I was far from home when it arrived in the mail.
‘It’s been 10 years since high school,’ the invitation read. ‘Where are you now?’
Good question. I was maybe hiking in Montana. I was maybe in New York, broke and dangling. I was, for certain, unemployed.
‘Have you ever wondered what your classmates are up to? Now you can find out!’
I was 28 and traveling the country, sleeping on friends’ couches and in the backseat of my car. I had no husband and no qualms about that. I had no boyfriend and practically no qualms about that. Sometimes, when money was tight, I ate this big jar of peanut butter like it was yogurt.
‘Bring your family to the reunion picnic! Bring your spouse to the pre-reunion mixer!’
I had been on the road for four months, living off the 401K from the newspaper job I quit so I could stare into the abyss. But most days I sang pop songs in my car and visited places like the World’s Only Corn Palace. From nine to five I concocted life plans, presenting them in the evenings like they were something to patent.
‘I am going to bring back The Makeout,’ I told my friends.
They didn’t know The Makeout had disappeared.
Oh, it had. At some point, I had abandoned The Makeout altogether, skipped it like a long preface, rocketing straight to the bedroom, a sign of my swaggering womanhood. But I woke up feeling bad and alone, feeling badly not alone. It called for moderation, a high-schooler’s sloppy and simple expression of sexuality: lips and breath and tongue and the harmlessness, the guiltlessness.
‘I am the New Makeout Sarah,’ I announced.
‘So will the New Makeout Sarah make out with someone at her high-school reunion?’ a friend asked.
Please. The New Makeout Sarah had standards.
Right after my mom told me about the reunion invitation I began spinning fantasies. Me with the prom king, our bodies crushing against each other in a bathroom stall. But that was movie-fed nonsense; I knew how those popular boys would turn out. Suit-and-tie professionals who loved their wealth and their sorority wives. Driving expensive cars, taking interesting vacations about which they had nothing interesting to say. Did I judge them unfairly? Well, they did it first.
‘I’m not even gonna go to my stupid high-school reunion,’ I said.
‘Why not?’ my friend asked.
Because it’s a bother, that’s why. I itched at the thought of measuring my life against theirs, everyone scrutinized on sight—the weight you’ve gained, the hair you’ve lost.
‘Come on. Aren’t you curious?’
Of course I was curious. A high-school reunion is like classic Hollywood denouement: Ten years later, the football captain ends up fat and faltering, the Prom Queen has four kids, the nerd enters with the babe. I was a sucker for it, wanted to share in the grand crashing character arcs, shattered dreams and fallen stars, violence and shame. I just didn’t want anyone to judge me.
‘Judge you for what?’
I wished I’d written a book. A book with my name on it. A book of ideas, important ideas.
‘No one else in your class has written a book of ideas either.’
Good point. I sent in my $78 registration fee, a swan dive into the shark pool. Now there was only one problem, and his name was Lindsay Graham.
Lindsay Graham transferred to our high school in my junior year. Although I was roundly regarded as the best writer of the seventh grade, by 16 I was too busy drinking in parks and sweating in the backseat of my boyfriend’s Chevy Nova to care much about academics. I coasted through AP English on big words and Cliff’s Notes. Sometimes I didn’t even bother with the Cliff’s Notes. Before a pop quiz on Heart of Darkness I asked a classmate to sum up the book, which I hadn’t even cracked.
‘You have to remember Colonel Kurtz’s final words,’ she said, and I was delighted to find that very question on the quiz.
I wrote what I had heard: ‘Colonel Kurtz’s final words were ‘The whore, the whore.’’
My grades were suffering.
Meanwhile Lindsay Graham was becoming a legend.
‘I want to read you this wonderful satire that Lindsay wrote,’ my English teacher would announce. ‘We can all learn a lot by studying Lindsay’s first sentence on this essay,’ my English teacher would announce. ‘Blah blah blah Lindsay Graham wank-wank-wank,’ my English teacher would announce. He used bigger words than us, he dropped better names. We hated him. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean ‘me.’
Everyone else seemed to like him fine. Even my best friend drank the Kool-Aid. ‘In ten years,’ she said, ‘that guy is going to be famous.’
‘Well,’ I sneered, ‘he’ll have to get rid of those braces first.’
Ten years later, I wasn’t famous, but I also wasn’t ashamed of who I had become; I’d written for a paper and traveled a little and that made me a writer, a kind-of-writer-maybe. But you see my problem, right? If Lindsay Graham had been published, I would have to kill him.
