston Harbor. Eddie still lives around here so I ask him who he runs into. He mentions a woman who in high school had the worst reputation in our school. Rumor was that when her parents were away she would invite boys over to her house and have sex with them, in succession, on her parents' bed. I remember hearing that there were actual lines outside the door.
"Was that true, all that stuff about her?" I ask. Eddie pauses, protectively. He prefaces by saying he always thought she was a nice person. And really smart too. Then he answers me. "Yeah, it was true. I once went over there and I had, like, 10 minutes before class and I had sex with her and left."
"I never believed it," I said.
"You didn't want to believe it," he tells me. And he is right.
When we go back to the ballroom the band is playing a slow song. Eddie disappears into the men's room and I am left alone, a girl and her purse. I am catapulted backwards to eighth grade, to the days of Bar Mitzvahs and school dances, when my stomach would drop at the prospect of being left at the table, partnerless. I was taller than the boys then and slow dancing was a tortured exercise in trying to maintain what little adolescent dignity I had. Don't step on feet. Don't sweat. Don't knock them with your breasts. After a few notes of a slow song, if I hadn't been approached by a boy, I would head to the bathroom, purposefully, as if I was planning to go all along.
It's happening again. I feel the faint ache in my stomach and my boozy brain turns from giddy to despairing. I am becoming her, the sad and nervous girl who used to live in this body. I am so angry at myself. Why do I care that I am not being asked to dance? I have a career. I have moved away from this place and I am doing well.
No one asks me to dance this dance. I decide, to prove to myself that I've matured some over the years, not to retreat to the bathroom, but to stay at the table, coolly, sipping champagne. An old friend pulls up a chair beside me. He is the only man here that I am still -- at 5-foot-2 -- taller than. We went to elementary school together, used to ride Big Wheels around the neighborhood and tease his little sister. He tells me he works with computers now. He says it's really good to see so many old friends. We pause, searching for more words. "I really like your hairstyle," he says awkwardly. "It's so ... grown up."