Before: The Invitation
“Hiyah, Christine! Hiyah, Rachel! Hi everybody!” I heard Alexis loudly screech to her friends who were maybe just five feet away from her amidst the noise and chaos of the cafeteria.
Even though I was sitting a few tables away from her, her voice startled me. I had been reading Wuthering Heights for my A.P. English class. How obnoxious, I thought, considering how close in distance Alexis was to her friends as I watched her file and greet each of them with phony air kisses. But that was Alexis for you, always trying to be the center of attention. I sighed and went back to reading my book.
I was about a few extra words in when something Alexis said made my head shoot up immediately.
“So yeah, my dad and I went shopping at Lord and Taylor’s and Bergdoff Goodman’s in New York last week to go looking for my prom dress, ‘cause you know that me and Kevin are going together, right? Afterwards, we walked around the city and then he took me to eat at Tavern on the Green. My dad is so fuckin’ cool, he’s like a girlfriend,” she announced to the cafeteria. Everyone was her captive audience, even if they pretended not to listen.
“Yeah, you’re dad is great,” Christina
“We couldn’t find a dress in my size unfortunately. They were all too big,” she said, and then pausing, perhaps for emphasis. “So he’s gonna take me to Sax next week.”
“Gosh, I wish my dad would do that.
“Yeah, I love my dad. I’m so glad he’s able to do these things for me,” she said, her eyes glancing towards me as she said it.
I sat there in disbelief. I looked at her and her friends who started giggling. I then quickly shut my book, grabbed my belongings and ran out of the cafeteria. I heard a burst of laughter as I fled past them, with Christina saying, “Gosh, what a baby! You’d think someone had just died or something.”
Three months earlier my father had died. Not many people knew about it. But somehow she did.
In the mail yesterday I received an invitation to attend my ten-year high school reunion. It brought back a flood of memories, most of which were too painful to think about, but nonetheless intrusively kept entering my mind. Of course I didn’t want to go, but trying to convince my family of that, especially my mother, was very difficult.
“Of course, you should go,” my mother said in that tone of someone who thinks she knows better. “It’ll give you the chance to show off what you’ve got and how far you’ve come.” And then she added with a sly look, “The fact that you’re a successful manager at CVS should make them turn their heads in envy.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “But Mom,” I told her, “the truth is that I’m not a successful manager. The only reason I got that job at CVS was because of Uncle Lou. I can’t go around acting as if I’m this successful businesswoman when the truth is I’m not at all.”
“Oh, but Teresa and Christa went to theirs and they had a great time,” she tried to convince me.
I really didn’t like her bringing my sisters up to make me feel guilty. “I don’t know,” I said glumly, looking down at the floor. How could I explain to her the real reason?
“Teresa will be stopping by later,” she informed me. “Why don’t you talk to her about it?”
I didn’t answer.
Finally, after a few moments she said softly, “It would just be nice to see you go out more, Joanna. You hardly go out. Here’s a chance to catch up with old friends and you might even have a good time.”
Talking about this suddenly made me feel tired. “I’ll think about it,” I told her and tried to escape upstairs to my room before she could say anything else.
“It’s just that you never get out that
But I couldn’t or didn’t want to hear anymore.
As I sat on my bed with invitation in hand, I thought about what my mother said. Unlike my sisters’ and mom’s, my high school years were not the best years of my life. Even at 28 years old I can safely say that. And at 28, I didn’t have much to show for. I was still living at home with my mother, when most people my age were out of the house and even married already. As I pointed out to my mother, my current job came as a result of nepotism. It wasn’t like I worked my way to manager or anything. And then of course, there were my high school mates themselves. Why would I want to see any of them, especially when they all hated me?
Maybe if I did show up it would surprise some people and even make others jealous because they wouldn’t expect me to be doing well. They do say that success – if you want to call my job that – is the best revenge but what I had in mind were visions of walking in with an AK-47 and shooting up the place or planting a bomb. Nonetheless, attending my high school reunion, even though everything happened over ten years ago, would feel like I was back in high school again. I was already beginning to experience painful flashbacks. So many tears shed, so many painful memories: who would be crazy enough to want to relive all that?
But oddly enough, it seemed a voice inside my head was trying to reason with me, telling me that I should go anyway. Maybe things would be different this time. My schoolmates, after all, were much older now and assuredly more mature. They wouldn’t treat me the same way they did back then, especially now that I have a “career,” right? Fortunately or unfortunately, my looks hadn’t changed all that much since high school, aside from putting on a few extra pounds. I looked at the invitation. The reunion wouldn’t be until the end of next month. My eyes drooping, I thought optimistically that perhaps if I went on a diet and paid a visit to the beauty parlor between now and then, then maybe things would be different this time. I decided to put the whole thing on the backburner for the moment and take a nap.
