“Are you going?”
“Huh?” he replies.
“Are. You. Going.”
“To what?” I can hear water running in the background. I imagine him with his phone tucked between his ear and shoulder as he waters the garden or does the dishes, anything to keep his hands moving. “Where?”
“Reunion for what?”
I don’t hold back my sigh or eyeroll. If he could see me right now, he’d say I’m being ridiculous, and that he hopes I don’t make faces like this when I’m at work. (I do.) “Our high school reunion. I sent you an email invite last week.”
“Probably went to my spam.”
“Okay, well, can you check your spam, then?”
“What makes you think I want to go?” A dog barks. The water turns off. Moving on to the next chore, I suppose. He doesn’t need this, not like I do. I’ve always needed to keep up with the gossip, show everyone how I’m doing, find out if ‘most likely to succeed’ ended up succeeding after all, or if they were so burdened by their early achievements that they didn’t do much of anything else. He doesn’t care about any of that. Never did. He’s happy with his dog and his garden and his desk job.
But this time, I know something he doesn’t know.
He must go to this reunion, and I’m the only one who can get him there. I bite back my harsh reply and say instead, “I’m going, and it would be nice to have you there. You’ve never gone before, and they’re really not that bad.”
That’s not entirely true. At the last one, Peter O’Malley drank five whiskey sours, got handsy with Valerie Ruiz, and ended up with a broken nose when it turned out that Valerie had been taking kickboxing classes twice weekly.
I add: “Besides, this is a big one. Twenty years! They’re doing an open bar and everything.”
Again, the open bar is less enticing when you recall Peter and Valerie. But Oz doesn’t know about that.
He sighs, a long disgruntled one that tells me I’m winning. It’s at about this time that I should hit him with the knockout, the clincher, which is this: Marisol Linwood is going to be there. Marisol, Oz’s girlfriend grades 10-12. Marisol, who broke his heart when she left for college in California, while he stayed right here in Connecticut. Marisol, who wrote him letters, sent postcards, eventually emails. They all went unanswered. He was too heartbroken to reply, he said. I told him he was an idiot.
Marisol hasn’t been back to Connecticut since she left for college all those years ago. But I heard that she’s in town for work, or maybe it was family, and she’s going to be at the reunion. Oz can’t know until he gets there. If I tell him, he won’t go. He’ll freeze up. He’ll feign a cough, or say that his dog is sick, or claim that he needs to help his neighbor with an emergency.
I’m preparing my next argument when he surprises me by saying, “Fine, I’ll go. When is it?”
“Cool! It’s next Saturday. I’ll text you the details.”
I arrive first and wait outside for him. The posted start time was 8, so I told him 8:30, knowing full well that he would arrive at 8:45, and that Marisol would have been there since 8:15. It’s early August, and the sun has just set, bathing the sports bar parking lot in a grey half-light. There’s a nice breeze, and I almost wish I didn’t have to go inside. I could stay right here, greet people as they go in, get my fill of gossip as people leave and need someone to tell about Penny Simpkins’ fake eyelashes. That wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as seeing them for myself, though, and besides, I’m on a mission tonight. A green Honda pulls in and parks in the farthest open spot. The lights wink out and I can just discern Oz’s silhouette from where I’m standing. He takes his time, doesn’t raise his hand to wave, just ambles over like the clock isn’t ticking and Marisol’s not already in there, probably chatting it up with Bryant Turner.
Once he’s within earshot, I call, “Hey! You showed up!” He doesn’t answer or pick up his pace.
When he meets me at the sidewalk, it’s like he didn’t even hear me, because he says, “Surprised to see me?”
“Only a little,” I tell him, glancing down at his flannel shirt, tattered jeans, and ratty sneakers. “You could have tried a little harder.”
“Why? It’s not like I’m here to see anyone. I’d be surprised if anyone remembers my name.”
And, oh, this was a bad idea, getting him to come here without telling him why. As the years pass, I forget more and more about high school, but I shouldn’t have forgotten that Oz doesn’t care what anyone thinks, even though everyone cares what he thinks. He always thought people were avoiding him in the halls, when really, they were deferring to him, giving him space, the way someone short might give the front seat to a taller person.
He might care what Marisol thinks, though. Hell, I care what Marisol thinks, and I barely know her.
She and Oz were always destined to collide, two beautiful people who intimidated everyone else.
There’s nothing I can do about his clothes now, so I open the door for him. He walks through, ahead of me, like he was expecting it. Every time I think I understand him, he does something like this. This unpretentious man who grows sunflowers and mows his neighbors’ lawns still waits for me to open the door.
