CLASS OF '57

Sanford R. "Sandy" Wilbur
September 2010

  Greg leaned against the door frame, the remains (mostly water, now) of an hour-old bourbon (with rocks) in his hand. Middle-aged people milled around him. He didn't recognize any of them. None of them seemed to recognize him, either.

   This was a dumb idea, he told himself for the twentieth time that evening. But that wasn't a new thought from the past couple hours. It had seemed a dumb idea before he left home; it had seemed just as dumb five years earlier, and five years before that when he and Gin (well, mostly he) had decided at the last minute not to come. (They were so close that time that he ended up forfeiting a $50 registration fee.)

  Curse you, Mother-Dear and Father-Dear, for living in the same house in the same town all these years so that these unknown fifty-something people could keep finding me, and badgering me until my resistance had flown out the window!

   But he knew he wasn't being fair. True, the first contact (five years after graduation) had occurred because his parents were the recipients of a "care of/please forward" invitation. After that, though, it had all been his doing. He himself had returned the "yes, I am interested" cards every five years, with his current address, what he was doing now, how many kids he had, etc., etc. Truth to tell, he enjoyed skimming through the little "year books" provided with each reunion, even though he seldom found references to anyone he had ever really known or cared about. So, every five years he corresponded with these unknown people back here in his parents' town.

* * *

"Do I know you?" asked a still pretty, still apparently more-or-less naturally blond woman with bright-colored dangly earrings and a matching bright-colored necklace.

  He smiled, and extended his hand. "Greg Thomas," he introduced himself.
  Her hand moved from her side almost to his fingers, but then withdrew. "No, I don't think so," she said, more to herself than to him, as she turned away.

  And you are...? Greg mouthed at the back of her head. Well, if she didn't know me, I probably didn't know her. She was probably a cheerleader. He was certain he hadn't known any cheerleaders.

* * *

Actually, there was no reason any of these people should know him. In a way, he hadn't existed until his first day of college in an upstate town, a college with a total student body smaller than his graduating high school class. After twelve school years of being Tom, Thomas, and various versions and mispronounciations of Descartes (which, actually and unfortunately, was his given name, even if it was an obvious last name... Another curse on you, Mom and Pop), he had become Greg. Descartes Thomas was 150 miles south, and probably wasn't anywhere in the three or four month intervals between visits to his parents' town.

  Why Greg? He couldn't remember, anymore. He might have read it in a novel (Greg Thomas, mild mannered man-about-town, who in reality...), or seen it in a movie (Indiana Greg, heroic adventurer...). What happened was, on his first day at his new school, someone asked him his name, and Descartes just disappeared. New town, new school, new people, new... Greg.
Of course, the question "why Greg?" raised another one: why had Greg Thomas--who'd never been in this town before--crashed the 45-year reunion of Descartes Thomas' high school class? There seemed no good answer to that one, either.

* * *

A man with a fringe of medium-long gray hair around an otherwise bald head had looked over at Greg several times. Greg had met his eyes once, and now scrutinized him again. No bells, no recognition. The pretty blond woman had almost certainly been a cheerleader, but there was no categorizing Gray-fringe. He could have been an athlete or a chess-player. Greg (aka Descartes) hadn't been either one.

* * *

School for Greg (oops; I mean Descartes) had been twelve years of insecurity and embarrassment. Six years, anyway. He had been shy, skinny, and smart the first few years--not a great combination, but in K thru 5 there was some prestige in being academically gifted. From 7th Grade on (there had been no 6th; he was too smart for the teachers, so they skipped him right through), he had been shy, skinny, younger than everybody else, and suddenly not smarter than anybody--even dumb on some subjects for which basic training had apparently occurred in the 6th Grade he never saw.

  (Thanks again, folks!).

  He had always suffered the humiliation of being one of the last picked for any team sport--and even then, grudgingly (shy, skinny kids the world over have always been victimized that way), but now there was the extra burden of not being good at anything.

  One more problem: his were the only hormones in his entire class that weren't beginning to "hormone-ize" - (you're a riot, Greg!) -which made him even more of a left-out misfit. (He didn't even benefit from boys' gym locker room-type sex education because he was still too young and naive to know that he should be interested in the then-undecipherable words and gestures used by the "big boys.")

  The result of all the above was that he couldn't remember having any friends--or any times worth remembering--for six long years.

* * *

  An Oriental couple acknowledged him as they walked by, but didn't offer any "don't I know you." Their passing, though, did remind him that he had made one friend some time in the 10th Grade--well, not a friend, maybe, but at least an acquaintance, and possibly the first schoolmate he had exchanged real words with since the beginning of 7th Grade. She was a Negro. (Well, they were Negroes in the '50s, and in his school of equal parts Negro, Oriental and white, he couldn't remember any discrimination--except against Jews, but then they were different. He couldn't remember why, anymore. He also suspected now that there was a whole lot more bad feeling between the races than his naive immaturity had picked up on.) 