We had Teresa and her kids over for supper later. Her husband, Bill, a plumber, had to work. There was no mention of the reunion although you could sense it was on everyone’s minds. I was positive that my mother had informed my sisters about it and my hesitance in going. Everyone was silent except for the occasional chatter between my niece and nephew.
Silently, I waited for the inevitable. I was sure my mother or sister would sooner or later bring up the subject, but surprisingly, not a word came from either of them. They were both into their meals, only occasionally lifting their heads to look at each other or at me. It was beginning to make me uncomfortable. Though I knew I shouldn’t do it, that it was wrong to deceive them, I decided to lie just to get them off my backs, so I brought the subject up myself. “Well,” I announced calmly, breaking the silence, “I’ve decided to go to my reunion after all.”
My mother sighed from relief. Teresa, whose face lit up, said, “That’s great, Joanna. I know you’ll have a great time. I sure did at mine.”
“What made you change your mind?” my mom asked curiously.
“I just figured that maybe it would be nice to see everyone again,” I lied.
“What’s a reunion?” my five-year-old niece Dana asked, holding her spoon of chocolate pudding in hand.
Teresa explained slowly, “It’s where people go to after many years to see old friends and classmates from high school or college.”
“What’s college?” Justin, my nephew, asked.
Mom started laughing. “You kids ask too many questions. Now if you’re finished with your dessert, go clear off your plates and then you can watch some TV.”
“Okay,” the children said in unison.
Mom got up to follow them, first stopping to pat me on the shoulder. I could see how delighted she was. “I’m so glad you changed your mind, Joanna.”
Yet that only made me feel more ashamed, making me regret my earlier words. I gave her a slight smile and then guiltily put my head down. Later, when I sat down with the kids to watch TV with them I thought to myself, How innocent children are. What happens to them to turn them into such terribly cruel and callous adults?
Putting on a pretense that I would be going to this stupid reunion was harder than I expected. I decided that my plan would be to carry through with the whole charade until the very end and then on the day of the event (which I called “D-Day” to myself because it felt as if I were going off to war), I would make believe that I was too ill to go. But I still had to go shopping and get my hair done and do all those things that made me look as if I were actually going.
First, I took on the painstaking task of going shopping with my mother – who can be brutally honest when it came to how she felt about the clothes you wore – in search of an outfit. With little luck at the first two stores we visited in Green Acres Mall, we finally came across a white pantsuit with cigarette-shaped pants and lacy see-through sleeves. I loved it the moment I laid eyes on it. My mother, always the fashion expert, was less than sanguine, warning that the pantsuit wouldn’t fit my legs correctly, that it was more suitable for a taller, thinner body shape, and that it would be better in black because that is a slimming color; in other words: “You’ll look fat.” I did agree with her about the black but I still wanted to see how it would look on me. Despite hers as well as my own skepticism, I was determined to try it on in my size.
Slipping my legs into the pants, my eyes closed all the while, I wondered how much longer I would be able to keep this charade going. It wasn’t right to continue deceiving my family and I realized that I should just own up to the truth. But when I opened my eyes something magical happened. The woman in the mirror looked fabulous! I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t even look like me. So pleased was I with this image that I practically ran out of the stall to show my mother. “So how do I look?” I asked, while doing a little pirouette.
My mother beamed. “Oh, Joanna, you look marvelous! I’m so glad we found this one for you! Everyone will be so impressed with how you look.”
I nodded, as I took one more glance in the mirror.
“So how much is it?” my mother inquired.
I looked at the price tag. “$69.99.”
“Rather expensive, isn’t it?” she pointed out.
“Yeah,” I said, not really paying attention as I continued to stare in amazement at my image. “But that’s not a problem. I have plenty of money in the bank,” I said, beginning to feel convinced that maybe I could do this thing after all, as I pictured myself the center of attention, the belle of the ball.
“Aren’t you going to go pay for it?”
I snapped back to reality. “Oh yeah,” I said, heading back towards the stall, all the while still catching glimpses of that gorgeous woman in the mirror.
I was ecstatic. How ironic that I did a 180-degree turn about something that just a moment ago I felt so strongly and so adamant against. How ironic indeed! Surprisingly, it wasn’t just the pantsuit that made me change my mind. Something inside of me was pushing for me to go. Maybe it was because I thought I would be missing out on something big, that I would deeply regret it. What that was exactly I wasn’t sure, however. Maybe people would think I was a coward. After all, I hadn’t shown up for my prom or any other social events at high school. I didn’t even want to go to my graduation except that I became salutatorian and had no choice. And was it so bad that I was just a manager at a drugstore chain? I wasn’t a total failure, right? And maybe my classmates have changed. I just needed to have a little more faith in them. So why was I so afraid?
