By Debra Birdwell Winkler
When I received the invitation for our 20-Year High School Class Reunion, I was skeptical. I hadn’t made it to our 10th year because my husband was in the hospital having been diagnosed with cancer. I was going to pass on this reunion, but my daughter convinced me that seeing old classmates might be fun. I thought about it and decided it might be a breath of fresh air for me, especially if the boy I loved all through high school was there. He probably wouldn’t remember me. Then, I don’t think he even knew my name. But I did wonder if he were still around.
There I was, standing at the door of the gym with name tag around my neck and table card in hand, searching the sea of former graduates of Victory High School for anyone I knew. Searching for him. After a couple of minutes of not seeing anyone familiar, I was backing up to leave. Then…
“Oh, my God!” exclaimed someone behind me whose voice was vaguely familiar. “It’s Melody Cosgrove, as I live and breathe?”
I turned and was almost mowed down by Mae Carrolton Durham. I had been a bridesmaid at her wedding two weeks after graduation.
Mae wrapped her arms around me in a bear hug. She had been a bit overweight twenty years ago and the White boys on the football team called her fat. We always came to her rescue, and they called her our token Black friend. That was usually when a fight broke out between the White boys and Doug’s friends. I smiled at her now and hugged her again. She was trim and slim although she had the same round face, high cheekbones, deep black eyes, and happy smile with her glistening black hair draped up in a becoming fashion.
“You’re so dolled up, my friend, I wouldn’t have recognized you, if you hadn’t approached me first.”
“Yeah, you would’ve.”
We both laughed.
“Doug,” she called to her husband. He was dressed in a slick army uniform with eagles and ribbons galore on his chest, his army cap tucked under his arm.
“I see you stayed in, and they made you a Colonel,” I told him with a smile.
“Hello, Melody.” Doug reached out to shake my hand.
“You are gorgeous in glittering sparkles, Melody,” Mae said. “Tell me where you got that stunning dress.”
I laughed. “My daughter is in fashion design school and she made it for me. It’s only my cape that glitters. The dress itself is really quite simple.”
“Which makes the dress very stylish and, on you, exquisite.”
“Look at those silver shoes and purse to match. How divine.”
I smiled. “But look how amazing you are, Mae!”
She turned to show off her pink floral evening dress. “Don’t act so surprised, Sweetie! I have learned to dress up since high school. I mean, having to attend all those Army balls, I had to become suave and classy looking to support my Colonel here.” She linked her elbow in mine.
“You are radiant, and pink was always your color,” I told her.
Mae smiled sweetly at her husband, who slid his arm into my other elbow, and the two of them guided me into the room.
“You have a fashion designer daughter, you say?” Doug asked.
“Yeah,” I beamed. “She won an award with this outfit.”
Mae remarked proudly, “Our son has just finished his second year at West Point.”
“My son enters Northwestern in the Fall.
“Well, aren’t you the belle of the ball, tonight,” a high pitched, sophisticated voice called from behind us. “I can’t believe you came!”
“Michelle, is that you?” I asked, whirling around. “My, don’t you look stylish in that red and white frock of yours.”
“Red and white, our school colors,” Michelle announced and turned around to show me her long slinky evening gown.
Around her neck was a three-strand set of pearls and diamonds with matching earrings. On her left wrist was a delicate watch with a pearl band and on her right, a matching bracelet. Of course, this didn’t surprise me since her family owned a series of jewelry shops throughout the state. She was always bedecked with expensive trinkets and Mae and I had never been able to compete with Michelle’s pizzazz. Tonight, was no different.
“You always look so elegant and attractive,” I told her.
Michelle flashed a plastic smile and pushed Doug out of the way, taking his place at my side.
“Colonel Dougie, would you go over and entertain my husband? As a politician, you’d think he could schmooze around without me constantly at his side.” She paused for a moment and looked through the crowd. “He’s standing right over there next to Billy Ray at the bar.”
At the mention of Billy Ray’s name, I quickly followed Michelle’s gesture across the room to two men.
And there he was. Billy Ray Gables. The love of my life in high school.
He was much the same as he was then. Tall, lanky, athletic, sure of himself, big smile, handsome as ever. His blond hair was now laced with gray at the temples. He still had that habit of running his fingers through his unruly hair. In my mind I could still see him on the football field as the quarterback, point guard on the basketball team, and playing saxophone in the school’s jazz band and in the orchestra where I played piano. While he always gave one or two girls a ride home everyday in his flashy convertible, he never asked me. I guess he never saw me. But I was so in love with him.
“Melody,” Michelle continued, “you remember my husband, Jim Loggins? He was class president in school and now he’s a U.S. Senator.” She squeezed my arm and dragged us through the crowd to our table, continuously greeting people along the way.
“I just had to have the 4 M’s seated together!” She smiled at her accomplishment. “Mel, you and your date are here next to Mae. I’ll be over there, and Mandy will be right there on the other side of you.”
