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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Stayin' Alive

 

by Kevin McIntosh


 

 

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! The harsh falsettos of the Brothers Gibb, blasting from huge speakers across the crowded bar, mock her. She smoothes the little black dress down over her thighs, tugs at the single strand of pearls around her neck, and unfastens the large Hey, Remember Me? I’m TAMARA JOHNSTON name tag that is spoiling her neckline. She is, as Pam has insisted she would be, way overdressed for this event. This isn’t the reunion, Pam said, that’s tomorrow; this is the pre-reunion. Casual, not sophisticated. Pam had always been their fact-checker; she should have listened.

 

And where the hell is Pam? Tamara takes the little plastic sword with two olives impaled on it and jabs a few cubes to the bottom of the glass, recalling the hours it took to re-schedule her department meeting, Pam’s elation at finally persuading her ex to re-juggle their newly-negotiated custody arrangement. Weeks of transcontinental phone calls—from her office, her kitchen, her car—have been consumed with reunion minutiae: who will be there, who is still single, who is single again, how will they look? No aspect of wardrobe or make-up has been left undeconstructed. Theydebate straps versus strapless, posts versus dangling, henna and frosting with the same intensity that carried the two of them to the state forensics semifinals twenty years before. And now, just as in the semis, Pam has lost her nerve.

 

Surveying the dance floor, Tamara is consoled to find that Sally O'Neill's boobs, which bobbed to the delight of so many hundreds at football games and pep rallies, have gone slack and bovine. But even this moment of schadenfreude evaporates when she considers that Sally has three children to show for the ravages of time while she, whose breasts are unremarkable but unchanged, has never put her chest to better use than the mild amusement of a series of men whose photographs, unlike those of Sally's kids, will never be shown to her classmates.

 

Sally is shimmying in a short, striped halter-dress—with those tits, what’s she thinking?—that must have been in the back of her closet since senior year. Charlie Steadman dances opposite her, beneath the 1979-199920 Years! banner, in a wide-lapelled white polyester suit that surely came from a costume shop—no man would have held on to that. He’s doing that silly Travolta move, fingers entwined, snaking his arms back and forth.

 

The King and Queen. And their minions, it suddenly occurs to her.  Ruthie Goldberg, Bill Tupperworth—the entire Homecoming Court if memory serves, and, she has to admit, it does. Twitching their widened hips, thrusting their protruding middles while the rest of the class of 1979 looks on. Plus ça change.

 

. . . but that's all right, it's OK, for you to look the other way . . .

 

She takes a large swallow of martini, closes her eyes, and lets the gin do its work. When she opens them, her eyes fill with Roger Thompson, those shoulders still impossibly-broad, bending over her with a smile that commingles expectation, surprise, and anxiety. He has aged in that male way, that source of so much female bitterness, where grayness, furrows, even slight hair loss only enhance an already-handsome face. He hangs over her for the longest time; he wants to speak, but doesn’t. When did Roger Thompson ever want to speak to her? Twenty years ago she imagined him looming over her in just this way; she and Pam would be at their usual table in that distant corner of the cafeteria and she would look up from her beef-n-mac surprise and he would be grinning down just—well, the grin she conjured then was simpler, less ambiguous and tense—but the angle was the same. Before this vision can evanesce, Tamara stands and offers her hand.

 

"It's nice to see you, Roger." She hears her voice strain; the old constriction is in her throat.

 

"It's so good to see you." When he relinquishes her hand, she runs it through her hair, startled at how short she's cut it. They stand, nodding at one another; her face, she knows, has the same rigorous grin as his, but her cheeks and mouth have forgotten their natural positions. She feels herself bounce to the music.

 

"Our song," he says.

 

"Sorry?"

 

"Our class song. The junior prom theme. Remember?"