We were all gathered around Mr. Levine in biology lab as he demonstrated how to dissect the grasshopper. Watching as he performed grossed us all out and most of the girls shrieked in disgust while he did it. I for one was not too thrilled about the task that lay before me. Each of us was supposed to dissect one ourselves, but Alexis was adamantly against it. She refused to participate. Until this class I had never seen the pretty blonde-haired girl before. She never attended my junior high, which is where most of my classmates were from. But whoever she was, this girl was quite out-spoken. “I’m not doing it!” she stood up and announced to Mr. Levine and the class. “I think it’s disgusting!”
We gasped and gaped, shocked by this outright display of insubordination.
But Mr. Levine wouldn’t give in. “Ms. Harris, everybody has to do it and so do you, so please take your seat and begin.”
“I’m not doing it!” she repeated firmly, while crossing her arms in defiance as if to say, “Go ahead and make me!”
Mr. Levine’s face began turning red. We were positive he was going to send her to the dean’s office. “Now, Ms. Harris, if you want to pass this class you’ll have to do what I say.”
“I don’t care, I’m not doing it!” Such confidence, such fearlessness for a 14-year-old girl!
Mr. Levine paused for a moment to think. Now we were certain she was going to get it. “All right, Ms. Harris,” he said finally, perhaps resigned in frustration, “then you’ll have to do it with a partner.” He suddenly turned to me. “Ms. Clarke,” he commanded, “go sit next to Ms. Harris and help her with this assignment.”
“Okay.” I stood up reluctantly and slowly ambled over to her.
“Ms. Harris, you are to do this with Ms. Clarke and I do not want to hear another peep from you or you will end up in Dean Springer’s office, is that understood?”
She nodded angrily as she stared at me with daggers in her eyes. I dreaded sitting next to her.
“Just great,” she snickered sarcastically to the girls behind us as I seated myself. “I have to have the class nerd help me. Just wonderful.”
I heard the two girls giggle as I picked up the scalpel and began the dissecting job.
But her words continued to wound me. “So how does it feel to be the teacher’s pet, geek?” she sneered.
I bit my lower lip and calmly tried to continue what I was doing but it was soon becoming increasingly difficult.
“You probably do this for fun. Ugly nerds like you don’t have anything better to do.”
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I dropped the instrument in my hand and hurried over to Mr. Levine with tears in my eyes.
“Mr. Levine,” I sobbed. “Can I work by myself?”
Mr. Levine looked up. “How come, Joanna?” He only referred to first names of students he liked.
“Because,” I started to say, then realizing that I didn’t want to sound like a tattletale. “I would just like to work alone, that’s all.”
“Now, Joanna, you’re going to have to give me a better reason than that. Ms. Harris obviously needs your help.”
“But I can’t work with her.” I wiped the tears from my eyes.
“Because,” I stammered, “because she keeps on making fun of me,” I admitted.
Mr. Levine’s face turned red again.
“What?” she asked from her seat.
“Come here this minute!”
All eyes were on us as Alexis sauntered over without a care in the world. “Yes?” she asked innocently.
“Now I’m going to say this and I’m only going to say this once: if you don’t behave I will not hesitate to send you to the dean,” he scolded. “Now stop making fun of Ms. Clarke and do your work!”
I wanted to die right then and there. Not only was it bad enough that I told on Alexis, but now the whole class knew about it and I knew they would all side with her. Alexis, however, appearing humble for once, simply stared at the floor and nodded yes.
Mr. Levine seemed satisfied. I, on the other hand, was hoping that a bolt of lightening from the heavens would strike me down or that something would fall from the sky and knock me out. Anything to escape where I was. I just knew that from this moment on my high school years were doomed forever.
“Now return to your seats.”
As we did, I could sense the hatred in the room towards me. Everyone held looks of disgust or detestation on their faces as I walked passed them.
“Baby!” Alexis hissed as we both sat down yet surprisingly, she said nothing else for the remainder of the period.
It wasn’t until I came home that I noticed the dissected grasshopper in my book bag.
And so began my descent into hell.
Maybe I was crazy but I still wanted to go to the reunion.
The day of the reunion I woke up feeling something awful. “Mommy,” I tried to yell, longing for that nurturing mothers often provide. Ugh, I don’t feel so good, I groaned. I made a feeble attempt to pull my body up but it didn’t work and my head crashed back onto the pillow.