“You were so thoughtful, Michelle,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “And, your date?”
“Go do your hostess thing, Michelle,” Mae interrupted. “I’ll take care of Melody.” When Michelle hesitated, Mae pointed to the main door. “Isn’t that Principal Daily and his wife with the mayor waving?” Mae turned to me and grinned.
Michelle was gone in an instant, gliding across the floor like a graceful parade float.
Mae and I looked at each other and giggled.
“She hasn’t really changed much in twenty years,” Mae whispered. “Still the same bossy, know-it-all, entitled girl we knew as teenagers.”
“What about Mandy?” I asked as we sat in our assigned seats. The table was covered in a white linen tablecloth, red and white streamers, and a bouquet of red and white roses in the center.
“She’s a teacher in Virginia,” Mae told me. “Michelle said that she’s bringing her husband with her.”
“Hmmm,” I murmured as Mae reviewed stories of other fellow graduates we knew.
The four of us hung out together during high school. Mae, Michelle, Mandy, and I. We met the first day of 9th grade in choir and it became our thing to have lunch together afterwards. We seemed to always be together in various classes and school activities. Everyone called us the 4 M’s. After high school and Mae’s wedding, I lost touch with them. My parents moved and I went to school on the other side of the country, making it difficult to visit old high school buddies. Then, I went to graduate school in Chicago where I met and married my husband. Tonight, the 4 M’s were reconnecting.
“So, Melody, where is your date?” Mae inquired. “I know your husband died a few years ago.”
“Eight years, to be exact.”
“So where is this mysterious man that you added as your Plus One? You know you’ll need to answer to Michelle when she gets back.”
“I have a dear friend who was coming but work kept him at home. His wife died of cancer a month after my husband. We met at the oncologist’s office while Larry and Gertie were taking chemo and became fast friends. After our spouses died, we’ve hung around together.”
“Eight years and nothing romantic?”
“Just friends, that’s all.”
Mae scrunched up her face.
“No really,” I smiled. “We just spend time together. You know, movies, theatre, museums, functions with our children. He is always in the audience when I play in concerts, the opera, the symphony.”
“Sounds like a nice guy.”
I thought for a moment and said, “He is a really wonderful person.”
“Girl, which one of you is playing hard to get?”
“Well, he did ask me to marry him two weeks ago, but I said I had to think about it.”
“Think?” Mae pulled me in front of her to stare into my eyes. “This ‘nice guy’ who has been hanging around you for eight years is more than a friend, darling.”
I gave a weak smile.
“He’s sulking,” Mae said. “That’s the real reason he’s not here, right?”
“No. He had to work.”
“Melody. Don’t be so…so…”
“Mae! Melody!” Mandy’s clear teacher voice carried across the room.
We both turned to see Mandy hurrying through the throng of people with a tall, thin, dark man with black rimmed glasses in tow. She was the same old Mandy, colorful shiny cocktail dress with dark hair pinned up on top of her head, strands escaping and blowing in the breeze created as she ran across the room. She was always our rainbow girl. She loved color. Her husband’s suit looked a bit disheveled, reminding me of an absent-minded professor. After hugs and kisses, Mandy introduced her husband who taught astronomy at their local college.
“We just got in two hours ago,” Mandy explained. “That’s why we look like we just walked out of a suitcase.”
“You look fine,” Mae assured them. “So, Mandy, you are enjoying Virginia?”
“Yep. Been there almost fifteen years now and loving it!” she exclaimed happily.
“That’s great,” I said. “Children?”
“We have three boys and two girls.”
“Oh, my,” Mae shrieked. “Five children. We stopped at three although our youngest was a bit of a surprise.”
“I have a girl and a boy,” I acknowledged.
“I heard you lost your husband, Mel. I’m so sorry.” Mandy reached over and patted my hand.
That was when Michelle blew into the microphone to gain everyone’s attention and we all turned to the dais.
“Hello, everybody. Welcome to our 20th Class Reunion!” Michelle’s voice echoed throughout the room, and everyone clapped.
As Michelle continued to talk about the festivities, Doug and Jim joined us. Abruptly, there was Billy Ray trying to crash our table group.
“Is this seat taken?” His right hand rested on the empty chair next to me.
My heart skipped a beat when I heard his voice, and I felt the warmth of his other hand touching my shoulder.
As the assistant organizer, Mae took him to task. “Billy Ray, you know you’re not seated at this table.”
“No one’s sitting here, and I think I’d enjoy being next to Melody.”
“Seats are assigned, Billy Ray. You know better.”
“I’m with Principal Daily, his wife, and people I don’t know.”
“Billy Ray, you know everybody,” Mae was irritated. “Go talk to your old football buddies at the table.”
“But I want to catch up with Melody.”
“Billy Ray, Go!”
“Okay, fine,” he said, “if Melody will walk back with me.”
Mae was adamant. “No, Billy Ray!”
I smiled sweetly at Billy Ray as he raised my hand to his lips.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow and all that,” he remarked.
