The four man band was banging away at ‘Rock Around the Clock’ like they were getting paid by the decibel. What they lacked in accuracy, they made up for with gusto. Their sequined blue jackets radiated stars like a mirror ball, and the chandeliers at the Ramada Inn were shimmering and shaking. The crowd loved it. It was the twentieth Springfield High reunion, and each blast from the past was greeted with a wild cheer from the crowd and another mad dash for the dance floor. Elvis. Chubby Checker. Smokey Robinson. The Everly Brothers. This was our music. It was in our bones. And, as always, it summoned us irresistibly to the past. The spell was upon us now—we were once more seventeen, rocking and rolling with abandon in the tiny brick field house, the perfume of buttered popcorn hot in our noses, our socks gliding across the well-oiled gym floor.
Those who couldn’t find room to dance clustered in tiny knots at the tables around the room, reaffirming their fundamental connection, rekindling the white-hot fire of their adolescence. Several lonely spouses sat pasted against the wall, nursing their beers—invited to the party but not included in the celebration. A few favored teachers wandered from group to group, joining the laughter—no longer chaperones, but blood brothers in the coterie which was the class of 1960. Beer cans and paper plates littered the tables and overflowed from the corrugated waste bins in the corners.
I wandered through the crowd in a daze. Finally, I spied Tony Ladori coming off the dance floor in my direction, mopping his swarthy face with a handful of paper napkins. Tony and I had been in school together since kindergarten, and that alone forged a lifelong bond, despite our nearly opposite interests and personalities. He was a jock, now a sports writer for the local paper, while I taught science at the junior college.
I waved. “Tony. Get over here. I have to talk to you.”
“Hey, Luke. Kickin’ ass?” Between the throbbing music and the boisterous crowd, we had to shout to be heard. I led him off to a table in the corner and we sat down.
“Hey, man,” Tony said. “This is the best reunion yet.”
“Tell me about it. You’re not going to believe what just happened.”
He cocked his head in curiosity. The band started pounding out a loud approximation of “All Shook Up,” and I waited a minute for the cheering to slack off.
“Darby Willette just told me she had a gigantic crush on me all through high school.”
Tony’s eyebrows shot up and his mouth dropped open in exaggerated surprise. “You’re shitting me. Darby was homecoming queen. She was, like, all everything. You were a nerd. She didn’t even know you existed.”
I shrugged. “That’s what she told me. I was just dancing with her.”
“She’s got to be messing with you, man. I don’t believe it.”
We were both quiet for a while, thinking of the possibilities. Tony scratched his head while I twisted my wedding band around on my finger.
“She only dated quarterbacks, man. The kids with cars. College guys. I don’t believe it.”
“I’m telling you, that’s what she said. You really think she’s just putting me on? I mean, she was cool, but she was pretty nice, too, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, she was okay for a social. Man, if this is true, you know what it means?”
“It means you could have been bonking her all through school, man! You could have married her and bonked her every night for the rest of your life. Look at her—almost forty and she’s still totally hot!”
We both watched her across the floor, doing the Watusi with Dale Webster to ‘Queen of the Hop.’ “Jesus. You’re right.”
“We need a couple of beers, man. I’ll be right back—don’t go away.” He plunged headfirst into the mob around the bar.
Was Tony right? What did I miss out on? How different could my life have been? High school was okay, but maybe it could have been spectacular. Maybe it could have been a rollercoaster ride I’d remember all my life. Was she putting me on? I knew it was too late, that the arcs of our lives had already crossed and passed on, but still…
Tony was back with the beers. “Was she hitting on you, you think?”
“No, it didn’t feel like that.”
“Too bad. So what did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything. I was totally shocked and kind of embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say.” I took a long swallow of beer.
Now Darby was doing the Mashed Potato with Chuckie Herns, her long, shimmering hair matched her sparkling gold dress as she whirled around the dance floor.
“Well, I guess this is a reunion you’ll remember. Hang on, my wife wants me.” He waved across the room. “I’ll be back.”
