In the Target the people come and go, not fast enough for my taste. I was eventually due in D.C. for my 15-year high school reunion and decided to run a few errands on the way. Except they weren’t on the way, because they involved visiting Target, which is at the north end of the city, putting me even further from D.C. For the New Orleans trip, I wanted to get a garment-bag-style piece of luggage and a padded sleeve for the laptop so that I can carry it in another bag, and I figured that Target would have some inexpensive versions of each.
The parking lot was packed full and streams of shoppers poured in and out of the Loch Raven Target. On my way in, I found myself stuck behind two different family or tribal groups that seemed to have spread themselves out to block the main aisle as efficiently as possible. They lumbered slowly along, necks craning, as if struck simple by the variety of things to buy and the gorgeous flourescent lighting. I bounced back and forth behind them like a pinball, scuffing my shoe in hopes that the noise might inspire one of them to step aside. (This is what I do when I’m running and I don’t want to startle someone by just whipping past them.) Finally, back near the housewares, I squeezed through.
I wasn’t sure that Target even carried luggage but eventually found a modest display of Swiss Army brand bags. No sign of padded laptop sleeves. My resolve to buy evaporated when I remembered that doing so would involve actually spending money, and also I realized I didn’t want a bright red garment bag, which was the only choice. Just what my enemies would like, I thought: providing them with a bright red flag to follow as they track me through the airport crowds. (Wait. Did I type that? Or only think it? Can they hear me?) I headed back to the front of the store, inadvertently cutting through the bra section, which is always a little discomforting. You hope that no one thinks you actually planned this route, plus I was wearing a sportcoat and sunglasses and felt like I stuck out enough.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I saw a Staples and thought that they might have laptop sleeves. “Do you need assistance finding anything?” asked a disinterested employee who sounded like he was making a strong effort not to run screaming from the store. He showed me to the relevant aisle, but there were only actual briefcases for laptops, nothing like what I was looking for. (I’d rather not carry a bag that screams “computer inside!”) Since I don’t get to Staples very often, and since I can’t usually find Pilot G2 pens in .05 tips (the only civilized size) anywhere else, I thought I’d take the opportunity to stock up. While I was standing in the pen aisle, studying the wares, a manager showed a tall, chunky, older man to the white-out display. He was just turning away when the man asked, “now, are these all the same?”
“Yes, sir,” said the manager. “Well, I mean, you’ve got a choice between buff and white.”
The man nodded. “What’s the difference between these and these?” He indicated a traditional bottle of white-out and a package of pen-style white-out applicators.
“You use those like a pen,” answered the manager, turning to to go again.
“But I guess the tip isn’t as wide so you’d have to go back and forth over it a little more,” mused the man, weighing one of each type of white-out product in his hand like the scales of justice. The manager shrugged and kept sidling further away.
“What is this?” the man asked. “Some kind of tape?”
“Yes, sir,” said the manager. “That doesn’t go on in a liquid, it comes out like a little strip of tape.”
“What do you think of it?” asked the man.
“I don’t like it,” answered the manager. He turned his back firmly on the man and walked quickly away.
I selected some pens and managed to get into the only checkout line just as the superannuated clerk was being relieved for her lunch shift. Now it was my turn to make a strong effort not to run screaming from the store as she gathered her things out of her drawer and the next clerk painstakingly signed in. “Did you find everything you were looking for?” I said yes, though it was a lie. I just didn’t want to risk having to stand around and wait some more in the event that the clerk felt “helpful” and called a manager over to discuss the problem. I was just trying to think where I could go to withdraw some cash when the clerk pointed out that the credit-card machine was waiting for my input. “Cash back”? it asked. Don’t mind if I do.
You might think that a high school reunion would be ripe fodder for something like this diary, but I just don’t know what to say about it right now. It was a strange experience, especially considering that, for the most part, I walked away from my high school on graduation day and never looked back. (This was the first reunion I attended.) I didn’t stay particularly close to any of my classmates over the years, so this was the first time I had seen most of these people since that very graduation day. The overriding experience was one of surprise: oh, yes, these are real people, not just phantoms locked away in my memory. Also, fifteen years on, they aren’t kids anymore, which I guess is a fairly obvious statement, but what I mean is that they have histories now, and children, some of them, and a little more character in their faces. They are now so much more than they once were; like me, perhaps they look back at their high school self wondering what was I thinking? Why was this or that so important back then? Why didn’t I ever talk to so and so? What was my problem ?.
The reunion consisted of a dinner-party get-together at the house of one classmate’s parents, in the Spring Valley neighborhood of D.C., behind American University. The houses in Spring Valley are on the large side, shall we say, and this was no exception. Even with 30-40 people standing around with plates and drinks, the house didn’t feel in any way crowded or as if it were approaching capacity. In fact, it felt a little empty, I found myself thinking. It would be a disconcerting place to live in. I think I’d need to throw sheets over a lot of the furniture and close off some wings, just so I wouldn’t feel like a ball bearing rattling around in a milk jug.
So there was small talk, a lot of talk about what kind of work everyone does. And what do you do? The temptation is to slag off on this kind of talk, but this is misguided. If someone doesn’t care about what he or she does, that will become pretty evident and you can just let it go. But if people I’m talking to do care about their jobs, I want to hear about them. This is who they are, after all, what they spend most of their time doing. And I want to know how the story turned out. I know what you said in sophomore English class and how you behaved at that one party, now how has the rest of it turned out so far? Do you have what you want? Are you still looking? Did everything turn out like you hoped? It’s early to make these determinations, and it can all change in a heartbeat, of course. But these people were there at what felt like the beginning of something, they were the particles and attractors that helped shape my own trajectory, whether in emulation or avoidance. They turn out to matter in surprising ways, and I was glad for the chance to reconnect.
It was a poignant experience, though, especially for a nostalgist like myself. When the party broke up I found myself driving not toward the beltway and Baltimore, but south on Wisconsin Avenue toward my old school. For some reason, though I couldn’t bear the thought of walking around on the campus (and besides, I was guessing that security has gotten pretty good there and that my nighttime presence might not have been welcome), I needed to reconnect to some physical location from those days. My head was whirling and I felt unmoored from the chronology of my life, like I was simultaneously 32 and getting ready to move to Montana, and 17 and wondering if everyone can tell how cool I think I am. I parked on a side street south of campus and walked down to a soccer field that is attached to a neighboring school, in a bowl-like depression surrounded by grand old trees. That description should make clear why this was a frequent nighttime hangout spot for my friends back then, and I felt the need to stand on this field and look up past the inky trees at the stars. I was a prickly fellow in high school, and for some reason it was important to me to reject my high school experience as soon as it was over, and it is to my loss that I was not closer with more of these people and did not stay closer with them over the years. People you once knew can become such cartoons if you have only memory to rely on; what you remember is, of course, only a billionth of what they turned out to be. This was a good reminder to receive as A. and I get ready to move far away from anyone we’ve ever known.
Speaking of reminders: as I stood on the dark soccer field, staring up the stars, a stick snapped in the woods and I remembered that I was standing in a lonely field at night in a city. I walked back to my brother’s car and headed out of town, choosing a route that took me past my parents’ old house in Silver Spring, in other words the same route I drove from school and from friends’ houses hundreds of times. The nostalgia was so intense that it was as if I were plucking at some string attached directly to my heart, and it was something of a relief to pull on to I-95 and point the car toward Baltimore. Toward the future? Toward Montana, eventually.
Toward whatever it is life has waiting for me.