The room was quiet, save the sound of chewing and the occasional clink of silverware and dishes. Despite the lack of conversation, Jane was happy. She was reunited with her high school friends, and that alone was enough to make a smile involuntarily play around her lips. Together, the six people sitting around the dinner table were once the closest friends in Chelsea, though you wouldn't have been able to tell from the silent meal. It was a sad sight, and Jane was disappointed that no one was talking. It was almost as if the old friendships were strong enough to organize a get-together, but not strong enough to hold a conversation. She was happy and sad at the same time, a feeling she didn't think possible before. It was a bittersweet feeling if she ever knew it.
Sitting across from her, side by side as always were Alex and Barbara Bandy. The Bandys were the only ones out of their group who had stayed in Massachusetts after all these years. They had offered to host the other four, who were all visiting from out of town.
As she carefully chewed her green beans, Barb tried to strike up a conversation. "So, Katherine," her words cut through the awkward silence. "How is the tech industry these days?"
"It's evolving, as always," Kat replied after a few seconds, speaking through a mouth of food. And that was all she said. Katherine Cook had used less than ten words to answer a question. Back in high school, Kat would talk excitedly for hours on end when anyone asked her about subjects she was passionate about. Those passions included anything mathematical or scientific, two ideas her current job revolved around.
Barb, who had been waiting expectantly for an answer, realized that Kat wasn't planning to divulge more information anytime soon, and looked back down at her plate. She continued eating without further discussion, and the other five followed suit.
The room was silent again for several minutes. Jane thought about asking Adam about his new career path as a comedian or asking Jake about his life in Florida and "how did he like it there" and "how was it different from the northeast," but found that she just couldn't. Any words, not that she had many to begin with, stuck in her throat and refused to roll smoothly off her tongue. Her mouth was dry, despite the several desperate gulps of water she had taken since the meal had started. She didn't want to attempt conversation, only to have it taper off uneventfully as Barb's effort had. That would be unimaginably embarrassing. Funny, Jane had never worried about feeling embarrassed in front of these people before.
In her mind, the six of them were still the most unlikely group of friends you'd ever meet, just high school kids who had somehow found each other in the midst of the crazy. But they weren't those people anymore, and she had to keep telling herself that in order to believe it. Even so, she wished they could be those people again. She wished that they could be transported back to that time, that carefree era before life had scattered them to different parts of the world.
Jane didn't speak up because she didn't trust herself to live in the present. She knew that any unsolicited words that left her mouth without prior processing or thinking would try to bring back what she considered the "glory days" of the gang.
Jane had been the most resistant to the idea of the six of them splitting up after graduation. She didn't want to lose the best thing she had, but life carried on whether she was ready or not.
Alex and Barb had been dating for two years prior to graduation, and both stayed local, traveling only within the state for school and work. They got married, to no one's surprise, and continued to live in the town they all had grown up in. Jane envied them for that. If only her life were that unchanging and stable.
Adam's family had been talking about potentially moving to California for several years, and Adam's graduation created a natural transition for them. Adam's older sister was in college, so she wasn't affected by the decision. Adam had just graduated high school, his younger brother was just about to enter high school, and his younger sister was just finishing elementary. It was a year of change for the Sands family, and they moved to Los Angeles. From then on, none of them really saw Adam much. Jane hadn't made a conscious effort to keep in touch with him, and he was just so far away. Three thousand miles will do that to a friendship, no matter how close you once were. The distance makes it nearly impossible to remain close, and eventually, you grow up and apart.
Jake had always dreamed of living in Florida. He just wasn't built for New England life. He hated the cold, always complaining about shoveling snow. He wanted to live by the beach and not one that was covered by white blankets every winter. He got accepted into a college in Florida and left to pursue his no longer unattainable fantasy. They were all supportive of his endeavors, of course, but the same phenomenon that had plagued their friendship with Adam struck again. The distance was just too much. And it hurt Jane even more that Jake had made the choice to leave. Adam, at least, simply felt obligated to follow his family.
Katherine had always been the nerd, and Jane adored her for it. the two of them had been best friends since middle school. She was so passionate and one of those people who was just amazing in every way, but Jane had known in her heart that she couldn't hold onto her friend forever. She couldn't hold Kat back, not when the world needed her genius. Kat had attended an ivy in the northeast and accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley once several inevitably came her way. When that happened, Jane couldn't believe she was losing yet another friend to the state of California. She almost considered moving there herself.
