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The invitation nagged at me for weeks as it lay on the corner of my desk. The RSVP deadline was days away.
How in the name of tie-dyed t-shirts did Sarah Benson find me this time?
It had been 40 years since I walked out the door of Phillips High School, a graduate in the class of 1970. I got behind the wheel of my ‘65 Mustang and swore I’d never return. I broke that promise to myself when Ted Redford called and convinced me to attend our ten-year class reunion.
“It’ll be a riot to see what everyone looks like now,” Ted said. “We’ll get a block of rooms at the Holiday Inn in Lafayette and party with the old gang ‘til dawn.”
During a moment of weakness, I agreed to go.
Phillips, Indiana was a town of 3,500 citizens, just a stone’s throw from Lafayette. The parents of my former classmates were either farmers, town merchants, or they commuted to jobs in Lafayette. My dad managed the Ford dealership on the edge of town, hence my ’65 Mustang.
I graduated from Western Kentucky University, a state directional institution I called it, with a marketing degree. My 2.85 GPA landed me a job as a salesman for a food processing company in Louisville, where I still lived with my girlfriend, Sandy, in a one-bedroom townhouse. I’d told her about the reunion, knowing she wouldn’t want to go. If she had, her honesty in front of my former classmates could not have been controlled.
I spent the three-hour drive to Lafayette thinking how I might spin my lot in life into a tale worthy of envy. On the positive side, I still had most of my hair, I’d gained only a few pounds, and I was now driving a ‘75 Mustang, compliments of my dad.
I made it a point to keep a low profile in the weeks prior to the reunion. I ignored those annoying requests from the cliquey, popular girls asking for photos and a status report intended to be woven into a 1980-version of our yearbook. There would be a blank space below the “now” side of my “then and now” page in the reunion booklet.
As I approached the Holiday Inn parking lot and saw “Welcome, Phillips Class of 1970” on the marquee, a cold sweat came over me. I doubt if any of my classmates had high expectations for what I’d become in ten years, but I was pretty sure arriving at my reunion in a five-year-old car my father gave me and living in a townhouse where I split the rent with a woman to whom I wasn’t married would put me in the lower quartile of achievement.
The cars parked closest to the entrance of the hotel were later models, a few of them German. As I crept nearer, I noticed the nearby spaces were reserved for valet parking.
I had the misfortune to pull up behind Bruce Mathews with his cheerleader wife, Becky, looking as pretentious as ever. As Bruce stopped and threw the keys to his 500 Series BMW to the valet, I slumped down in my seat and pulled my Mustang to the far end of the lot.
Already regretting my decision to come, I cursed Ted Redford’s name under my breath as I walked across the parking lot in my blue blazer and khaki pants.
He’d damn well better be here.
I had a necktie in the pocket of my sports coat, hoping most of the guys wouldn’t be wearing them. Inside the hotel, I tried assessing the tie situation without getting too close to the reunion check-in desk. To my dismay, it looked like ties were in order, so I took mine from my pocket and headed to the men’s room off the lobby.
As I was about to enter, Bruce Mathews stepped out, his hair perfectly coiffed, dressed in a dark blue, custom-tailored suit, a yellow power tie, and designer shoes that couldn’t be purchased in the state of Indiana.
“Anchorman, is that you?” he asked. That’s what the basketball team called me, because I sat at the end of the bench, “anchoring” it down. I hoped my name tag had my real name, Mike Watson, printed on it.
“Yeah, it’s me. You look great, Bruce. I guess Becky has taken pretty good care of you.”
“You’re right about that,” Becky said, coming up from behind and grabbing Bruce’s hand. Becky’s black, sequined dress hit her at mid-thigh and her silver necklace sucked my eyes into her cleavage. It took me a moment to refocus at eye level.
“Oh, Mike,” Becky exclaimed. “Did you spill something on your tie? You know ice or cold water works best on stains.”
“No, I was just gonna …”
“You hoped you wouldn’t need to wear it, didn’t you?” Bruce belted out loud enough for heads to turn.
“You wouldn’t like working on Wall Street, Anchorman. It’s suits and ties every day for me.”
Grinning, Bruce turned and walked toward the check-in desk with his right hand on Becky’s firm behind. I stood there watching, with my right hand holding my tie.
I hadn’t even made it inside the banquet room, and I already wanted to run back to my car and retrace my path to Louisville. I swallowed hard, walked into the men’s room, and wrapped the tie around my neck. Surely, things couldn’t get much worse.
After slapping my name badge on the pocket of my blazer, I desperately hoped I’d find a drink before someone else found me. I cautiously proceeded inside.
The Lafayette Holiday Inn banquet room was decorated with the style and class you’d expect from students from a small, rural Indiana town. It was 1980, and if disco wasn’t already dying, this reunion would surely kill it.
A mirrored ball spun from the center of the ten-foot high ceiling with spotlights directed at it from each corner of the room. A potbellied DJ stood atop a raised stage at one end of the room. He was dressed in a white disco suit, trying to look like John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever, as he spun a three-year-old hit by Donna Summer. A few couples, who’d obviously had more than one beer, took to the dance floor.
It took only a few seconds for the lights flashing off the spinning ball to give me a pounding headache, but fortunately, the lights impaired everyone’s vision, giving me a chance to find a beer before anyone recognized me.
