Pictures on Exhibition at a Class Reunion – Fictionalized Nonfiction in Three Parts: Part III

Geriatric Tryst

 

I had a bad feeling about it all along, and yet I let it happen.

The minute the man flirted with me online, I should have shot it down. He was, after all, in New Mexico, and I in New York.  But I didn’t.

We had corresponded and talked on the telephone for two months before we met for the first time in Washington, DC. That first encounter was lovely though even then there were warning signs, but it was fun to be a tourist by day, holding hands, eating out, escaping the heat. Our downtown suite had adjoining rooms so we were able to give one another a good night kiss and retire to familiar aloneness. Thus the warning signs that were faintly appearing on the walls were easy to ignore.

One salient sign was that the man did not listen. He had been struck deaf by a childhood illness, and he had a well-tuned habit of allowing the batteries in his hearing aid to die, at which point he would just talk on without acknowledging the malfunction, appearing to listen when he was tuned out. It was impossible for me to know what he actually heard and what he chose to ignore. He would often nod in agreement as though we were on the same page, but I would realize later he had no idea what the conversation had been about.

Nevertheless, the Washington sojourn was successful enough that when he requested a second meeting, I suggested that he join me for the fiftieth year reunion of my small town high school in upstate New York. He was thrilled. After all, he had graduated the same year; he could not wait to share whatever he had in common with my classmates. I disregarded the blaring red flags. As the co-emcee at the main event banquet, I thought I needed an escort. Besides, I still believed in happily ever after. Even at 68.

However, knowing I would have a lot of prep work and would be meeting people I had not seen in fifty years, people who saw me every day of my life for the better part of my childhood, I strongly urged him to fly into Albany or Burlington on Saturday so he could arrive just in time to be with me at the banquet. “I’m not very nice when I’m stressed,” I said honestly. “I’m likely to be unaffectionate, downright prickly.”

“Don’t worry,” he laughed.   “I totally understand.

But he didn’t. Not really.

He confided that he felt intimidated by the east and asked me to guide him into the mountains. “I’ll just be a fly on the wall while you take care of business. You won’t even know I am there.” Furthermore, flights were cheapest into Newark, and besides, Newark was closer to Pennsylvania.

He had his own agenda. Based on our time in DC, he had booked a car rental and appointments to look at houses in the Wilkes-Barre, PA, area, halfway, he said, between his daughter and grandchildren in Ohio and me in NYC.

I met him Thursday morning at his motel in Newark, and as we drove north, he told me he was ready to make a purchase. I said, “I really hate PA.” Did he hear me? I couldn’t tell, as he went on telling me what a great house it was with a room that would be a perfect writer’s office.

Finally, I shook my head vigorously. “Listen,” I said. “I have family all over the desert states and California. Grandchildren in Westchester, a daughter in Hong Kong and cousins in Europe I will want to visit. Any meager travel time and money I have is theirs. I won’t be getting to Pennsylvania.”  He nodded, saying he understood.

But he didn’t. Not really.

We arrived in my home town and checked into the only motel that had had a room for us. We should have had separate rooms, but our reunion, a huge canoe race and the sixtieth reunion of the class that graduated a decade ahead of us had caused a shortage of available space. We had to share a bed, and it was not a great bed to begin with.

Though larger than king size, the mattress was lumpy, with springs that poked my sides, and from sitting in the car for over six hours, my arthritis areas were raw, and I hurt. There was no position in which to lie where something didn’t ache. I did not want to be touched.

Which, to be fair, had been part of our agreement. I had said categorically that while we were in this motel, an old one with flimsy sheetrock walls, I would likely be physically distant. Every sound we made – and he is a noisy man, as is the wont of most who are hard of hearing – would be audible to our neighbors on both sides of our room, men with whom I had gone to school from fourth grade through high school graduation, men with whom I would not be inclined to share my private moments. He said he was fine with that, that he understood.

But he didn’t. Not at all.

In truth, he was incapable of real arousal, so what he craved was touch. Holding hands seemed reasonable except that he insisted on kneading mine long after I asked him to stop. I suggested we cuddle, something I usually love to do, but his cpap, whining and wheezing to maintain continuous positive air pressure, blew percussively on the back of my neck and nipped any tendency toward relaxation in the bud. To complicate matters, he insisted on talking at me all night, but I could not reply without screaming because his hearing aids were on a table by the window.

By morning, as my exhaustion exacerbated my foul mood, things worsened.  At every turn, I did something to infuriate him, and he retaliated by promising me a night of more lecturing, less sleep than I had had the night before.

He, too, was tired, and that augmented the pervasive tension about him, the jealousy. Every time I hugged another classmate, every time I got on my computer or telephone to make another arrangement, he sulked or, worse, he paced. My fly on the wall had become the oversized, nasty aggressive kind, biting and buzzing, growing ever needier and more persistent.

On Friday night, instead of going with me to the Moose Club for the opening night dance, where we could at least have had some couples fun, he threw a temper tantrum, and we missed the party. I reminded him that the following night was the banquet, that I would be a far nicer person, that if I could just get some sleep, we could start over. He nodded and said he understood.