This was just bizarre. The Queen of All She Surveyed had the hots for me? A science geek who didn’t even have a date until his junior year? It still didn’t register. I looked around for my wife. Sandy and her two best school buddies were glued together like Siamese triplets in the hallway. Just like in high school. A tiny shadow of guilt flickered in the corner of my mind, but I ignored it. This was all in the past, anyway, right? I went searching for Sherrie Pletz. She was Darby’s best friend. I just had to know.
* * *
“Hi, Sherrie,” I shouted.
The band had switched to a slow set with ‘Break it to Me Gently.’ More sedate couples began drifting out to the dance floor, hand in hand, while the overheated boppers swarmed the bar, flushed with nostalgic excitement. The air was heavy with sweat and beer.
“Hi, Luke!” She threw her arms around my neck and gave me a big hug. “Long time no see. I guess ten years, in fact—I haven’t seen you since last reunion. So what’s new with you?”
Sherrie was cute, a tiny sparkplug with flaming red hair. Through the years, she had gone a little plump, like most of us, and the flame was likely kindled now from a bottle. She was wearing a tight flapper dress, short and sparkly with lots of fringe. We did small talk for a few minutes, catching up on spouses, kids and jobs. I maneuvered her slowly back out of the crowd, toward a quieter spot in the corner.
“Hey, I want to ask you something. I don’t want to make a big deal or anything, but I was wondering… I heard that Darby might have kind of liked me, or something, in high school…
She gave a sharp shriek and started laughing. Not just a polite little chuckle, but a big boffola. I could feel my face getting red. I should have known. Darby had just been making fun of me. Or maybe just flattering me a little because she felt sorry for a clueless geek.
“After twenty years, you’re just finding this out? Did she tell you?”
“Well, yeah. . . Wait. What? Really? She did?”
“Yes! Really, she did. Boy, Luke, you sure haven’t changed much. And that’s a good thing. Are you kidding? We all had crushes on you. You were such a sweet guy.”
I felt some basic shift in the quantum structure of the universe. I had been transported to another dimension. The north and south poles reversed their magnetic forces. The band launched into ‘To Know Him Is to Love Him,’ but they sounded more like the Animals than the Teddy Bears. Dancers started shedding their shoes.
“But. . . I mean. . . why didn’t. . . I wasn’t that. . . um.” My face flushed again as I hunted for words that I knew would never come.
“Luke, you were so totally oblivious—all you were interested in were frogs and rocks and stars. Girls weren’t even on your radar screen. You were so serious. And so innocent. You never noticed us.”
“Yes, I did! Honest. I noticed. I definitely noticed.” She ignored me.
“You were just yourself. That’s why all the girls liked you. Most of the cute guys thought they were God’s gift to women, prancing around like little bandy roosters, trying to cop a feel every chance they got. Especially the jocks. Do you think girls are only attracted to studs on the football team?”
“Well, sure, aren’t they?”
She laughed again. “Anyway, she knew she wasn’t right for you.”
“What? What?” Wasn’t right for me? It was all coming at me too fast. I couldn’t keep up. I had loved and lost, all in the space of fifteen minutes.
She got quiet and gave me a long and serious look. She reached up and grabbed me by the ears. She pulled my face down to hers and kissed me hard on the mouth. I was flabbergasted. She released me and smiled. “You’re still a sweet guy. I’ll see you in another ten years.”
She gave me a very, very seductive wink, then turned and walked back to her friends, switching her hips to the music, the fringe on her dress dancing in counterpoint.
* * *
I stood in the corner in suspended animation as the band pounded their way through what sounded vaguely like ‘Such A Night’ and what was either a quirky version of ‘Crazy’ or one of the musicians strangling a cat. Finally, they took a break. They needed one. Everyone with ears needed one.
In the interval of relative silence, the small bands of revelers began waltzing from table to table in a whirlwind game of musical chairs, hunting down old flames, snapping up leftover hors d’oeuvres, searching for purses, claiming centerpieces, taking phone numbers and comparing family photos.
Was I the stupidest person in the universe?
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Alan Feldman sidling along the wall toward me. A large, colorful plastic flower sprouted from the buttonhole of the inevitable corduroy jacket. Alan was a psychologist now.
