Brandi stared at herself in the mirror. Could she go through with it? Go to the reunion? It was mortifying.
Sharon insisted that she could. Sharon had taken her shopping and she’d bought a skirt that was too short and too expensive and Sharon had given her a pair of high-heeled shoes to borrow. “You are going,” Sharon said, “You’re going to hold your head up high. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Except she did.
Brandi had a failed marriage. She and Greg had been high school sweethearts. He had been captain of the football team and she had been the homecoming queen and a cheerleader. They were better than everyone else in the school, they knew it and everybody else knew it. The summer after graduation, she’d ended up pregnant, with Jena. They’d gotten married and by the time their tenth reunion rolled around, they were still the “it” couple. She’d worn tight jeans and he’d looked handsome in a tight t-shirt. She knew everyone admired them, just like high school. Jena had been ten and cute with long blonde pigtails. She’d been older than any of their classmates toddler-aged children and that only added to Brandi’s smugness. She was past all that mess with diapers and hideous diaper bags.
Besides that, they’d had money. Greg worked for his dad’s construction company and even though it wasn’t technically theirs, they’d lived in a house provided by his dad and drove a truck the company owned. No one at the reunion knew it didn’t belong to them. It had been wonderful to have everyone envy her still. Her life had been a little empty. It was sort of boring to be a mother and she was not cut out for housework so it was nice to be Brandi, the cute popular girl, again. If only for a weekend.
Things hadn’t been great in the subsequent years though. Greg started drinking and then gambling and then his dad fired him. Neither Greg nor Brandi thought that was possible.
Then there was Debbie, the cocktail waitress he had decided was the love of his life and he had left Brandi. It would have been much better if she’d left him. He was the one with problems and no job. Why did she wait around for him to leave her? Because she loved him. Well, she had. Now she only felt white-hot anger when she thought about him.
After high school, Jena had gone to junior college for a semester but dropped out. She never went to class. Now she was working as a flagger, holding up signs for her grandfather’s construction company. She said it was great for her tan.
So Brandi had nothing to brag about at the reunion. That was for sure.
She stared in the mirror. She had highlights in her hair that she couldn’t afford and acrylic nails on her fingers that she couldn’t afford.
She’d be paying for this reunion for months. Eying the wrinkles starting around her eyes, she considered that she should have gotten Botox but her credit limit wasn’t high enough.
Brandi sighed and gave herself one last forced smile in the mirror and headed to her car. She’d been practicing smiling for her new job, she was a receptionist at an orthodontist office. The computers were confusing and the assistants yelled at her because she kept double booking but she hoped if she smiled enough, she wouldn’t get fired.
It didn’t take long to drive to the hotel where the reunion was being held. A banner hung across the door of the ballroom. “Welcome class of ’93.”
Brandi pulled down her too short skirt that hiked up when she walked, took a deep breath and entered the room.
And ran right into Matt Hunter. She didn't recognize the tall, geeky boy who'd had a crush on her freshman year but she could read the name tag on his chest that she'd run right into. In a quick flash Brandi remembered he'd asked her out that first month of school before she and Greg had become an item. He was the one and only other boy to ever ask her out. They hadn't gone on the date. Her parents wouldn't let her date anyone until she was 16. That rule had lasted all of six months. Her parents gave up when she became such a brat around the house that they had given it to get some peace. It was just in time for the Sadie Hawkins dance and she'd surprised Greg by asking him to the dance. That was the beginning of the end. Brandi had wondered throughout the years how things might have turned out differently if she had waited to date until she was sixteen but she didn't spend much time dwelling on it. There wasn't anything she could do about it now but seeing Matt brought it all back, especially because he looked so darn good looking.
All of sudden she realized she was staring up into a smiling Matt's face that looked like he was waiting for an answer from her. He must have said something but she had no idea how to respond. She decided to fake her way through and start with an apology.
"I'm so sorry Matt. I must not have been looking where I was going," said Brandi.
"Nonsense, as I said before, it was my fault. I should have been more careful around the doors. It's Brandi right?" asked Matt.
"Yes, yes that's me," said Brandi, not knowing what else to say.
"Well, you need to get your nametag. Not that you really need it since you still look like you did when we were in school. That's how I knew it was you. The nametags are over in the corner. Do you want me to show you where they are?" asked Matt.
"Yes, that would be nice," said Brandi and she realized how nice it would be to arrive at the check-in table with someone by her side and it didn't hurt that he was so good looking. Then it dawned on Brandi he must be here with someone, probably his wife. "Unless you need to get back to your wife or date."
"No, no I came on my own. I never married and I couldn't fathom putting a date through a twenty year high school reunion. I could barely make myself come," admitted Matt.
"That makes two of us," said Brandi.
