Sunday, July 12, 2009

This Is a Story That Ends with Almost-Naked Guys Drinking Beer in a Pool They Aren't Supposed to Be In

Yesterday the girls and I climbed the stairs of the lodge at a local campground, where our 10 year high school reunion was being held, and presented ourselves as a united front. We gripped each other for support and crossed the threshold, and there we were, the class of 1999--well, 28 of us anyway; the turnout was dismal--and we had all grown up. Not surprisingly, most people were married and popping out pictures of babies and weddings. When a new person broke into our circle and started asking after our situations--"Relationships?" he or she would ask--we would go around with rapid-fire responses. It went like this: Engaged. Engaged. Dating. Married. Then it came to me. "I've got nothing," I said.

Beyond that, it was boys in jeans and girls in too much makeup. It was a DJ playing songs like "Mmm Bop" and "No Diggity." It was a buffet line of chicken wings, chicken wing dip, and vats of bleu cheese. It was a whole lot of whispering about a person's skinniness or fatness.

I couldn't take too much of it. It made me claustrophobic. And I knew that down the road there was another reunion--this one at the restaurant where I spent three years waitressing--and that reunion would be populated by absolutely no one who would remember when I was still the only girl in the fifth grade whose mother wouldn't let her shave her legs. Instead, the reunion would be populated by Josh and his class, who were celebrating their six year high school reunion because they missed their fifth.

So I left my reunion after putting in a few good hours, after shoveling a few scoops of chicken wing dip into my mouth, and I drove down to my old restaurant. I went in through the door flanked with balloons that were school colors very different from my own. Inside, it was dark and most everyone was drunk. They were wearing considerably nicer clothes than most the people at my own reunion, and taken as a whole they looked like a much more successful and put-together class. They might have been drunk and loud, but they were crisp and good-looking.
Josh was in the corner near the bar. He had a crowd around him, and he was telling a story that involved very large arm movements. Very dramatic arm movements. Everyone around him was laughing.

"JESS!" he said when he saw me. He hugged me so hard he lifted me off the ground. "You came!"
And then he started introducing me to his friends. There was a boy there called Fweep, so named because in high school his farts--and here's where Katy Clay just got invested in this story--sounded exactly like that. Fweep. Fweep. Fweep.

Then another guy turned around. This one was drunk in the way that some guys get--a way that makes them secrete a slick coat of grease, a way that makes their eyes go loopy in their sockets, a way that makes them too confident for their own good.

"Watch out for this one," Josh said.

"Did you go to this school?" the guy asked. He was having trouble focusing his eyes, so his question could have been more than an inquisition at an unfamiliar face; it might have been him not being able to see who was standing in front of him.

"Of course," I said.

"You got a boyfriend?" he asked.

"Yes," I lied.

"Where is he?"

I pointed in the general area of the bar.

"Okay," the guy said. "All right. But that means he's not right here." He leaned in closer and somehow managed to plant a kiss right on my cheek. When he did it, he opened his mouth a little and let his tongue leave a wet mark behind. I didn't want to wipe it off while he was still staring at me--I don't like to be rude, even to drunk idiots--so the kiss dried to a crusty film, which I later wiped on Josh's shoulder while he was trying to find pictures of his younger self on the collages standing around the room.

A few minutes later, I heard a girl's voice shrieking my name, or something close to it. I heard, "Jessie? Jessie! JESSIE!"

I turned and found myself face to face with my "cousin," a girl I'm related to by marriage--my grandmother's, to this girl's grandfather. This is the girl, of course, who once, at a Christmas party, informed me I was wearing the same color mascara a hooker would wear. And now she was standing in front of me.

"Oh, hi!" I said.

"It IS you!" she said. "I saw you walk in the door a few minutes ago, and I thought to myself, 'That girl looks a lot like Jessie!' And then I saw you close-up over here, and I realized it was you! It was Jessie!"

I smiled as brightly as I could manage. She was calling me by the name my grandmother--and no one else--calls me.

"Are you here with Josh?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "I mean, no. I mean, not like that. I'm here because I know him, not because we're together-together."

