Annette Schumer had Marie-Kondo’ed her past with the efficiency of a professional organizer. She’d gotten rid of any memories that didn’t spark joy, had a serious powwow with her future self and set goals and deadlines that could distract her from any notion that she had been anything but stable and predictable. It had been easy to discard the past like a pair of stockings with holes in them. Perhaps that was why it was a complete surprise when she opened her email one Monday morning to see “Reunion St. Thomas High School Class of 1994 .” She hadn’t been expecting this.
Of course, she knew that time had passed. Of course, she was aware that she was older and further from high school, yet she had been so out of the loop of the past two decades that she hadn’t realized there was a whole group of people looking forward to the idea of getting together and unpacking the past.
Annette slammed her laptop screen down with such force that the noise surprised her, and she jumped. “No need to get dramatic.” She muttered under her breath to no one but herself, and maybe a little bit to her cat, Giuseppe, looking at her with judgment from his windowsill perch. “Hmph,” Annette shook off whatever memory was creeping out of the corner of her well-organized mind. This was no time to get overly thoughtful about some future event that she had no interest in going to. Time had passed, mercifully, and she wasn’t in the mood to rehash, reminisce, or romanticize any decade unless it was the coming one.
Tick tick tick. The silence in her office was so deep she could hear the movements on the small clock on her desk. Annette opened up a browser. Breaking her golden rule, she decided to Google a few classmates from St. Thomas High. What was Robin Smyth up to? Golden-haired and stereotypical. Well-liked and pretty. A list of possible matches popped up on Annette’s screen. Robin Smyth was now Robin Anderson. A gift registry for a wedding two years ago showed that she still needed a blender and a set of Kate Spade linen napkins. She tapped open another browser. David Allen. Where did he go? His LinkedIn profile showed a familiar-looking face, though she never would have recognized him on the street. Twenty years on his face, at least twenty pounds of added girth, and married, as evidenced by a wedding ring on his left hand. Annette Schumer, she typed into the search bar. Surely there wouldn’t be any information on her. She’d been tucked away in her little corner with Giuseppe, or Giuseppe predecessor, for close to two decades. She hadn’t even gone to her brother’s high school graduation in 1996 out of fear of stepping back into the angst that had marked the end of her high school experience.
Scrolling down through the search results, Annette saw something that drew her in. Her name in a search description, “Hi, my name is Annette Schumer, a lawyer with 10+ years of specializing in patent law.” That was strange. She was Annette Schumer and specialized in patent law. She clicked on the heading. Up popped a blog. It was tastefully done in black, white, and gray tones. Clean and crisp, professional-looking. Annette’s heart began to race as she read the first blog on the home page. It was eerily like her life. No, it was her life. It was someone writing as her, Annette Schumer, Attorney-at-Law. The blog was written about her life and living in Portland. The Beauty, the Weirdness, and Everything In Between was the name of the blog. She scrolled down, a feeling of nausea rising in her stomach, a quickening of her breath.
No pictures, just words. Accurate words. Words about her work as a freelance law advisor. Words about her cat. Even an accurate description of her cat. She clicked on the About page. A picture of herself, a professional photo she had submitted when she spoke at a conference eight years ago, popped up. The About description had just enough facts about her life to keep her heart pounding, yet enough guesses that showed whoever was posing as her was not someone in her inner circle.
Annette opened another browser, “Annette Schumer Facebook” was her next search. There she was. There whoever was, on Facebook, as Annette Schumer. No waxing poetically about Portland, just a lot of inspirational quotes, status updates. And Friends! Friends that Annette hadn’t thought of for years. Friends and names reaching back twenty years to high school. Her profile showed she was a Facebook member since 2004. Ten years of friending and posting as Annette. Who was this? Who had crafted this life and forged these relationships while Annette had been busy trying to stay unnoticed and forgotten?
Annette rolled back in her office chair. She felt like spinning around just to give herself some other sensation than the panic that was rising up thick and opaque inside of her. Thoughtfully and carefully she forced herself to inhale and let out a loud sigh. There was a way to deal with this. She was a lawyer who dealt with difficulties and details and unpredictable things every day. Yet this was not work, and she wasn’t getting paid to be clever. This was her life, and it was not her life, and it was online and live with details.
