It didn’t seem possible that people had changed when she couldn’t see those changes. They should have remained their high school selves of forty years before. In the same way it didn’t seem possible that the small town she returned to in the Midwest every year was the same small town where she grew up. Now, the three blocks of the downtown that she and her teenage buddies had haunted was desolate; even the mall, built in the seventies after she left, was deserted, everyone going to the nearby city for shopping. And most of the beautiful trees lining the streets had been razed, a swath cut through the city by Dutch Elm disease. The hallmark of her childhood, the flats, a three-story brick apartment complex, unusual in a town otherwise entirely built of clapboard homes, had been torn down. She’d grown up there with her mother, her sister and their four brothers in a large three bedroom apartment with tin ceilings built in the early 1900’s. After six months on a bed in the living room, coughing his lungs out, her father died when she was in junior high. Her brothers still lived in the most run-down section, while their mother, retired from her teaching job, had moved to a better neighborhood. Alice wanted to feel the rumblings of nostalgia when she returned, but the place never exuded the same meaning, the same size and importance, particularly with the Elms and the flats having been whisked away as though they’d never been there. No Proustian significance echoed.
In New York, her neighborhood had changed from the worst drug area in the city to the highest rent district full of rich kids and expensive boutiques. She felt nostalgic every day there, but that was because she had been able to watch the changes, she felt part of the changes. Here, the transformations had gone on behind her back. There was something not right about that, something disloyal.
At the 25th reunion, the only other one she’d attended, the committee had arranged for two days of activities, including a catered party with a DJ and all the trimmings. This time the reunion committee, all two of them, Bill and Jane Schafter, high school sweethearts, now married for forty years, had followed the path of least resistance: a meeting in the back room of a bar, with pre-ordered pizzas from the attached pizza parlor, and two drink tickets per. No speeches, no awards for the one who traveled the farthest or whatever, no photographer, just unstructured hanging out, as they’d done in high school.
The night before the reunion, Alice had enjoyed an evening with her younger sister and two guys from high school; one was Eddie Belknap, her high school boyfriend. They’d gone to a bar and laughed at the all the craziness life had handed them. Eddie turned out to be a more of a talker than she remembered, though no one really “talked” in high school where communication had dwindled to atavistic shrugging and grunting. Last night, she’d enjoyed his firmly stated opinions, mainly, of course, because they coincided with her own. Alice and her ex-boyfriend nursed soft drinks. As it turned out, they had this in common: they’d both given up alcohol after consuming more than a human being’s allotted lifetime in their early years.
Eddie’s face lost all trace of his worries and became a pond of reflected joy when he talked about his five-year-old granddaughter. In one story she had picked out all the blue M&M’s for him and said, “Grandpa, here’s the little blue pills for you.” Alice had laughed at the smarty-pants little girl joke about Viagra, but inside struggled to contain these two beings before her, Eddie the happy grandfather and Eddie the hot sweaty teen trying to feel her up. Alice asked Eddie if he ever saw any of her four brothers when he came to town. He said that he didn’t, since his folks had died, he didn’t often return from Chicago anymore. Then he laughed and said, “They were some rough group. How are they?”
Alice said that her brothers were all a hot mess, doing drugs and that between them they didn’t have an entire set of teeth. Then she felt that same proud grandparent smile came over her own face. “When I was telling my sixteen-year-old grandson about them, he asked whether it was because the drugs ruined the teeth or because they didn’t brush. I told him it was probably some of both. He suggested that we go to a head shop and get some crack pipes and attach tooth brushes and tooth paste with duct tape and resell them to help with the tooth decay problem in addicts.”
Eddie’s laugh of understanding pleased Alice. Eddie added, “The tooth paste will have fluoride and the addicts will refuse to use it, not wanting to destroy their health with harmful chemicals. ‘My body’s a freakin’ temple, you know.’”
Now it was Alice’s turn to laugh. The pleasure let her relax, the humor, the grandkids, the past returning to the present.