Inside, a soccer game blares on the televisions, almost drowning out the conversation and clink of glasses. We’ve got a back room reserved. It’s not the classiest place, but it’s where the class officers held our five-year reunion when they couldn’t afford anything better, and I guess they figure, why fix something that isn’t broken.
They’re standing in front of the door to the private room, the class officers, like a troupe of tired palace guards. For the first few reunions, the five and the ten, you could tell that these were people who had been popular in high school. They wore high-end jeans and fitted blazers and crisp haircuts. Now, though, they look the same as the rest of us, extra lines around their eyes and mouths, a few grey hairs here and there, a vacant look that keeps their plastered-on smiles from ever reaching their eyes. I feel a little bad for them. All they had wanted was a little recognition and authority at age seventeen, and now they’re stuck organizing events and compiling class notes for the rest of their lives.
“Hey, Oz! Never seen you at one of these,” one of the men comments. Tyler Weir. Class president. The others murmur their shared surprise. They don’t acknowledge me. “Can I see some ID?” Tyler jokes, and it’s so dumb, but Oz laughs along and feigns reaching for his pocket. They’re having a grand time. I ought to leave Oz here to fend for himself. And to think, he was the one who didn’t want to come.
They let us pass. There are booths and high tables scattered around, with the bar at the far left. Above the bar, a video of our football team’s 1998 homecoming victory plays, the same as the previous reunions. It’s sadder with every year that passes, but some of the men still whoop and holler when they make the game-changing touchdown, and a few women attempt to do their cheer routine.
I turn away and scan the room, looking for Marisol, but I’m too late, because Oz has stiffened next to me: he’s spotted her.
She’s sitting at a high table, sandaled feet dangling, holding a glass of white wine, and nodding politely at Penny Simpkins. God, I can see Penny’s fake lashes from here. Marisol, though, you can tell she lived in California. The better coast must have added years to her life. Natural highlights, even tan, little shell earrings, dazzling teeth. The sun’s glow followed her all the way here to the eastern seaboard. If we were closer, I’m sure she’d smell like the ocean, sand and spray.
Without so much as a glance at me, Oz starts walking towards her, as if in a trance. She’s not looking our way. Eyes on Penny, now on her drink, now gazing out the window, probably wishing the next plane back to California would land right here in this parking lot. Oz is halfway to her table when she finally turns, and I can pinpoint the moment she sees him because her wine glass freezes just below her mouth, the wine wobbles a little, and her eyes go wide.
And then, right as it’s about to get good, Oz abruptly turns and walks briskly away, past me, through the doors, and I’m so surprised that I don’t move, don’t rush after him. Marisol doesn’t move either and Penny is still talking, oblivious to the whole fiasco.
I have two choices: follow Oz or approach Marisol. But Marisol has gone back to her wine and Penny, as if Oz were never there, so it isn’t a hard decision.
Through the doors, past the class officers and the smell of beer, and I’m outside. He’s there, sitting on a bench, a plume of smoke rising in the air above him. No, not smoke—vapor. He vapes now, I guess. What else have I missed?
“Hey,” I say, sitting beside him on the metal bench. “What happened in there?”
“You knew she was going to be there. That’s why you made me come.” I don’t say anything. I don’t have to. He knows. “Do you know why I never answered her letters?”
“No.” I stare at my feet.
He blows out another cloud of vapor; it obscures his expression for a moment. “She wanted me to move out there. Begged me to. But I didn’t want to.”
He shrugs. “I was comfortable here. No reason to leave. She wanted me to be fascinating, like her, but I couldn’t do that. I thought maybe she would stay for me, but she loved excitement more than she loved me, and I loved stability more than I loved her.”
I have no reply for that, so I’m quiet until I decide to say, “So you aren’t even going to say hello?”
He turns to me and cocks an eyebrow up, his sign that he’s thinking. “I suppose I could say hello.”
“Go do it, then.”
The bench creaks when he stands; my knee cracks when I stand. He strides toward the door, looking more purposeful, and this time he holds it open for me. I trail him back to the room. The officers have disappeared, so we walk in without any small talk. I go to the bar and watch Oz out of the corner of my eye as he walks straight to Marisol and smiles at her. She smiles in return.
I hope that he’s ready to be more exciting, and that she’s ready for more stability.
As for myself, I order a whiskey sour in honor of Peter O’Malley, and wonder where Penny’s gone off to.