Annette clicked back to the blog. There were 83 blog posts spanning four years. Written with no particular pattern, different lengths, different topics. Some about Portland. Some about cats, cooking. Whoever this was certainly didn’t know Annette well. She never cooked. She lived on cereal and toast and takeout. Somehow that was comforting to her. At least this person didn’t know her well enough to know what she ate. But still, whoever was impersonating her knew what she did for a profession, knew she had an orange tabby, and that she lived in Portland. Looking through the posts, Annette saw that this person had crafted a far more exciting life for her than she actually led. Fictional Annette was an avid cycler and had biked from the rainforest in Washington down to Tijuana. She took a ceramics class once a month. As angry as she was, none of the blogs that had been posted listed anything harmful or hurtful to Annette. If anything, they made her appear so much more normal than an introverted lawyer who preferred the company of Giuseppe to most people.
Reading through the blog, she gathered clues. Her law skills, fastidiously combing through each detail, served her well. It seemed that whoever this was had gone to high school with her. He or she had enough details about those years in St. Thomas High that it couldn’t be a coworker, a current friend, or even a family member. The details were small things that only someone in her year would know: get-togethers, group events, inside jokes. Almost every blog referenced high school in some way. A small memory, a casual remark thrown in. It didn’t make sense. The problem with disappearing was that she didn’t even know who to start with. Creepy Chris, who had called her almost every night of high school to make uncomfortable small chat but never actually asked her on a date? Amber Tate, that quiet only-child who no one ever sat with at lunch and who dressed in black every day?
The easiest thing to do was to ignore this online invasion, go back to her little life, and check in on the blog every once in a while to see what was going on in her parallel life. What if this person went off the rails with her life. Sure, it was fun now with the travels, cooking, and clay throwing, but what next? A person impersonating a person online must not be stable. There was only one way to figure this out. Annette had to go to the reunion.
Emotionally, there was nothing simple about attending the reunion. Twenty years had passed since Annette had locked up all the pain brought out during her final year at St. Thomas. She’d always been at the edge of the popular crowd. In her senior year, one of the cooler girls, Rachel, had brought from the edges into the center. Rachel wasn’t popular like Robin Smyth, who was a sweet and predictable type of popular. Rachel was an edgy popular. She had an attitude, was adored by the boys, and was the life of whatever party she was attending. Annette had seen her in action as she tagged along after football games. Then one night, everything changed. Annette and Rachel had a few drinks. With curfew approaching, they had argued over who was sober enough to drive home. Annette thought neither of them should drive. Rachel insisted that she was fine, that she metabolized alcohol quickly, and that she was capable of driving. Against her better judgment, Annette got into the car with Rachel. Rachel lost control and drove the car into the neighbor’s yard a few houses down from Annette’s house. They had almost made it home. The worst part was that Rachel had run the car into the doghouse that housed the family’s Labrador, Duke. Rachel begged her to take the blame. She was hysterical and crying, and Annette didn’t do other people’s emotions well. So, with a few too many drinks in her, she agreed to switch spots with Rachel. The incident followed Annette to school. The joke around school was that Annette was an animal killer. Someone made a sign “Call PETA; Annette is in the building.” A group of jocks made barking and howling noises whenever she passed them in the halls. Annette buried her head, didn’t tell anyone the truth, and was slowly forgotten by Rachel and the rest of the class as they headed towards graduation.
Annette entered the hall where the reunion was being hosted, and she was surprised to see so many happy people. There was a buzz in the room as people recognized and greeted each other. She stepped over to a table filled with name tags and searched for one with her name on it. She saw so many names that she hadn’t thought of in years.
Her heartbeat quickened. This might have been a bad idea. Coming to a reunion with 180 people when it was just one person she was searching for. And that one person was someone she didn’t even know.
“Annette!” exclaimed a familiar-looking woman, “It’s so good to see you. From your last post on Facebook, I wasn’t sure you would make it. How was Italy?”
Annette froze. Her natural reaction to social interactions now exaggerated under these awkward and false pretenses. “Italy,” she replied, her voice flat as she tried to control her heart rate, “Italy was…perfecto.”
The woman threw her head back in laughter, “Gosh, Annette, I hope you met a cute Italian to go with your new vocabulary. You’ve promised you’d show me pictures…don’t leave tonight without showing me pictures of all of your adventures!”
Of course, Ellie,” replied Annette as she scanned the woman’s name tag. It was Ellie Kramer. Yes, once they had been friendly. Ellie had always been nice to her, even after the accident. Now, apparently, they were still friends on Facebook. Annette’s eyes searched the room for the bar. Her mouth dry, her hands with nothing to do now that she had fastened her nametag to her shirt. She needed something to hold, or someone might notice the tremor in her hands that was threatening to creep through her whole body.