"You're here alone? No Greg?" asked Matt.
"Greg, maybe he's here but he's not with me. We've been divorced for over 5 years due to a waitress named Debbie and she was all that that name implies. It's a long, not-so-happy story," said Brandi.
"I'm sorry to hear that but I'm glad you came tonight. Maybe we can hang out together and help shield each other from high school friends who are twenty years older. You can beat off all my old chess club buddies and I'll run off all the old football buddies of Greg who want to just chat for a minute," said Matt.
Brandi couldn't think of any reason not to do it. Matt was good looking, kind (he didn't yell at her when she ran smack dab into him), his offer left her with a date of sorts, and as she thought again, he was good looking, which she kept remembering every time she looked into those hazel eyes of his.
"Sure, that sounds like fun," said Brandi. "Now where's that check-in table?"
Brandi and Matt navigated their way to the check-in table, Matt taking her elbow once as she teetered slightly on her heels. She was getting too used to her everyday work boots, apparently.
When she signed in, Brandi made a conscious effort to not make the dot above her ‘i’ into a heart like she had up until last year when Jena had come home from her freshman year at the state school and good-naturedly made fun of her for it. Brandi knew she should have adopted a grown-up signature long before she was staring off the precipice of forty, but she had always used that heart and hated losing that little part of herself. They picked up their nametags which had their senior pictures on the corner. Brandi was happy that she still looked much the same. Matt had been right.
As they entered the hotel’s banquet hall, she scanned the room and caught a glimpse of Greg and Debbie cuddled in a corner table. She hurriedly pulled her eyes away and saw Courtney and Lisa wave at them from a table right near the front. Matt and Brandi joined them and their husbands. Courtney and Lisa had been cheerleaders on Brandi’s squad and while they had been friendly, they hadn’t really been friends. Brandi had always blown off their invitations to sleepovers and girls’ night at the movies to spend time with Greg. They seemed happy enough to see her now though and she and Matt made pleasant conversation with them. Brandi felt some satisfaction that while her cheerleader friends were now a bit plump, she had maintained her high standards. What a relief that she’d been able to get those highlights and nails done. She had recently picked up the odd habit of running her fingers over the wrinkle between her eyes and tried not to do it at the table. Surely by their 30th she would be in a better situation and would have that botox.
Their table was soon joined by another couple that Matt jumped out of his chair to hug and Courtney and Lisa greeted enthusiastically. Travis and Sandy sported nametags with their yearbook photos on them so they must have been part of her senior class, but Brandi couldn’t remember ever seeing them. She wondered if that should be embarrassing considering their senior class had been so small. Brandi gave a little wave and murmured how nice it was to see them again. Sandy asked how Jena was doing. Brandi politely faked her way through the conversation with Sandy. Matt smiled at her and she scooted her chair a bit closer to him.
Melissa from the reunion committee jumped on stage and welcomed everyone. She had always been so perky and enthusiastic that she reminded Brandi of a yippy puppy. “Let’s get this party started!” Melissa screamed into the microphone, making it squeak. “Are you ready for a blast from the past?” Melissa asked and pulled out their senior yearbook. She began inviting the couples from the “best” and “most-likely-to” photos on stage to recreate their yearbook photos. Brandi’s stomach started flipping around.
The conversation with Matt and the others at her table had seemed so easy moments before. Now, she was oblivious to everything but Jan and Ron joining hand and flashing their cheesy “best smiles” on stage and Heather and Mike, the funniest boy and girl, doing a double pratfall as they ran up to the stage. Had they rehearsed this? What had she missed?
She’d looked through the yearbook so often in the years right after graduation and certainly frequently enough since, that she knew she and Greg were the final picture: Most Popular.
Brandi and Greg were going to have their names called and there was no way this was going to end well. Had Melissa not heard that she and Greg were divorced? It was either a cruel joke or an epically awkward lapse in communication. Maybe she should have accepted that spot on the reunion committee when Melissa had offered it via facebook.
She hadn’t even seen Greg in three years. She used to drive Jena over to Greg’s house the next town over for the weekends, but after Jena got her license, she had been relieved to not have to. She knew Jena still saw him off and on and there had been a close call when she recognized his motorcycle in the lot of the Piggly Wiggly, but she had managed to avoid him.
Melissa made a little drumroll noise and announced, “And finally our most popular, Brandi and Greg Wilcox! Come on down you cuties!”
Matt lay a small hand on her shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. Brandi told herself to just handle this with grace. Maybe she could march up to the stage give a quick nod and a wave. Maybe a self-deprecating shrug and she could march back to her table in those sexy heels she’d been saving for this night. From her table near the stage, Brandi stood up, adjusted her skirt and bee-lined for the stage, hoping to get it over quick.