Last night had been joyful; what would tonight hold? Alice took a last look at the sky, not quite completely night, so she could still make out the shapes of the huge, opaque clouds, a moon beginning its journey behind them. On the other side of the alley, separated garages partially hid the ramshackle homes with dark windows. The silence itself held a strange menace. It was why she loved noisy New York City. A safety in numbers. A loneliness weighed on her. How could she open that door?
With that, Alice pushed wide the door. Along the bar that lined one side of the room, a few solitary souls hunched over their drinks. Then she noticed the noisy gibberish of voices and the light from a room to the left with open double doors. She stepped in to see this group of thirty or forty middle-aged adults, white people, of course, as had been this small town in the sixties. This was nearly half of their graduating class of about a hundred students. At a glance, her ex-classmates didn’t look as she’d been told to expect, which was that they would look much older than she did. You’re a New Yorker, you will look ten years younger than the rest of them, her friends had told her, they’ll be Midwestern, fat, unfashionably dressed. But no, people everywhere dressed the same now; the globalization of fashion, the newly valued god of health, and the proliferation of credit cards had leveled the playing field for city and country folk.
Someone grabbed her arm. Alice looked into a face, knew the woman, but couldn’t catch her name right away. Then under the older, lined features emerged a pretty, freckled child-face and, with it, her name, confirmed by her name tag: Jane. Alice hugged her, but only lightly, following Jane’s lead and keeping a safe distance between their two mature bodies. Besides, they’d probably never touched each other in all of high school. Their senior year, Jane had been the prom queen, but not the way prom queens were portrayed today, full of vicious Hollywood sarcasm and spite. She’d been quiet and nice, that horrible word that meant un-provoking and blank, and she’d been so pretty, no one could argue with that. Jane’s perennial ponytail was now a short bob that looked both stylish and motherly. She and her husband Bill had organized the event.
When Alice asked where they lived now, Jane replied that she and Bill had stayed here their whole lives. It was a good place to raise their children, a boy and a girl. She asked Alice, in her interested, but with the same oddly detached presence she’d always had, how it was to live in New York City. Alice knew she had no way to convey what the City meant to her, so she switched the conversation to her family, her kids and her husband who couldn’t come because of work, though she didn’t mention that New Yorker that he was, he wouldn’t have come under any circumstances. She learned long ago not to push her husband and even longer before that learned that those who stayed in her home town were not interested in big cities or what that life held.
Alice glanced up to see Sharon Silensky heading to them. She still had the long slim body and pinched face that reminded Alice of a mink. Sharon stood a little outside the circle, holding her drink away from her haute-couture jeans and fashionable, sleeveless silk blouse. Alice noticed her arms right away, slender but not worked out. In high school Sharon had antagonized the nuns with her wicked mimicry of them. At the time, she’d been eccentric and sophisticated, which meant she read teen magazines and knew about pop movies. She escaped ridicule by being so odd that no one understood her enough to make fun of her.
Jane asked Sharon, innocently enough, if she lived nearby. Sharon sneered, “No. I’ve been living in Santa Barbara, California for the last twenty years, since my divorce. I don’t know why I came to this reunion; I promised myself never to set foot in this place again.”
Jane openly stared at Sharon. Alice thought she was calculating the degree to which she should consider this a slur. Alice said, “I used to hate it, too. But now, after all this time away and living in New York, I find it beautiful.”
Sharon sniffed. “Of course, you live where you have to drive a hundred miles to see a tree.” Sharon Silensky had a way of speaking about others as though she had a superior knowledge of everyone’s underlying motives, though Alice remembered that Sharon’s education about humans had been initially gleaned from Mad Magazine. Sharon seemed to think of herself as beyond petty things that drove other mortals. Of course, Alice thought, she’d become a therapist. But Alice really was concentrating on Eddie, her ex, talking with a group at a nearby table. Alice wondered what they were talking so intently about. She’d thought he would be spending more time at her side, rather like they had in high school, only now as good friends, not a couple. Though he’d put on weight, he still had that assurance she’d liked in high school and the hair, still thick, though gray. A friend told her that she’d run into Eddie at a union meeting and that Eddie was the coolest, most good-looking guy from their class. Alice had been surprised to hear this, having always downplayed anyone who got close to her, but she was pleased to hear it, because she too liked the adult Eddie had become.