“Hi, a soda water, please,” Annette told the bartender. This night was just beginning, and Annette felt that if her heart continued beating at this pace, she would pass out. What a fitting sequel to the drama of high school. Annette could see herself passed out in front of the bar. Purse, soda water, and dignity spilled out all over the carpet. A tap on the shoulder brought her out of the dramatic scenario in her head and into the room.
Could it get worse? Sure, it could. Seeing Ellie had been a nice way to start the evening, but that might be the end of enjoyable moments. It was Rachel. The one and only driver and dog-killer who had left her to burn in the fiery furnace of high school gossip hell.
“Hi, Rachel. How are you?” asked Annette, her voice even and controlled. She summoned her court-persona. Just the facts. No unnecessary back and forth. Stay in control.
“I’m so happy to see you,” replied Rachel. “I was hoping you would be here.”
“Well, here I am. Back from Italy.”
Rachel paused for a moment. A look flashed across her eyes. Just her eyes. Her lips were frozen in a smile. Poised and pretty as ever. “Oh yes, I saw that you were in Italy.”
A moment was made between the two of them. Annette saw something. The tiniest shift in Rachel’s energy. Something behind her eyes. They held something between the two of them that neither of them knew what to do with—a point of suspense amidst the noise and vibration of the hall.
“It’s you? You are me online?” Annette blurted out.
Rachel held her gaze and the quiet for long enough that Annette considered the pause to be a complete confession.
“You disappeared. And when I called to apologize, years later, your number was unlisted. It was as if you were a ghost. I owed you an apology, but I couldn’t find you. I thought this was a way to summon you out,” Rachel blurted out, composure and calm lost.
“Are you crazy? Write an entirely fictional life and pose as me? You have always been manipulative. Are you stalking me? How do you know about my cat? My job?”
“I found your brother’s profile on Facebook. He posted a family photo a few years back. You were holding a cat. I did a Google search. You didn’t completely disappear.”
Annette shook her head. She could see the photo in her head. When her parents and brother had come to visit her in Portland. Of course, he was on Facebook. He had no reason to hide. He hadn’t emerged from high school clad with shame and embarrassment. He hadn’t needed to disappear and re-center and start over on his own terms. He’d always been on his own terms. Annette was here trying to reclaim something that was hers. Her own narrative about her life. She’d lost that storyline in high school. Now certainly did not seem like the time to find it.
Rachel continued, “I wrote about the life I thought you would enjoy. I remember when we were friends you had been a part of the Italian language club, that you had said you wanted to travel on a bike and see the world up close. I saw how you disappeared. No contact, no Facebook. Just gone. I knew it was because of me.
And I was worried that you weren’t living the life you wanted because of me. I know I hurt you. We all hurt you. I initiated it by asking you to lie for me. I thought I could start something new for you. So that if you ever decided to emerge from your shell that the world would be waiting, that it wouldn’t be so hard to step back into your friendships and the people you grew up with.”
Annette was out of words. Never one to speak without thinking, now she was out of thoughts. What was she supposed to feel? Gratitude? Anger? Fear? Disgust? She shook her head, placed her hand up as if to hold Rachel’s energy away from her, “No, thank you, Rachel. Whatever you are trying to do. It’s not appreciated. I think you’ve done enough damage. And I feel the same feelings I felt in high school- vulnerable and lied about. Enough. If Facebook and blog are not removed, I will sue you. I expect this to be resolved by the end of next week.”
Annette turned around and ran out the front door. There was no use being here. More lies. More potential gossip. Twenty years later and another lesson learned. It had been a mistake to come back. Some things are better left packed away.
Annette stepped into the center of the Piazza. The last three weeks in Rome had been just what she needed. It’s amazing what a seized opportunity can do. Rachel had removed the Facebook page and blog, Annette had stepped back into hiding with Batista. Then Ellie, sweet and over-enthusiastic as always, had tracked Annette down through her brother. An Italian professor was visiting as a lecturer in the university where Ellie worked. Annette knew Italian. She’d been to Italy, hadn’t she? Could she, please, please, please help Ellie out and come to dinner with them? Ellie’s husband didn’t love the idea of Ellie swinging the dinner solo. The Italian professor was quite, well, Italian. Annette resisted, as she always did. Elie persisted, as was her usual modus operandi. After conferring with Giuseppe, Annette decided that the crazy story about Rachel would be the perfect entertainment for an Italian who probably already through most Americans were a little pazzo. Twenty years and one reunion later, Annette was finally ready to come out of hiding. No cycling for 1000 miles or cooking. Just a trip to Italy and a personal, very Italian, tour guide. Maybe Annette would even open up a Facebook page and post some of her latest adventures. Perfecto.