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Final Monster Down

 

pity this busy monster, manunkind,
not.
-- e.e. cummings

W
hen it comes time to leave for this thing, Jennifer is, as I'll find out, more than prompt. I expect her at 2:30 and she shows up thirty minutes early, as itching and nervous as I am to get out of Austin. I quickly show her around the Garden dot complex, pointing out the various dogs, the warehouse, the giant customer service area. I lead her back to my cube and point out the pumpkin that I carved the day before (with an unimaginative "garden" on the side). While she has her back turned to me, I slip out the bottle of Stolichnaya that I had bought the night before. When she sees it, she laughs and tells me, "God, I need that" as I helpfully crack the seal, take a long pull, and pass it to her. She pulls one back, coughs a second, and asks me for the first of many times, "So, whose idea was this anyway? You bastard."
      Heh heh. It's a perfect way to start off our trip to Atlanta, back to the old folks at home and, can you believe it, our ten year high school reunion.
      As usual, I'm the one who's taking the blame for this thing. Jennifer and I had joked off and on over the past year or two that when the inevitable high school reunion notice came, that we would go together and try to trick everyone. Jennifer and I had a grand plan of buying a Baja bug and fringed leather jackets, driving up to the old school with bandanas wrapped around our heads, nervously looking over our shoulders while intimating that we were in some way on the lam from the law. We had both blown off our five year reunion as too depressing and pointless (since we imagined the conversations to revolve between "So, did you graduate? Yeah? Not making any money either?" and "Exactly how many children do you have?"), but when we got the ten year note in the mail, we started to nervously scoot around the issue.
      "Uh, so, dude, uh, what do you think about... uh... Grosse Point Blank?"
      Etc.
      At some point early this summer our friend Holly wrote asking if JR, Brian, Pete and I if we were going to go this thing. Brian refused to go, Pete was unsure, but I decided right then that to hell with it, I was going to drag my happy butt back to Georgia and see what the heck had happened in the intervening years. For some reason, I expected this reunion to be in August, but it turns out that they had posted it out until October 23. Amazingly, two days later Priscilla would ask me to run the Chicago marathon with her on that day.
      So, as usual, I waited until the last possible day in September to send in my money for this thing. Then, as usual, I farted around for another two or three weeks before buying airline tickets, which irritated Jennifer to no end. But it all turned out good: we had to come back on Monday morning at 6:15, but that gave JR time to go see a play and me time to spend with my parents.
      So, tickets and reservations in hand by the beginning of October, we started to wait. Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion. Then a week before we left, Jennifer forwarded some anagram site to me. She typed in my name and got "See Nirvana Clear," which was cute (though she also got something like "Revere Anal Scan"). As a lark, I typed in "Walton High Reunion" and got "Ruin a whole night? No!" Road Gods talking to me again, I blinked in surprise. I forwarded it onto JR, and we spent the next week laughing about it.
      October 22, the day of our departure, came upon us soon enough.

