Friday, August 20, 2004

High School Reunion: Lunchtime

Whenever people try to reconstruct an event to find out what went wrong, they go back to the beginning. So it often is with a life. When it goes wrong or at least skews off in a very different direction, people go back to the beginning, the roots, how it all started. Maybe that’s why this trip back to California for my 20 year high school reunion feels like a chance to solve something and maybe re-align, get back on track, leave with a better sense of who I am, or even just why I am.

Who was I in high school? In the horrible months before I started my freshman year, I lost my best friend to another girl. It was an extremely painful loss. I felt like I had been abandoned, rejected, and now had to negotiate the alien terrain of Las Lomas High School without anyone to eat lunch with. Who to eat lunch with, that was the question that plagued me, worried me, terrified me. The worst, worst, worst thing I could imagine was eating lunch alone.

Las Lomas had an airy, outdoor campus where you could spend your lunch period anywhere you liked. The school had the typical architecture of many California schools: the buildings were laid out bungalow-style, connected by covered walkways. Every classroom door opened to the outside (considered a great fire safety feature). The connecting walkways were lined with seated areas that were open to the sun and landscaped with trees and bushes. I guess it was nice, but I didn’t notice that in my first days of freshman year. I just noticed that none of these places seemed particularly welcoming to me, a girl who had just lost her best friend.

Maybe this best friend thing had handicapped me, made me think I had no other friends but my best friend. Maybe focusing on that one person had isolated me from everyone else. I don’t know if any of that occurred to me as I considered my social options. I do remember that I spent weeks eating lunch with a couple of girls that I didn’t know particularly well, didn’t really like and didn’t feel much in common with, but with whom I felt safe. With them I wasn’t alone and my belief that they were even geekier, less popular and less attractive than I was assured me that they would not reject me.

I can see in my mind’s eye, the area where I met these new friends for lunch. It was called “the Quad” and it was a large square of uncovered pavement, with levels that went down, each sunken square level lined with benches. In this Christians-to-the-lions arena of my shame, we would meet to exchange dull small talk and swallow dry sandwiches. This is the scene that comes to my mind when I try to remember my freshman year.

Now I realize that during this time I was probably very depressed. During the months that I spent feeling abandoned and lost, I didn’t have much to say and even if I had, there was no one to say it to. I was lonely, hurt, upset, and undoubtedly ashamed that I hadn’t been a worthy enough friend to keep. My already shaky self-esteem was completely de-railed and with no one to give me comfort, advice, or even a safe shoulder to rest my head on, the only conclusions I was able to draw were that I wasn’t important or interesting enough to secure someone’s loyalty, and that closeness and intimacy lead to abandonment, pain and betrayal. I felt like the loser of the universe, able to comfort myself only with the certainty that my lunchtime companions were even lowlier than I.

By the mid-way point of freshman year I did manage to find other lunchtime company: girls I respected, whose company I enjoyed and whose fondness for me began to heal some of the pain. After that I think the rest of my high school years were okay. Anchored by the friendship of these girls who made up my new clique, I was able to weather the dramas of final exams, aloof cute guys, musical try-outs and fighting parents. But I never found another best friend. At least that’s how it seemed. The truth is probably that I never made another best friend. Likewise I’ve spent my entire adulthood making and leaving friends, letting them go out of my life shortly after celebrating their appearance in it. I rarely spend my birthday with the same people two years in a row. So far I’ve assumed that the high turnover rate of my friends has reflected the constant shifting of my life: I have regularly changed apartments, cities, boyfriends, religions, jobs, careers and gods for years now. I thought the regular changing of my friends was part of the same pattern, but maybe it’s not. Or maybe the entire kaleidoscope of my life has reflected my hesitancy to commit to anything very deeply.

So maybe it’s an inner 14-year-old girl I’m dealing with here: a 14-year-old who sits in the soul-stripping sunlight of the Quad, feeling her failure and shame as if everyone could see it, world without end. It’s okay, I would tell her now. Now I have the resources to deal with that kind of pain if/when it happens again. I don’t have to fear and avoid closeness. I even have a couple of close friends who have stuck by me for more than a decade now, at times despite my best efforts to shake them off. They love me. And if being loved by them isn’t so bad, maybe it’s okay if others do, too. Maybe even me.

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