Thursday, August 30, 2012

The high-school reunion

And so I missed the ferry to the island of Saint John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That meant I had to wait for about 2 hours at this rundown dock in Saint Thomas for the next one. My beer-locator GPS allowed me to quickly scout the area and identify a small bar called "Tickles" only a few steps from the dock, where a cold drink would surely make the time go faster. A plump middle age man on crutches approached the bar. I helped him get on his stool. We started talking after he thanked me and I asked the bartender for "the strongest drink in the establishment for a wounded veteran". We both laughed a bit. He then ordered a Red Stripe instead. I gestured the bartender that I wanted one of the same, and asked her to keep bringing them.

Our conversation was dull at first. By the third beer, he had already shown me pictures of his two kids, told me about issues he was having with his wife, complained about his tyrannical boss... the works. Then we jumped onto the topic of our school years. Good times... It turns out he had had his 20 year high-school reunion only a month ago. We joked about how we want to make sure our former classmates turned into old fat wrinkled middle-age men and women with flappy arms and dead-end jobs. Yes, we agreed that is everyone's secret hope. "What can be more satisfying than shaking hands with the former football star, king of popularity, now turned into a bloated, bald, data entry specialist?" - I said, without even stopping to think my new friend was a somewhat large, almost completely bald middle-age man who could very well be a data entry specialist judging by his glasses and worn jacket elbows. He laughed when he noticed my expression of regret for what I had just said, at the end of my almost unfinished sentence. He then laughed some more, tilting his head back to accentuate the effect. Then he told me a story.

He was a bit of a bully when he was in school, but over time made amends with his victims. One of his old targets, Tim, came to the 10 year reunion back in 2002. He was completely bald. Brad, my new friend, laughed at Tim's cue ball for a head as soon as he saw him, tilting his head back the same way he had just done. Tim smiled widely, and replied - "You are not doing too well yourself!". Brad was balding a bit already, so they both had a hearty laugh and grabbed a beer. They talked about the teachers, the hotties, the jocks, the cheerleaders... There was no shortage of funny stories about life in and outside the classroom. Brad confessed to Tim they could have been great friends, had the strange social rules that prevented nerds from fraternizing with the cool guys been abolished.

The reunion went on until the early hours of the morning. It seemed as if everybody loved everybody now. Brad and Tim promised to stay in touch, even if the former lived in Chicago and the latter in Seattle. Hey, what is social media for? They both opened Facebook accounts, but after adding each other forgot to check in ever again.

Tim died of pancreatic cancer two years later. Brad didn't find out until a month ago, when he asked for his buddy at the 20 year reunion. They hadn't talked again in 10 years, after promising to keep in touch.

A world of memories made his way into Brad's memory in a disorderly fashion. Every piece of the conversation they had at the last reunion came back, and his comment about Tim's baldness has haunted him since then. THAT's why he was bald! It all made sense now. Tim wasn't the balding type. He was just bald as a result of the chemotherapy.

I finished my seventh beer. It was a quick couple of hours, and we were a couple of quick drinkers. He had five, only because he had to balance the drinking with his telling me the story. After he said this, we stayed at the bar in silence for a few minutes. My eyes were fixed on the label of the beer. I finally looked back at Brad and saw tears flowing down his cheeks. A grown man crying is an uncommon sight. I stood up to give him the typical semi-hug men give each other in a situation like this. Is that what one is supposed to do in a situation like this? How to categorize a situation like this? A situation like this... With little experience in that department, I did what I could.

I heard the distinct sound of a boat's horn. My ferry was coming to the dock. I gave a quick glance at my luggage to hint we should get going, and only then noticed he didn't have any. "Where's your luggage?" - I dared ask. He said - "Where I am going, I don't need any luggage". He didn't come on the ferry, so we said our farewells and I left after paying the bill. "Keep the change" - told the bartender.

The wind blew on my back, making a mess of my hair as I waved to Brad from the ferry. But he was no longer there to wave back.

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