I turned to him. “Am I the stupidest person in the universe?”
“Well, you have to understand that there are still a lot of people in the universe I haven’t met, yet, but so far you’re right up there close to the. . . ”
“Did you know that Darby Willette liked me in high school?”
“What! You knew too? Did everybody else in school know? Was I the absolute last one to find out? Why didn’t you tell me? You were supposed to be my best friend!”
“You seemed to be pretty happy with Sandy.”
“But we didn’t start dating until our junior year. Even then, it might have been nice to have some options. Cripes. Darby Willette!”
The band was back at it. I heard the opening riff of ‘You Don’t Know What You’ve Got’ as they swung into the final set. Suddenly the dance floor was packed again and the noise level surged another dozen decibels.
“You never even knew girls existed until your junior year. What, you wanted to hang out with the socials? I don’t recall that being high on your list of priorities.”
“I’m not talking about the socials, I’m talking about Darby Willette.”
“Well, what did you think the two of you would do when you hung out? Can you see Darby Willette helping you slice samples of frozen lizards for the microscope, like Sandy? Can you picture her up all night with you taking slides of the rings of Saturn? Darby?”
“I was thinking more of making out in the back seat of my dad’s Ford. I can certainly picture Darby doing that. In fact, I really like that picture.”
“Am I wrong in thinking that you and Sandy were doing more than catching frogs for biology class down at Kelly’s Pond all those spring nights?”
I had to smile.
“Look. At Darby,” he said. She was doing the stroll with some guy I didn’t know. Maybe it was her husband. The band was back in slow mode, finally agreeing on a key and producing a surprisingly mellow ‘Since I Don’t Have You.’
Alan held his hands up, framing the scene like a film director. “Look at Darby’s face. Crop out the hair—it didn’t used to be that blonde. Crop out the boobs—they weren’t that big back in high school. Crop out the dress—I give you that she knows how to wear clothes. Is her face really any prettier than Sandy’s?”
I looked for a while. “No, I guess maybe not.”
“No. It’s really not. And can you really tell me you’d want to be out on the dance floor, in the middle of the action, every single dance of the night? And after this at Tommy’s Hot Spot until two in the morning? And then breakfast at Denny’s at four with the whole gang? Because that’s what socials do.”
I was silent.
“Listen, my young, naive and sentimental friend: we are each drawn to that path, however circuitous, which winds its way to our inherent destiny. You’ve been on yours since about the second grade, and, as far as I can see, you haven’t budged a hair off it since. And that is why you are one of the luckiest sonovabitches in the universe.”
Alan punched my arm and sidled off, leaving me to my confusion of thoughts.
The band wound down their final set. I looked at my watch. It was midnight. Pumpkin time. The ancient brick walls with their crepe paper decorations began fading slowly from our collective imagination, the fragrance of popcorn and linseed oil succumbing to a tired haze of sweat, alcohol and cigarette smoke. The rising house lights chased the last tendrils of illusion into the corners, leaving us staring at flocked wallpaper and cheap glass chandeliers. Forty-year-old legs began to have second thoughts about their turbocharged sprint down memory lane.
The band had finally blown out their vocal cords and were packing up their sequins. Someone had plugged a record player into the house PA system and it was belting out more oldies, but the spell was broken. The crowd was coming down from its delicious high, breaking up into small animated groups, babbling its way out of the hall in a final frenzy of hugs, handshakes and never-to-be-fulfilled promises. The three musketeers had wrapped up their love fest, too. Sandy was walking across the dance floor toward me. Her new haircut was a lot shorter than usual. It was surprisingly sexy. She was wearing her go-anywhere little black dress. I could see why it went everywhere—it made her legs look impossibly long and shapely. Alan was right. If anything, I thought, she’s prettier than Darby. Over the PA, the Drifters were now crooning ‘Save the Last Dance for Me.’
“Hi, Hon,” she said. “Have fun tonight? You about ready to head home?”
“The kids are out on their own tonight,” I said, putting my arm around her. “What do you think about driving down to Kelly’s Pond and catching some frogs?”
Bob Beach asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work