But. . . .

“What do you mean, ‘start over?’” He asked as I was crawling into bed. “I don’t get it.”

“Let’s talk about it in the morning.” He sat on the chair next to the bed shaking his head.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

I began a reply, an angry one, asking him to respect my request to get some sleep, but before I could finish my sentence, he stood up, took out his hearing aids and threw them on the floor.

“Yayayayaya,” he sang in a toddler voice. “I’m not listening to you.”

He was quiet, then, till 4 a.m., when he insisted we had to talk, or rather, that I listen to a litany of my transgressions. I was neglecting him, would rather be with these people than with him. I was ruining this vacation.  But for my neighbors, people who had been out drinking the night before, it was still the middle of the night, and we had their peace to consider.

“Let’s go for a drive,” I said. “ Get out of the motel.” I figured he could yell as much as he wanted to in the car on the highway. We found an open Dunkin Donuts with a safe parking lot and settled in for a real talk.

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I listened long and attentively to his plaintive song of Poor Me, and I said when he was finished, “Let’s put this away, okay? Let’s get through the day. I cannot go back and fix any of the things you say I broke, so let’s just get past the banquet tonight, and then we can begin again.”

“What does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“Begin again. What are you saying?”

“We can start over.”

“What is that? What are you talking about?”

It seemed obvious to me, but I really wanted peace. Moreover, I really wanted to believe. . . .

“It was how I dealt with transgressions from my own kids or from my students. Whatever they did, would be dealt with and forgotten; to subvert all guilt and embarrassment, I would promise that we would begin the next day right back where we were before the drama. That way we could extinct all transgressions.”

“Oh,” he nodded. “That makes sense.”

“It really does,” I agreed, hoping this meant we were moving forward. “No one gets to say ‘I told you so,’ no one needs to stay angry. We just re-start.” He smiled. I was so sure he understood.

And we had a lovely day, which culminated in a glorious banquet, where he was ebullient, interacting with everyone there, helping with setup, and enjoying the meal I had ordered for him, a “delectable” salmon. The evening was a success, and everyone laughed, sang, frolicked and enjoyed being together. I was euphoric.

After striking our equipment and collecting our belongings, we headed to the Moose Club, where my classmates gathered around me and my co-emcee, congratulating us, telling us what a wonderful night it had been. I wanted to sit for a while, to bask, to smile effortlessly. To rest.

But he wanted to dance. The more I sat my ground, the more I could see anger gathering in his eyes. About a half-hour in, he came to me, looking like a cartoon bull with fury steaming from his ears, and said, “We are leaving. Now. I am tired. It’s time to go back to the room.”

What is it about me that succumbs to guilt even when guilt has less than zero legitimacy? I should have said “Good night; go back to the room by yourself.” But instead I left with him and drove in sullen silence back to the motel. By now it was well after 2 am, and coping skills were dead.

I threw myself into the bed, curled into a tight ball on the far side of our double king and told him to stay all the way over on his side. I ordered him to put the CPAP under the bed where some of the noise could be absorbed. I turned downright cruel when he propped himself up on his elbow and begun a new round of the familiar monologue that began with, “You could have. . . .” I put a pillow over his head and told him to shut up.

Before the sun came up again, he jumped out of bed and began to pack.

“I’m not putting up with this anymore,” he commanded. “Get ready to leave. Now.”

I tried to control the sound of relief in my voice. “Okay,” I said, getting up and beginning to put my own things into my suitcase. “But I’m not missing the farewell breakfast.”

We said our good byes and slinked off into the amber morning. I felt like a criminal, a usurper though I could not figure out why.

Then, on the muted drive back to Newark, I realized how much I had lost by taking this leap into old age romance. Maybe if I were a silly, sex-obsessed Betty White character, this would have worked out splendidly, where we both fulfilled one another’s fantasies; instead it robbed me of the only real vacation I would have had this year. I relinquished to him my one opportunity to visit places that make me feel peaceful, to stomp through my favorite season in my favorite landscape, to be home. I turned the fiftieth year reunion of my high school class into a drama about him.

Is this what late-in-life love affairs are really made of? Will I be willing to try again?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know one thing. Next time there’s a reunion, I’m going alone.

 

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Pictures on Exhibition at a Reunion – Fictionalized Non Fiction in Three Parts: Part II

II. Dueling Hopes

It’s the first week of leaf season, and the color seems to pop before my eyes, every hour a new clump of reds, golds, purples – yes, honestly, in the Adirondacks, purples happen – and browns. The weather is phenomenal, hitting the 80s by day, dipping into the 40s by night; this place should be teeming with tourists, but our town is out of the way for casual weekend travelers from the cities. The Canadians, who keep the place humming in the summer time are gone now; more people might show up over Columbus Day Weekend, but for now, the town is bustling with once familiar faces now older and strange. Two classes from the small local high school are celebrating their fiftieth and sixtieth year reunions, and there aren’t a lot of rooms in town. Besides the returning graduates, there are hearty canoeists in town for a big race on the Saranac River.

