“People came up to me and actually asked if you were sick,” Regina said almost accusingly.
“I don’t care what those people think,” I lied.
“Well you should!” She continued, now more softened. “You don’t look healthy. People are just concerned.”
“Gossip isn’t concern,” I retorted. “Look, I had absolutely no desire to attend that thing anyway and only did attend to support you because you hinted, strongly, that it was important to you. I was still tired from my trip, I didn’t want to be there, and I didn’t feel like seeing anyone or being social. All that probably came through and people thought I just wasn’t my usual self or how they remembered me or something,” I offered knowing that wasn’t it.
A familiar futility prevented Regina from pursuing the line of conversation any further. She just sighed heavily and said, “Anyway, I better get back to work. Talk to you later.”
“Ok,” I said before hanging up, but I knew at that moment everything was far from ok.
That past Saturday night was our five year High School Reunion and I attended despite an extremely strong desire to miss it. I attended out of guilt and loyalty to Regina. As she was our high school’s valedictorian and senior class president, she was responsible for planning all future reunions. When you’re a senior in high school, you don’t think ahead to your responsibilities that many years into the future. You just do what benefits you at the moment.
So when the reunion became imminent, Regina begrudgingly assumed the responsibility and hated the interference that planning the event caused in her now adult life. Yet she did plan it and up until the day it arrived, I sincerely planned to not attend it. But it took just one guilt session from Regina and her implying, strongly, that as her close friend I needed to be there to support her to get me to be there to support her. So despite all intention and disinclination, I begrudgingly decided to attend.
So then, I had to think about what I would wear to the reunion which bothered me. I wasn’t in the mood or state of mind for good impressions. Mostly I wanted to avoid the inevitable evaluation of one’s life and the question, “what have you accomplished since high school graduation?” that such events involved. This past year I had taken such a precipitous decline in status that my current state would nullify any of my noteworthy accomplishments since high school. The way I was now overshadowed everything I had achieved.
I decided I didn’t want to wear anything I already owned to the reunion, so I went out and bought a new outfit for it. A navy sweater over a checkered dress-shirt and grey slacks paired with black dress-shoes would be my reunion wardrobe. The overall effect revealed a sense of expensive good taste while simultaneously conveying confidence about being semi-casual and comfortable (navy sweater versus suit jacket). In other words, a well presented farce. But I didn’t care about sincerity. Image was what really mattered at these things.
Yet, apparently my attire didn’t quite relay the message I had intended as people were questioning my well-being. And that my former classmates had posed these questions to Regina and not to me meant they already had an answer in mind which they didn’t think I would honestly give them. While my reunion wardrobe was perfectly acceptable in and of itself, wearing it on my frame belied its purpose. Even with a belt, my slacks weren’t nearly snug enough around my now 28 inch waist. And while the sweater was a size small (a reduction from the size medium I had been since high school) it still appeared a bit loose for my torso. That I was also sporting a very short crew haircut at the time didn’t help either.
Perhaps if I had actually tried the clothes on before purchasing them, a salesperson could have given me some criticism. However, trying on the clothes at the store wasn’t an option for me. I wasn’t mentally prepared to undress and try on clothes that were “handled” by virtue of being handed to me by a salesperson I didn’t know. Selecting the right, probably least-handled items that were unlikely to have been tried on by another previous shopper was a process of careful analysis and deduction that a sales person wouldn’t properly conduct.
Then the “handing me” part was something to avoid as well. I reluctantly allowed the cashier to handle the clothes I was to purchase and that was only because there was no way to avoid that, unless I wanted to brave the risks that accompanied petty theft. However, I didn’t have to allow a salesperson to handle the items I selected. Since I had no choice that a cashier would touch the items I was buying, I carefully choose the cashier. The cashier had to be deemed socio-economically advantaged and therefore less likely to have encountered unsavory people among her social circles. Essentially I had to be rung up by the quintessential white-priveledged female who appeared healthy – not overly thin (as a gaunt appearance could mean she was an intravenous drug user), and wearing clothes that were no lower in brand and price than Gap. Finding a cashier with such specific criteria in a clothing store in Los Angeles was not common. So the day I was buying my reunion outfit, I wandered in the clothing store for well over an hour with my carefully inspected clothes guarded in my possession until a cashier with most of the criteria I was looking for came on duty. She could ring up my items.