"I was going to say!" she chirped. "I hadn't heard that you were together."

"We're not." I lifted my drink to my mouth, wondering what we could talk about now that we got that out of the way. She was the type of girl everyone knew of. I'd always worked in restaurants in the town where she went to school, and if ever anyone found out we were marginally related, they would roll their eyes to the ceiling or make the sign of the cross and say they were pretty sorry about the way things had shaken out for me.

I tried to talk my way to the end of the interaction. "Are you here with a boyfriend?" I asked, nodding encouragingly, as if my vigorous head movements might divine a man who would then come to her side and take her away, back to the bar, to refresh her drink.

Her smile fell away from her face. "What?"

"Well," I said, "I mean, I thought maybe you still had that boyfriend you had... well, I don't know... when is the last time we saw each other?"

"Jessie," she said, raising her voice so everyone around us could hear, "I haven't had a boyfriend since the one who was physically abusive to me in college."

I stared. I stared some more. I wasn't exactly sure where to go after that. I am not skilled in the art of wheeling a conversation back to normal after someone reveals--loudly--that her boyfriend used to smack her around.

"Uhm," I said. "I'm sorry to hear that. I didn't know."

"Grandma didn't tell you?" she asked, genuinely surprised.

"Grandma and I don't talk like that," I said, and it was true. We really don't talk like that--mainly because my grandmother thinks I'm a lesbian.

"Really?" my cousin asked. "We talk like that." She paused and then smiled. "I know things about you," she said. "She's told me."

I looked down at my glass of vodka. It was almost empty.

"She thought the Boy From Work was way too young for you," she said. "She thought the way the old restaurant was run reflected poorly on him. Did you know she and Grandpa once went there and waited for ice cream while the couple who got sat after them got their full dinners before they even ordered their sundaes?"

I poured the rest of my vodka into my throat. My cousin went on, and I kept smiling and nodding and drinking until one of her friends called her away, and I turned immediately to find Josh.

"Do not leave me alone with her," I said. "You know the rules."

Josh and his girlfriend and his friends had balloons in their hands. They were going to walk over to the restaurant's regular bar. On the way over, they were going to pop the balloons and fill their lungs with helium.

"What should I say?" Josh asked.

His friend Kristen--the girl who got air-humped by Josh's step-father at the beer tent last week--stood on her toes and whispered in his ear. Josh gulped from the balloon and then started chanting the words to "Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear."

After his helium wore off, Josh put an arm around my shoulders. "Do you remember that time," he said, "when I won that gift certificate from the raffle drawing?"

"The one that took place five minutes ago?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "That one. Do you remember it?"

Inside, the bar was what it usually is on a Saturday night: filled with sweaty people looking to get drunk and laid. The DJ was starting to play the usual songs to get people on the dance floor.

"Oh!" Josh said. "Do you think he'll play some Bone Thugs?" He looked at the DJ and then back at me. "What do you think, Jessie-Bone? Do you think he will if I request it?"

Just then a tall blond girl floated by me, beer in hand. She looked me up and down, her eyes narrowing. It seemed possible she was about to reach out and pluck my head off my neck as easily as if she were popping a daisy off its stem.

"Jesus," I said.

"Woah," Josh said.

"She wanted to cut me."

"I'm fairly certain," Josh said, "that you're right about that."

We got our drinks then and played darts (which we won) and erotic photo hunt (first babes, then hunks). Then, after Josh had declared to me for the fifth time that he was really drunk, I leaned over to tell his friend John--the one who could be Adam Levine's twin brother--that we should go outside, where he could smoke a cigarette and tell me about his MFA program because I missed mine, because I was curious, and because there are still mornings I wake up wishing I were in my bedroom in Minnesota, getting ready to go off to workshop.

We were out on the porch talking about our MFAs when Kristen came outside with her boyfriend in tow. She almost fell as she came through the doorway, but she quickly righted herself.

"John," she said. "We're going home. Do you want a ride?"

"Back to your place?" John said.


"But then I'd be at your place."

