Photos by Danya Carey
Saturday, June 1, arrives. It’s a little overcast, and I’m a little nervous.
And that’s the understatement of the decade.
I’m about to go to my 10-year high school reunion. I know, there’s no way I can possibly be this old — but here we are. I graduated from East Ventura’s Buena High School in 2003, a whopping 10 years ago this month. It’s been a heck of a ride.
We’ve seen the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the near collapse of our banking system and housing market, two wars, the election and reelection of our nation’s first black president, gay marriage briefly becoming legal in California, the birth of the “green movement,” climate change begin to throttled the earth anyway, the creation of Facebook and all its social media spawn, and far too many hipsters wearing skinny jeans.
Collectively, for both better and worse, we’ve been through a lot. Individually, does anybody even know anymore? How ya doin’, 20- and 30-somethings? Hangin’ in there? Just barely?
Our generation is the first to grow into adulthood under the watchful eye of the Internet, but that doesn’t mean our deeper selves are any more known to each other. Sometime in the last five years, most of us managed to curb the rampant over-sharing and got really good at crafting lovely online versions of ourselves.
We’ve largely stayed “in touch” with our high school classmates via Facebook. In fact, that’s how this reunion invitation came to me. I was “tagged” in a group message, along with just about every other member of our 500-some-member graduating class. The organizer, Davin Carey, now a financial guru in Ventura but formerly our class treasurer, tagged everyone he could find, like a giant, electronic game of hide-and-seek. He managed to find those of us he hadn’t seen in 10 years. Such as myself.
It’s not as though I don’t want to see all the wonderful nerds I hung out with in high school (who have grown up to be smart, funny and surprisingly socially adept adults). It’s just that, when we walked down that makeshift graduation alley in Buena’s quad 10 years ago, we were so sure we’d have it figured out by now. We were certain. We’d take a couple of college semesters to get it together, have maybe a few wild nights, get that out of our systems, and then everything would fall into place. All the frayed corners of our lives would slip into a neat bowtie. We would look good. We’d find a rewarding, well-paying, awe-inspiring — but not overly demanding — career. We’d have the beginnings of a family. Weekends we’d spend in Europe; and afternoons at the local animal shelter. Home would be a lovely little place with a couple of cats or maybe a parrot, just to keep it interesting.
This happened to no one. Or at least no one all at once — some people got pieces, either the dream job or the wonderful partner or the cherub child or a Europe rendezvous. But no one got the whole shebang. And I don’t know anyone who got the parrot.
Facebook stalking has made me pretty certain of our collective failure to measure up to what weren’t even our wildest dreams, but were what we thought our wildest dreams should be.
Members of the Buena High School class of 2003 greet one another 10 years later.
We were children of the sumptuous ’90s, growing up in a middle-class beach town. We couldn’t wait to leave, but we still thought we had it made. No one knew what a recession was — people would have thought you were talking about a receding hairline or maybe a school recess procession. Our generation, perhaps more than any other, didn’t see it coming — that crippling economic screw-up, which would rock our nation and hit Ventura County especially hard in the late 2000s.
In high school economics class, we played games where we bought stocks and tried to see who could make the most fictional money. Everyone always made money because stocks were always going up. This was the way the world worked.
How could we have known differently, until something different happened to us?
“We all thought we’d have our lives together by this point,” says my classmate Rachel Conklin, who’s getting a master’s degree in public health, inspired by a Bill and Melinda Gates talk, and who I’m certain will save lives someday. “We thought, oh, we’ll have careers set, plans made, families in the works. No. We still don’t have it figured out.”
But every generation has its stories, its angst, says CSUCI sociology professor Elizabeth Hartung. “I think high school continues to be the crucible, and when people look back on adolescence, they’re looking back at high school and where they fell in the social status and with what cliques they most identified with.
“There are some people who have their very best years in high school, and I think, happily, most of us do not.”
Anthropologists describe the period between youth and not-quite-adulthood as “limerence,” Hartung says, “the idea of being in between statuses, of being neither fish nor fowl, neither child nor adult.”
Thanks to the recession and shifting marriage and birth patterns in America, that period of limerence is “extending further and further,” possibly even into people’s late 20s, she says. “People have launched into a sluggish recessionary economy, so it’s been harder to be independent, if you gauge being independent as paying your own bills, having a job and living on your own.”
Case in point: myself. Although it’s not as though I completely belly-flopped, it’s safe to say I haven’t exactly had a golden, sparkling, perfect decade. I meandered for a while in my early 20s, fresh-out of college, without any clue of what I wanted to do for a career and just an inkling of who I wanted to become. All I knew was that I loved writing. Through divine providence, luck and, admittedly, a lot of hard work, that passion led to a job, and then some others. I’ve somehow managed to scrape together a living as a journalist for the last six years.
I also had a daughter a year and a half ago, who’s teaching me more than I will ever teach her. She is, far and away, the best thing that’s ever happened to me. We live in a tiny house in Ventura, with a big garden and a lot of dandelions. Life is good, and life is not easy.
Aside from her, it’s not as though I have much to brag about. I’m a single mom without a traditional career track, zero graduate degrees and barely any wine-tasting experience. I don’t have a retirement fund. I have bare-bones health insurance. And I’ve devoted far too much time over the last two years to perfecting my kombucha recipe.
Reunions offer a chance “to look at yourself in the mirror,” says Hartung, who attended her 10-year high school reunion in rural Kansas three decades ago. It was fine, she says, but there were some posturing and a bit of bragging.
“I do think that by the 20th reunion, there’s less concern about the posturing, the trotting out of degrees or number of children or economic successes,” she says. “When you get to a 25th reunion, or a 40th, you’ve all been sort of equally beaten up by life and faced the inevitable disappointments.”