T
ooling JR's shiny Saturn down to the new airport, which seems like it's about a zillion miles away though it's probably about ten, we get to the ticket counter with plenty of time. I had decided for some reason to wear my cowboy hat, so I was walking around the concourse looking like a right bubba. We managed to check our bags in and get our boarding passes, squeeze through the bookstore, and grab a beer without incident. We sat and waited for our plane to start boarding, we slowly sipped our beers, Jennifer idly noticed some co-workers of hers, I pulsed out some money, yadda yadda yadda.
      We went through Houston, which was unusual but uneventful, and then we hopped on the connection to Atlanta. I had made the dubious "bargain" with Jennifer that I would sit in the middle for the Atlanta leg if she would sit in the middle for the Houston leg. We plopped down in our seats, and the guy who sat down next to me was obviously agitated. He kept asking about the phone, re-iterating to me how ridiculous that it was a GTE phone but wouldn't take his GTE card. He had left a bag sitting on the floor of LAX, and was worried about it. He kept sighing and puffing, and I looked at him and told him, "Guy, you've got to let it go. You've got your credit card, you can buy some clothes, don't worry."
      "No, that was the main bag. That was the bag I need."
      "How bad can it be? Which bag was it? 'Just the one with all my money and valuables.' Haha."
      "Er. Yeah. Ha."
      "Uhm."
      "I need that bag."
      JR and I never got quite what was in the bag, but it was obviously important to this guy. Our speculations tended towards the drug side of the street, for I suppose obvious reasons. To throw him off the scent, I let this guy read the copy of Maxim I had bought. In between this guy trying to commiserate about his bag, JR and I chewed the fat for most of the flight, and we made it down to Atlanta in one piece and right on time. As we got off the plane, I told the guy "Good luck, my man!" Thanks, thanks.
      Off the plane, Christina and Greg are just walking up to the gate as we turn towards the baggage claim. Hugs and handshakes are exchanged, and we make it down to the train to catch a ride to baggage claim. Jennifer starts to tell Christina and Greg about this guy we sat next to, "He just wouldn't shut up about his damn bag." Of course at this moment the guy materializes and walks over, as chummy and nervous as ever. Egad. Good luck on your bag, guy, but you're starting to give me the willies.
      Luckily, we don't share the same suitcase karma as this LAX fellow, so we get our own bags without incident. Jennifer's spending the night with her mom back towards Marietta, and I am spending the night with my sister down town. We leave JR to get her car and take ourselves over to the Highlander for a beer or two and something to eat. We get to Christina's new house at a reasonable hour, play with the dogs a little, and then curl up to go to sleep.
 

I am trying to pinpoint a moment of clarity and truth in the rush of events and cascade of memories, using all the elements and devices of language available to me. But truth is an elusive monster... I'm willing to follow a poem anywhere so long as it promises some insight or revelation.
-- James Tate

A
ustin's been hot as, well, Texas for the past week, and the Georgia coolness is a sweet shock to my system. It's thirty something degrees in the morning, and I'm sniffling from some minor allergen, but I alternately tolerate it and take some Tylenol for it and I get by just fine. We eat breakfast at some place called the "Big Bowl and Brew," and when they bring my eggs out with the homefries and the coffee, I manage to grind the edge off of my hangover enough to recover some semblance of a good mood and go shopping around the East Atlanta village.
      And what a successful shopping trip it is! Those of you have spent any appreciable amount of time with me (say, four or five seconds) know how much in general I despise pointless shopping. But East Atlanta has the kind of places that were made for pointless shopping: a candle store, a store that sells stuff for your bath, a store called "Space Tribe" that had ridiculous glowing phallus-like lamps, and some bizarre shop called something like "Time Traveler" where the incense was too thick to breathe in comfortably. We found colognes that smelled like gin and tonic, leather, and vinyl. We found pens that lit up a little circle around the point so you could write in the dark. We found some more Mar Azul" Illume candles, which I love (and am burning as I type this). And at the time travel store, I found these sweet Mexican bingo cards. I don't usually got for this kind of crap, but oh my God, these are so great. If you have the album Ritual de lo Habitual, you'll recognize at least one of these: El Borracho, the drunk.
      Unbelievable. All this before one o'clock. We pack up our booty, silently noting a bar called The Earl and giving a shudder to the Fountainhead bar, which actually has a quote from Ayn Rand subliminally etched into the sign, and we pile back into the car to get back to Christina and Greg's.
      We're hanging around, watching football on TV, when the phone rings around 3:00. It's Holly. We chat for a minute, catch up the current family affairs, and Holly tells me that she is thinking about meeting down at the hotel lobby at 5:00 for drinks. "Where is everyone else?" I ask.
      "Pete is at the mall with his wife Emily, and he was going to try to have lunch with Drew."
      I do some quick math: Pete hasn't eaten lunch yet, and this thing isn't going to officially start until 7:00 or 7:30. This 5 o'clock thing isn't going to work.
      So, reasonably, I say, "Holly, this five o'clock thing isn't going to work."
      "Uh, so you want to do 5:30?"
      Hmmm, whatever. "Sure, Holly. Can I get in touch with Pete?"
      Yep, I can, Holly coughs up the cell phone number, I cough up a "Ciao," and I dial Pete.
      "Pete, it's Alan. What's the story?"
      No, he hasn't met up with Drew and in fact has no idea where his brother is. "Pete, I think this five o'clock idea is a little optimistic."
      "Yeah, so do I man. What time do you think?"
      "Holly suggested five thirty. But now I don't think that thirty minutes is going to give us very much."
      "Okay, later sounds good to me. You going to call Holly?"
      "No, " I say as I smile into the phone, "Holly will be able to figure it out."
      Back to the couch, Christina and I snooze while Greg absorbs the Alabama and Tennessee game. Holly manages to leave a message while we aren't paying attention that says that we're going to meet up at 6:30. Perfect.