And then I took a drink and jerked my head toward Kristen's tall boyfriend. "Going home for the lovemaking?" I asked because it sure looked like a possibility.

Kristen made a face. "I've got my period," she said, "and no one's getting their red wings tonight."

It was her boyfriend's turn to make a face. "I don't trust anything that bleeds for seven days and doesn't die," he said.

"No red wings," Kristen said. She put her arm through his. "No way."

A few minutes later--after Kristen and her boyfriend had conducted a long discussion about his truck, sex in his truck, if he'd had sex with his ex-girlfriend in his truck, and if he'd had sex with Kristen in his truck--they left, and a few minutes after that another of Josh's friends came outside and announced that everyone was leaving and they were going to go to his girlfriend's house, where they could use the pool and the hot tub.

Everyone seemed happy about that. They seemed prepared, like they'd known where this was where the night was going to take them.

At that point, though, I just felt old. I was sober and fresh from my ten year reunion. I was standing next to a twenty-two year old girl in a short dress I'd never in a million years look good in and it seemed like everyone in the world was younger and more fun than I was.

"You're coming, right?" Josh's friend asked. "You should come. Come."

Josh's girlfriend--the twenty-two year old in the short dress, a sweet girl--cuddled up to me and said, "Please? Please, Jess. Come with us."

"I'm old," I announced. "I'm very old."

"Please?" she tried again.

"John," Josh said, knowing full well the words would pull more weight if they came from the mouth of a cute boy, "tell Jess she should come."

"You should come," John said.

"Okay," I said.

And so we went. We went straight to the house with the pool and the hot tub. And it seemed like it should have been simple. We should've gotten into the hot tub without problem because I'd stood on the deck of the bar and watched Josh's friend place the call to his girlfriend, who'd said, yeah, come over, let's go. And we were over, and we were ready to go. But the girlfriend arrived on her deck, wet--she'd just been in the hot tub--and sour-faced.

"No," she announced. "No one's going in."

Josh's friend handed out beer. "We're going in," he said. "Come on. We're going in the hot tub."

The rest of us just stood there, looking at each other, and trying to avoid the couple that was--you could see it--on the verge of an argument.

"Please, Tiffany," Josh pleaded. "Just for a little bit."

She stormed off into the other room, and her boyfriend followed. The rest of us went out onto the deck and stood next to the hot tub, looking down at it longingly. On the ride over, I hadn't been exactly sure how I was going to pull off getting into the hot tub--the underwear I was wearing was sort of scandalous because a girl going to her 10 year reunion needs to have as much oomph and confidence as she can get--but now I didn't even care, and all I wanted was to sit in the very big hot tub and listen to those boys say stupid, drunk things.

Inside, the fight went on. Outside, Josh's girlfriend was freezing. "I want to go home," she said. "Can't we go home?"

"I know!" Josh said. He raised his beer can up to the sky. "We could climb the fence at the town park!"

"No," I said automatically because I am old, un-fun, and a girl who remembers what happened the last time Josh tried to casually make his way into a place he wasn't supposed to be. I stared at him and wondered if I should announce in front of his new girlfriend that the last time he'd done something like that he'd gotten his name in the police blotter, and because he was shamed and feeling like an ass, we drove around town and stopped to have a drink with the townies that inhabited each tiny bar. This could be my life, Josh had said. Maybe I'll turn out like one of these guys.

"Okay," John said.

"Yes!" Josh said. "We'll hop the fence and go for a swim! It'll be great!"

"I'm cold," his girlfriend said. "They're fighting. This isn't going to happen. Please, let's just go."

And she was right. It wasn't going to happen, no matter how promising it used to look and would look again. The girlfriend eventually came outside--angry, huffy, stomping--and began rolling the cover off the hot tub.

John started taking his clothes off.

Then the girl stopped. "No," she said. "No, I don't think so."

"That's it," Josh said. "Come on. The park. Let's go."

It was a horrible idea. Horrible. But Josh's girlfriend said she'd ride with me, that we could just follow the boys, drive the getaway car, retrieve them when they were done.