But, that wasn’t the end of it. I had to ensure that any person who may have been in line in front of me and would likely be rung up by my designated cashier, wasn’t a customer that fell into any of the “danger” categories. Otherwise my “clean” demographic cashier would handle the “danger” demographic customer’s items before handling mine, thereby becoming contaminated herself and ultimately cross-contaminating my items if she rang me up. This dilemma often led to my having to wander in a store even longer as very few customers who were in line in front of me met my stringent weeding-out criteria. I had wasted hours upon hours with this routine at various stores, supermarkets, and anywhere else requiring payment for an item. Sometimes after waiting for a very long time, I would have to give up and just leave the items in the store and try to purchase them another time in hopes of encountering the “right” cashier on my next try.
However that day I was fortunate. I didn’t have to wait much more than the hour I already wasted in waiting for the “clean” cashier to assume her shift at the register because there wasn’t anyone else in front of me in line. I loitered nearby until I saw her assume the cashier position and then swooped in to be the first in her line. The process was exhaustive yes, but absolutely necessary. So feeling good that my items to be purchased would stay uncontaminated, I went up to my sought out cashier ready to pay for them. They were all within sizes small and slender, so I assumed they wouldn’t be too ill-fitting. I was wrong. However, before I left the house for the reunion event, I examined myself in the mirror and I didn’t think I looked as gaunt and noticeably thin in my new outfit as others had apparently found me to be. I suppose my weight loss was among the few symptoms of my condition I wasn’t very aware of, or chose to be less honest with myself about.
I mean I wasn’t in complete denial. I knew I was thinner. So much so that one of my best friends had recently taken to calling me “The Machinist,” referring to Christian Bale’s shockingly emaciated character in the film of the same title. It was odd because I thought I was still eating very healthy portions of whatever I craved, but somehow I had lost quite a lot of weight in the past year. My friends attributed it to depression but if I had changed my eating habits, I really didn’t feel that aware of it. I certainly wasn’t eating healthier or exercising anymore, which meant I had to have been eating less. My not having an appetite sounded too incompatible to my essential being. Food had always been one of my greatest indulgences. But still, it was undeniable that I looked too thin.
Anyway, after my conversation with Regina, I decided to take a walk. I left my office without alerting anyone and went to the street a few blocks away that was populated with clothing stores and cafés. I was craving a burrito with the works. After purchasing my burrito to go, I sat at one of the restaurant’s outside tables.
Before attacking my Mexican culinary masterpiece, I noticed that my shoes needed to be polished. Badly. Too bad I no longer had the new black shoes I purchased just for the reunion otherwise I could just wear those and not have to deal with the shoe-shine guy in our office building. I knew that instead of giving my shoes to him to quickly polish, I would just continue to wear them as scuffed. I didn’t want or need another “to do” project on my list and so would forsake having presentable dress shoes. Also, and I knew this was the main reason; I didn’t want to have any contact with the shoe-shine guy. He was unkempt and slovenly. Through associative reasoning, my mind had deemed he probably lived in the slums and had some contact, however remote, with drug users and prostitutes. I couldn’t risk cross-contamination with my possessions and consequently my thoughts.
Yeah, it would have been good to have those new shoes. But I didn’t have them anymore. The night after the reunion, a group of classmates with whom I had stayed friends since high school, and I, decided to “get a bite to eat” (read: an excuse to gossip about former classmates).