 

She remembers. She and Pam held their own anti-prom in Pam’s basement, dyeing each other’s hair purple with grape Kool-aid, putting mime-white on their faces and black on their lips. They danced to The Dead, went through a considerable number of the thirty-one flavors, and kept reminding one another how glad they were not to be at the high school with all those drunken assholes, wearing some puke-green corsage, doing the fucking hustle. It was 1978; you could still convince yourself that not going to the prom was a feminist statement.

 

But she isn't going to resurrect that sweet memory just now. Not for Roger Thompson. She nods at him, biting the two olives off the plastic sword, washing them down with a mouthful of martini. Roger puts his drink, a bottle of spring water with a wedge of lime squashed in, to his lips and drinks freely. She sets her martini, her third, on the table. He gives her the anxious grin; she returns it.

    

. . . ain’t goin' nowhere . . . somebody help me . . . somebody help me, yeah . . .

 

His eyes crinkle. Damn, even his crow’s feet are cute.

 

“So, what are you up to, these days?” he says.

 

She clears her throat. “I teach medieval history at a small liberal arts college down-state.” She's practiced this line with Pam. I teach? Sounds like she helps third graders with terrariums. I’m a history professor? Too pretentious. She settled on casual full-disclosure.

 

“Really?” His eyebrows lift in appreciation.

 

“Really.”

 

“That’s interesting.”

 

“I think so. A minority opinion, I realize.”

 

He smiles. “What are you working on now? In particular, I mean.”

 

“You want to know?”

 

“Yes, certainly. I do.”

 

When no irony emerges from that fixed smile, she continues. “I specialize in women mystics and millennial movements. I wrote a biography of Hildegarde of Bingen. Perhaps you saw it at the airport bookstore, next to Harry Potter.”

 

He laughs. “No, I’ve heard of her, I think.”

 

She frowns dubiously.

 

“I’ve spent the last twenty years in northern California, we know our mystics.”  He takes a swig of spring water. “Go on.”

 

She shrugs. “I’m doing research now on the Bergensians.”

 

“Them, I don’t know.”

 

She allows herself a professorial intake of breath. “They were a group of peasants and outcasts who expected the second coming at the turn of the last millennium. So certain were they of Christ's imminent arrival that they sold their few possessions, climbed to the top of a large, steep hill, and waited.”

 

“Waited?”

 

“They sat on that hill and looked out, waiting for something to happen.”

 

“So, when the millennium came . . . what happened?”

 

“They were very disappointed.” They snort together, their faces ease.

 

He shakes his head.  “History professor. You were always so smart.”

 

She flushes and looks down at her drink, fingers the rim.

 

“I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

 

“No, it’s all right. It’s just . . . funny. I’ve been sitting here, thinking the bitchiest adolescent girl-thoughts.” She looks over his shoulder at Sally and Charlie, who are engaged in a mean bus stop.

 

“About them?” He flicks that handsome head towards the dance floor.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Why sorry?”

 

“You’re—I mean, were—one of them, weren’t you?”

 

“Yes,” he nods, “I was.”

 

“Why aren’t you out there?”

 

“I’m not comfortable putting myself on display. I never was.” Her eyes widen. “I know, I know, football captain, etcetera, etcetera. I was just doing the expected. I didn’t do much thinking in high school. About myself . . . or anyone else. I was—what’s the technical term? A shithead.”

 

“You’re so hard on yourself.”

 

“I don’t identify with that kid anymore, it’s easy to judge him. But, yeah, he was doing the best he could at the time, so maybe I should cut him a break.” He brushes back a lock of hair behind his ear to reveal a temple that is, yes, silver. (So there, Pam. Beautiful, self-absorbed Roger Thompson really is bright and sensitive, requiring only the right girl to mine those rich inner recesses.)

 

She dares a sip of martini. “What is it about reunions? You come to show-off your new, improved self, but it’s your old self who greets you at the door. It’s like going home. No matter how many advanced degrees, books published, awards won, pounds lost, your mother still looks across the table and sees a pudgy sixteen-year-old with terminal zits. And, damn it, for as long as you’re under her roof, you are that girl. That is to say, I am that girl. You were never that girl.”