While Jane hated to see her friends vanish one by one, she had also done some disappearing of her own. In high school, she had loved art. She visited New York City every summer break her junior and senior years, simply because she loved the admiration and acceptance of art people had. She had applied to art school almost as a joke. She never believed she would get accepted, she wasn't good enough. But Kat had encouraged her to go for it. Adam, Barb, Jake, and Alex were just as supportive. And she got in. She was hesitant to leave her friends at first, but they were leaving anyway. They wanted her to live her dreams, just as they were following theirs. So she reluctantly agreed to go, more for her friends than for the love of art itself. She never regretted attending. Art was her everything; it had been in high school and it still was now. The only thing she regretted was that it meant her friends became strangers. Looking around the table, it was like she didn't even know the people sitting around her anymore. They were just vaguely familiar strangers.
Jane was still an artist, as she had been in high school. She was the same; older and more experienced, perhaps, but the same person at the fundamental level. She didn't know if she could say that about the rest. Adam was a Californian now. He had a tan and was way into the entertainment business. Jane assumed that the general vicinity to Hollywood did that to a person. He was trying his hand at stand-up comedy and was no longer an East Coaster.
Jake had been living in Florida since college and sold cars now. His love of sports, basketball, in particular, seemed to have vanished into thin air. He managed a dealership, and his belly and overall physical fitness didn't exactly scream up-and-coming professional NBA player.
Kat was the most similar to her high school persona. Perhaps it was because Jane had known her on a deeper level, one that hadn't changed as much. Yet her sparse response to a question that would have, in the past, set her off, showed how much she too had matured.
Jane felt left behind, like she was the only one stuck in their high school days. She was the only one who had continued on the path of life that had been before her after graduation. Everyone else's trajectory had gone off the beaten path. And how was she, the person left behind, supposed to interact with these people who were once her friends? She was with the people who made her feel the most comfortable as herself, yet she felt out of place, like she didn't belong anymore. The people who used to be her home weren't familiar anymore. This wasn't her family anymore.
The rest of dinner was eaten in relative silence. Adam tried to spin the occasional joke, which never got more than a single chuckle or snicker. Barb continued to pry into her former friends' lives while Alex sat next to her, looking slightly uncomfortable. Kat seemed very intrigued by her food, staring down at her plate when no one else was talking. Jane coldn't tell if she was overthinking the whole situation, if it only seemed awkward to her, or if this group of friends was no longer meant to be.
Slowly, everyone cleaned off their plates. Once they finished eating and were taking turns staring at each other, their empty plates, or their surroundings, Barb got up to clear the table. Jake and Alex stood up to help, and Kat, Adam, and Jane followed them to the kitchen.
Somehow, they all ended up gathered around the island, their dirty dishes piled up in the sink. And still, they didn't talk. They stood in a cluster, each waiting for another to light the spark of conversation. Jane wanted to break the silence with something, anything. She needed the reassurance that this friendship wasn't in complete shambles. But she didn't know what to say. She didn't know enough about these people who might as well have been strangers to her.
Alex braved the silence first. "Anyone want ice cream?" Everyone's faces lit up. Ice cream had been one of the only things all six of them could agree upon back in the day. They used to meet up at the local ice cream parlor after school to study, talk, and just hang out. They always, without fail, spoke over one another when talking to the waiter, trying to reach ultimate friendship status by ordering the correct flavors for each other. They laughed, cried, and built their friendship at that shop, which had long-since been taken over by another fast food restaurant chain. The dessert was the last remaining chain linking them all together.
"I'll take that as a yes," Barb went to open the freezer with a laugh. With her back to them, she called, "I have six different flavors, let's see if they work out." Jane could hear the playful smirk on her face, even through her words.
Jake asked immediately, "Do you have cookies and cream?"
"Of course," Barb replied, matter of factly. She took out a pint of cookies and cream ice cream, along with strawberry and vanilla for her and her husband respectively. Alex took out six spoons and laid them out on the counter. Barb looked at Kat next.
"Cookie dough." Kat answered the unvoiced question quickly and succinctly. Jane was still thrown off by the new Kat, the one who was careful and selective with her words, but the new attitude was already growing on her.
Barb nodded and took out cookie dough ice cream, along with birthday cake, which she placed with a smile in front of Adam.
"That leaves..." Barb looked around at the group, then down at the freezer. She pulled the last pint of ice cream out and held it in her hand.
Jane found herself able to speak for the first time without the words sticking in her throat. "Mint chocolate chip, my favorite." Barb handed it over, the perfect match, a smile spreading warmly across her face. Jane returned the smile, and looked around at the crowded counter. It was no ice cream parlor booth, but what did it matter. The important elements of those memories were still here. Jake and Alex were smiling, Adam had already dug into his birthday cake, but he grinned through a spoonful of ice cream. Kat put her arm around Jane and hugged her close.
"You still got it," Kat said to Barb, who blushed and turned away modestly. The sight of Barb flushed, when she was obviously pleased with herself for remembering correctly, made the rest of them laugh. Barb had always been the very best at remembering everyone's specific sundae orders. And for a moment, with these five people smiling back at her, Jane could almost believe they were best friends again.