It happened this summer, on a seemingly innocent trip to the ladies room.
The 50th was my first ever class reunion. I’d brushed aside notices for earlier ones, but when the invitation came, with a warning that it might be our last, I thought what the hell. Give it a shot, though I’d been less than two years at East High, transferring from another high school in Washington State. My stepfather had been promoted and we were settling into our best-ever home when he had a bad accident, lost his sanity, and was institutionalized indefinitely. My mom, a licensed practical nurse, found us a small rental unit within walking distance of the school, barely affordable on her tiny salary.
In my mind, the only people who’d visited us in that spartan little place were a few family friends, my brother when he was on leave from the Coast Guard Academy, and my only boyfriend before college—a fellow nerd who came to do homework together when he was competing with me to get straight A’s. I couldn’t think of anyone else, having assumed the place wasn’t presentable like the home we’d been forced to leave.
At the reunion memories were jolted by name tags that reproduced our high school yearbook photos. One stylishly dressed woman peered at mine, shouted my name and gave me a hug. I quickly scanned her name tag, pulled a blank, but greeted her as though we’d been pals. Another woman remarked cooly that I used to teach her younger brother to play the drums. At once a buried memory arose of a series of determined little boys who’d come for drum lessons with me in the tiny living room of that modest rented home. How could I forget? But I almost had, having given up playing drums to study the piano and survive in a tough college.
The most fun was standing in line for the cash bar, shooting the breeze with folks who did not recognize each other. This required us to gamely summarize what was noteworthy about our lives. We looked out over the room and concluded that, all things considered, we’d held up pretty well for our age. Pretty soon all class members were called to assemble outside for a group photo. Several amateur photographers appeared besides the one hired for the occasion, so it took time.
After the group photos I headed straight for the rest room in a cluster of unfamiliar women. Two of us were washing our hands at the sink when one caught my gaze in the mirror and said, “I know you. You invited me to your house one day with two other girls. When I slid over on your sofa to make room for them I accidentally sat on my glasses and broke them. You said to me, ‘You’ll pay for that,’ and none of us could think what to say. I was never in your place again.”
She walked briskly alongside me as we left the restroom, looking into me for an explanation. This was clearly unfinished business, as raw and deep for her as it had been half a century ago. Honestly, I could not recall the episode, but was stunned to hear about my ancient gaff.
“Wow,” I said, glad to be five decades removed from it. “What a DUMB thing to say!”
Instantly, she responded as if to console us both. “We were children.”
Well, I said to myself, 17- or 18-year-old children, not toddlers. For her sake I tried to sound upbeat, stretching toward philosophical. “Life sure is amazing. I have no memory of this, and you’ve remembered it for 50 years!”
Unsatisfied, she looked back expectantly, as though we both knew it was our only chance to settle the matter.
“It’s true we were children,” I said, “But I don’t know why I would say something so stupid. I would not have wanted you to feel bad about breaking your glasses.”
She nodded, and made a guttural sound. “Maybe,” she suggested, “you were attempting some kind of humor?”
I recognized the truth. “Yes, that had to have been my intention. Obviously, I failed.”
No comment, but affirmation in her silence. I wanted to know who she was, but couldn’t bring myself to cheapen the exchange by looking at her name tag. We’d been walking briskly, and before I could think of anything more to say she disappeared into the ballroom.
Within a few days the episode and the mortification I’d felt afterwards had resurfaced. I wished I could have told her: “I was so horrified that I’d dropped that bomb, I was sure you’d want nothing more to do with me. So I avoided you and didn’t have the nerve to ask you over again.” But it takes time for such thoughts and words to form.
Still, I want to believe that this frank soul got what she needed from our brief encounter. Chances are, it was not by chance that we met in the ladies room. She must have seen me leaving the photo shoot and seized her only opportunity to solve something she’d puzzled over for 50 years. It could have been the reason she’d attended the event.
This person drew my attention to something that had caused her pain and made her feel rejected. I didn’t catch her name, but she knows mine, and by some miracle I hope she reads this. So that I can thank her and say it was my loss that we did not become friends.