“Scoot, Billy Ray, before Michelle comes down and clobbers us both!”
“You’d better go, Billy Ray,” I whispered.
He finally let go of my hand and walked away.
“Melody, you know Billy Ray’s been married and divorced three times since high school.” The sound of Mae’s voice brought me back into reality and I took a deep breath.
“He was always such a flirt,” Mandy said.
“And, he still plays around just like he did in high school, girl,” Mae stated flatly. “Put your tongue back in your mouth, Mel.”
“I’m surprised he’s even here,” Mandy commented. “I heard that his construction company is handling the new state office building at the Capitol.”
Mae whispered in my ear, “With the help of Senator Jim over there.” She smiled at Jim Loggins.
“Billy Ray let me know how difficult it would be for him to break away,” Michelle entered the conversation as she joined us at the table. “But, when he found out you were coming, Mel, he promised me he would try.”
Michelle nodded her head at me. “Big contractor or not, that weasel can stay over there. This table is for us.” Then, she plastered that plastic smile of hers for all to see.
Yep, Michelle had not changed in twenty years. She was just stirring the pot like always. So, she had Billy Ray stewing two tables away from us.
During the entire dinner, I felt Billy Ray’s eyes on my back. I smiled to myself and thought of how he had ignored me all those years ago. He took Michelle and Mandy out on dates, but never Mae nor me. Mae because she was attached to Doug since elementary school. Me because I probably wasn’t pretty enough. Who knew?
Ah, but now, he certainly seemed interested.
After dinner, dancing began with Billy Ray and Michelle, who were our Prom King and Queen. When Michelle moved to dance with her husband, Billy Ray was at my side.
I smiled and took his hand. I was excited to be waltzing with the man of my dreams, the great Billy Ray Gables.
“You are looking really beautiful, Melody Cosgrove,” he began the conversation as I reveled at the feel of his hand resting gently on the small of my back.
“It’s Vandermeer, actually.”
“What kind of name is that?”
“My husband’s family was from Europe. They immigrated to the United States after World War II.”
“Ah, that’s nice.”
I said nothing and continued to enjoy his touch.
“So, you’re still a piano player?”
“I play with our local opera and orchestra.”
“Where are you living now?”
“In a small town outside Chicago. My husband lived there when we met.”
“Is that right?”
He expertly guided us through dancing couples, and I was quite enjoying myself.
Then, Billy Ray chuckled as he swirled me around the floor. “I heard he was dead.”
I was stunned at his laughter and stopped right there, leaning back from him.
“Yes, he did pass away.”
“Well, then good,” he reached out and pulled me into his arms again. “I’m divorced, you know.”
“Three times I heard.”
“Never found the right girl after you.”
“Really?” My mind was aflutter with sudden realizations. Number one was that I was never his girl.
The music stopped and I tried to pull myself away, but he wouldn’t release me.
“Come on,” Billy Ray cooed. “Another song is starting. Let’s keep dancing.”
I didn’t want to make a scene, so I stayed.
As the music began again, he drew me tighter than before. “You are a wonderful dancer, Melody. And your beauty transcends over time. You are so much lovelier than I remember in high school.”
My thoughts were now confirmed. He ignored me in high school. Now, he was trying to convince me otherwise. Then, I asked myself how many times he had used similar words to women over the years, expecting them to fall at his feet with joy.
Now, his hands were roving across my back, and I was uncomfortable. It was as though the joy I experienced when I first saw him across the room had evaporated.
He swung me expertly through the other dancers into the center of the dance floor and leaned closer to me.
“So, I’m single. And, you’re single, too,” he whispered into my ear. “So now we can make beautiful music together. Don’t you think it’s about time?”
I abruptly stopped. I felt a shock wave careen through my body as I pushed him away, hard. This handsome man before me. This All-American athlete I drooled over in high school. This fantastic boy who I admired so many years ago. This dreamy guy I thought I loved so long ago. This…this JERK!
“Never,” I said.
I left him in the middle of the dance floor, dumbfounded. He had no idea what had happened as I made my way to the table.
I picked up my purse and wrap, crossed the room, and left the gym. I was in the parking lot before Mae caught up with me, Doug following close behind.
“What happened?” Mae asked.
I remotely started my rental car. “You know what, Mae?”
“He’s contemptible and rude and…and obnoxious!”
“Always has been.”
“I can’t believe I fell for him all those years ago!”
“I think you’re right. I’m going home to tell my real love that he’s more than a friend.”
“Atta girl,” Mae called after me as I got into the car.
“I’ll call you tomorrow!” I screamed out the window.
That rose-colored memory of the past was gone, and I reprimanded myself for not seeing what had been staring me in the face for so long.
Obvious! So, very obvious!
I dialed his cell as I pulled onto the highway. He answered on the first ring.
“Hey. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Are you ready to make beautiful music together for the rest of our lives?”
“Tomorrow too soon?” was his response.