My wife is a beautiful woman. I’ve always known the truth of it, but sometimes, like when we’re walking into her high school reunion, it feels so spectacularly irrefutable I can barely avoid embarrassing her to death by pointing it out to every last living soul.
There has been so much blood in the news lately, though, that I supposed conversation at the reunion would be soaked in it as well; everyone filling those awkward moments before their conversations find footing in the past. Can you believe…? Did you hear about…? Kids murdering kids. The horror seemed to move from town to town each week like a dark circus claiming young lives. Other years it might’ve been tornadoes or terror attacks or even some stupid internet thing like the time kids started snorting cinnamon, but this year had been absolutely dominated by murder in schools. Like most folks, I couldn’t bear to hear about the latest shooting and couldn’t bear not to watch it and read about it compulsively.
But even worse than rubbernecking such monstrosities, for the better part of the past two years I’d find these subhuman thoughts sneaking into my brain: hopes that the news crews would make it to the school before the shooting stopped; wishes there’d be surveillance video; unaccounted-for disappointment that the number of victims wasn’t a round number or, even, bigger. I worried something was fundamentally wrong with me, and for the first time in my life I’d recently made an appointment to speak with a psychologist.
She told me such thoughts were normal ways our minds dealt with things that upset us. I harbored my doubts. Did she have these thoughts? She evaded and said we weren’t there to talk about her, but I could see right through her nervous stoicism that no, she didn’t have those thoughts. I pressed on, “Do just men have these thoughts?”
“There’s a correlation between gun violence—even in just thinking about it—and males, yes. But women have plenty of disturbing things intruding on their minds too. Believe me…” She was too experienced to let out wherever that thought had taken her, so it just hung in the air. She said that several times each session: Believe me. Believe me. Believe me. “You shouldn’t be carrying around guilt for just thinking things.”
And yet I did carry that guilt. I especially felt its weight whenever I knew I’d be in a situation where the subject of school shootings might come up; worried that I might blurt out something horrific. I carried this guilt over to the sign-in table at my wife’s 20th high school reunion where a sweet-looking woman searched the stacks of names for our tags before handing them over.
“Do you remember me?” Glynnis, my wife, asked the woman as she accepted the tag.
My wife then pulled the front of her dress away from her skin to attach the name tag—which wasn’t just a generic sticker but a small, decorated placard with a single silver tooth long enough to puncture her heart. From where I stood I could see her nipple. That would’ve bothered me a few years back. A few years ago I would’ve said something to her once we got away from other people.
“Do you want me to help you with that?” I asked, but then she clinched the pin and patted herself on the chest the way she often does when she’s trying to find elusive words.
“We were in English and, I think, History senior year,” she said.
The woman at the table pretended to remember. “Oh of course! And look at you now! You look just wonderful!” She wasn’t lying about the last part. That strapless gold dress she’d found for $50 at TJ Maxx showed off the figure she’d spent the entire last year improving.
She had muscly arms, the woman at the table, like she too had spent the better part of that year training and preparing. So many of the women I could see in the room had ropy, muscled arms as though they’d done nothing else but train for this reunion. As though they were preparing for a fight.
The entire endless room seemed primed for a fight. Everywhere I looked were blue and red streamers and balloons and images of the Rolling Hills Rifleman with juvenile banners chanting “Never Forget a Rifleman!” or “Riflemen Ride on!” or other nonsense. The school had recently changed the Rifleman—a crouching silhouette in a coon-skin cap jutting his rifle out in front of himself like a spear—to an unarmed Renegade in a dark hat, wearing a mask. I actually thought the Renegade looked the more sinister of the two.
The tag-table-woman’s lie about remembering my wife dissolved and so she busied herself lining back up the remaining tags. People do the silliest things when they’re nervous. “Believe me.” I couldn’t believe this woman wouldn’t remember my wife. I don’t like to disparage anyone, but as we wormed our way into the ballroom from the foyer every woman I saw seemed far below my wife in looks. The men didn’t fare any better in my opinion, and I’ll include myself in that indictment. This much was clear, my wife had far out-paced the crowd in fending off time and gravity.
As I thought on it, I realized hadn’t known any but a handful of these people in their younger days. Maybe they’d only failed to improve with age. It made me think back on my own high school experience, something I hadn’t done much at all. What became of the girls and boys we all agreed were “hot”? And how did we come to that agreement anyway? I’d been a social outlier of average looks and accomplishments myself, so I suppose I’d followed the pack. If my friends pointed out someone as good looking or popular I agreed. Eventually I believed it. I wondered now if my appreciation of beauty had also matured.