B
y 6:10, I have showered and shaved, and I've pulled on my favorite white shirt (actually, it's one of two shirts I have that are exactly the same, so who knows which one it is), and I'm standing in Christina's room looking at myself in the mirror. I'm trying to get the shirt tucked in and out just perfectly so that I can minimize the impact of my beer belly. I turn back and forth to check out the profile, and then I smile at myself and laugh in the mirror. "You can't change in two minutes what it's taken you ten years to do," I say to my reflection. I shake my head, swallow down my nervousness a little and head out to give JR a call.
"Hello?"
      "Jennifer, it's Alan."
      "Hey, who's idea was this, anyway?"
      "Here's what I'm going to do. I am going to leave here in ten minutes, and then I will be over there in about twenty more. I'm going to come up to your room, I'm going to get you, and then we're going to go do this."
      "You mean you're telling me that you're not going to make me walk in there alone?"
      "That's exactly what I'm telling you."
      I hang up the phone, Christina gives me the nod, and we go out to the car.

T
he drive over is just Christina and I, and neither one of us feels like talking. I'm trying not to let myself think too much about the night ahead, because I know that I'm going to freak myself out if I do. High school, in a lot of ways, was not the most pleasant of times. Way back before everyone figured out that the geek will inherit the earth, I dealt with my fair share of marginalization and heart ache. There were a lot of social interactions that, er, weren't that great. I wasn't voted "Best Eyes" of my class, or Prom King, or "most likely to" anything. School in a lot of ways was one big six hundred headed monster. I handled what the monster dealt out, endured what I could, and scooted myself off to Texas and into fresher waters as soon as I was able. I'm ten years older and eighty pounds heavier now, but it doesn't take too much imagination to see the long haired gangly kid who was slouching through the halls of Walton High, and I'm not particularly enamoured of that particular image. As Saul Bellow said, "It is not amusing to send oneself back to high school." There's a real fear in me that this reunion thing is going to be a flash back to those days and I'm not going to be Alan the Texan but Alan the Nerdy Kid. And since I have an irritating tendency to anthropomorphize these things, and I seem to be obsessing about monsters, I'm imagining that all these old fears are waltzing monsters, just like some wild Maurice Sendak book.
      So like all gamblers, I've brought along my good luck charms. I take a quick mental inventory of the totems that I've collected about my person: favorite shirt, so that I feel comfortable. A belt that I got from the guy next door back in my first year of college. Brand new shoes, because my last pair I had had as long as I had been at the Garden, and they literally had holes in the soles, and I need to feel that I can at least buy a pair of shoes when I need to. My favorite anorak, the one that everyone thinks smells good because it just smells like me (one of the best things about having as few clothes as I do is that you really like all of them). And hidden away in that coat is the bottle of Stoli, because I expect that I'll need just a bit of courage tonight.
      Ugh. Listen to me go on. Nostalgia and regret are step children of the same despicable parents.
      I think back to looking into the mirror just a few minutes before, and I remember talking to myself. And I remember wrapped up in that one sentence, "You can't change in two minutes," were a thousand random thoughts. It sounds so obvious, but it's more than true: it takes time to do and undo things, particularly in human physiology and psychology. I'm thinking of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, and Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even John Knowles A Separate Peace. All of them had this, at least, in common: be careful what you do with yourself, because every one of your actions leaves its mark on your soul. You carve out a groove for yourself, and you better damn well know what you're doing, because you're going to find it's not so easy to change your life around once it starts.
      And there's the rub, finally: very, very few people I know have become "born again," in the broadest sense of the word that there was some wake up call that changed their life. Most folks, and I'm one of them, have made some decisions about the way they want to live, and they generally adhere to those decisions and after awhile, hey, you are pretty much the person you set out to be. Inertia sets in once you've plotted the course, and the chips tend to fall as they have been cast. The trick is to set the ball rolling in the right direction so that the course of events comes out well. Camus says it one more time: "At that subtle moment when man glances backwards over his life ... in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him."
      Since high school, I've charted out a course into some strange and deep waters, and at times I wonder if I'm going the right way or just lost at sea. But tonight I look in the mirror, my own subtle moment, and I am happy with the man looking back at me. All the good and all the bad that have cooked up into me, up into this moment, have created that guy there, and there's nothing that two minutes of primping is going to change. But when I pause and think, I realize that I don't really want him to change. I smile at him; he smiles back. Somewhere the clock tolls out 6:30, and we both know that all is well.
      Bring on the monsters.