 

“Neither were you. But, as a reality-check, you are looking great.”

 

A witty self-deprecation forms in her mind, but a soft thanks is all that comes out. She does look good. Countless time and treasure has been expended ensuring she looks good. Why deny it? “So, Roger, what have you been up to the last twenty years?”

 

His eyes narrow as he swipes a hand across that Michelangelo-made jaw; a rueful expression, but a studied rue. Roger Thompson, too, has been practicing in front of the mirror?

 

“Well, I spent fifteen years doing real estate development in the Bay Area. All that urban sprawl you’ve been reading about? That was me. I was still on that high school trip, doing the expected, making a lot of money, a pretty wife right out of a J. Crew catalog.” She glances again at his ringless left hand. His features fall comfortably into place for the first time. He’s told this story before, she thinks. Ohmygod, he’s going to tell me about the night he accidentally wandered into the Rigid Hitch and met this sweet guy named Duane. “I got more and more miserable, didn’t know why, drank myself out of that marriage. And another.” Her shoulders relax. Only a reformed drunk. She can deal, has dealt, with that.

 

As he recounts the details of his decline, fall, and resurrection, she envisions him in a church basement, Styrofoam cup in hand, all the female drunks swooning at the story of this gorgeous alcoholic who lost everything but regained his immortal soul. Clearly, he finds solace in the re-telling, and, although the specifics are entirely predictable—multifarious relationships and business ventures gone soggy—she understands how those women in the basement feel; it makes this god-like creature all the more appealing, knowing he’s been kicked-around by life, that he’s earned his crow’s feet.

 

His tale has nearly wound its way to the present when a panicky thought takes hold: Is this long version for her benefit, is he doing a—what do they call it?—an intervention? Has he not been flirting with her? Has he been watching her wobble around all night and decided to do some recruiting for the club? Would he believe that she hasn't had more than two drinks in an evening since the night Pam turned twenty-one? And is there something in the Twelve Steps that precludes having one’s way with a snockered history professor?

 

Roger’s aspect darkens. He casts his eyes down at the bottle in his hand, empty save for the smooshed wedge of lime beached on the bottom. He rolls it around and around. He glances up, then down again; the comfortable look he wore during the presentation of his prepared text is gone. “I have . . .” He pauses. “I have a confession to make.” What, she marvels, are the current standards of self-disclosure in AA, if the previous monologue hasn’t qualified?

 

He raises his eyes, staring into hers with utter sincerity and self-consciousness. “You remember Mr. Barkley’s class, junior year?” She nods. “The other hominids on the football team were always ragging me about being in honors English. ‘You gonna be a poet, Thompson? Where’s your beret?’” He shrugs it off. “Anyway, for some strange reason . . . for some strange reason they fixated on . . .” he waves away the memory as if it were a foul smell “. . . on you.”

 

She wants to show indifference to this ancient bit of news, but is dumbfounded to find that anyone outside the debate team noticed, let alone fixated on, her. “You’re kidding.”

 

“They probably sensed that I liked you.”

 

“Liked me? I’m shocked you thought of me at all.”

 

“Oh, I remember you distinctly: Mr. Barkley’s class, second row, fourth seat. And your paper on—Virginia Woolf—was so good he read it to the class.”

 

Third row, third seat, and Sylvia Plath, but, after twenty years, who’s going to quibble? She shakes her head in amazement and displays the lovely upper teeth she had fixed to celebrate getting tenure. “You remember all that?"  Where is Pam?

 

“Oh, yes, I remember you. I wanted to ask you out.”

 

“No.”

 

“I would have, but I was too intimidated.”

 

“Intimidated? Touchdown Thompson?”

 

“You were so intelligent.”

 

“And fat.”

 

“No, I don’t remember you that way at all. You were pretty. And shy.”