My wife hadn’t been a cheerleader or a student body president or otherwise a target of attention. I’d spent evenings with her pouring over old photo albums and saw her bad perm and braces and ill-fitting not-quite-fashionable clothes from the sale racks at Sears and Penney’s` obscuring her deep self-assuredness and terrific bone structure and blossoming silhouette.
She wasn’t entirely without male attention in high school, though, and we’d even skipped on our early reunions—the 5 year and the 10—because neither one of us could stomach around those awkward kids who’d fumbled us through sex. Skipping my own reunion just became an unshakable habit. And yet, never once do I worry about how old girlfriends turned out. I hope they’ve had good lives. As with most things, truth be told, Glynnis has a healthier attitude about all that than I do.
When we were much younger, I had the worst jealousy. I had to shove it down, this rage, and try to keep Glynnis from knowing it existed. She’d occasionally tease me about my jealousy, but only because she never knew the depths of this rage. I still remember times I laid in bed next to her at night directing movie after movie in my mind where I slit the throat of that kid with the close-set eyes who’d been her first. Sometimes I’d use a bat, smacking his skull again and again until my arm actually clenched and jerked, nearly waking her.
Eventually it simply went away. Maybe I matured. Maybe it burned so hot it burned all the way up. I didn’t feel it leave or know the occasion, but I’m just glad it’s gone. Used to be I thought it was a symptom of loving, to have such rage. That my heart’s capacity for love came yoked to a capacious doppelganger. By that measure I’d love her less now, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I really, deeply love my wife.
I meandered over to another table covered in stand-up photos of what I assumed were students from her class while Glynnis sucked in compliments about her dress from her old friend Stacy who I don’t really like all that much. Stacy married a doctor and now she humble-brags her way through life. A sophisticated-looking redhead sidled up to my elbow and stared down at the smiling faces with bad haircuts.
“Are these like the class personalities?” I said, trying to make conversation. “This dude over here has class clown written all over him.”
“This is the In Memorium table,” she said with more exasperation than necessary. “They’ve all passed.”
Is it terrible that I wanted to make a joke at that moment? Well, I did, at least until I took a fresh look at those pictures. Every one of those faces looked exceptionally happy. The rest of their adolescence, if they’d made it out of adolescence, couldn’t have been as happy and perfect as they looked in those photos. Adolescence, I believe, is such a ruthless time. Everyone’s a victim and a bully. It seemed too sad to see them portrayed so happily when we all knew they were just waiting out their tragedies. Maybe suicides. Maybe murder victims or cancer victims or victims of car accidents or random-newsworthy shit like lightning strikes. But they’d certainly all seen worse days after these photos. There were exactly as many as the most recent shooting. I counted. I couldn’t help counting and comparing.
I left that Memorium table and crept up on my wife, so animatedly telling a story to Stacy and a few others that she nearly turned over an ankle in one of her high heels. She told stories like that when we met new people. I felt a brief pang realizing I almost never get to see that side of her any more. The people around us are nearly always familiar. I touched her naked shoulder and she jumped as if my hand was a cold bolt of electricity. She laughed and turned her knees inward, bending a little in her tight dress, until her chest flushed red and she waved her hand under her eyes. She called that hand wave “evaporating imaginary tears” when other women did it. Everyone laughed. They laughed a little too long so that none of us knew what to say next.
“I can’t believe how well everyone’s turned out,” my wife finally said. “Kids at Berkeley and Chicago and UCLA,” she continued, and I could see the heads of the corresponding parent explode with pride as she mentioned the schools. “Everyone with such good jobs and good lives… I’m just so happy.” I loved her happiness so much I stuffed down the reference to the Memorium table trying to kick its way out through my teeth. “We’ll all be retired soon!” This brought another kind laugh from the group and several raised their glasses in a toast. Someone quietly cracked “One foot in the grave…”
At times like these I’m reminded of the differences. This is to say Glynnis didn’t grow up in a single parent home. Glynnis did not get called out to Divorce Class twice a week in Junior High School or get called to the office as a sophomore so that an assistant principal she’d never met could hand her a note saying from her mother saying she had to come home immediately because they were moving out of their apartment that very day.
Her father was a teacher at the neighborhood high school across town; because of that he’d wanted his girls to attend the rival school with better academics. Most of my wife’s classmates were college bound and, likely, from middle class and well-to-do families. They didn’t know what it meant to be poor, even if they’d had to live modestly for a few years in college. They didn’t know what it was to pay one credit card with another just to survive the summer.
When I find myself looking down the barrel of an awkward social situation, like a huge group of strangers from my wife’s high school days, I go on the hunt for people who like a good drink as my equalizer. In the parking lot we’d passed two different clusters of reunion-goers leaning over open car trunks where they were getting loaded at beer kegs while blasting music that was already old when we were all young. I looked for the median between those loons and the dull nerds still sitting at the backs of rooms nursing watered-down shots of something sweet. I aimed my wife toward the bar, hopeful we’d find some of “our” people to talk to: cynics with a sense of humor.
