I thought that I was fearless until the piece of paper that every sane adult over forty dreads arrived in my mailbox on a June afternoon: the invitation to my thirtieth high school class reunion
PURPLE TIGERS, CLASS OF 1971 IT’S REUNION TIME! date: friday, august 25 time: 7:00 p.m. until ??? place: the imperial arms be there or be square rsvp to darla martin-gilmore by august 5 we look forward to seeing YOU!!!!
Damn it! I said to myself, fingering the white envelope trimmed in purple. I wondered if the French Foreign Legion was still in existence. I hadn’t used my high school French in over twenty years but there were refresher courses. Maybe it wasn’t too late to join the Witness Protection Program.
Why, for God’s sake, the Imperial Arms? It had seen better days. Like forty years ago. And the buffet wasn’t that good even then.
You have some choices, my conscience advised. You can kill yourself now or mark the envelope “Addressee Unknown” and drop it into the mailbox . . . or you could go.
Oh grow up, I answered back. What’s wrong with suicide?
I would be fifty in a couple of years so I figured there weren’t many things left in the world that could really scare me. After all, I was on my second marriage. I was not afraid of the dark—I outgrew that when I was four. I will admit that I am the only mom who sits at the bottom of the bleachers at my son’s football games. Heights make me queasy. And yes, cancer and Alzheimer’s worry me. So I eat broccoli and do crossword puzzles to keep the gray cells from getting squishy. But other than that, I thought I was fearless. But there’s nothing like the invitation to your thirtieth high school reunion to put ice cubes in your intestines.
Maybe I could run away from home.
“Hey! What’s up?” My son, Keith, or “Jaws” as we call him because of his feeding habits, joined me in the hallway. He was chomping on an apple, talking with his mouth full, and holding a jar of peanut butter in one hand. Life was normal.
“What’s with the psychedelic envelope?” he asked, with a burst of laughter in his voice. Bits of apple went everywhere.
“High school reunion,” I answered. “And clean up that mess!”
“Ho, ho! How many years is it, Mom? Thirty-five? Forty?”
“Thirty, thank you. Get it right,” I retorted.
“If you don’t watch it, I’ll stop feeding you,” I warned him.
“Purple Tigers? Oh, this ought to be good. You old-school fogies limping around the dance floor to Al Green . . .”
“No, the Temptations, Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind and Fire,” I countered. I was remembering the wonderful music. “And there isn’t anything ‘old school’ about it. It’s just real music where people actually play the instruments. You know, musical instruments? Saxophones, trumpets, guitars?”
Keith shook his head and took another monstrous bite.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. You’re going, right?” He patted me on the top of my head.
One of the lovely things about having a nearly grown son is that when he gets to be taller than you are, he treats you like an armrest.
“Go away, shoo,” I said, pushing his two-hundred-pound frame toward the kitchen where it belonged. “Don’t forget we have to talk about that football camp this evening. Oh, and that girl called again.” I call her “that girl” because she has one of those amazing names that I can’t pronounce. “La” on the front end and an “ishelle” on the back end. As my great-grandmother would say, “Mercy!”
“OK, but you should go, Ma. You don’t look too bad for an old lady. A little short but . . .”
I love compliments.
“Beat it before I throw something at you,” I yelled after him.
I looked at the invitation again.
Had it really been thirty years? It seemed like only yesterday that I had nearly been suspended for . . . Now I was sounding like an old-school fogy. Of course, it had been thirty years. I’d been to college, married, had two babies, divorced, married again, had one more baby; worked at three companies, one university, and one junior college; done innumerable loads of laundry, been a room mother three hundred times, cheered soccer, football, and volleyball games; and made more chili and Rice Krispies treats than I care to think about. Not to mention the gray hair that I religiously color every four weeks and the extra ten pounds I was carrying around—OK, fifteen pounds.
Oh, yes, and those babies grew up. Beca was in San Francisco preparing to make me a grandmother. Yikes! Candace had just finished her master’s degree and was spending the summer in Italy. Keith was headed toward his senior year in high school.
And there were the other things.
Thirty years ago my parents still lived on Greenway Avenue in a little beige stucco house. Our German shepherd, Ranger, held court in the backyard and Mrs. Adams poked her nose over the fence complaining about his barking. My oldest sister, Pat, would have been in the bathroom in front of the mirror combing her hair this way and that. My youngest sister, Jean, would have been in the window seat, coloring. Grandma Jane lived on the next block; the Methodist minister lived around the corner.
Time didn’t march on, it flew at light speed. Dad was gone now, and Mother sold the little house and lived in a condo on the other side of town. Pat and her family live in Denver and Jean is stationed in Washington, D.C. My baby sister is a major in the U.S. Army. Grandma’s gone, the reverend is gone, and Ranger was the third of several dogs by the same name, all of which were buried with pomp and circumstance and heartfelt tears in the backyard beneath the old maple tree.