 

She can see, from old photos, that she’d been prettier than she’d realized. But shy? Maybe in that class, sitting near Roger. She recalled getting thick-tongued and sweaty about the middle when he entered the room, always a little late, sauntering to his seat, shifting back and forth, trying to clear enough airspace to accommodate those famous shoulders.

 

“Anyway,” he looks at his hands, “a bunch of guys on the team wrote this letter . . . this letter stating my undying love and devotion to you. And they dared me to sign it and slip it into your locker. And, because saving face with a bunch of idiots was somehow more important than anything else,” his eyes come back to her, “I did it. You never responded in any way, so I assumed you understood it as the cruel joke it was.” He takes her hand, looking especially pained. “I’ve always felt rotten about that. I just wanted to say I’m very, very sorry.”

 

She laughs.

 

He withdraws his hand, screws-up his face. “What’s funny?”

 

“Are you sure you got the right locker?”

 

“What?”

 

“I never got that letter.”

 

He shakes his head. “It’s all right, you don’t have to forgive me. It’s just something I needed to say to you.”

 

She touches his arm. “No, really, I never got it. Maybe it got stuck behind a Jerry Garcia poster, I don’t know. I never got it.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really.”

 

He lets out a puff of air, those huge shoulders settle. “Still, you might have read it. It doesn’t change what I did. I am sorry for that.”

 

“I think twenty years of feeling like a shit is almost penance enough.” She smiles.

 

“Almost?” He smiles back, relieved.

 

“Excuse me, fellow classmates,” a voice booms over the speakers, cutting off Barry Gibb in mid-wail. Charlie Steadman is by the DJ’s table, mic in hand, his thinning hair now pasted to his skull from so much effort in so much polyester. “Someone has parked his red Jag in the fire lane. Move it now, hotshot, or the chief is gonna shut this party down.”

 

She turns back to Roger, ready with a pithy assessment of Charlie’s coiffure, but Roger is looking at his feet, hands in pockets, grimacing strangely. He withdraws his right hand from his pocket, extracting a small set of keys attached to a large metal disk.

 

“Yours?” she asks.

 

He nods. Sheepishness sits oddly on those heroic features. He feels undressed, she knows, and, as in all such situations with men, it’s important not to laugh.

 

“The last remaining toy from my salad days. My only vice.”

 

“Only?” she says, unable to restrain one eyebrow.

 

He snorts. “Well . . . maybe not.” He jingles his keys. “Don’t go anywhere.”

 

She smiles. He jogs off. She sips her watery martini, sets it back down. Better to take it easy on the gin, it's turning her into something out of Judith Krantz. She’s finding it difficult to focus, but how much of it’s the alcohol and how much Roger Thompson re-writing the worst years of her life? It is at once exhilarating and deeply unsettling. Exorcise some demons, that was the point, she’d told Pam. But the demons had been as chimerical as those in the twelfth-century medical tomes stacked yard-high on her office desk. Teenagers were so oblivious: how could she have missed so much subtext?

 

Still, Roger Thompson had wanted her, wants her yet, unless all her sensors have been hopelessly dulled. Pam won’t believe it. So much to report. And the night is young.

 

She finds herself staring off into a far corner of the bar and now realizes that a small, round-faced man is lifting his beer in salute to her. Her memory for faces is infallible, but she can’t place him in her class. Mr. Sally O’Neill—he introduced himself when she walked in. Patient man, quietly drinking his beer while his wife boogies with all her old beaus. She lifts her drink in his direction and smiles.

 

Roger jogs back.

 

“Out of the way?” she asks.

 

“Very well-hidden.” He twirls his keys about one finger and grins and sits down next to her.

 

“Excuse me, could I borrow Roger for a minute?” It’s Sally O’Neill herself, all rosy from her workout, mascara running at the corners, her eyes taking on the faux-oriental look they wore when she played Tup-tim in The King and I senior year. Tamara gives a small, proprietary shrug that says, yes, he’s on loan. Sally takes his hands and pulls him to his feet. “Just for a minute, Roger.” Sally turns to her. “Have I told you how pretty you look tonight? Simply elegant.” Tamara decides to stop hating Sally O’Neill. She’s a nice woman, was a nice girl. And if she wants to strap on the old halter dress and play prom queen one more time, relive her glory days, who the hell is Tamara Johnston to say don’t?