W
e've found the hotel, I say goodbye to Christina, and I walk in. The bar is immediately to my right. I quickly turn my head from a sudden shyness: I don't want to run into anyone before I've gotten a hold of Jennifer. I push resolutely back to the elevators, and try to puzzle out where Jennifer's room is supposed to be. I ask the extremely attractive woman standing next to me if she knows where it might be, and she luckily points me the right way. Down the elevator, skillfully avoiding some other reunion going on here (there turns out to be a total of three going on this night), I find Jennifer's room and knock on the door. She opens it, and looks straight at me, and says, "Who's idea was this, anyway?"
      I come in as she fusses around with her final things, I produce the Stoli and take a long, serious pull from it. I pass it to her as I quickly survey the room. Jennifer recaps the bottle, takes my arm, and we walk upstairs to the hotel bar.
      An, what do you know, there's Pete there, all long shaggy blonde curls, and there's his wife Emily, and there's his younger brother Drew. Holly's there, dressed to the nines in a silver top and a leather skirt, which isn't Holly's usual style at all. They're sitting around having a soda waiting for the two of us. Hugs and handshakes once again exchanged, I get a round of Scotch and martinis for our first communal drink of the night.
      "Here's to you," someone says.
      Clink, clink, thank you thank you. I haven't seen Pete and Emily since I was last in Philadelphia, so we shoot the breeze while we keep one eye on the clock. Every time someone who is vaguely our age walks by, Jennifer and I duck our heads. I order another drink, switching over to gin, as Jennifer catches up with Drew, Pete talks to Holly, and we all roundly trash our friend Brian for not making it down. After quite a while, we get to the inevitable conversation drag, and I realize that we're just dawdling now.
      "You guys ready to go?"
      Back down to Jennifer's room to drop off our coats, one last communal drink from the Stoli bottle, and then Pete, who swears he knows the way, leads us out into the forty degree weather to find this reunion.
 

He has no fear, he has no sense of shame
...he knows that if he ever really gets to try
He'll bite down hard to make the monster cry
He knows that if he ever even gets the chance
He'd sell his soul to make the monster dance
...they cannot hurt you unless you let them.
-- Everclear, One Hit Wonder