Hartung, who hasn’t been back to a reunion since that first one, just got an invitation to her 40th. “I’m actually thinking about going back,” she says. “By the time you hit the 40th, people are beginning to die, and I haven’t been back to my hometown for a long time.”
A few weeks before my reunion, I drive to Buena on a Saturday morning, the campus wide open and quiet as a yawn. I park where I would have parked my falling-apart Mazda, circa 2003.
I walk the way I used to take to classes, wandering the now-empty halls. Everything feels smaller. Everything feels the same.
If I try hard enough, I can almost hear the halls echoing with the voices of my classmates again, those same voices I’d hear in a few weeks.
I walk to the center of campus and lean against the brick wall where I used to eat lunch. The quad looks like the palm of an upturned hand. The jasmine is blooming beneath the trees, as it has every June for the last decade, and I’m thinking about how strange life is. That I’m here now. That I was here then. How scary and expansive life seemed to me then. How sometimes it still does.
The trees still look scraggly, as though they’ve been preyed upon by seagulls and stray teenagers, which they probably have. There are still tons of gum plastered to the sidewalk like a giant Jackson Pollock painting, and I think about how some of it’s bound to be from the mouths of people I knew. Weird.
I walk past the lockers, still rusty around the edges, and trace my hand along the cream-colored walls. Painted on the windows of the studio art classroom, alongside a giant octopus, is an Albert Einstein quote: “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”
I think about how there’s so much we imagine that never happens. So much we never do that does. How sometimes it feels like we’re walking in a thick fog of life, and how sometimes it’s clear as day. How we don’t really ever figure it out, we just get better at living in the mystery.
There’s a purple flowering tree dumping petals all over the grass, and in the distance you can see the blue-green hills — those same hills. The smell of jasmine is everywhere. A woman is walking her dog through the halls.
I take off my sunglasses. I want to see everything.
The morning of the reunion, I text my friend Angie Nafie — because that’s what we do now, we no longer call — and we decide to go together. She’s a yoga and Pilates teacher in New York City, and just happens to be visiting this week, and I’m so thankful. “Our hearts have evolved to beat the same way,” she says.
I put on a long blue cotton dress and sandals, and consider spending the remaining few minutes searching for stray gray hairs, but instead decide to look up what poetry has to say about reunions. The last 10 years have taught me to be kind to my dorky self.
I find a poem by A.E. Stallings, “Written on the eve of my 20th high school reunion, which I was not able to attend.” As I read it on my iPhone, one line reaches out and shakes me: “We carry with us the omnipresent and ever-changing now.”
I walk in to the reunion, arm in arm with Angie, and everyone starts hugging, even if they never touched in high school. For all the hugs going around, the creep factor is surprisingly low. The vibe is good.
The reunion is on the patio at The Tavern, a downtown watering hole a few blocks from the beach. It’s an open bar, and it’s the first time we’ve all been legally allowed to have a drink together.
Friends and folks I haven’t seen in, well, a decade are milling around, smiling. There are 70 of us. It’s almost too much for this introvert, but everyone is just so nice, and somehow I happen upon interesting, meaningful conversations. A classmate tells me about helping refugees, another shares how she’s helping new moms breastfeed and a third divulges what she knows about living off the grid in Hawaii. In our Buena brood, there’s a Harvard-educated lawyer, a rocket scientist, a special-ed teacher and a biologist whose real, actual job is to save dolphins.
We’re also reminiscing and cataloging our various reinventions of ourselves. There’s a guy with long brown hair who looks exactly like Russell Brand. No one recognizes him until he gets out an old photo. “See?” he says. “Still me.”
It feels good, if a little uneasy, to come back to the people who knew us in that limerence phase. They remember how it was and how we were. They know us.
The sun is sinking like a lemon in a glass, and I’m standing next to a dozen friends, just listening. Ryan Carr, a brilliant artist whose work will be featured at the Museum of Ventura County’s First Friday ArtWalk in July, is talking to a classmate I don’t know but recognize. His name is Jordan Lugo, he says, and he works as a tour-bus driver, taking foreigners on trips across the U.S. He shows us a map on his phone, his route a red string stretching from the Eastern Seaboard to Florida, across to Texas and up to a cluster of National Parks in the West. “I get paid to travel my own country, and, as a bonus, I get to learn about the cultures of my passengers, too,” he says.
It’s not a conventional job. The Cal Poly San Luis Obispo grad says, he knows that, and he’s planning to become a teacher at some point, just not quite yet. “Sometimes I think about the American Dream, and how we’re supposed to get married and have two kids and work the same job and be in debt forever,” he says. “But then I think, I’m happy.”
Ryan tells him that’s so great, it’s so wonderful to hear someone talk of happiness. “Out of all the people I’ve talked with here tonight, your story has moved me the most,” he says. “Really.”
As Jordan talks, I feel something lift in me, too. I had been starting to wonder if there was redemption at the end of this. The reunion is technically over; it’s 10 p.m. and other bar patrons are starting to filter in. It’s dark out and the ocean dampness is sifting over everything, and the bartenders are switching on the heat lamps. I’m standing with my back to the bar, watching the milieu, watching the mouths talking, the bodies shifting, closer and farther, arms draping and crossing, hips steering and swaying, seeing real laughter and fake smiles erupt in almost the same breath, watching my classmates begin to disperse in the crowd — and it’s all beautiful; it’s all life and people trying to live. Trying, somehow, through the mist of booze and bodies and eyes wide open, to connect. Trying to tell each other: I am myself and I am like you. Trying to tell each other: Whether we experienced four years of anxiety and angst and amen in the same lunch quad, or whether we’re still strangers, we’re together now. Trying to tell each other: “We carry with us the omnipresent and ever-changing now.” And we can carry each other, too.