Don't You Forget About Me

Seeing people you haven't seen in 40 years makes you review the whole course of your life

Photograph by The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

"Do you think everyone will think I've gotten fat?" I asked my husband Jim, as he rounded a corner on the long and winding road from Pennsylvania to Virginia.

"Were you skinny in high school?" he asked.

I thought for a minute. "Not really," I said. "I've never actually been skinny. But I'm definitely fatter now."

"I doubt anyone will care," he said.

That was certainly true. They probably wouldn't care if I was fat, and they might not even care that I was there. I didn't make a big splash in high school; why would I make a big splash at my 40th high school reunion?

Jim and I were on our way from his parents' home in State College, Pennsylvania, to Charlottesville, Virginia, about a five-hour drive. I had convinced him to sneak away for a night and accompany me. I hadn't intended to go to this reunion at all, since we live 3,000 miles away in Portland, Oregon. But when I got the invitation from one of my classmates and saw we'd be on the East Coast anyway, I decided to take the plunge and go. It was a big decision.

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The concept of seeing people you haven't seen in 40 years is just plain daunting. It makes you review the whole course of your life. My mother, who had been voted most likely to succeed by her high school class, panicked in the months prior to her 50th reunion. She felt she had to get cracking and succeed, because she hadn't done it yet. I didn't feel exactly like that. No one at my high school voted me most likely to succeed. I'm not sure if they thought much about me at all.

"Do you think anyone will remember me?" I asked Jim.

"How many people were in your graduating class, Jules?"

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"About 45, I think," I said.

He laughed. "Yeah, they'll probably remember you."

I was a new kid in 1974, my junior year in high school, having moved from Chicago to Charlottesville with my parents and grandparents. I went from a public school of 4,000 kids to a private one of about 200. I went from being a little fish in a big pond, to an even littler fish in a small pond.

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People at St. Anne's Belfield were nice to me, yes. But most of them had known each other all their lives and, basically, their dance cards were full. They were busy people, playing sports, joining clubs, maintaining school traditions started by their mothers and grandmothers who attended the school before them. I was out of my league.

As a result, I spent most of my free time at school sitting in the student lounge, smoking cigarettes. I made friends with the other kids in the student lounge. It was kind of a cool place—it had a couple of old vinyl sofas, several easy chairs and an ancient piano over by the wall. More musically minded people than I banged out songs on the piano while I smoked and watched. I felt comfortable there. I guess you could say I became a member of the student lounge association.

"What if people think I'm a dud?" I asked Jim.

"Were you a dud in high school?" he replied.

"I'm not sure," I said. "Possibly."

In fact, I can't remember who I was in high school. Was I peppy? Was I funny? Was I talkative? I am all those things now, but I'm not sure about then. I remember feeling really shy and uncomfortable in my new school.

"Well," he responded, "you're not a dud now, so don't worry about it. You did have friends, didn't you?"

I thought for a minute. Yes, I did have friends—it took a while, but by the end of my senior year, I'd made friends. I saw a few of them on and off through college, too, since most of us stayed in Virginia. In recent years, we've connected via social media. They are the reason I wanted to go to my reunion in the first place.

"Yeah, I had friends. I hope they're coming too. Do you think they'll be there? A couple of them said they would. I haven't told anyone I'm definitely coming, though."

"Why not?" Jim asked. "What's the big secret?"

"I don't know. Just nervous, I guess."

We drove on. And on. It was a beautiful spring day, and the apple blossom trees were in full bloom. Purple redbuds dotted the rolling green hills. We could see the hazy blue of the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance. As a drive, it wasn't bad.

"We're going to be really late," I said to Jim, checking my watch. "The party starts at 6:30 and it's already 6."

"Who cares, Jules? You're probably coming from the furthest away. No one will care," he answered.

He started to sound irritated, so I let it go. We got to our Airbnb, quickly showered and changed, and headed out again. We were an hour late. I told myself it didn't matter. The party would still be going on. We drove out of Charlottesville, past gorgeous country homes with horses grazing in the fields. We found our host's house and drove down her long, gravelled driveway. I held my breath. Forty years is a long time. Would anyone even recognize me? We pulled into the parking area in front of her house. It was empty.

"Umm, Jules," my husband said. "Where is everybody?"

I stared at the vacant driveway, confused. Where WAS everybody? Could there be another parking area around back? Could they have all carpooled or something? Were they hiding?

"Jules," Jim said. "Do you have the right date?"

My heart stopped. The right date? I couldn't have the WRONG date, could I? I grabbed my phone and found the evite. I looked at the date. April 30.

"What's the date today, Jim?" I asked. I'm retired—I don't pay much attention to the calendar anymore.

"April 24," he said. "What did you do now, Jules? What's the invitation say?"

Before I could answer, the front door flew open and out stepped a face from the past: Mary Welby, the host of my 40th high school reunion. I opened the car door. "Oh my God!" we shouted in unison.

"I have the wrong day! I cannot believe it!" I got out of the car and threw my arms around Mary Welby. "I am so embarrassed!"

"How the hell did you do that, Julie?" she said, with just a trace of a southern drawl. "Well, come on in, you two! You have to stay for a glass of wine, anyway!"

I turned and gestured for Jim to get out of the car. She led us into her house, poured two mighty big glasses of red wine, and started busting about making dinner for us. "Y'all have to stay for dinner, now. How did you mess up the date, Julie? The reunion is next weekend. Didn't you get my invitation? But you're staying anyway. We got a lot to catch up on!"

I don't know how I got the date wrong. Maybe I'm getting senile. But it all worked out OK. More than OK, really. Mary Welby recognized me. She didn't think I'd gotten too fat. Her husband got along well with mine, and Jim didn't mind missing the reunion. Why would he?

Mary Welby and I talked long into the night about our lives in that tiny high school. Turns out she thought our classmates had thought her unintelligent. (They didn't. I thought she was brilliant. She could sing and bang out songs like none other in the lounge—an amazing talent). She told my husband that I marched to my own drum in high school. I don't know quite what that means, but I'll take it.

I didn't get to see all my other friends, but I did get a wonderful meal and a magical night in the Virginia countryside with someone who knew me way back when. Best thing of all—I have ten more years to lose weight before the next reunion. If I go.