The 30-year reunion was our ostensible destiny, but a road trip is a destiny unto itself. We strapped on our seatbelts and entered the world of the long highway. We shared the CD player and my son kept me awake when the road grew monotonous and the days grew long. We stopped and gawked at roadside tourist attractions and soaked up the scenery like starved pilgrims. We saw the nation's fear and anguish pour out in billboards predicting the end of time, touting salvation. We snapped Polaroids, ate all the biscuits and cornbread we could find, wondered what's happened to country music and rolled on.
Eventually we reached Memphis and the weekend of the reunion. For months I had told everyone I still knew from the class of '72 that they must come, that this would be fun. But when the day arrives, my heart drops. What if it is horrible? What if everyone is as unrecognizable to me as I sometimes am to myself? What if we really don't like each other but cherish the idea of having once been 17?
When evening comes, I'm nervous as a cat. I pick up my buddy David, who has flown in from Rochester, New York, at his parents' house and automatically feel guilty and 16-years-old saying goodnight to his parents, as if I have a joint in the car and David and I are going joy riding.
Instead, we drive to the visitors center of a huge park that was once a penal farm way out in the county, but now is in the middle of suburbia. We pick up our nametags and enter a room where familiar faces are topped with unfamiliar heads of hair and are plopped on unlikely bodies. Focusing on the faces, I make my way around the room again and again. Here is the girl voted "Most Changed" at the 10-year and 20-year reunions, completely transformed once again, this time into a muscled, frosted-haired, fashionable East Memphis event organizer. Here is a brief old flame, sleek, well-dressed and well-married, exuding the comfort he has grown to know in the world of money and position.
Here is the class clown -- grown tall and substantial -- who went to L.A. to find a life in showbiz and turned out to be the producer of the cult film Corndog Man. Here is the boy who signed my yearbook Drew Neil Young James Taylor ____, a boy with an angel's voice and a rock star's unfortunate habits who suffered a drug-induced breakdown, married too young, and then turned his life around by becoming a respectable stockbroker (is that an oxymoron now?). In the past year, he reinvented himself once more, backing out of the investment world and becoming the music minister of a large suburban church in Texas. He shines with new happiness.
Among us are the photos of seven who died since the 20-year reunion. One died coming home from work in a car; three died of cancer; another was shot to death by her husband. Their faces, pasted on poster board, are as vivid as those that crowd the room.
The night grows long and still no one has touched the long spread of hors d'oeuvres fixed by volunteers. We are frantically talking and touching, eagerly moving to the next person, the next captured memory. Here is the girl who contacted everyone and created a computer database of our class, glowing at what a good job she has done. In the years since we last saw her, she has had a brain tumor cut from her head. She thrives now on being alive.
Here is the summer Memphis heat, flowing around us, enveloping us in its wet, sticky arms. Around the room, groups form and the noise level rises. What distinguishes these faces most is the years of work and child-rearing and stress they wear. Only a few look peaceful and free of such cares. One has been surgically altered to look young and carefree but the effect is the opposite -- her eyes, once slanted in a sly, knowing way, are round as quarters. They look like the eyes of someone else, caught in constant surprise.
My high school boyfriend throws his big arm around me. Below the balcony where we stand, lightning bugs flicker lazily above a blackened lake. Tomorrow night we will all meet again in a more formal setting, then the next day my son and I will start the long trek home. We won't talk about high school or the reunion but will soak up the road, reveling in constant motion, in the forward trajectory of our lives, all roads leading home, always home.