F
ourth floor, eight o'clock, and we're walking up to some sort of reception desk. I'm not first in line, so I look around and I immediately start recognizing people. Good Lord, there's some guy from my lunch table. There's some woman from my AP English class. There's some guy who was in some way related with some sport. I have a momentary stab of panic ("whathefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefuck"), but I come to a decision: I didn't come back here to stand in the corner and talk to my friends all night. I'm going to say hi to just about anyone I recognize.
      "Mike Baugh," I say sticking out my hand to the lunch table guy. "Alan Arvesen. What the heck are you up to?"
      I've talked to my first random person, and I have a fleeting thought of vanquishing my first monster of the night. We head inside to the drink line. I was dead on with my guess of $5 whiskeys, but by this point we are so freaked out that we'll pay twenty dollars a piece if we have to. In the drink line, I see some guy from my homeroom, so I start with the fairly obvious gambit, "I remember you, you were in my homeroom." Now I'm two people down, and I've got my drink tickets in hand. I'm starting to catch my breath a little bit now, so I start to turn up the charm and turn down the nerves a bit.
      I look around the crowd, and I'm a little surprised to see that I am the only person in the entire place in jeans. There's some guy in vinyl pants, who the heck is he, but everyone else has put on a pair of slacks, and there's more blue wool than a Republican convention. Pete pops up from the drink line and alarms me by remembering exactly where we sat for the freaking class picture we took in the gym. Class picture? In the gym? What? You remember this thing? Some of the nervousness creeps back in.
      While I'm still wondering about Pete's recollection of the freaking class picture, he punches me in the arm. "Oh my God, man," Pete tells me. "Guess who the cat is in the vinyl pants?"
      I have no idea.
      "Paxton Culpepper."
      Eyh? Paxton Culpepper? Good Lord. Paxton's claim on my life is this: our senior year, we all had assigned parking spaces. One morning when I got to school someone had parked in my space. So I took my styling blue station wagon, parked it in the next convenient space, and walked on into class. Paxton drove up after that, found that I had parked in his space, and decided that he would try to push the wagon out of the space with his Jeep. Well, that wagon was pretty big, and it didn't budge. So he got frustrated, pulled his Jeep out about seven feet, and rammed it into the back of the wagon, giving it a nice Goodyear tattoo. Then he drove off and parked in another space. It all ended up with a trip out there with the campus cop, my dad and his dad eventually working something out, and Paxton getting expelled from school for a few days. At the time, Paxton was your normally coddled East Cobb bourgeois kid: nice car, nice house, played football, yadda yadda. Now he's wearing vinyl pants?
      "Kick his ass!" Pete yells, breaking my reverie.
      Lord. What is this, Buddy Ravell in Three O'Clock High?
      I tell Pete, no, dude, I have no desire to get into a fight at this freaking reunion. I don't even have a desire to cause a ruckus. But, dammit, I do recognize this guy now, and I feel like I have to stick by my rule. So I take a deep breath, turn around, and walk over with my hand out. "Paxton Culpepper," I say. "Alan Arvesen."
      He looks at me, then at my name tag, and then he realizes who I am and smiles back at me. A genuine smile. "Oh, wow, hey man." He gives me a hug with one arm, and I spend a few minutes talking to him about what's gone on. He joined the army after high school ("I had some rebellion issues" he tells me, laughing) and now he's out in LA singing for a rock band. He's getting married, and we talk about that, and then I say hi to the guy he was previously talking to. Who turns out to be some guy that disliked me as much as I did him, but we look each other over and I'm surprised to find that I really don't dislike him at all anymore. Ten years is a mighty long time, I'm finding out. "Hi, John," I nod at him. "Hey," he nods back.
      We've at least learned how to be civil to one another. Monsters two and three have been wrestled down.
      Back through the crowd, I see Jim Pefferly, who was my best friend in fifth grade, and who's now back in Atlanta and working for AT&T. Jim and I chat for awhile, and then I wander around some more. Pete and I run into a few more people by just sticking our hands out at anyone who's not moving too fast.
      There's some stir at the front of the room, and I see that they're fixing to take the group photo. Woosh. For some reason our little group splits into pieces, and I don't immediately see anyone that I've come with. I hike up on to one of the chairs, and I find that I'm standing next to a beautiful red headed woman whom I don't recognize by face or name. Somehow we've ended up with our arms around each other, so I figure that I should talk to her.
      "Well, I don't remember you," I tell her and smile.
