Long time no write. Well, not really. A few days, but things have been extraordinarily busy here, and that’s likely to continue for a bit (as ever, I know). I do have an interview with a friend who’s making a film about DADT coming up (I’ll post tonight or tomorrow depending on how much my day gets away from me), but for now, I want to talk about not about people I know, but people I used to know.
For me, it’s reunion season. For folks that went to large or, well, normal, high schools, reunions are milestone affairs set at five or ten year intervals. Certainly, having spent a couple of years at a large public school in New York, I do have that experience as well (my 20th was, in fact, last year), but the one that always looms for me is the Hewitt reunion, even if last year was the first time I actually went.
I didn’t graduate from Hewitt. Very few people in my year did. Of the near thirty girls I started with, there were only eight by the time of graduation. Most of us fled to other private schools, boarding schools, or, in a couple of cases, public school. But I spent ten years of my life there, and it has affected every single moment of my existence in a way Stuyvesant has simply been irrelevant to. Because Hewitt didn’t just teach me how to write and how to speak, which it did on both counts, rigorously. It taught me how to perform.
And I don’t just mean performance under pressure as came by way of writing two-hour essay examinations in every subject from sixth grade on. And I don’t just mean performance in terms of our required music, dance, and acting classes (geared less, I always thought, towards making us artists than making us cultured about actual artists; we were educated to be patrons, nothing else). I mean that Hewitt taught me (and it would be nice to say inadvertently, but I don’t really think so) a lot about performing class and money that served me, if not well there, than at least as a sort of necessary evil, even if it has often left me in a pretty awkward place in the rest of my life since then.
I do feel grateful for all the access I have had to secret worlds and my ability to move in world in ways I might not have otherwise learned, but it’s hard for me not to look back on those years I attended Stuyvesant after I transferred (and the faint echoes I still carry of the whole mess) and be in awe of just how much I did not know what the hell I was doing. That’s what happens, I guess, when you grow up in a world that doesn’t quite exist, that’s dying and doesn’t know it.
Last year, I went to the Hewitt reunion and it was… weird. It was good to see people and the school, an old private home, looked so much smaller and so much more modern than I recalled. It looked like a school, and I don’t remember it being that way when I was a child (to be fair to everyone, there has been some extensive remodeling). The school choir sang our spirit song (did we even have one of those when I was there?) and I felt teary and wished I could have loved the placed and been as gorgeous and coltish as the set of my childhood deserved. I’d worn a dress and felt just as much like I was pretending (and in drag) at the reunion as I had when I had worn the uniform skirts of my childhood. I walked down the central grand staircase as I had never had the honor to do as a student, never being a senior there or faculty.
But this year, despite all of that and the more fundamental No Useful Purpose of actually going, I think I’m going to go. Because there are still people I’m hoping to run into from that life, and no, actually, I can’t just look them up on Facebook.
In part, it’s that some of them aren’t on Facebook or really online at all. Some that I’ve found have been happy to click OK, but not to actually connect with words and recollections. And mostly, I’m afraid of being too motivated, or showing, after all these years, that I care too much, that I remember too well (as was noted to me at last year’s all classes gathering), that I am flawed (or rather, a desperate loser) for so cherishing the few true kindnesses and movie magic moments I remember — it was the book fair to buy our required summer reading list books and light was spilling in from the massive floor to ceiling windows in the library, and there were piles and piles of books that had that smell like ink and popcorn and no matter how many books you had to buy about girls surviving the wilderness to get into eighth or ninth grade, you still made sure to pick up a book or two that might make you cool, whether it was a teen relationships advice book you need parental permission to buy or The Vampire Lestat.
I bought both, the first because everyone did, even though I knew no boys and my parents must have been rolling their eyes at me in all my appalling wishful thinking, (“You don’t want to be sexy, do you?” they’d asked me once), and the second because my best friend, knowing I was terrified of vampires, dared me too. She changed my life that day, possibly by what was a bit of petty cruelty, actually. Say what you will, but when I read that book, it was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say that being emotionally demonstrative wasn’t wrong.
Memory is a funny thing. It plays tricks on us and makes more sense out of events than ever existed in them in the first place. We lie to it and it deceives us. It convinces us we were better than we were and more courageous than we are. It’s something of a bully and a wound. It is the private manifestation of the public performativity I learned as a survival mechanism in school. I remember, at Stuyvesant, that my friends and I took the public bus to the prom, because it stopped across the street from my house and went right to the Plaza.
I had the luxury of leading that little act of rebellion because of the school I had come from. I didn’t have to prove I could afford a limo, because it was presumed I could, even though I couldn’t, and I remember feeling so pleased that people were impressed with us for taking the M30. I remember too, lying on the roof of my parents building, 38 stories up, afterward, and not telling my year younger than me prom date that I was in love with him or kissing him or anything. I felt like a coward then, but looking back, maybe I was brave to be silent, or at least, not to perform that too. I did find my prom date on Facebook. He has three kids now; the thought of it is like the ocean around my ankles between us.
When I was nineteen, I was part of a truly ridiculous social circle in New York City, even as I lived in Washington DC. We were all people who had met on the brave new world of the Internet, before anyone talked about social media and PPP was a shocking and novel technology. It was 1991 and we were all living in a lot of strange castles in our heads. We were going to found an off-shore stock market in the British Virgin Islands. I would have five sons. There would be a hacker revolution. We would change the world. Believe me, no one is clearer than me, no one how jejune it all sounds now, even if I can find a clear and vivid thread from there to here in things like Anonymous and the global financial crisis.
In that moment in my life, I was involved with a man twice my age, and we knew, in passing (also from this Wild West of an Internet), a boy a couple of years younger than me, seventeen and delicate and luminously beautiful. And one night, I took him back to a friend’s apartment (he lived at home, I was visiting from DC), and we made out all night, because the older man I was involved with said I should. I should be ashamed of this. Embarrassed. Tell you how appalled I am at the way I let people treat me then. I could, and none of those things would be untrue. There’s a reason this is not a story I tell early, often, or at all.
But what I remember about it is that this beautiful too young creature, whose real name I’m not sure I ever knew and certainly can’t quite remember now, kept telling me thank you and kept looking at me in awe and kept acting like it was important to him that I be the happiest person in that room; I don’t think he’d ever touched someone before. Not like that. At any rate, I certainly didn’t have such grace about such things at 19, and I can’t even imagine having it at 17. We stayed up all night; I remember talking at dawn; and we never really spoke again for no other reason than the world was busy and complicated. It wasn’t, in the end, particularly important.
Like the girls of my private school years, like my once best friend who saved my life with vampires and doesn’t even know it, like the people I can’t really bring myself to look up on Facebook, I wonder from time to time how he is and if he would have any recollection of me as anyone other than that mad girl who remembers too much and merely did as she was told with a kindness she could not offer herself.
So when people ask me why I go to reunions for any reason other than to mess with people, why my high school and college years can seem so complicated, or why I don’t just look up the people who matter on Facebook, all of this is why.
I remember too much, stories are too fragile, and I am often expected to hold a certain cynicism for my teenage years that I was not able to muster at the time and still can’t seem to muster now. But somehow, in spite of all of that, of all my mistakes and trying too hard and petty cruelty and really misplaced generosity and completely poisonous nostalgia, I just want to know that someone remembers, as I do, the way the light was on some of those days.
And I can’t do that on the Internet, because it doesn’t feel safe or possible. I can only tell you about it. Which, thanks to a school I once went to that taught me I had to perform myself in order to survive, is often quite good enough.