Then, Alice looked up to see Sally Charboneau paused in the doorway. Even forty years later, she had a presence that made everyone stop and turn. She’d been voluptuous back then, the wet dream of the entire high school male population, and probably the teachers as well. She’d lost weight, had an ascetic look after twenty years as a Jehovah’s Witness and seven children. Alice knew this because Sally, her best friend in high school, and she still saw each every few years. Sally was wearing a plain shift that set off her now delicate, though still curvy, figure. Her Elizabeth Taylor eyes now burned with self-assurance and calm, though they’d held pure erotic tension in high school.
Alice excused herself to talk to Sally. Alice was surprised to see the up close, Sally’s eyes, still guileless and straightforward, now had tiny crow’s feet. Little lines had begun around her mouth, but she was still exceptionally beautiful. Alice wondered what changes Sally was seeing in Alice’s nearly sixty-year-old face. Eddie and a few others joined them and while they talked, Alice found herself drifting away from the conversation as she watched in astonishment: these people she knew as teenagers, even some as children, stood before her in silly adult costumes. Time and space seemed to have played some strange game on them. All those cruel high school ratings should have been laughable at this point, but, in looking around the room, the confident ones were still confident, the ones who resembled walruses still clung to each other, the smart and handsome had the best jobs, only now they all had forty years of stories to tell from the space between their present selves and those lost, pimply-faced souls they’d been. Tragedy and comedy had filled their lives no matter their personality. And who was she, Alice, in this gathering? In high school she’d hung around with people from all the groups: the popular, the sporty, the intellects, the outcasts. She and Eddie were runners up to prom king and queen, Bill and Jane. What did it mean now to be “popular”? Nothing. How silly would that be to care about popularity at age 58? Nevertheless Alice always felt like an outsider. She was never really a part of any group. Even her family pictures showed her standing apart from her sister and four crazy brothers.
Alice looked at the crowd around her. With all the intervening years, with marriage, work and children, she still had nothing but misunderstandings, misunderstandings of everything life was about. The sexual tension of high school had returned in these older bodies, permeated this backroom, but with many years’ knowledge and participation in sex, they were only remembering the steamy world they’d once lived in, where sex was new, unavailable, mysterious. Alice could see her pre-teen self, getting up to take communion, folded hands pressed against her breast bone that made her, and hopefully others, achingly aware of the rise on each side of them, while she bowed her head in reverence at her own reverence.
Behind Sally, Alice noticed Mike Compton at the door, leaning with the same insolent slouch from high school and sporting a thigh-length leather jacket. He’d grown up with only his dad and brothers in a house with a broken down porch in the North End, which meant he was tough. No one knew what happened to his mother. Maybe she died, maybe she just wasn’t there. The other boys looked to him for leadership when they were in a mood for trouble. Once in third grade Mike Compton had come up to Alice on the street, lifted up her uniform pleated skirt and hissed in her ear that he wanted to look at her underpants. She’d been terrified and ran hysterically across the street. He and the other boys laughed. As she was running, Alice heard Mike yell at someone else, “Hey, Larry, you’re a queer.” As she ran through the parking lot and down the alley, she’d become more terrified, but for a new reason: the relief she felt when Mike’s harassment switched to Larry frightened her in a whole new way.
Eddie excused himself and made a beeline to the circle of guys who’d gathered around the once juvenile delinquent Mike Compton. Alice watched Eddie clap Mike on the back, friendly, acknowledging his bad boy status. Bad boy Mike let a slight smile cross his face and he scanned the room in a self-satisfied way, accepting the homage like a celebrity. He didn’t clap Eddie back.
Someone touched Alice’s arm. A man she didn’t recognize was facing her, holding his arms out, waiting for the sign from Alice that his person was as obvious as it always had been. “Where’s my hug?”