Mustering enough strength I yelled even louder: “Mommy, come here please!”
She still had not heard me. “What?” she called. It came from downstairs. She was probably bustling around in the kitchen making breakfast.
“I don’t feel so good,” I said, more to myself than to her. Then it hit me. Today was the day I would have to face her.
Her head popped in a few minutes later. “What did you say?”
“I don’t feel so good.”
“What do you have? A temperature?” She walked over and placed her palm on my forehead. “Yes, you do feel a little warm.”
“I think I’m coming down with something.”
A few minutes later with thermometer in my mouth, I thought that maybe I could still go. I again reminded myself that how important it was to make an appearance. Everyone would think I was a chicken if I didn’t show so I had to be there, I just had to. That was what my mind was telling me.
But my body was saying something else. And there it was, in plain view on the thermometer: my temperature was 101 degrees.
“You definitely should stay inside today,” my mother instructed, as if I weren’t old enough to reach that conclusion myself. She placed the cool, damp cloth on my forehead and headed for the door. As she was about to leave she turned around and said, “Oh dear, I just realized something. Isn’t your high school reunion today?”
I nodded solemnly.
“Well, I don’t think you’re well enough to go, honey.”
Knowing she was right, knowing that I should stay home and rest, I whimpered, “I know,” while turning my head on the pillow so she couldn’t see the look of devastation on my face.
Sensing my disappointment, she stood there silently and then after a few moments, in an earnest attempt to cheer me up, said, “I’ll make you some toast and hot cocoa, okay?” In her mind, I was still five years old.
I forced myself to look at her and give her a smile. “Thanks,” I muttered, half sincerely.
She stood there for a few more awkward moments before finally exiting the room. And I, wishing I were five years old again, pulled the covers over my head as the tears rapidly came down.
After breakfast I slept on and off until around 3:00 in the afternoon. Feeling a deep melancholy but at the same time a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders, I thought about what I was missing out on. I pictured Alexis looking more extravagant and beautiful than ever. And, of course, she was probably married to some successful Wall Street broker or something. She herself wouldn’t be working, though. Alexis wasn’t the working type. She wouldn’t dare lift her perfectly manicured fingers or mess up her perfectly coifed hair if she didn’t have to.
Then again, maybe she was living miserably. Wasn’t there some truth to that old proverb, the one that says, What goes around, comes around? After all the nasty things she’s done to me and to others, shouldn’t she be the one in agony? What helped me most in high school, what saved me actually, was the belief that something better was coming. There had to be some redemption, some recompense, either emotionally or materially, for people who have been hurt all their lives. After all that suffering, there just had to be. Those people who win the lottery, they didn’t just win out of sheer luck. They were chosen by God or some higher power because of something unfortunate that happened earlier in their lives. And if that wasn’t the case, if their lives were, on the contrary, rather good and ordinary, then something dark and ominous was lying in wait for them and that would scare me more than anything. Wasn’t that the way things worked?
But now I would never find out about what happened to her after graduation. Maybe that was why I felt so disappointed. I needed to know whether or not she was suffering just like I was.
The only thing I did know about her was that she went to Adelphi University for a year or two and then dropped out, which neither surprised nor satisfied me. School was never very important to her, unlike me. Doing well in school was the only way I felt validated, felt that I, Joanna Clarke, was actually worth something. So I worked hard.
Yet despite my efforts, I became only salutatorian at my high school, even though I was positive that my grade point average was two-tenths higher than Debi-Ann Valerio’s. But she was involved in more extracurricular activities than I was and she also excelled on the girls’ volleyball team, I was told. Most importantly, she was also prettier, but they didn’t tell me that of course.
Aside from a phone call from Teresa earlier in the afternoon, the house was pretty quiet. My mother was out grocery shopping. I was alone. Feeling slightly better, I wrapped my comforter around me and slowly made my way downstairs.
Other than watching television, which I wasn’t in the mood for, I didn’t know what to do. My Saturdays were often like that.
After taking some aspirin, I lay down on the couch trying to erase the image of this gorgeous blonde with her husband and two adorable children emerging from a Mercedes Benz and entering the catering hall. All talking and movement would automatically cease, as all eyes would be on this beautiful family.
“Who is that?” someone would ask.
“That’s Alexis Harris,” another would answer. “You remember her. The one who was voted ‘Most Likely to be a Model or Actress.’ Well, she’s doing just as well as everyone expected. Living in the Hamptons in some gorgeous mansion by the beach.”
“And whatever happened to Joanna Clarke, the girl nobody liked? I thought she might be here too.”