We sat down next to a good-looking guy and his much younger date. Much younger. That was a bit of a minor theme throughout the large room, but what set these two apart from that subset was their choreography: they moved the same; languidly and detached, as though they were rehearsing moves, saving energy for some big event much further along.
“Dennis?” My wife said, sidling up next to him.
He turned his head to look at her and so did his date; same dead expression on both faces. “You seen Brady?” He asked.
“Brady?” My wife scanned the room. “No. No, I haven’t seen Brady since high school. You guys were like Frick and Frack!”
Dennis returned his attention to his drink and so did his shadow-date. I realized they were watching the events of the reunion through the large mirror behind the bar.
“Dennis, this is my husband, Ryan.”
“Hey, how are you?” I said. “Glynnis has told me about you. And Brady. You guys used to get smoked in a van over lunch, right?”
I can’t recall if I’d seen pictures of Dennis or if I’d simply loaded my mind with a composite off anecdotes from my wife. The Dennis of my mind was a skinny kid with long, feathered hair, a grotesque pinky nail grown out to several inches, and always dressed in a Black Sabbath t-shirt. This Dennis had a bristly head-shave and ropey muscles that seemed to constantly contract and release under his collared shirt. In spite of how often I’d heard his name in stories, Glynnis swore they had all been nothing more than friends. And yet, I always suspected maybe something had gone on in the close confines of a smoky van. It had been a while since I’d played out all the worst scenarios in my mind. Still, I kept vigil on Glynnis, watching for that flush of her throat or for her finger sensuously binding itself in a loose rope of her hair.
They turned slowly to look at me and he repeated his question, “Have you seen Brady?”
Glynnis shot me a quick nervous look. In other contexts I’d have thought it was for mentioning the weed. “No, I don’t know Brady. Never met the guy, believe me.”
A couple next to me left the bar and then it was just the four of us. “So,” Glynnis erupted. She hates silences. “How did you two meet?”
The blonde half of Dennis spoke this time: “Afghanistan.”
“I didn’t know you were in the military, Dennis,” Glynnis said. “That’s very noble. When did you sign up?”
“I didn’t sign up,” Dennis said. He took a long sip from his drink and so did his date. Everything they did was weird. “You didn’t hear about Brady?” Dennis had a low, machine gun way of talking that made us both lean in to catch what he said.
“No,” Glynnis said, shooting me nervous looks to back her up.
“You didn’t hear how we got busted for weed the summer after senior year? I figured everybody knew.” He paused, as though recalibrating his worldview while his date vacantly killed off the last of her drink and then smacked the spent glass down on the bar to trigger the bartender to come refill it. “I had a shit lawyer and they told me I could enlist or I could do time. That’s not exactly signing up, is it?”
I didn’t like the way he’d loaded his question with such hostility, at the same time he clearly wasn’t aiming at Glynnis or me. “So… are you guys army or navy or…?”
If I’m being honest, Dennis and his date scared and fascinated me. They had this aura, sizzling and red hot, that suggested something was about to happen. They were the kind of people who’d “seen some shit.” People who had lived authentic and haunted lives. I wanted just a peak at that, though I didn’t know exactly why when everything about them told me I needed to take Glynnis’ hand and slowly back away.
“Army medics,” Dennis said, and then he too discharged the remains of his drink and smacked his empty glass so hard onto the bar I thought it’d shatter. I wanted to ask if that was some Army-medic-thing, bopping your glass on the bar top that way. I’ve always admired those gestures that insinuate you into a group.
“Wow,” was all I could muster. Medic wasn’t what I’d expected, given the way they’d perfected their thousand-yard-stares. I would’ve guessed commandoes.
Just then some guy leaned against the bar next to Dennis’ date to flag down the barkeep. I could see him ogling her. “Oh, hey Dennis! When did you get here?” Dennis glanced over at him, but Dennis’ date just stared into the mirror behind the bar and slowly rolled her lower jaw around like a boxer settling in their mouthpiece.
“Have you seen Brady?” Dennis demanded.
“Brady? Um, no. I don’t think I’ve seen him in like five years. I figured he’d be with you if he was anywhere. How’ve you been?”
“Not so fucking good, Keith. That’s how,” Dennis returned to staring into the mirror. When Keith got his drinks he said something polite and got on out of there. We probably should have followed.
“How long were you guys in Afghanistan,” I asked and immediately felt Glynnis sniping me in the lower back with her finger. We’d created a signal for times I should just shut up. This particular signal felt like it’d struck an internal organ.
