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Requiem in the Boy's Room

We all came back—well, most. The only deaths weren’t casualties but car wrecks, a hunting accident.

On the 10th anniversary of my high school reunion, I was back from art school, summering at my parents home, waiting for word on my acceptance to graduate school at Yale. We were camped increasingly uncomfortably on my parent’s doorstep. While my mother baby-sat our daughter, my wife and I drank Long Island Ice Teas and played a lot of badminton. The invitation to attend the reunion stirred me not at all. I was four years returned from enlistment in the army, with one year in Vietnam. I rarely gave a thought to my high school graduating class.

I was high-schooled publicly down in the southern Maryland tobacco country, on the Chesapeake Bay, where the population was largely farmers, fishermen, casino workers, and obscure Cold War NSA operatives. I was the son of one of those, and went to school odd boy out in a bus filled to the very first step with the rural progeny. The ride in was generally calamitous in all seasons, from the ninth grade on up to when I finally had a friend with a car in late August of 1963. We both went out for football, my primary motive being to keep a group of like-minded individuals around me to ward off the marauding depredations of bullies. With the team as my bulwark against the cut and thrust of bloody humiliation, a punch in the nose, a cut lip, a brain-jarring slam against the hall lockers, even a kick in the shins, I would trade those ignominious injuries for the heroic impacts of contact sport. This worked well until one October evening, parked necking with my steady girl in her uncle’s ’47 Dodge, when I heard the faint tinkle of someone micturating against a hubcap. My girlfriend leaned over and opened the back door to see four members of our team (one on each tire) whizzing away the night’s beer and giggling manfully. She grabbed a threaded length of pipe from under the back seat and stepped out onto the sand, dishabille, shouting oaths she had learned at a sailor’s knee, while I shrank from the peripheral view of all.

My wife had gone to a girl’s school in Virginia but thought attending my reunion would be a good break from the summer’s grinding gratuities for my parents largesse. So I RSVPed, and things turned to what to wear. She was a photographer and intended to make the event into a photo documentary. She was also strikingly beautiful, head-turning at even large gatherings, so never had any difficulty getting people to pose for pictures. She chose a rose violet mini with powder blue stockings and lace-up high-heeled oxfords. I turned out in my wedding suit, a khaki Palm Beach, with my favorite bolo tie and blue, low-cut Adidas. Now we were the hip, trippy couple down from NYC to bring the provincials a moderate frisson of cool, a la 1974.

Reunions being like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, my classmates and I spent the afternoon arranged enfilade, oddly at the very same tables and in the very same cliques we had spent our lunches morosely spewing invective or vowing food fights 10 years before. During the dinner/dance portion of the event, after the sharing of yearbooks and before the first few bars of the pickup band backing the tri-county singing celebrity, I excused myself to the restrooms.

The “boys room,” a vaunted, vainglorious place, den of iniquity and inequality, a brightly tiled refuge from the mediocrity and mendacity of adolescence. This stall-doored cell was these things, but slightly buzzed from numerous cups of gin and ginger punch, I wasn’t thinking about anything but substantial relief. As I swung open the big, bland pine door, I froze. There were the hoods of yesteryear, smoking and drinking from a small brown bottle, a perfect re-creation of any school day I could remember (and why, as a privileged, academic-track student, I often ducked into the teacher’s lounge to use the can). The Dunbar brothers, Lenny and Bobby; Bobby Farris’s brother, cousin Jimmy (Bobby had been killed in a drag race over in La Plata the year I was overseas); and Tommy Matterra, who had been kicked off the football team right after the coach had us switch from drinking chocolate milk to Gatorade.

I made my way to the nearest stall, feeling the eyes of four predators follow me right up to the bowl. I was going to have difficulty making water. Their voices were low, their cigarettes unfiltered. I managed a trickle. Someone else came in. Ronnie Lake, I could tell by his clipped delivery, imitative of countless movie hoodlums. I pictured his recidivist ’50s pompadour, his sleeve-rolled T-shirt, black jeans, lightning-striped black loafers. A self-conscious murmur of acknowledgement as the former delinquents reconvened with handshakes and shoulder slaps. I could only stay in the stall so long; suddenly, gratefully, a stream coursed loudly below.

I briskly exited the stall as an Air Force staff sergeant turned in the middle of conversation to acknowledge me for the first time in my life. Ronnie Lake, who had once had the arm of at least two cheerleaders I wanted to know better or at all—the same Ronnie Lake who crashed a six-months-pregnant party at the Ranch Club Beach for either Suzy or Sandy Bunty, I couldn’t remember which, and burned up the dock with a flare gun. Air Force blue draped his bantam wiry frame as he held out a hand with no visible irony. I shook it automatically, as the Dunbar brothers also came forward. Even Jimmy Farris slyly asked me how I wound up with such a gorgeous woman, A whisky bottle was offered, a swig taken and passed—a cigarette also gratefully accepted.

This was incredible; here I was with guys I used to create elaborate strategies to avoid, who held sway over the lunch monies of entire school buses of sixth- through ninth-graders, who could demand their music on our transistor radios, now smoking and drinking in the boys room.

Lake had been an aircraft armament specialist stationed at Udorn, Thailand, Jimmy Farris, a “deck ape” on a carrier. I had spent my year as a Vietnamese linguist in country. Now more, pretty well loaded guys came in to join this impromptu bonding. Each had served somewhere, somehow, enlisted or drafted, and all were aware of the bizarre circumstances we found ourselves in: Among the assembled were “brown-nosers,” “toadies,” geeks,” “nerds,” “teacher’s pets,” “grinds,” “fags,” homos,” “momma’s boys”—every servile flatterer who had to serve out their high school years as soul-killing retinue or dodged the fists and fired paper clips as the briefcase-carrying class pariah.

Tommy Matterra limped around the room exchanging remembered slights, practical jokes that had left someone crying or emotionally rent, himself now also wounded, but physically, after losing a leg to a mortar round in the Ashau Valley.

Wives and girlfriends waiting, we searched each other’s eyes for vindication—for validation, passing around the Jack Daniels one more time, drinking a toast to those who didn’t make it back, and realized we all had and joined in a spontaneous huddle—one true hoods would never join—before filing out to the cafeteria and our fidgeting significants.

“What in the world kept you?” she asked.

I replied, damp-eyed, “Did you know the Dunbar brothers own every liquor store in the county? They catered the reunion.”

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