  Anyway, she sat in front of him in French class, and somehow during the second semester he got up the nerve to tug on her long, straightened black hair. In retrospect, it was more a junior high gesture than a high school icebreaker but, hey, by age he was junior high. In any event, it did the trick, and they always had a word or two for each other before French class began.

  Maybe that's the way it started for the Greg-who-was-to-be. From a few words regularly exchanged with a "friend," he went on to learn that he was good at a few things (French and English, for sure, and basketball, although certainly not in a competitive way); that he could be shyly funny and make somebody laugh; and that he could talk to more and more people. He found that girls' pretty faces made him feel good, and that he liked walking home from school and later hiking in the hills with other introverted, nice, fun boys who seemed to like him, too. He could even laugh (sort of, anyway) when a teacher tried to call him Tom Decart!


* * *

  "You're Descartes Thomas, aren't you?" 

  For a minute, Greg thought he was still daydreaming, and had only wistfully thought that someone had spoken to him. He glanced up to see a man and a woman, the woman eyeing him with only the slightest trace of uncertainty."It is you!" she exclaimed, all tentativeness now gone. "I was right, Jerry!" Jerry seemed marginally interested, at best. "Descartes," she pronounced it again, flawlessly--the first time had not been a fluke! "I'm..." "Phyllis," he said, without hesitation.

* * *

  Phyllis. He remembered her as one of the prettiest girls in high school. No cheerleader, but still too neat to be in his league (his league being pretty small, no matter how you looked at it.) In his senior year, he had said "hi" to her regularly (and now found himself rather belatedly and unexplainably hoping that he had smiled, too, although smiling was not his forte in those days). He didn't think they'd ever had a conversation (that definitely had not been his forte!). On a whim, he'd asked her to sign his yearbook at graduation. Next to her class picture she had written, "I really wish I'd gotten to know you better." Not the standard "good luck, have a great summer" message. Years after graduation, he'd looked at that autograph and mused about the wording. Had there been just the merest suggestion there that faint heart might not have had to become too emboldened to have won fair lady? Oh, well.

* * *

  They shook hands after summarizing some 45 years of separate lives in 5 minutes. She kept her hand in his just a moment longer than his mind told him was necessary."How did you recognize me so quickly?" she asked. Greg smiled, and shrugged. Silent translation: It wasn't just a few times that I looked at your photo and message.

  "How did you know me?"

  She raised her eyebrows, and he wanted to believe her eyes softened a little more. "Oh, you just look like you."

* * *

  Another hour passed, during which he drank the last quarter-inch of melted ice in his glass, walked across the hall to sit in another folding chair against a different wall, and failed to see anybody else he knew. None of his long-lost high school hiking buddies showed up. But he hadn't expected them. They'd dropped off the alumni list--and off the face of the earth, for all he knew--even before the first five-year reunion. Dead or alive; married, single, divorced, or widowed; gay or straight; he had no idea. He didn't know if he'd lost them, or they'd lost him. The end result was probably the same.

* * *

  One friend had reappeared a few years back; at least, her name had shown up in the class five-year book after being missing for 40 years. She had been the girl friend of a boy friend, and had always been nice to him in a friendly, teasing sort of way. He'd asked her to go on a hike once--when she was no longer "attached"--but she couldn't go, she said, because she got poison oak easily and severely. The local parks were rife with it, so the excuse was certainly credible. He hadn't taken it personally. There hadn't been any subsequent opportunity for any other kind of "date."When he saw her name in the book, he was in the midst of a "Roots" crisis. (Was that why he was here, now?) He had written her a short letter ("my life in three paragraphs"), thanking her for being a friend, and expressing the hope that she'd had a good life. She never wrote back. He'd wondered a time or two since then if he sent the letter from Descartes or Greg. It might have made a difference.

* * *

  Someone sat down in the chair next to him. "What do you think? Is it all you dreamed it would be?""I'm Ted Cassidy." "I remember the name," Greg turned to the newcomer. The man was scanning the now-dwindling crowd, but held out his hand. said Greg, taking the offered hand. Surprisingly, he did remember. He looked at his new neighbor a little more closely. "I remember playing basketball with you. I'm Greg Thomas." "I remember you, too, once I take in the effects of 45 years on hair, waist, etc."There was a hint of recognition, but then it faded into mild uncertainty. He shook his head. "But the name isn't right." "No. Sorry. I've called myself Greg for so many years, sometimes I forget I was somebody else in high school. How about Descartes?"Greg laughed. Ted nodded. "Yep, that's it, although I think our gym teacher called you Tom. You were skinny, I remember, but you were a darn good basketball player.""Have you been to many of these?" They watched the alumni and their significant others for awhile. Ted inquired. Greg shook his head. "My first." "Why?" "Why my first, or why at all?"Greg thought about that for a moment. "Which is relevant?" "My wife died.""Sorry to hear it. Did she go to school with us?" Greg hadn't meant to say that; he didn't even know he'd been thinking it just then. Greg shook his head; his eyes felt moist. "No. I met her years later. But maybe she is the reason I'm here tonight. I think maybe I had a subconscious or semi-conscious idea that there was something here that could fill up part of the empty hole left in me when she died." "And has it worked? Have you found some of your lost life tonight?""Not by a long shot. Gin would have loved this. Every five years when we didn't come, I'd tell her what a disaster it would have been, and how lucky we were not to be here, being ignored by several hundred people we didn't know and didn't want to know. It's lived up to all my expectations!"  Greg grimaced, but then found himself chuckling. Ted laughed. "You're saying your hopes weren't really very high?" "I don't know. I guess... Well, I got what I expected, but I guess I hoped for something else."