“Two tours. She’s just had the one.” I figured Dennis would shut back down and then, perhaps, we’d say our goodnights. “So much carnage when you’re a medic. People die in your fucking arms. Sometimes you’re running out into a crossfire to drag the pieces of some poor soul who just been hit by ordinance onto a gurney just so there’ll be something to bury.” His date never once looked away from the mirror, though I could sense she was listening.
“Well, I’ll bet you’re both glad you’re back here now.” I certainly didn’t expect another shot to my kidney from Glynnis, which meant I for sure needed to shut on up and get us out of there.
“We’re probably going back,” Dennis said. His date actually nodded. “Can’t see a regular world any more…”
Glynnis took control before I could say anything fatally embarrassing. “It was great seeing you, Dennis. And you,” Glynnis said. We never did get an introduction. ”I hope you stay safe if you decide to deploy again.”
“Let me know if you see Brady,” Dennis said, turning to my wife suddenly and putting his hand on her hand. I saw he had some kind of snake tattoo whose body was sheathed in his shirtsleeve. ”He ratted me out, Glynnis. I would have never done that to him.” He stared into Glynnis’ eyes for a long, intimate second and I felt irrationally terrified that I was watching him impregnate her mind with some of his own horrors. I really felt it, and helpless to do anything to stop it. “I would have never done that to him.”
“I know you wouldn’t, Dennis,” Glynnis said, sliding her hand out from under Dennis’ and as she did so his snakehead completely retreated inside his cuff.
We talked to some folks here and there. We danced some. But the whole rest of the evening we kept an eye on the bar and Dennis and his date. “What do you think they’ll do if Brady shows up?” Glynnis asked at one point, but we both knew what and decided to get out of there before we could be proven right. Feeling that your wits kept you one step ahead of the violence is pretty delicious.
Driving home very much after midnight, both of us completely spent by the events of the evening, I sensed Glynnis grieving after her friend Dennis. She lay her head against the passenger window aiming her beautiful eyes up at the beautiful stars puncturing the black summer night. I wanted to tell her how the reunion shook me, made me feel so grateful to have her in my life. Heading into such events you hope everyone’s made it out of those difficult years alive—off the Memorium tables—but you also know the odds. If you’re not on that table or worse, harboring unthinkable, unshakable darkness like Dennis, you have to humbly appreciate wherever you ended up. Believe me.
We passed a dark figure in a hoodie about a block before our house. A couple doors down from us lived this sullen kid oozing with the kind of hostility I’d brimmed with as a young man. But I have absolutely no idea what would make a kid raised in a lovely suburban house with a seemingly normal family have so much hate. I’d see him walking along the sidewalks at all hours and in all kinds of weather with his hoodie and headphones, aping the moves of whatever hip hop artist he had blasting away on his phone. His music was often turned up so loud that I could often hear it through my car window and his headphones as I drove past. He would lock eyes and give me the most malevolent stare until I looked away or the car carried me past. When the news came about a shooting I just knew it’d be him. How could I be so alone in that knowledge, I wondered? How did I even come to know? And when does a spooky feeling become a responsibility?
As we coasted into the driveway I felt overcome by a memory from a summer, many, many years before. We’d just moved into the neighborhood, we’d put our kids in front of a Disney movie and taken a bottle of wine outside into the sweltering evening heat where the bottle erupted into a compulsive sweat. Our kids would be high school students themselves by the time we got to Glynnis’ reunion, but just then they were babies and content to know we were nearby.
As we sat out there, crushing juicy mosquitoes like tiny tomatoes against our necks, I spied a hand waving into the dusk from a treehouse two houses away.
“Hello!” A small voice called out.
It was that sullen neighbor kid way back before he turned sullen and when I only knew him from seeing him ride his bike harmlessly around his driveway or helping tote groceries in for his mom. “Hello!” he called.
“Aren’t you going to answer him?” My wife said. She’d knocked back two glasses already and stretched her beautiful, bronze legs straight out until her feet lay in my lap.
“I don’t think he’s calling to us,” I said. Whatever he was doing up there, he seemed to just be shouting out to the universe: “Hello!” I found it irritating.
“You’re such a poop,” she said, jabbing me in the rib with one of her toes. She could be so flirty. “Hello!” She yelled.
“Hello!” Quickly came the response. Something in his tone told me this was the fun he’d been searching for. Some Marco Polo across the lazy yards on a summer night.
“You do it,” she chided me, this time running her toe up my thigh.
I waited until the kid called again, already just a hint of desperation infecting his enthusiasm: “Hello?” Why would anyone wait to fire back a simple salutation to that desperate kid?