Thank God for the memories. My high school yearbooks rest on top of the bookshelf in the family room. Keith leafs through them and makes fun of the way we dressed “back in the olden days,” especially our afros. Of course, everything comes back, and now that bell-bottoms are on the runways in New York, my long-haired son looks at my high school picture with more respect. We were trend- setters.
I pick up the book from 1971, which is my favorite year. I flip through it whenever I want to feel good. It’s like a worn house slipper, completely broken in. It is like meat loaf and mashed pota- toes made with whole milk and butter. And I always open it to the same page. There we are. It’s the picture of the National Honor Society and we’re standing in the front row: me, Audrey, Reenie, and Su—best friends since elementary and junior high school. Inseparable. We are wearing plaid jumpers with pleated skirts, V-neck sweaters, and knee socks. Cheerleader skirts. Afros and hooped earrings. Dashikis. And smiles. Lots and lots of smiles, real ones. Life was full of possibilities then.
On the day we graduated we promised to stay in touch, but we scattered. Our times together grew further apart but were no less cherished. And I think all of us would agree that the times we spent together growing up were some of the best times of our lives. Those were the days when we weren’t afraid to experiment or make mistakes. Those were the days before our lives would need revision, before our souls would need restoration. Those were the days before we learned that we wouldn’t live forever, the days before regrets. And, in many ways, those were the last days that we had friendships so close that our skins inhaled the fibers of the mohair sweaters we borrowed from one another.
Irene, Audrey, and Susan were the girls I grew up with. The girls who turned the double-Dutch ropes when I was nine, who invited me to their slumber parties and told me their secrets, some of which I’ve kept to this day. In high school, they got their own page in the yearbook because they were the “girls most likely”: to succeed, to marry a millionaire, to be rich and famous, and to negotiate world peace. They were the girls most likely to do everything wonderful. I was on the fringes of their lives, basking in the reflection of their friendship and taking advantage of the benefits that came with being seen with them.
We were born in the early fifties. Our mothers named us after their favorite movie stars: Susan Hayward, Irene Dunne, and Audrey Hepburn. And like the screen queens, we were told to behave ourselves and do what was expected of us: white gloves and a hat to church on Sunday; Fisk, Spelman, or Howard; a “good” job teaching school or working for the government (thirty years in and a pension out), or, God willing, marry a doctor and not have to work at all. Of course, we were colored then and things were changing in the world.
Neither our mothers, or Mesdames Hayward, Dunne, or Hepburn, ever dreamed that when we grew up not only would we be black (we’re African American now, but that is another book) but we would not teach or go to Fisk or work for the state or marry doctors. Instead, we wore afros, pitched out our bras (I have since had to retrieve mine for the safety of myself and others), wore blue jeans with holes in the knees, took the pill, and raised our fists high in the symbol of Black Power. We did inhale and we lived lives that neither our parents nor society ever planned. Our mothers and fathers, who had tried so hard to make decent Negro women out of us, were horrified at first. But I think Susan, Irene, and Audrey might not have minded as much. Now, we are Su, Reenie, and Audrey (Audrey is not the kind of girl who takes to nicknames). My name is Vaughn and I’m the fourth member of the group. My name doesn’t come from a screen queen. My mother, conveniently, has amnesia on the subject. The expectations, however, were just the same.
I, however, wasn’t voted most likely to do anything. I was raised to be a “good girl.” And I was. Until I learned that good girls finish behind good guys—dead last. So I rebelled. Unlike my friends, I ended up being the girl most likely to be suspended, arrested on a picket line, or having her editorial censored.
This is a great picture. Reenie is darling, her long black hair pulled into a ponytail that falls around her shoulders. She’s petite but has an hourglass figure, the only one of us who can look sexy in a plaid jumper and tights. Even in the black-and-white photograph, her eyes sparkle and you can see dimples in her pale cheeks.
Audrey is tall, thin, and elegant, just like her namesake. This photo was taken on game day so she’s wearing her cheerleading uniform: dark purple sweater with the tiger on front; short, purple skirt, pleated; bobby socks and snow-white sneakers. These are the old days, before Nike. Her dark hair curls gently around her face in a soft afro, her almond-shaped eyes and smooth cheekbones give her face an exotic look. We called her Cat Woman sometimes. She was the only girl we knew who had hazel eyes, and if she was angry at you, they glowed.
Su is also tall but sturdy-looking, not willowy like Audrey. Despite her love of Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis, Su didn’t give up her neatly pressed hair for anything. It falls to her shoulders in a perfectly arranged pageboy, expertly curled and sprayed by her hairdresser aunt. She’s not cute like Reenie or elegant like Audrey. Su is striking. Her brows are naturally arched, her nose strong and wide, her smile engaging. Su was a majorette, so she’s wearing the short-skirted cream dress with the purple Tiger emblem on front and white boots with tassels. On anyone else, that getup would be tacky. On Su, it looks like Givenchy couture.
And then there is me.
Excerpted from Girls Most Likely by Sheila Williams. Copyright © 2006 by Sheila Williams. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.