Alice looked. Who was this man who so clearly recognized her? Then from underneath the weathered exterior appeared the cutest kid from grade school. The wavy dark hair that she’d been head over heels for in sixth grade was lighter now and covered only the sides of his head. His cute young boy’s body was hard and beefy. Oh, Bill Schafter, she gushed and grabbed onto to him to hide that she hadn’t instantly recognized Jane’s husband. She thanked him for arranging the party.
Bill, balding, middle-aged husband of Jane, said, “So Alice, what is this I heard about you being an anti-war hippie girl back in the sixties?”
Alice laughed, a little stunned to have this part of her past brought up, especially when it was now so far away, time collapsed and expanded and left her breathless. She remembered then that Bill had been a Marine and had spent some time in Viet Nam. She smiled and said, “Yeah. Peace, love, and bean sprouts.”
Bill said, in serious voice, “I’d like to have a talk with you about that when we get a chance.” He didn’t wait for a response, because he noticed leather-clad lecher Mike Compton and excused himself to move into the huddle of guys.
“Sure,” Alice chirped, thinking: not on your life. No way am I getting into a war talk with an ex-Marine, here in the middle of a red state.
Jane, Bill’s wife, rooted around in the pile of name tags and handed one each to Sally and Alice, which they applied to the sweaters. Sharon asked where she should deposit her empty soda can for recycling. Jane said, “Just throw them in the garbage. Bill doesn’t believe in recycling, so I just do what he does.”
Sharon shot Alice a glance to show that her dislike of this place was not misplaced and that she knew Alice, as a big city girl too, would also understand. Alice just wanted to enjoy herself for a change, not get into this political battle; besides, she’d seen people change their politics, but it had never happened on an occasion like this.
Eddie strolled towards them, Mike strutting behind. They surrounded still sexy, grandmother Sally, their size made her appear smaller and more vulnerable in her tiny shift and thin arms. They asked about her life for the last forty years. As soon as she said she had seven children Mike leered down at her and then winked lewdly at Eddie. Eddie said, “I like my cigar too.” Everyone laughed, including Sally, but her laughter somehow changed the ribald nature of the moment, redirected the joke to highlight Mike’s gloating sexual innuendo, and made her child-bearing seem pure. Mike and Eddie teased each other, talked about their teen histories of car thefts and drinking. Mike sipped his beer, Eddie his soda. Eddie said he’d become a high school teacher, and he’d loved the job until it got so awful with the increase in the number of students in a class that he had taken an early retirement. Mike said he was a car salesman, working out of Minneapolis. Sharon whispered to Alice, “God, he is probably even sleazier than all the other sleazy car salesmen.”
Jane joined them and Mike squinted at her name tag. “Oh, hi Jane. I don’t mean to be staring at all the women’s breasts; I’m just trying to read the name tags.” The guys guffawed. To increase the humor, Mike exaggerated his look at Alice’s “name tag” with a domineering sexual taunt in his eyes.
Alice said, “Yes, but Mike, do you have to read the name tags by Braille?”
When everyone laughed and Eddie clapped her on the back, it still took Mike a second to understand Alice’s meaning. He didn’t even give her a nod of recognition. Alice wondered to herself why she’d used such an old cheap gag on him. There was something about him that still got her riled up. Maybe it was the fact that nothing mattered to him that made her feel the urge to become the thing that mattered.
Alice excused herself to head to the bathroom. Inside the stall, she gazed at her feet. In high school, she could cry her eyes out in these cubicles. Amazing that all these adults, who’d been supporting themselves one way or another for the last forty years, who had raised children and now had grandchildren, had all once been worried over by parents who were afraid that their children would never amount to anything, never be able to support themselves and families. No matter how petty life seemed, simply getting through it gave her hope that her own children and the granddaughter she was raising were going to find their way in the world, and were going to be okay. She got up and looked in the mirror. Her lipstick had worn off, she was tired. It was eleven o’clock; usually she’d be in bed watching television at this time. As she smeared a bit of color on her lips, she decided to go back into the party and make her goodbyes.
In the few minutes since she’d been out of the room, a good number of people had left. Bill and Jane had grabbed the remaining name tags and were sitting at a table with a few stragglers over tea and coffee. Alice went over to thank them before she left. But, instead, Eddie asked her to join them and so Alice found herself staying. The pizza/bar room seemed smaller now, with its chipped cinderblock and folding tables and chairs.