She made it to the stage and turned around in time to see Debbie grab the sides of Greg’s face and give him a giant kiss. What was she so excited about? He’d won this award twenty years earlier.
Brandi stared a little closer. Was the woman even Debbie? Either she was sporting the worst dye job in history or Greg had dumped Debbie and was with someone new. She watched him jog up to the stage, high-fiving old buddies. His beer belly had expanded and that thinning patch on the top of his head had finally succumbed to baldness. Greg was definitely showing his age, but he hadn’t gotten the memo. He still had the same old swagger.
Brandi had been so concerned with how she was going to appear at the reunion, that she hadn’t given enough thought to what she would do if he decided to show up. Handle this with grace, she reminded herself--it will all be over in a few seconds.
He threw an arm around her shoulders and pumped the other arm in the air. Brandi’s entire body went rigid and the beauty pageant smile that had been frozen on her face quickly transformed into a grimace. Greg turned toward her. “Hey Doll, long time no see.” From his breath, it was obvious that he had been taking advantage of the open bar. “No hard feeling though, we’re just here to have fun—remember the glory days.”
She looked out at her classmates searching for some friends. Her social life had consisted mostly of Greg and feeling superior to and separate from most of the other girls. She scanned the crowd, trying to pick out some friendly faces. A lot of the faces were neutral, some were bored, quite a few sympathetic, and a few looked like they were gloating. Her eyes finally rested on Matt who was staring at her. She couldn’t quite read his expression. She was starting to feel light-headed.
“Hey, we should recreate that yearbook photo,” Greg slurred. Brandi’s mind flashed to the photo of their kiss on the last page of the album. She cringed as his sloppy lips loomed toward her. There was going to be nothing graceful about the next few moments.
The familiar smell of cheap booze inching closer seemed to awaken something in her. He had always had her under his spell…. but she wasn’t 15 anymore and she wasn’t his trophy to display. She had once loved this man, and yet he had no hesitation in humiliating her here in front of everyone.
Weighing her options in her mind, she leaned in closer…. just as his lips were about to touch hers, her knee got an unexplainable sudden twitch and jerked forward, leaving Mr. Popular toppled over, groaning in agony. The flash of cameras sparkled around the room. Gasps and cheers could be heard throughout the reunion as Brandi smoothed her skirt, fixed her hair and addressed her former classmates.
“I’m not the same girl I was in high school. I may not have much these days, but I’ve got my dignity. I think this picture better depicts our relationship anyway.” With a nervous smile and a shrug of her shoulders she stepped around Greg and acted like she remembered which way her table was.
Matt smiled and stood up clapping while Greg’s teammates helped him from the stage. Wild whispers swirled around the room as people fed on the juicy gossip. As Brandi passed the table filled with her former cheerleaders feasting on her misfortune she realized that she was never going to be one of them again…and for once she didn’t care.
After a detour to the ladies room, Brandi took her seat next to Matt and put her best smile on. He offered to take her home, but since Greg and his replacement wife had left, she felt no need to miss the opportunity to gossip about everyone else’s lives.
Matt put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “That was pretty awesome…but now I’m a little scared of you,” he laughed. “I know what will make you feel better.”
“Hmmm. What’s that? She said staring down at her drink.”
“A little game I like to play called ‘Who’s Had Work Done.’”
“That’s awful!” Brandi laughed and looked around the room. “I’ll go first.” she joked.
With the awkwardness of the moment over Brandi looked in Matt’s eyes for the first time since returning to the table. “So, tell me what you’ve been up to all these years.” Brandi asked as a tap of the microphone interrupted.
Melissa’s annoying voice came from the stage again.” We want to thank all of you for coming out and celebrating tonight! It has certainly been…ahem…memorable. We want to make sure everyone has a chance to mingle, so if you’d flip over your place mats there’s a little trivia game about all of us to play. Work your way around the room and get as many questions answered as possible. The winner will be announced during the raffle drawing! The grand prize is $500, so have fun and go mingle!”
“Oh man, I could use that. I’m not sure $500 is enough to make me want to enter the lion’s den though.” Brandi stated.
“You’ll be fine. I’m sure your old friends want to know why I’m monopolizing all your time. Go make up a juicy story. I’ll find you when you’re done. I’d love to catch up some more.”
Brandi looked jokingly at her no-existent watch “If I’m not back in 30 minutes come save me!”
Brandi got lost in the jumble of people milling around in high spirits. It seemed the $500 prize was an enticement that no one wanted to pass up. She was bombarded with random questions like, “Have you sky-dived from a plane?” or “Are you the one with seven children?” or “Were you the State Bowling Champion at Kentucky State University?”
She laughingly answered no to all of them, then curiously scanned down the list to see which trivia question was actually meant for her. Finally she found it.