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It’s a lucky break for the few local hoteliers and a bonus for some in Lake Placid as well. No rooms left at the few standing inns. A few of us got reservations in early and are staying at the little mom/pop place on the Lake in the middle of town. Well, not a lake, strictly speaking, but a dammed portion of the river, the gateway to 43 miles of open water, a system of rivers, lakes, locks and ponds protected by the State of New York, treasured by the locals. Except for July 4th weekend and possibly Labor Day weekend, there is never a crowd here.

Surprising as it seems to those of us who have explored the primeval forests, hiked the ancient switchbacks, swum in the sylvan pools, this is still an undeveloped sanctuary. Only climate change and abject poverty gnaw at the edges of perfection; acid rain used to dissolve the leaves off trees, poison the fish in the streams, melt the needles off the pines, but that’s under control now. The economy is less stable; there aren’t a lot of jobs here, and so it is that fracking proponents and amusements peddlers gain ever more momentum in their quest to invade the preserve.

A few of us have reserved early and have rooms in a long-standing mom/pop establishment. lakeflower It’s an old motel that should have been sold years ago. But since there are no plans to develop the town and entice investors, no buyers offer deliverance to the owners; they keep struggling along, falling behind on mortgage payments in the off-months and barely making it up in the tourist seasons.

Our motel has no staff. Marcy, the owner does her own cleaning, her own housekeeping, her own everything. Lacking an ice machine, she makes daily runs to a local store, where she buys bags of it that she doles out from her office. The beds are old style spring mattresses, worn and uncomfortable, stacked with pillows that are hard, unyielding. A musty odor lingers even when the windows are wide open; this building has weathered enough Adirondack winters and warded off enough Adirondack springtimes to have earned retirement. But still it goes on.

Marcy and her husband bought this place in the 1990’s, when they were young and full of plans to spruce the place up, make it profit. They would sculpt the beach area and bring in white sand, enlarge the pool and install a spa, build larger units, where visitors could stay for longer periods of time. But like any property subjected to the harshest of winters, this one needed constant repair; new construction, even cosmetic additions were given low priority. Survival was all they could sink their finances into. After her husband died, Marcy put the place on the market, but she said it would cost her money to sell it. So she held on.

And, like the town, like the preserve, like the sanctuary we all cherish, she continues to hold on, teetering on the edge of painful termination.

Adieu and Fare Thee Well

The reunion is over. All Ninety-two revelers – members of the Saranac Lake High School and St. Pius X Classes of 1965 and their companions – who gathered for a weekend of reminiscence and re-acquaintance, have said goodbye and have gone back to whatever they were doing before. But we are changed, strengthened by the experience.

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The Voices and the Laughter. Photo by Olivia Rauss

It was a funny scene to watch ourselves when we first arrived. There were no prompts, no pictures of our former selves dangling from our necks, so we had to look into one another’s eyes, watch for gestures, listen carefully for vocal patterns to identify who was who and where we fit together. But once we did, oh how tightly we cleaved!

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John Pedroni, Robert Waite and Irene Walker sidle back to 1965 in song. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

We are a remarkable group. Un-clique-ish, without isolationist tendencies, we bonded to one another for the three days we visited – Thursday night dinner in a restaurant that was nonexistent when we lived there, Friday night dancing at the Moose Hall, Saturday morning gathering at our high school no longer a high school for a tour and a video journey through our town, Saturday afternoon attendance at the homecoming football game, and Saturday night feasting and blending our voices with the karaoke in songs we sang as youngsters. It was glorious.

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St. Pius X and SLHS Cheerleaders. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

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Sharing a special remembrance of a gone but not forgotten classmate with the children he left behind. . . . Photo by Olivia Rauss

But it was just a reunion, nothing really extraordinary about that. Classes gather every year to do what we did in Saranac Lake last weekend. So why do we think we’re so special?

Every time we got quiet, someone would comment on the thing about us that is remarkable. Here we were, fifty years later, a single town of kids whose elders sought to keep us apart for whatever reasons they could conjure by dividing us into two high schools, and despite the fact that we didn’t grow up dancing with one another, playing football on one another’s teams, playing or singing music together, here we were in our dotage clinging to one another.

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The Planning Committee. Photo by Olivia Rauss

Standing at the dais, co-emceeing the event, I looked around the room, and I could not see a single table segregated by school. Somehow, past the separation, past our years apart, we have become a family, and when we re-convene, when we come together to celebrate our past and lean in against our diminishing future, we do it as a single entity. We are a family of a sort.

I don’t know many schools whose members return to the kind of communion we share. Most people speak of having been with the people they were friends with in school, of being just as isolated from the rest as they felt as teenagers. But we hale and hearty children of Saranac Lake, at least those of us in the Class of ’65, are cut from a special cloth that binds us together with emotional Velcro.

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Old Friends, Final Breakfast of the Reunion. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

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Sisters. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

What gratitude I have for being part of that little universe. What immeasurable joy I take in being one of them, despite the enormous feeling of disconnect I wrapped myself in as a teenager. I am so glad I lived long enough to shed that mantle and accept this new one, the cloak of my classmates’ love.