Ex-Marine Bill leaned across the table and asked the question Alice dreaded, “So tell me about being a hippie. Were you one of those people protesting the war?”
Alice cringed. Here we go. There was another war raging in the Middle East and it was all starting over again; she was too tired to get into this with him, too old, too exhausted, had seen too many arguments turn to hatred rather than understanding. “Yes, I was there, sticking flowers in the rifle barrels of the National Guardsmen. I hear you were in Viet Nam. That must have been a life-changing event.”
“Yes. While you were safely protesting here, I was out there watching people die for their country and your right to protest.” He had been waiting a long time to say this, yet was trying his best to be accommodating and non-threatening, though Alice could see this was too difficult to manage without a little sarcasm and rage leaking out. Beside him, Jane’s jaw tightened, as though she knew what was coming and was preparing for it.
Before Alice could respond, eccentric Sharon from Santa Barbara said, “Yeah, you were over there destroying a county, for what? To fight Russian communism? Who cared? Now there is no USSR.”
Ready for a fight, Bill tensed up from head to toe and the blood vessels in his brow pulsed like rapid transit signals from his heart. Alice was glad that Sharon was doing the work for her, but wished she wasn’t quite so confrontational about it; Alice had found non-aggression pacts worked better for her.
Sharon went on: “If all the young men who were sent to Viet Nam had had the courage to say no to the draft, then they’d still be alive and healthy. And we’d be more free rather than less free.”
The war was written all over Bill’s features again “Courage! Those rich college boys who could dodge the draft you call that courage. Courage is walking in the dark in the jungle, not knowing what might come out at you. Courage is carrying your friend who has been shot through a barrage of bullets. Courage is coming home and being met at the airport by protesters and being called a baby killer. One guy with a ponytail spit on my medals. I grabbed him by the ponytail and punched out his lights.”
Sharon opened her pinched little mouth, but Eddie interrupted. “Look, I’m one of those college boys who got a high number. I still feel like a coward for not going even though I thought it was an illegal war. I just want to say I think that Bill and all those who went to Nam were courageous beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.”
Lecher Mike gave a snort of salacious laughter. “You still fighting about Viet Nam? It’s 2006. Forget about it. The best thing of the sixties was that saying, “Make love not war.’ I got a lot of pussy in those days behind that. Oops. Sorry girls.”
Sally sipped her tea and watched quietly. She said, “Several times for our service as a Jehovah’s Witness, I went to New York City and the thing I remember most was driving and driving for miles through areas with huge buildings with broken windows and the sides covered in graffiti. I was terrified. I couldn’t believe how big the area was.”
Alice said, “That must have been the Bronx.”
Mike said, “Couldn’t it have been Manhattan?”
“In Manhattan you can only drive so far before everything changes and you’re in another world entirely,” Eddie said. Alice looked at him and nodded in agreement. She was surprised he knew so much about New York. He saw the question in her eyes and said, “We used to go to conferences there, and my wife has a brother who lives there.”
Bill tried again, “We used to have a good economy here, till the environmentalists closed down so many of our businesses with their governmental restrictions. The farmers can’t grow crops because the intellectuals tell them they can’t use sprays. Bed bugs are back. Ever since they banned DDT, we’re hearing about them, even in five-star hotels.”
Sharon laughed. “Five star hotels? All you have in this dump are a couple Motel Sixes.”
Bill ignored Sharon and went on, though he was controlling his voice to keep from exploding all over them. “What about recycling? It takes more energy to recycle and costs more than throwing stuff out. There is plenty of room in this huge country for trash dumps.”
Mike waved a dismissive hand. “Recycling. Who cares about that? You can argue all you want, the shit is going to pile up and no one is going to change.”
Sharon tried to wither him with a scornful look. Mike returned her scorn with a lecherous smile, as though he’d touched her somewhere deep and indecent. Sharon titled her pelvis sensuously Mike’s direction, but she spoke with a fighting tone. “It’s attitudes like that keep the world from being able to change, giving up before even starting.”