"Come on," she said, dancing on the tips of her toes, trying to stay warm in her short dress. "Let's go."

"I don't think anyone realizes how old I am," I said, "and how uncool I am. I am a good girl. I never did things like this in high school."

"We used to hang out car windows and slam trash cans into mailboxes," Josh's girlfriend said. "Let's go."

I went. I followed the other car--the car holding the boys and their beer--and even pulled in behind it when it turned into the cemetery next to the park.

Josh's girlfriend launched out of the car--she had to pee; she was going to pee somewhere in the graveyard; she didn't want to pee on anyone's grave; she ran for the line of trees at its back--and the boys opened the door to their car, talking about the logistics. How were they going to get through the field? Who was bringing the beer?

"Do you have an exit strategy?" I asked.

"An exit strategy," Josh repeated. "Well, no."

"Where are you going to go when you get out?" I asked. "Do you want us to sit here--in a cemetery, in the middle of the night, and wait for you while you jump into the pool?"

Josh seemed confident that was a good plan. "Uhm, yes?"

"No," I said. "No way."

"Will you drop us off at the pool then?" he asked. "I don't want to walk through the field."

"I'm going to end up going to jail tonight," I said. "I know it."

"You will not," he said. "Come on."

And I said fine, okay, all right, and we drove the cars down to the gate--which was open--and up to the pool, where we turned off the lights and engines and watched as the boys went straight for the fence. They shed their clothes and started climbing the fence that surrounded the pool--built tall to discourage just these types of events.

"Is that a hot tub?" Josh's girlfriend asked, tugging on my sleeve. She pointed to the shallow pool that was separated from the bigger, deeper pool.

"That," I said, "is the kiddie pool."

She frowned. "Oh."

Josh's friend--the one who'd first promised us a night in a hot tub--handed us the case of beer. "Hang on to this," he said.

Josh and John were already over the fence and into the pool. The noise their splashes made almost gave me a heart attack. I looked back over my shoulder, at the entrance to the park, and thought about the excuses I could possibly make if a cop car just happened to turn in toward us.

Josh's friend started climbing the fence. He slipped. He steadied himself. He got himself up near the top and then reached down. "Okay," he said, taking a deep, serious breath. "Now, the beer."

It was passed up to him, and he finished his descent and went into the pool, where the boys floated, drinking, splashing.

Meanwhile, I was picturing life in the big house, eating gruel, becoming someone's bitch.

"I'm a good girl," I told Josh's girlfriend. "I swear. I am very uncool. I'm nervous."

Luckily, I wasn't the only one feeling nervous--all us girls seemed a little panicked by the amount of splashing and laughing going on, by the way the three piles of rumpled clothes glinted in the moonlight--so I told Josh that was it, we were getting in our cars and taking them down the street, where we would park in a lot and wait for him to call us.

And that's exactly what we did. We drove the two cars down to the church on the corner--the church where I took Sunday school and attended Confirmation classes--and we sat outside the rectory for ten minutes, five of which I used to continue to inform the two other girls of how old and uncool I was.

"We better not go to jail," I said. "Do you think I'll still be able to teach after I get out of the big house, after they lock me up?"

They were should that I would.

The boys called soon after, and we went to get them. I drove back up that gravel driveway--each crunch of tire a small death inside my heart, each crunch one more sound that would surely rouse someone and make them call the police to the park, where we would be busted for good--and I parked, let the girls out, and made sure the boys--and their beer--had made it up and over the fence safely. Everything and everyone was intact. And there were no cops lurking in the shadows. And everyone was suddenly freezing and tired and ready to go.

Which is what we did. We said our goodbyes, and then we pulled back down the driveway and out onto the roads that would take us home--Josh's car one way, mine the other--and I drove the road I used to drive on my way home from the restaurant at night, after working another Friday fish fry shift with Josh as my bus-boy, with Josh following me around and reminding me that he loved me. It was the tenth anniversary of my graduating high school, and as I parked my car and crept back into my house and snuck down the hallway quietly so I wouldn't wake my father, I felt about as young as I had in a pretty long time.

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