 

As Sally pulls him towards the dance floor, Roger looks over his shoulder in apology. “Be right back, Pammy,” he calls out before disappearing into the crowd.

 

Tamara studies her nails, Polynesian Pearl, and worries the chip on her index finger. People always confused them: Pammy ‘n’ Tammy, you two look like sisters. Pam—straight teeth, clear skin, trim—always the prettier sister, never drew attention to her superior charms. They walked the halls together in shapeless black ensembles which they, of course, refused to see as ensembles.

 

She feels the heat rush to her cheeks and knows it can’t be blamed on the gin. It’s that fierce teenage shame: everyone’s looking at me; I’ve presumed too much, dared to step out of my prescribed role and failed. Something shifts in her body and she catches herself, remembering how kids in junior high, unaccustomed to their size, would fall out of their seats, hard on the floor, and the class would laugh and laugh until the teacher shouted them into submission.

 

She gathers her purse and looks inside it for the number of the cab company. There is a phone in the back of the bar, near the ladies’ room, and it will be easy enough to slip out. Searching about for a napkin to write a note on, she sees Roger’s keys next to the empty bottle with the lonely bit of lime. Now she feels obliged to seek him out, give him the keys, beg-off with a headache. She grabs the keys and looks at the attached metal disk; it bears the AA mantra in raised letters with the phrase accept the things I cannot change nearly worn smooth. How many bottles of spring water have been downed, rubbing this disk?

 

Before she can get to her feet, the DJ cranks up the junior prom theme again, much louder this time, and her classmates pulse back against the tables, parting down the middle, revealing Roger and Sally alone on the dance floor. She is prancing around him, little pony steps, throwing her hair over one shoulder, then the other. For the briefest moment his eyes go blank, his hands limp at his sides. He’s realized his mistake, Tamara thinks. Then a bass voice bellows Thomp-sahhhn and Roger’s head jerks sideways to the sound, the hips following in Pavlovian response, one beat, two beats, then the right hand jabs skyward in the classic disco pose. The crowd screams, stomps, hoots and it’s Touchdown Thompson again, strutting about the floor.

 

Oh, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man . . .

 

The class of ’79 closes in around the couple, cutting off Tamara’s view. She rises, clutching the keys, thinking of Pam. Shy, bright Pammy, who had to be cajoled into second-chairing her at debate tournaments. Pam, the star of Mr. Barkley’s English class, hunched over at the back of the second row as Mr. Barkley declaimed her tribute to her hero, Virginia Woolf. (Yes, details willfully—treacherously!—forgotten just minutes ago.) Pam, who couldn’t face her classmates recently divorced and twenty pounds heavier. Pam, who’d received a love note from her best friend’s crush, the most popular boy in school, and never said a word, not for twenty years.

 

The crowd throbs to the beat, clapping in time. She threads her way through the empty tables, nearing the exit. A hand waves from a dark corner. Mr. Sally. Her classmates are all taking in the floorshow now, so, mercifully, the phone is free. She unclasps her purse and digs for the cab number, which she wrote on the back of one of her business cards. She finds the card and gazes at it, as if for the first time: DR. TAMARA K. JOHNSTON it reads, Ernest T. Livingston Professor of Medieval Studies.

 

She lets out a laugh, not a flirty little laugh but one straight from the gut, overwhelmed momentarily by the profound goodness of not being sixteen, the fullness of thirty-eight. The cab company puts her on hold and she digs for Pam’s number at the motel. She twirls the keys and bounces to the BeeGees. Time for an anti-reunion, Pam. An anti-pre-reunion. Whatever. This one’s on me.