“You’re not married, are you?” he said with a smirk.
“I’m divorced, what’s that got to do with anything?” Sharon shook her head in disbelief, but Alice could see that Mike’s power of personal sexual charisma was working. The more outrageous things he said, the more he gathered Sharon into his net. The more she topped his arguments, the more she hooked herself in the webbing. Men and women, she thought. Some things never change.
Sally sat in her chair, small and calm. When there was a moment of quiet between the bantering, Sally continued her story from earlier. “When I was doing service in New York, I was terrified to go into that neighborhood that went on for so many miles. But they’d drop us off on a corner, and we’d get into the buildings and start knocking on doors. People were rarely rude to us.”
Everyone at the table stopped and looked at Sally. Eddie said, “So, that is connected to our conversation how?”
“Well,” Sally began. “We weren’t offering them money, we were offering salvation. You’d think people wouldn’t see the need for salvation when they were looking to feed their kids, but they liked to listen and talk. A few called back. But what struck me was the way they yelled at each other, yelled at their kids, and in that yelling there was so much warmth and love. I’d never heard anything like that. Whereas here we are, sitting relatively quietly, talking civilly to each other, but I feel like we’re about to rip each other to bits.”
Mike Compton asked, “Were these black people?”
Alice felt her shoulders tighten. Here we go. This was where she was getting off. She’d lived in New York City nearly twice as long as she’d lived here. New York was her home town, not this city in this Midwestern red-state where the racial makeup ranged from lily white to olive white. When she grew up this was a liberal area, now it had turned into this mess. Who were these people she was sitting with? They had nothing in common with her now, never did. They would never understand her. There was too much space between those cities for any understanding. Too much time had passed.
Sally nodded, “Yes, there were Black people, Spanish people, Dominicans, Cambodian people, Arabs and white people. Everybody.”
No one spoke, each individually trying to comprehend this world of so many differences. Alice suddenly really loved Sally. Nothing made any sense anymore. What did any of this matter? They’d grown up, raised families. Became liberals and conservatives. Became wife beaters and wife supporters. The room suddenly felt like unreal, nothing was solid or permanent. All the world’s a movie set, and we prance and wrestle through our ninety minutes, mixing our metaphors in rambling interior monologues, on our way to a quick cremation and memorial “celebration.”
Mike took a long draw on his beer. When he set it down, he glanced over at someone in the doorway. They all turned their heads to see a woman their age, dyed red hair, in classic skirt suit and pumps. Eddie asked, “Anyone recognize her? She looks familiar, but I can’t place her.”
The woman walked with a swagger directly to their table, smiling. There was something not quite right, not quite real about her. She was attractive and familiar, yet none of them recognized her. She said hello and asked for a name tag that sat in a pile. Jane looked more closely at the woman as she picked up the tags. “I’m sorry, but I can’t remember your name.”
“I’ve changed it anyway,” the woman said. “I’m known as Suzie now, but you’ll remember me as Larry Gordon.”
A collective gasp rose from the table. Alice remembered Larry Gordon; he’d been teased since first grade as being “queer”. He made an attractive woman. Alice said, “Wow, Larry, I mean Suzie, sit down. Do you remember all of us?”
Suzie/Larry sat down. “Oh yes. We have Bill and Jane, prom king and queen. You must be married. Eddie and Alice, you two still together?”
Eddie laughed. “No, we haven’t seen each other for forty years. Alice lives in New York City, I live in Chicago.”
Suzie smiled sweetly. “New York City and Chicago. Big city kids. I live in LA. So let’s see. You, in the designer jeans and high heeled boots, you must be Sharon Slivensky. You were the first to wear Beetle boots in high school. I couldn’t forget you.”
Sharon nodded, “I couldn’t forget you either. You were the only guy in high school who understood my style.”
Suzie turned her gaze on Mike. She waited until he had no choice but to look back. “And Mike Compton. Who could forget the boy who tortured me throughout grade school and high school? How are you doing? Still making everyone miserable?”