As my eyes adjusted to the room, I noticed the women seemed to have weathered the past ten years better than the guys. As men approached 30, hair growth became a zero-sum game. As fast as is it fell from the tops of their heads, it grew on their faces. Mustaches and sideburns were everywhere.
“Mikey, ole boy! You made it.”
Squinting, I recognized Ted Redford, and he was with two guys from our old gang, Larry Reynolds and Tim Wadley.
“Hey, guys! Am I ever glad to see you. For a while, I was wondering how long I’d last before I bolted outta here.”
“You’re not going to want to leave, Mikey. I just ran into Susan Weaver, and she looks hotter than she did ten years ago.”
Susan was my last high school girlfriend and the first I’d introduced to the back seat of my Mustang.
“You didn’t say anything to her about me, did you?”
“You mean about you owning several Ford dealerships in Louisville? Yeah, that subject did come up,” Ted replied as the guys nearly doubled over laughing.
“You told her what? Are you nuts?”
“What did you want me to tell her? That you sell dog food supplements?”
Actually, that was one of the products I was responsible for selling.
“Damn, here she comes,” Ted said, spotting her from across the room. “Let’s go get a beer, guys.”
My three buddies, so-called, left me standing there as Susan approached. She did look amazing. Her hair was longer and her curves seemed curvier. As our eyes met, I struggled for my first line.
“Mike, is that you? You haven’t changed a bit,” she said, wrapping her arms around my waist and kissing my cheek. I reached to return the kiss just as she pulled back, leaving me looking like a carp sucking for air.
“Susan, you look fantastic. What keeps you so young?”
“Getting a divorce helped.” Her response was immediate, taking me aback.
“A single girl needs to stay marketable,” she added with a sly smile.
I didn’t have a comeback.
“Ted tells me you’re doing well for yourself. Three car dealerships? I guess you’ve eclipsed your father already.”
I didn’t know if it was the light from the spinning ball or the flashback of Susan in the back seat of my ’65 Mustang, but my response was autonomic, seemingly bypassing any common sense I might have possessed.
“Yeah, selling cars has always been second nature to me.”
FOR THE NEXT COUPLE hours, Susan and I talked, we drank, we danced, and then we talked some more. We both were staying overnight at the hotel, and the way things were progressing, I doubted we’d need two rooms.
The DJ announced last call as Susan and I sat at a table with our old gang. I was trying to find the right line to excuse Susan and me, when I heard someone call her name. A man and woman I didn’t recognize approached our table.
“Hi, Rita,” Susan said, as we all stood to greet the couple. “I didn’t think you were coming tonight.”
It was Rita Evans. I didn’t remember her because she had moved our sophomore year. She’d somehow received an invitation.
“Susan, this is my husband, Jim. We live in South Bend now. Ford transferred us there from Detroit last year.”
“Oh! What a coincidence,” Susan replied. “Mike Watson is a Ford dealer in Louisville. He owns three locations.”
I extended my hand to Jim, who had a bewildered look on his face.
“Really, which ones?” he asked, as we shook hands. “I was a dealer sales rep for Ford and covered the Kentucky territory for a few years. I thought I knew all the owners.”
“Oh, well. I… I purchased the dealerships just recently. About two years ago.”
“Then I would have called on you. Hmmm, that’s strange.”
Sensing an obviously awkward moment, Rita clasped Jim’s hand and nervously began backing away.
“Maybe we’ll see you later. We need to meet some other friends in the bar,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe later,” Susan replied, before turning to glare at me.
I didn’t need to confess. My face and the faces of my friends told the entire story.
Susan picked up her half-empty beer glass from the table and tossed the contents into my face, bringing immediate laughter from the trio of jackals standing beside me. She then grabbed her purse and stomped across the dance floor toward the hotel lobby.
“Well, Mikey. You came this close to pulling it off,” Ted said, holding his forefinger an inch from his thumb. “While Mikey dries off, let’s head to the bar, guys. I think I saw some girls in there who might be impressed by a food additive salesman.”
“You guys go ahead,” I replied, pulling my drenched tie from around my neck. “I think I’ve had enough for one night. I’m heading back to Louisville.”
I sighed as I patted myself dry with a couple of napkins, lifted my sports coat off the back of my chair, and stepped toward the exit. Just hours earlier, I had walked into the reunion wondering if I should wear a tie. Now beer-soaked and wadded in my hand, it appeared not wearing one would have been the better decision.
As I drove home, I wondered if I would’ve gone through with it. Sandy and I weren’t married, but I’d never cheated on her. Sandy knew the real me, and we were happy with our relationship.
Seeing the success of several classmates made me want to believe I was the person Ted had concocted for Susan, but as soon as I found myself alone in a hotel room with her, I’d have realized it wasn’t the real Mike Watson who enticed her into that room.
THAT WAS 30 YEARS AGO. Shortly after returning from the reunion, I told Sandy about my temptation. She was hurt and disappointed, but since nothing really happened, in time she forgave me.
Since then, Sandy and I married and had two beautiful children who blessed us with four grandkids. We retired after successful marketing careers with separate Fortune 500 companies.
If I did decide to attend my 40-year reunion, I was confident my personal and professional accomplishments put me in the top quartile, at least Sandy and I thought so. We couldn’t be happier with this phase of our lives.
I went to my study, removed the invitation from its envelope, and looked at it one more time.
There wouldn’t be anyone there who’d impress me. I ripped it in half and tossed the pieces into the wastebasket.