The reunion was too bright and far too sober. I had driven into Dallas that day, the last stop on a trip that stretched over 25,000 miles, and I expected more than a buffet and a cash bar, songs by Tears for Fears and Young MC playing to an empty dance floor. It was a contagion of politeness, everyone’s hands clasped in their laps.
‘I’m a banker in Dallas.’
‘I’m working at a law firm.’
‘I’m a former elementary school teacher turned full-time mom. I volunteer at the church.’
I grew restless for more volume. ‘This is some fucking delicious roast beef,’ I said to the person beside me in the buffet line. ‘Can you let me through to the goddamn cheese block?’
I wanted to ash in the punch. I wanted someone to bleed.
‘Lindsay Graham,’ I caught his eye as he passed my table, ‘I bet you don’t remember who I am.’ I covered my nametag with my hand.
‘You’re Sarah Hepola,’ he said, and sat right down on the arm of my chair.
‘Oh. That’s right. So, what do you do now?’
He said something about business and computers, but I didn’t hear it. What I heard was: ‘not published.’ This reunion was fantastic.
‘Can you believe this is a fucking cash bar?’ he asked, pulling out cigarettes and a fistful of drink tickets. ‘You want one?’
I grabbed his arm.
Two hours later, my tongue was running on red wine.
‘Bryan Turner, seventh grade, you rocked my world!’ I told Bryan Turner.
‘Betsy Carlton, I spent 10 years wanting to be you!’ I told Betsy Carlton, who responded by telling me I was ‘so gay.’
‘I always liked you,’ I told people. ‘I always thought you were cute,’ I told people. ‘I always wanted to know you better,’ and it felt good to say it, and I knew it felt good to hear it, and I wasn’t lying either. I had wanted all of those things, which is so embarrassing and obvious, that maybe I just wanted them to like me back.
‘Lindsay Graham, I hated you in high school.’ I yanked him over by the sleeve. ‘You were the best writer in our class, and it drove me nuts. Do you remember when you read that poem to our class?’
‘I don’t remember any of this stuff,’ he said. ‘I really don’t know how you do.’
‘Maybe I made it up,’ I said. ‘I’m good at fiction.’
‘I think it’s wonderful that you’re a writer.’
‘I’m not a writer. I’m a kind-of-writer-maybe.’
‘Well I’m not even that,’ he said. ‘But I am an excellent editor.’ He held up two drink tickets. ‘Last call?’
I grabbed his arm.
I don’t remember when we started making out, or how exactly, but I do remember where. It was on the sidewalk outside, where we went to smoke after the janitors busted us upstairs. We made out ‘til our lips were numb. We made out in the elevator. We made out in the lobby in front of the janitors. We made out for so long that when we got back to the reunion, everyone had left. The reunion was over.
‘What are we going to do?’ I asked. He had lost his ride, and we had lost our friends. He made hectic calls on his cell phone while I basked in my badness. ‘I am going to make out with the world. I am going to make out every day.’
‘I have to tell you something,’ he said, hanging up and sighing. ‘Last night, at the pre-reunion dinner you missed, I kind of hooked up with someone, and that was her.’ He told me her name.
‘We made out.’
‘What are we, in high school?’
‘I just thought, ‘It’s my high-school reunion. Why not?’ We kissed in the street in front of her parents’ house. It was too perfect.’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘What’s the point?’
There was no point. Except, goddammit, he had one-upped me again.
We went back to his place and held hands on the couch. I had won an award—‘The person who traveled the farthest to be here’—and the prize, a bottle of Cook’s champagne, laid in my lap.
‘This is the dumbest award,’ I said. ‘It has nothing to do with who I am. It’s like winning ‘Highest Heels.’’
‘It has a little to do with who you are,’ he said.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘It has a little to do with who I am.’
‘Hey, at least you won something.’
‘At least I didn’t win ‘Least Changed.’’
‘That’s not an award, it’s a death sentence.’
We thumbed through his yearbook, laughing at the hyperbole—you are the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, I’ll never forget you, I’ll miss you terribly —signed with the stamp of our conservative Texas town: In Christ. In His Grip. In Him.
‘God,’ I said, staring at our pictures, ‘that was like a million years ago.’
‘You know, none of this matters now.’
‘It matters a little bit.’
‘Okay. It matters a little bit.’
I grabbed a pen and found an empty page. ‘Hey Lindsay,’ I wrote. ‘Whaddaya say in ten years, you and me make out? Change often and drastically, Sarah.’
We made out. I saw him the next day.
And the next.