“No, I’m a salesman.”
“That makes sense, though I’d have thought you’d be a cop.”
“A cop? You kidding. I hate cops.”
“Well, okay, a self-hating cop.”
Eddie asked what Suzie did. “I’m a nurse. Remember that year I had scarlet fever? I had a visiting nurse that year and she was so tender with me, I always wanted to be like her. Now I work in a psyche ward. I always knew I’d end up there, but at least this way I get to go home at night.”
The group laughed with Suzie. Alice said, “I was about to get out of here, I’m so glad I stayed to see you.”
“Thanks Alice. You know you were the only person in the class who was always nice to me, even in grade school.”
“I was? Thanks, that is a really sweet thing to say. I’m honored.”
“And you Sally. You were so voluptuous and now you are such a tiny thing. You always seemed so different than the rest of us. Have you found a niche?”
“Yes. I’m a Witness.”
“No shit! Jehovah’s Witness. Do you go around knocking on doors?”
“Yes, I was just talking about that before you got here.”
“You are the only one who was stranger than me in high school.”
“Thanks. Is that a compliment?”
“Not a compliment. A statement of fact, at least to me. Being strange in high school is hard, but once you get out, you find out the normals are the strange ones.”
“So Larry, what ever made you switch? Did you actually do that, that, uh, operation?” Mike nearly choked trying to get his question out.
“Mike. Mike. Yes, I did go through with it, once I grew up and began to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. I was out of mind before, drinking, doing drugs, selling my body. I was one crazy kid. You wouldn’t believe how many straight guys came back again and again even after they found out I wasn’t a woman.” Suzie looked into Mike’s eyes the way Mike had looked into Alice’s eyes, burning, knowing, accusing.
Mike smirked again. “Not me, I like women. All women, all the time.”
Bill said to Suzie, “So Larry, did you serve in Viet Nam?” Alice couldn’t believe he was asking, holding on to the subject through thick and thin.
Suzie ran her hands over her skirt. “Yes, they couldn’t face who I was, of course, I couldn’t either. I spent a couple months in Nam before they shipped me back with a wonderful heroin habit.” She pronounced it “heir-won”. “When I was able to get off the drugs and booze I had the courage to face myself.”
Bill nodded, listening intently. “Me, too. Not the heroin, but Viet Nam made me face myself. What I was about. I didn’t like war, but like the bumper sticker says: Except for slavery, Nazism, Fascism, Communism, war never changed anything.”
Even Sharon couldn’t argue with that. Suzie had done something by telling her story. Everything had changed with her appearance. Though Larry/Suzie had changed the most on the exterior, she was the same, as they all were under their heavier, older bodies. Alice thought of Suzie saying she’d been “nice” to her. How Alice had hated when anyone called her nice. In high school it was about the highest insult, only thing worse was “queer.” Nice was the confirmation of nothingness, bland, boring no backbone nothingness. Now her husband said he loved her because she was good and tender. Being nice wasn’t such a bad thing anymore. Maybe it never was. As hard as her life was, nothing was as hard as being afraid to be who you were. Soon Alice would leave this bar, go home to her mother’s house, then, in a couple days fly home to New York, get on with her life and all this would be like a dream. With this thought, Alice made her good-byes, like any other good-byes, but she might never see any of these people again.
The screen door banged on the frame and Alice was alone in the parking lot. The heavy clouds had passed and there was a full round, shiny moon, cut by strands of clouds. The moon’s glow reminded Alice of a book she’d read as a child. A shimmering ghost- horse high on ridge, turned out to be a real horse that glowed because it had rolled in phosphorus. She’d loved that story, that horse, its freedom and beauty, no matter that its shine was as illusory as its freedom. The moon hung sweet and soft, showering the earth with its reflected brilliance.
Jan Schmidt lives in New York City and recently retired as Curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared in The Long Story, New York Stories, Downtown, and American Letters and Commentary, among others. For eight years, she co-edited with J.D. Rage Venom Press and its quarterly poetry and fiction magazine, Curare. At present she is working on a novel about a mother’s reunion with her son thirty years after his adoption.