We went to a trendy L.A. diner. It wasn’t your typical diner. It was fairly clean and I really liked the food there but hated the L.A.-ness of it. The overly trendy hipsters and aspiring artsy types that are L.A. stereotypes heavily congregated at this spot. However, “I can do this,” I thought. Grabbing a late night bite to eat was a normal post-event ritual and something I used to really like to do, so I would do it and be like my friends. I would do the normal thing.
After we were seated and ordered, I mainly focused on my grilled cheese sandwich and fries while the others talked about how good so-and-so looked or how so-and-so was still so trashy after all these years.
“Ok not to be mean, but how ridiculous did Nicole look?” asked Molly to get things started. Yet before any of my other friends who were eager to disparage Nicole could answer, Molly answered her own question with, “I mean she looked beyond horrible!”
“It really was kind of shocking,” said Natalie, “So sad.”
“Oh boy, here we go” said Jason as he leaned into me, “The catty shredding has commenced.”
“Come on, Jason,” Molly said, “You know you noticed her. She was absurd! Her hair! That outfit! What the fuck was that?”
“She always looked skanky,” said Jason, now engaged.
While my table-mates gabbed away, I glanced over to the group at the table next to ours. Immediately I was struck by one particular person in that group. He didn’t fit in with the others at the table. His presence made the whole restaurant feel wrong. Suddenly I was anxious to get the hell out there, fast. But I had gotten a ride with my friend who was busy eating and gabbing.
I tried not to look at the guy at the table next to me. I tried to tune out his voice and somehow void the incongruity of his presence and being at the restaurant at the same time I was there. Jesus, why the fuck did his group of friends have to come to that particular diner at the exact same time as my group of friends? Why did the hostess have to sit them right next to us so that I would know they were here? I started thinking about all the ways this encounter could have been avoided and all the scenarios that I shouldn’t have lived to get to where I was at this very moment. I didn’t know the guy at the next table and hadn’t ever met him. But I knew he shouldn’t be there.
I’m not sure how much time had passed while I cogitated in my head about the stranger near me. A while I guess, but suddenly my focus was diverted by my friend who let me know the portion I owed for the bill, followed by saying, “Dude, you barely ate any of your food.” He was right. I must have been too consumed by the unwanted ruminations the stranger at the table over had evoked. But before I could idle too far down the thought path of regret and calculate all the alternate scenarios that would have prevented this encounter again, I was brought back to the present moment by a more immediate dilemma; I had to pay for my portion of the meal. I didn’t want to pay, not because I hadn’t eaten much, but because it would involve getting money from my new wallet that I didn’t want to associate with this night and this moment. But I had to pay and I did. I was almost seething about the misfortune of coincidences that led me to be in the restaurant at the same time as that guy.
After my friend dropped me off at home, all I wanted to do was erase the whole night from my life. I took off my brand new reunion outfit and threw it in the dumpster outside, along with my new black shoes. Then I remembered that my wallet would probably remind of tonight as well, so I threw it out as well, without removing any of the contents. Now I was even more frustrated because discarding my wallet along with the cash, credit cards, and driver’s license in it, created a whole new slew of things I needed to do to replace them. I went back inside and took a long, hot shower. I wanted to wash away all the bad feelings that were weighing on my conscience. When I came out of the shower I did feel much better, but still if the night hadn’t ever occurred in the first place, I wouldn’t have to do all this damage control.
As I took my focus off my scuffed shoes and the events of the reunion night that led to my no longer having a replacement pair of dress shoes, I realized that I was away from the office for almost 20 minutes – far too long! Consequently, I would have a massive amount of new messages and email waiting for me. I stood up grabbed my very fat burrito still wrapped in tin foil. Fuck! Now by the time I would get to eat it, it would be cold and the various flavors would be too mashed together and indistinguishable from one another. It didn’t really matter. I was too stressed now and didn’t feel like having it anymore anyway. I tossed it into a large garbage bin and headed back to my office.