“Probably too scared to show up,” a third would reply. “After all, she’s still living at home with her mother. Why would she want to be around successful people like us? Someone who works in a drugstore? What a loser!”
Guffaws would fill the room.
Stop it! Stop it! my mind screamed in frustration. I have to stop thinking about her! Instantly I sprang up and looked around the room searching for something, anything, to take my mind off Alexis and the reunion. My eyes fell upon the oak bookcases that housed our family albums. My mother must have kept every picture from the day my sisters and I were born up until now. Thousands of pictures stored in albums meticulously labeled and placed in chronological order.
I decided to look at one of them, which I enjoyed doing from time to time. By random, I chose one from my childhood, when I was around the age of eight. I came across pictures of everyone: mom, dad, Teresa, Christa, and me. There were the ones from Christmas with my sisters and I standing around the tree. The ones of us opening our presents, the looks of both surprise and ecstasy on our faces. All memories captured on film. Dad took most of the photos so I didn’t see him too often but the ones he was in reminded me of how happy a man he was, how proud he was of his three little girls, how close we were as a family back then before . . . he left us.
Then there were the ones of Christa’s 10th birthday party with all of her friends and me and Teresa surrounding her as she proudly stood in her front of her cake, eager to blow out the candles. Aunt Marie’s wedding, my mother’s sister. My great-grandmother Rose, whom I hardly knew, in the hospital before she passed away. Such wonderful memories in all, both bitter and sweet at the same time.
Then I came to the pages containing pictures of my family and I standing next to Mickey Mouse. We had gone to Walt Disney World that summer. I didn’t remember much about what happened there except from what my mother told me. For the most part we had a good time but at one point I gave my family a pretty good scare. Somehow, one day at the park, I had gotten separated from them. My parents were terrified that something awful happened to me. Police were notified, Disney staff was on alert. Everyone frantically searched for this eight-year-old girl from Long Island, fearing the worst. Fortunately, to my family’s relief, no stranger or weirdo had snatched their daughter away. So where had they found me? Standing in front of an 8-foot statue of Cinderella, the blonde princess, of all places. My family, to this day, has no idea as to why I was so enchanted by her but apparently I stood gazing upon her figure for quite some time. Maybe it was her beauty or how she seemed so god-like. Her eyes transfixed me. Maybe I wanted and believed that I could be her – this perfect, beautiful princess. When the police finally located me and brought me to my family, both of my parents started crying out of relief, but at the time I couldn’t understand what all of the fuss was about. All I cared about was that I wanted to be Cinderella. It wasn’t until I came home that I learned that dark brown-haired, olive-skinned complexion girls didn’t become princesses. I remembered turning my bedroom upside down as I anxiously searched through all my fairy-tale books, looking for princesses who might resemble me but with no luck.
I sighed to myself. It’s funny, the things you remember about your childhood. Even then it was like I already knew.
So that is how D-Day went – or
The list of possibilities seemed endless. Maybe my classmates would have acknowledged how great I looked. Maybe they would want to be my friend. Maybe she would have been apologetic, begging for my forgiveness. She was suffering after all. Dying from cancer or her child had been killed in a car crash. She was sorry for making fun of me and for desecrating my father’s name. She now understood what death was like. Maybe she was divorced. Her husband left her for a younger woman. No, that couldn’t be, she was only 28 years old. Yes, he did abandon her and their three small children. She got pregnant right after high school. That’s why she dropped out of college. Maybe her parents divorced. Father lost his job and subsequently all their savings. How terrible! Maybe she became an alcoholic (she did like to go out and drink as I recall.)
Maybe she would like to be friends. Hang out. Go shopping. Show me how to be more beautiful, likeable. Show me what I’ve been doing wrong and she right. Maybe she was dead. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
There was only one thing left to do. I walked over to the bar and grabbed the first thing I saw: a bottle of Southern Comfort. I checked the clock. There was still time to make it to the reunion if I hurried. I forced myself to drink the whiskey until it was half empty. Then I crept upstairs to my mother’s bedroom. There was a gun my mother bought for protection after my father died. She kept it stored in her bedroom closet where it had been waiting for me all this time.
I wasn’t planning to use it to hurt her. I just wanted to ask her why. Why was I chosen out of all my classmates? What was it about me that made me a target? Why couldn’t it have been someone else? I had to know. She would never speak to me otherwise, which is why I needed the gun. I was still feeling ill but that wasn’t going to stop me. If I didn’t find out at the reunion, I may never get the chance. One way or another, Alexis Harris was going to have to answer to me. This will be a reunion she will never forget. I hope she shows up.