      "Nope, nor I you," she says and smiles back.
      We pay attention to the photographer for a few moments, as he is hollering belligerently at everyone.
      "Okay," I say out of the side of mouth, "give me the thirty second story of what you've done since high school."
      "I went to Georgia State, met my husband at $2.50 pitcher night, got married, and had a baby."
      Hmmm, husband, baby, $2.50 pitchers. What a succinct and bizarre story! I laugh to myself at how weird this is, talking to someone who I must have spent four years of my life with and have absolutely no recollection of. I ease back the charm a little and turn up the inquisitiveness.
      "So, how old is your baby..."
      At some point in the photo shoot (this joker takes six different freaking shots while continually berating the crowd), the red headed woman tells me that she can't get enough leverage to get back on the chair that she's about to fall off of. I'm holding an empty glass in one hand, so I tell her that I'll give her a hand as soon as I get someone to hold the glass. I lean forward, tap someone on the shoulder, and ask her if she would hold my glass for a moment.
      You can hear the movie sound effects, wwwuuuuurrrnnnnsssshhhh, as we flash back to high school assemblies and this person is sure that I'm trying to play some trick on her. "No way!" she tells me. I get a confused look and tell her, "No, really, it is just for a second until I can get this woman situated." The person in front realizes that, hey, no, we're not eighteen, we're more or less polite adults and that I really am not involving her in some bizarre trick. I hand her the glass, help my cohort back onto the chair, retrieve glass, and for some reason, I feel like I've knocked out monster number four.
      Back down to the floor, back through the drink line, and finally I go off to get some food. I see someone else whom I tangentially knew, and I creatively tell her, "Hello Kathleen." She is bursting to see me and gives me a hug. "Lord," I smile down at her, "I didn't realize I was hug-worthy." It's one thing for Paxton to hug me, after all, but I'm surprised by a hug from Kathleen. We talk for a minute, she's in Nashville doing some photography gig, and then we get whirled off from each other. Emily finds me, we go find Pete, who's off talking to yet more people that we knew. One of them is Dana Heiserman, whom I remember having a few classes with. She went off to Virginia for school, and now she's dating some older fellow who's off lurking somewhere. "Go get your boyfriend," I tell her, "and then come back and find us."
      It's hard to concentrate on all the different faces. The tides keep pulling us in and out of the room, as various people want to go and stay. We keep getting halfway out the door, and then someone will see someone we used to know and they'll go rushing off. At one point I'm waiting outside the meeting hall, and I hear a sharp, "Alan!"
      I turn around, and it's Kathleen, looking for the bathroom. I tell her I'll show her, so we walk around the corner and somehow we end up talking about our college degrees. She trashes the old philosophy degree pretty thoroughly. "I mean, all that philosophy is a bunch of crap. I took one class in it. All this..." she pauses and screws up her face seriously, raises her hand theatrically, and intones, "WHO ARE YOU?" She looks me in the face and demands, "What is all that, anyway?" I get defensive, and I'm in danger of turning into a pedantic turd, but by this time Jennifer or Emily or Holly has found us and distract me from running off about it. Kathleen's off to the bathroom, and I think I could also use a stop.
      Inside the men's bathroom, where you always meet someone, I talk to one of our local celebrities who now happens to work for George Lucas. I tell him good naturedly, "Hey, man, I remember watching pornos at your house when we were in ninth grade." Yes, he vaguely recalls that, and by an odd coincidence, the other guy who was with us that same night happens to walk in at precisely that time. "Sean, remember when we went over to David's house?" Sean, who I haven't said a word to all night, slaps his hands together once, gives me friendly point. and just starts laughing as he heads off deeper into the bathroom. Meeting adjourned.
      Now it's eleven o'clock, going on eleven thirty. I told my sister I'd call between nine and ten. Oh crap. We go back inside the meeting hall, and I end up talking to the resurfaced Dana and her very cool boyfriend while Emily tries to knit our group back together. Emily finally locates Pete as our final straggler, and I unfairly put an old tae kwon do move on him to get him moving. He's incensed, and the rest of the night he'll be trying to take me out.
      We pull out of the reunion for the final time, and waiting outside there's Kathleen and one more person, old Gigi that we had English with. I walk over to them, tell Kathleen that I'll have a bone to pick with her, and Gigi takes a look at me and blurts out, "My God, you look great!"

      Final monster down.

 

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