  "Like what?"

  Greg hesitated. Do I really want to go into this with a total stranger?"I guess I've felt cheated most of my life, like I've missed a lot--almost like I was robbed of my identity." On the other hand, the compulsion was growing to tell somebody something. 

"How so?"

  "Like, my parents gave me a name that almost guaranteed that people wouldn't know who I was. Then, skipping me through school so that I lost all my friends and lost my one claim to fame, being smart. Then, not showing any understanding of how serious all this was to me, and letting me go through it pretty much all on my own."

  Ted asked for details, and for some reason Greg gave them to him. "What's happened since high school?""What do you mean?"
  "For instance, did you go to college?"
  "Yes."
  "How did you do?
Ted asked, after Greg had finished his recitation.
 

  "Good. Well, excellent in my major, I guess, and enough to get by in everything else."
  "Successful in your career?"
  "Yes."
  "Highly successful?"

  Greg paused before answering. "Yes, I guess so. I've had a lot of good assignments. I've written a couple books, and am well recognized in my field."
  "You obviously were happily married. Any kids?"
  

  Greg smiled. "Yes, very happy," he replied to the first comment. "The kids are off on their own, now. They're doing well."  

  "Do you have friends?"  

  "A few; not a lot of close ones."  

  "But some good ones?"

  "Oh, yes.""So?"
  Ted had been rapid-firing his questions, hardly waiting for the answers. Now, he paused.
  Greg looked at him. "So, what?""So, I don't know much about you, but it seems to me that, despite having some pretty tough curve balls thrown at you, you've come out of it pretty well--a lot better, maybe, than a lot of people who had a better start."
 

  Greg was beginning to feel sorry they'd got into all this. He wasn't getting much support, and certainly no pity. Oh lord, did I say "pity?" Is that what I want?

  "Look," continued Ted, "It all depends on your perspective. You make thousands of choices every day. Tuna salad or ham-on-rye, 'American Idol' or 'CSI.' Small choices, big choices. Your parents made some big ones for you, like giving you a name you didn't like, and allowing the teachers to skip you through the 6th Grade. No question, their decisions affected your life, and you've been seeing them as negative effects. But what if they'd named you 'Bill?' What if they'd left you with your age group in school? Is it certain your life would have turned out better?"

  Greg tried to think about those things, but Ted continued. "What if you hadn't gone to college? What if... For instance, did you ever quit a job?" "Yes.""What if you hadn't? What if you hadn't married, or hadn't married that particular person at that particular time? What if you hadn't decided to call yourself 'Greg?'""Do you see my point? You missed a lot, but since you can only make one choice at a time... " He paused.

  "Unless you're schizophrenic," Greg interjected. This is getting heavy!

  Ted chuckled. "Unless you're schizophrenic, right. But most people can only make one choice at a time, so you either missed almost everything--all the choices you didn't make--or else you missed nothing."

  Greg nodded. "I get what you're saying, but it all seems a little... I don't know... Eastern religion, kismet, fate--at the whim of the gods."  

  "Well, to a certain extent, life is like that. You know the old cautionary tale: man strives all his life to become President, he makes it, and at his swearing in he dies of a heart attack. Was it just the gods having fun? Often, we never know, but sometimes we can trace things back to decisions made and paths taken. Stress, bad eating habits, lack of exercise, too many smoke-filled rooms... any of them might have contributed to the end of the story. But, then again, a 30-year old woman who never had any of those particular stresses or made those particular decisions dies of a heart attack, too. So....

  "Look, this seems to be the bottom line for me: we can't control everything--some of it probably really is in the proverbial laps of the gods. And we do need to remember that all actions have consequences, whether we're thinking in a moral or legal sense, or just talking about basic science--for every action, there is a reaction. Therefore, we wisely refrain from robbing banks, investing all our savings in a get-rich-quick scheme, running off with our secretary (in most cases, at least)... Well, you get the idea. We just do the best we can, and move on. Nobody can really do more."

  Greg nodded again.
  "I don't think you missed anything," said Ted.

* * *

  Greg stayed another half-hour after Ted left, watching as more and more people headed for the door. Some left in groups; some left alone or as couples, after hugs all around and noisy goodbyes; some clearly were leaving as alone as they had arrived. Greg left alone, but if there weren't handshakes, backslaps or kisses, maybe he was a little more together with himself. 

  Maybe I didn't miss anything, he said to himself. Then, he thought of Phyllis: after all these years, she had remembered both his face and his name. 

  He smiled.

  Maybe I did.


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