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"Jungle Jo", excerpt

Friday 11/15/19

This is from a story about a woman who attends her twenty-fifth high school reunion to visit with a monster.


***

My husband Gary has a theory about reunions with which I am inclined to agree, though he is, as if per-policy, our family’s sole reunion-goer. I mostly only know a kind of reunion facsimile, when Gary attends one of his reunions—he went to a lot of schools, belonged to lot of clubs—and the kids and I watch a bad musical, a bowl of candies on my lap, Maggie on one side, Will the other. As mid-teens they view our reunion nights as irony-infused, stylized re-creations of a time when they would have been too embarrassed to tell their friends this is what they were doing on a Friday night. I take it where I can get it.


“You’re at these reunions, and people have paunches, their hair is gone,” Gary says, “but all that ever really seems to change about them are life particulars, not internal particulars. How many kids they have, what their jobs are. Put them back in a room together, the jock is still the jock, only he weighs three bills now and sells insurance. Unfunny guy who wanted to be funny is still unfunny, but trying. The hot girl still wants you to look at her, but maybe she doesn’t want to go to a gym, she just wants it to happen, be like it was and always should be. People don’t change a lot in this life.”


Gary’s a thought-leaper. Jump right into what you’re thinking “Everyone thinks we used to change more,” he said, like he had lifted a question from my brain and figured he might as well answer it. “But I bet it’s always been a pretty constant case.”


One hopes one is not that way. I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t go to my ten-year reunion. Tossed the email announcing my twentieth without opening it. A reunion at my school was a reunion with a monster. Not, perhaps, a monster as one thinks of them, which I believe we all do, starting as children, continuing on as adults, always with the monster in our thoughts, but different forms.


The monster-breakdown, when you’re four, five six: Green—as if that was the official color code, or else cinnabar; fanged, furred, or instead scaled, coiled, part beast A, part beast B. A stitch-job from an underworld. Gets more complex later, subtle. Shadow world. In-between world. Our school didn’t change. A stipulation in the charter, with provisions of funds from the widow of a dead real estate magnet, took care of that. It was stocked with the best teachers—or presumably the best teachers, given how many came from Ivy League schools, pretty strange for a high school, but such were the salaries. By the time I got there, enough parts of the building looked antiquated that the whole thing felt relic-y, bygone. The water fountains, for example, these aqueous boxes of pith helmet-color that people who styled their hair like James Dean might have once drank from. Usually this was called charm. Every school becomes known for something. Football program. Tuition cost. Crime.


It was a lot like any high school, ultimately. Some students loved it, some would pretty much rather die than have to go another day, but that latter group found a way, even as they carried those experiences forward into life and always had to try to be overcoming them. I don’t know by what age you learn it, but by high school you know that some things are never going to go totally away. Hell, a little away is the most we can hope for a lot of the time.


Gary wasn’t surprised when I told him I was going to my twenty-fifth reunion. Maybe it was the quarter century mark. Maybe it was on account of how I had been asking him about earlier times, when we first met, what he thought about me, saw, if he felt challenged to look past traits, shortcoming, truths, like I was someone he might “coach up,” turn into a better form, be a better product than what I was.


Sounds controlling, but we help each other, you like to think, to get to where you can best be. I look at the kids that way. Not just with me and them. Between the two of them. They think that I view our reunion nights, when Gary is not there, as being about me, for me, my tapping of the air to feel that the invisible connection is still there, but it’s really more about them. That they are together. That they are tapping the air between sister and brother, brother and sister. Even if they don’t know it.


You marvel at how a gym can look the same, years, decades, later. The basketball backboards impaled on metal rods, folded up into the ceiling, teeth in the bottom of a jaw that could use a whitening, though they were yellow, too, when I was a student here. I don’t recognize people readily, but they know me. Is there any way that you can say that you haven’t aged much and not sound obnoxious? You certainly will if you don’t respond to every compliment on that score with a remark asserting that the same goes. Right back at you. I don’t like to think that how well you pull this off, in the larger sense of things, determines if you will be liked or not, but I bet it goes a long way.


The band is loud. Cover band. You’re reminded that Def Leppard really was that big. My boyfriend Steve Winlock had me put sugar on his dick one time when we were fooling around. Big Def Leppard guy. I don’t know if the sugaring of his member was a deliberate homage. The sugar and the salt after. “Step inside, walk this way/You and me babe—hey hey.” Then the riff. Guitars sounding like synthesizers. All of the other occasions and we never kissed after, but he made sure we did that time, but I think that was because it was going to be the last time, and he knew it even if I did not, and he may have kissed me had there been ketchup on him. He played in a band called the Bloody Dagger, so maybe that would have been too on the nose.


I recognized him right away. He was 6’5’’. Came over with his wife, who couldn’t have been more than five feet. Former gymnast. Still looked like she could do it. “Daze,” he said, “my goodness,” arms outstretched. Always Daze, never Daisy. All the hair, all the same color. “Wouldn’t think you’d be here.” A note of the inauspicious. One might not have noticed it if you hadn’t known him intimately enough that sugar excursions were not so very strange—and he always liked a finger in his ass when he came—so I wasn’t surprised when his wife—I don’t even remember her name—did one of those laughs that is not really a laugh, but it tries awfully hard to get you to think it is, even if it only last three seconds.


But I was not there to see Steve. Or the people I might have liked more, but thought about less. I was there to see the monster. You always heard the monster before you saw it, which may seem like a monster hallmark, but I don’t think so. You sense monsters. Skin prickles. Gary had a heart scare and he had to do a stress test. I went with him. “This will give you peace of mind,” the cardiologist said. “I bet I can get your heart rate up to 180.” He made that sound like a great thing. A “this will prove wellness to you at all costs” thing, but also a number he liked to hit as an envelop-pushing doc. Bit of a daredevil streak. Which was probably in my head. Gary hit 190. He was fine.


The monster sounded like water, in a sealed off room, dripping, but the dripping was precise. Not onto floor, wood, or brick, but onto metal. Water from a pipe dripping onto another pipe, the sound that makes you wonder if you’re really hearing it at all when you are home, before you rise with celerity from your seat to make sure the water heater isn’t spurting out its guts and this was the sole evidence, the lone indication, that reached your ears, or the basement having gone fluvial while you were at the market, maybe passed out on the couch. Open the door, and it is tidal time.


From such small plinks come such large waves. Our monster made me think of showers. If the water fountains were mid-century relics, the showers were the stuff of Turkish baths, with vague nozzles. Dating Steve was easy, because it was an expectation. People think expectations are a form of pressure, but I have never viewed them that way. There’s a current and you’re moving in it, with it, that’s expectation; you just have to not go under.