Monday, June 08, 2009

The BIG 35...

I went back for my 35th college reunion a couple of weeks ago, and it was a very odd experience. Those in the know, and in the cash flow, stayed on through the weekend. I could only afford to stay one night, so I drove out early on the first day of the reunion, spent the night, and drove back late on the second day, so I could be with the Goat at graduation at the Academy. That left me from noon one day to after dinner the next. The first day, I had scheduled a lunch and a dinner with two old friends I hadn’t seen for a long time: a recently widowed rabbi and a philandering architect who lives in town.

I hadn’t planned on attending any of the actual graduation ceremonies, partly because I only do so well with crowds, and partly because I guess I tend to shy away from things on principle. It's some kind of in-born inclination to the negative—I always used to hesitate to go skiing as a kid, for instance, but always had a good time if I did—aside from the frozen extremities, at least. But after lunch with my rabbi friend and his college roommate—who were so glad to see each other you could easily have mistaken them for lovers—they dragged me over to the class day events, which included some very funny student performances and a high-profile speaker. I enjoyed it all, but especially seeing my friend again.

It's been a while.

After that I was expecting to go to dinner with my architect friend, so I had not signed up for the [incredibly expensive] reunion class dinner. I had e-mailed K earlier in the week to reconfirm our appointment, and had never gotten an answer; after the class day antics, I tried calling him, and left messages at his work and home numbers—no one answered in either place. By the time 4pm rolled around, I was fairly sure I wasn’t going to see him at dinner, so I wandered by the reunion office and inquired how much a last-minute ticket to the dinner would cost, and it turned out it cost even more “at the door” than it had on-line.

So much for that idea.

So, I decided I would just treat myself to dinner. Then I remembered that the fledgling gay alumni group had scheduled a couple of events; I had planned on attending the free cocktail party the following day—in fact, it was the reason I had decided to go ahead and spend the money to overnight in town—but I had forgotten that they were having a “warm-up” drinks event that day at one of the pubs downtown. So I put on my walking shoes and wandered down.

One of my rules of thumb back when I spent a lot of time on the road was that you should never eat or drink in a place you can’t see into from the outside. This pub qualified for avoidance on all counts; not only was the door the only thing at street level, but once you did get downstairs, there was almost no light worth mentioning. I finally summoned up the courage to ask where the gay alumni were gathering, and the hostess directed me to a room, more like an alcove, really, off to the side, with the same ennui she might have summoned up if I had asked where the monthly Elks gathering was happening. In fact, if there had been any light in the place, I could have found it myself, but there wasn’t…

Once my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could see right away that there were quite a few people from my class there, none of whom I knew well; there were more from the younger years, but then, isn’t that always the case? Once I finally managed to flag down a server and get a beer, I wandered over to where the food was and ran right into someone I had known—we had taken a lot of the same art courses, though we was really a theater person—a stage manager, I think—and I was only doing posters. He did the whole “mingling at the party, welcome the nervous stranger” thing, introduced himself, and I said “Good to see you again, Joe [not his name, mind you]; we actually know each other.”

That brought a complete blank stare, but once I had filled in enough dark details, the pennies began hitting the slots hard and fast. He’s now an oncologist, and he and his partner have a house in the Big Woods, of all places; but aside from a little dusting of gray, he looked exactly the same—and how I wish I could say the same of myself.

Today I am easily twice the man I was then, and I haven’t gotten any taller…

Joe introduced me around, but what was so weird was the fact that we were now so completely casual about being gay, which was certainly not the case on campus in our day—at least, not on ours. Of course, now I could look back and say of those people I had known slightly or at least recognized, “Well, of course. Why didn’t I know?” [as they would have been quite right to say of me]. Over the course of an hour or so, I found the courage to talk to a number of people, and began to feel at home. It was a lovely hour, but then they all took off for the class dinners, and I found myself eating a burger on the sidewalk and wishing I had not been stood up by my friend K. I called the Goat and made little whimpering noises which he found rather silly; in retrospect I do too, but at the time I was definitely being what Betty Macdonald called “a Big Saddo.”

I went back to my lonely dorm room and read a book—thank God I had brought one! I didn’t have my computer or any of the five million things I need to do for work with me, so it was either reading or tearing my hair out. After the dinner was over, I sauntered over to see if anyone was sticking around for the free end of the event, and got to listen to my ex-Air-Force-captain friend “Jay” brief me on the current student issues while the sophomore whose issues he was cataloguing smiled rather tightly. Jay is a bit of an ass, but he was a long-time leader in the alumni association, so it caused rather a stir when he came out… He dealt with it really well, making it a “teaching moment” for the college, and many of the rest of us—at my 25th reunion, I spent much of my time talking to Jay and his lover about my planned going public as bisexual, and they were both pleasantly supportive.

The next day I met Jay for breakfast and he dragged me to graduation, which turned out to be quite a gas—mostly because of the ways students were serious and silly, and the way the adults reacted to both. The people getting honorary degrees were pretty impressive, including one Gay Superstar who will remain nameless. It turned out that Jay’s lover N was completely obsessed with this guy, and had prevailed on Jay to crash the post-graduation cocktail party for the honorees at the president’s house so they could meet him… and they invited me along.

Jay easily took command in the approach to the president’s house. “Stay right behind me and let me do all the talking,” he said. We did an amazing “flying wedge” assault, slipping in through a side entry to the establishment [as they were checking invitations at the front entrance]. Jay charged, and we trotted along behind, trying to look as determined and entitled as he did. From his years raising money for the college, he knew everybody in the Inner Circle we were entering here, and he covered everything [hanging up our coats, grabbing a glass of wine, wading through the crowd to get to the room where the honorees were decompressing] with an amazing volley of greetings and handshakes, keeping everyone who might have stopped us off balance—until we actually got to the Decompression Chamber. There the Cerberus would brook no interference, so we waited for N’s idol to exit the room.