“Loves to go ‘fishing in the dark.’”
It was a quote straight from the yearbook. Back then, she had thought she was being so cute and clever. Under everyone’s class pictures, they were given the opportunity to say something meaningful to them. Some people were poetic, others used famous quotes, and a number of people wrote nonsense phrases which implied some sort of an inside joke. The country song “Fishin’ in the Dark” was very popular during Brandi’s Senior year. She thought she was simply being current with a trend, but a lot of people joked about inappropriate suggestions for what “fishing in the dark” implied. It was a humiliating experience as fellow classmates whispered behind her back, looking at her and Greg as though they were completely scandalous.
Brandi’s face flushed bright red. There was no way she was going to endure another round of “fishing in the dark” jokes. Why did everyone else’s trivia question refer to something that they had accomplished, or an interesting fact about them? Hadn’t she accomplished anything worthwhile? Didn’t she contribute anything of value?
Mortified, Brandi realized there was not much she could brag about. She had no money, only sporting a failed marriage and a dead end job. Sure, she had a great kid, but she was all grown up now. Brandi had merely lucked out that Jenna had turned out so great. She certainly had never put much effort into mothering. Brandi had never finished anything she started. Other than social status, nothing had ever meant enough to her to fight for.
Brandi started to head for the exit. Not even $500 would tempt her to stay and proudly claim that she was the “Fishin’ in the Dark” girl. Matt caught up with her as she was struggling through the last cluster of vaguely familiar faces, laughing and talking at once. Her ankle turned in those darn sexy heels and she was on the floor in an instant.
“Brandi! Let me help!” Matt said, rushing over to her. She must have been quite a sight, Brandi thought to herself. Her skirt was riding way too high up her legs, her blouse was disheveled, and her make-up was starting to run from the unbidden tears which had just started to trace down her cheeks. Thinking this only made matters worse, and she started to cry outright. Giving up, she covered her face in her hands.
“Brandi, it’s okay,” Matt assured her.
“Did you see the trivia question for me?” she asked with a slight hiccup. She could tell that he was hesitant to admit that he had seen it, and recognized who it was meant to be attributed to. She let out a groan.
“Don’t worry about it. No one will remember any of it in the morning,” he said firmly, putting his hand on her shoulder. “What do you say we get out of here? This party was getting lame anyway.”
Brandi laughed a small laugh, feeling a little better, but she was puzzled.
“Matt, why are you being so nice to me? We weren’t really friends in school. I’m afraid that I wasn’t even that nice to you…”
“I always had a crush on you,” Matt said, ducking his head a little bit in embarrassment, “Didn’t you know?”
“I guess not,” Brandi said, she staggered to her feet and took the arm Matt offered. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Why? What do you have to be sorry about?”
“I am sorry about the way I acted in high school. I’m sorry I haven’t ever accomplished anything. I’m sorry I came to this reunion still hoping I was better than everyone.” Brandi stopped. Color rose in her cheeks and she immediately knew she’d gone so far.
Matt just looked sort of amused.
“I also was looking for you specifically,” he said. “I work with Sharon. She’s your friend, right? I overheard her talking to another coworker about her friend’s high school reunion and how she was going to help her friend shop and get ready. I was interested because it was my class reunion and I thought I may knew who she was talking about.”
Now Brandi was really embarrassed. Sharon was her best friend, surely she hadn’t told Matt too much?
“She told me her friend was Brandi,” Matt continued, “I told her I’d had a crush on you all through high school. I asked her for an update of your life and she told me that you’d divorced Greg. I’ve been thinking about you since Sharon mentioned you and I wanted to see you.”
“Did she tell you what a mess I am?”
“No,” he said with a smile, “I figured that out all on my own.”
“Hey,” she said.
“I’m teasing,” Matt said, “You look great. You stood up for yourself back there. You are not a mess.”
Brandi look unconvinced.
“Do you remember when we were freshmen and I slipped on the stairs and my backpack flew open and all my books and papers scattered everywhere?”
“Um…” Brandi didn’t remember this at all.
“Yes,” he said, “It was right on the front steps to the school and everyone was laughing at me and kids were pretending to steal my things. I was humiliated. You stopped what you were doing and you started gathering up things and giving them to me. You were Brandi and even though you were a freshman too, people knew you and other people started helping me pick up my books too. You were really kind.”
“Wait, that was you?” Brandi did have a vague memory of it. “That’s just what you do when someone needs help,” she said simply.
“It’s not what everyone does,” Matt said.
They walked along in silence and he unlocked the passenger door of his car for her. She climbed in and when he got behind the wheel he said, “You are too hard on yourself. You don’t need to work so hard to impress people.”
Brandi smiled in the dark car and her shoulders relaxed for the first time in days.
Maybe she was going to be all right.