I would have missed it, but N caught him on the threshold [I personally expect he was headed off to take a leak]. N announced his fan-aticism in rapid shorthand, and then asked if his lover Jay could take a picture of them. Jay took two while the poor Gay Superstar smiled rather tensely, and then the GSS sprinted up the stairs, which only confirmed me in my understanding of why he had left his safe haven in the first place… we dawdled out the front door towards lunch.

And there were pre-lunch cocktails! I had paid for lunch, so I took a wine spritzer onboard and after chatting up another four or five people I hadn’t seen in ten or twenty years, breezed into the dining room and found that the only empty seats were with the other members of my class who lived in my Former Hometown, now Isis’ Hometown. That went off pretty well, though I was careless enough, once again, to drop the reason for our split-up, which I am pretty sure Isis is still stonewalling. It gets too complicated to avoid the truth, after a while, and I stopped lying in response to direct questions a long time ago; I don’t volunteer the information, but if someone asks, I’m not going to prevaricate.

After lunch I put in some more time in my dorm room with the life-saving book, and then took off for a Gay Studies discussion and the Main Gay Event, the all-classes, all-gay cocktail party. I wore my new motorcycle boots; I had my jeans over them, so they were a rather subtler announcement than usual, but they were still there to give me a bit of a lift and anyone who was interested… a bit of a lift. The Gay Studies discussion was amazingly self-referential and lame. The students and the faculty who spoke were so tied up in discussion of theory [OK, it's Queer Theory, but does that make it any less irritating?] that I wanted to bolt for cover, and would have. But the room was set up in such a way that I would have had to parade before the panel to make my departure, and that seemed a little ruder than even I was feeling…

Once four or five others had packed up and left, I followed with a profound sense of relief. If there were ever any doubt in my mind that I couldn’t live in academe, it sure got nailed this time. What a lot of hot air! To my delight, one young man did ask if they weren’t all losing sight of the meaning of their own lives in all this convoluted theoretical discussion; I almost kissed him…

Anyway, I finally made my escape and found my self under a tent soaking up gin and lime juice, trying to contact the guys I had met the night before [including an incredibly hot Dutchman whose lover was in my class, I think], and trying to make the extra effort not to let the chance of talking to new people go by me, as I usually do. I did talk to some very nice people I hadn’t known until that moment, including one poor guy whose lover of five years had just been murdered two weeks before. That certainly put the tone of the “cocktail hour” in perspective. But there were what seemed like hundreds of people there; I guess I file the place under “Far Away," but it's close enough to several larger cities to attract a respectable number of alums of all ages, and then there are the Homintern among the faculty and the student body. Nice to see so many of “us” in one place without trying to pick each other up, in any case.

I voiced my amazement at how many guys and gals had shown up, and was then informed that this was just the run-up to the [third? fourth?] big annual dinner of our little wing of the alumni association. Silly me; this was another expensive dinner I had failed to buy a ticket to, so after some very pleasant conversations over the course of an hour or so, I once again watched everyone file off for salmon and asparagus [or whatever the well-heeled are eating at dinners these days] and I wound up back on the sidewalk looking for something that wasn’t a burger…

Once again, after the dinner there was free admission again for the program, but when I showed up the dinner itself was just getting underway, and I realized that if I stuck around for the “program,” much as I would have liked to, I wasn’t going to get home until long after midnight. So I said my goodbyes and took my leave. And drove and drove and drove. The following day I was completely incapable of focusing or getting anything done at all.

It was partly that, at 98, my grandmother has, suddenly taken a downward swing, and you have to assume that there’s little likelihood of an upswing to follow it. Since she has been my main support system for the last six months or so, that kind of took the stuffing out of me. But there was something else… And I tried hard to put my finger on it. I spent more of the morning than I meant to jotting down the names of the people I had met, sending little “nice to meet you” e-mails to the ones I had enjoyed speaking to, and trying to sort out my emotional response to the days’ events. [I couldn’t really contact the Dutchman, as he was only along for the ride, and I had been unable to get his alumnus partner to recognize my existence—oh, well.] And the more I think about it, the more I think it comes down to this:

After I came out to my family and close friends, I skipped town and started a new life as a gay man. [OK, OK, bi, but looking for a guy this time—let’s not squabble about terminology.] Now I had spent time in Nowheresville as a child and as a “youth,” but did not make more than an initial effort to get in touch with the people I had known then who were still in the area. Then I took off for the Big Woods, and was pretty much known as the Goat’s latest squeeze and not much else—though I did mean to contact an old friend of my parents who lived in town, I haven’t. And thereby hangs a tale: I think I was still trying to keep the “gay” and the “straight” sides of me in separate compartments—it does make life easier, as the demands made on both sides of the street don’t really fit me very well. The days at the reunion were the first time, since coming out to my family, that I had to let the two worlds meet in a significant way, and it rattled me.

Everyone was very nice. Anyone who had read my alumni notes knew my story—not to mention the fact that my Christmas letter goes out to my 300 closest friends—it’s not like I was withholding information. Everyone knew. But it’s one thing to tell people, and it’s another thing to be with people who knew you under one set of circumstances and are now seeing you in a whole new light. A few people—there are always a few nitwits in the crowd—had made unpleasant remarks or veiled put-downs, but that’s not my problem. I really think it was the acceptance of the nice people that had set off the emotional alarms: for the first time in quite a while, I was meeting people who had known me for a long time but who now were looking at my sexuality as the first thing they had to deal with rather than the last thing. And that was weird to me. As was the contrast between then and now...

That’s just the way it is.
More later, maybe.

Hang in there, all.


1 comment:

  1. It's important to meet others. I try to not miss an opportunity.