Behind the Caves

By

“Only connect.”

—E. M. Forster

 

At my 20-year high school reunion I learned that the most popular girl in school—the Queen—had married one of the Hoods. How had this happened?

Everything felt mysterious. I had just had twins. My body did not feel like my own. I was incredibly tired and morbidly sensitive and my mind felt dilated—like an aperture—the film behind it overexposed and unable to process.

On the tour of our school I deliberately hung back, the last to enter a room and the last to leave. Here was the front desk where you signed in if you were late. Here was the hall lined with class pictures, including one with a famous actress camouflaged amid the smooth, blurred faces. Here was the auditorium where I played Corelli concertos and Hello, Dolly! on my violin. Only now the auditorium was condemned. We stood just inside its doors, lights off, straining to see the stage, the scent of wood and dust and warm velvet and an intangible nostalgia flooding me like a dark tide.

At the reunion I took stock of who had come. Not my friend, the Brain. Not my friend, the Hippie. Not my on-again-off-again Crush. Not my stand partner and Rival. No one from my AP English class. No one from my bus route. Not the Queen of the school. Not the Outcast, either.

*

I knew the Outcast the way everyone in a class of one hundred knows each other. But we had never crossed paths, never spoken, until our senior year. Once, just before a concert, I was ripping through a bunch of Vivaldi arpeggios to warm up. I went faster and faster, just to the edge of lost control, and then bent a four-note double-stop to finish. I had thought I was alone but he had been behind me. “Wow,” he said. I tossed my hair over my shoulder and looked at him.

*

The Queen was not at the reunion, but her Handmaidens were. They looked almost the same—impeccable clothes, perfect hair, still together. They smiled and hugged me but I was shy, unable to forget, even after twenty years, their little kitten teeth and pin-sharp claws, their bites and barbs. Did they remember?

Phone boothI wanted to ask them what their life was like then. Did they go to clubs in the city? Did they have midnight pool parties? Either then or now, I couldn’t imagine how they, the Coolest of the Cool, had lived.

I didn’t go to parties, didn’t have a pool, went to the city but never to clubs. The Brain and I played in our state’s Youth Symphony. We wrote poems and staged fake fistfights in a field by a busy road. We talked—a lot—in the woods behind my house, on the deck behind hers, in my grey station wagon, in her little yellow pickup truck.

The Hippie and I ate pizza and made mix tapes. We drew phallic symbols on phone booths with red nail polish and tried to light them on fire. We read Shakespeare over the phone and shopped for Chinese slippers and dangly earrings at Pier One. We talked— a lot—in her cloud-painted room in the little house across the railroad tracks.

*

The Outcast wore a trench coat in the spring, in summer bucks without socks, in winter a Snowy River hat. He drove a dark Buick with impressive fins, if you were impressed by that sort of thing. His handwriting was cramped and slanted, and he favored sepia-toned sheets torn carefully from a legal pad. When did he start passing notes to me? And what did the notes say?

*

After high school one friend got married. One stayed home. One fled north. I went west.

My parents still live in the house I grew up in. When I go back for visits, I drive by the school, sometimes walk around the track, sometimes sit in the bleachers, remembering, wondering. This is where we had a lunchtime picnic of crepes filled with Reddi-Wip. This is where the boys called us dykes and I wasn’t entirely sure what they meant. This is where the smoking lounge used to be. This is where I missed the bus. This is where I missed the point.

*

With the letters there was a tape. The first song, and the theme of it, was Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Why had he given me this? What had I needed to face, what ground did I need to stand, what easy way out was refused? I don’t remember. I don’t remember the conversations we had or what I might have confided in him. But it had been important enough for him record an hour and a half of Memorex tape, music to soothe and bolster me, music to hold me up not at school but at home, in the privacy of my room at night, a place he never saw, an action he was never allowed.

*

At the reunion I was amazed to see a network of relationships—some formed in high school, some after—that I had never known about. People I thought had been good friends were actually better friends with someone else. That’s when I started to doubt my own history, my own story.

I wound up talking with people I had barely spoken with in high school. At thirty-eight we were mostly doing the same things: working, raising families. It was easy to find common ground. It was less easy to get at the truth.

*

The Outcast and I ended almost as soon as we began. At school we were circumspect, but in the afternoons I went to his house. His mother made me Twinings Yunan tea, smoky and strong, a tea I have not been able to find since. And then she went upstairs and we went to the basement.

Pool tableThere was a pool table. Did we play? Did we talk? He kissed me, I know, and I kissed him back. But when he boosted me up on the table and wrapped my legs around his waist I froze.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m going to make love to you,” he said.

*

The Football Player couldn’t believe I wasn’t on Facebook. The Football Player and I had never spoken before but somehow here we were, me recognizing him, him having little idea who I was then (“You played flute, right?”) or now. I tried to explain the value I place on privacy, but finally I just laughed a little and said that I’d get on it, but I’d probably choose the anonymous icon instead of posting pictures of myself. “See—some things never change!” he said. I kept my smile in place but looked away. Who was I to these people? Not the Writer. Not the Violinist. I was Not Anyone at All.

*

On the pool table I said, “Uh, no you’re not,” in a voice that wasn’t my own but borrowed from Claire Standish, Brenda Walsh, or Some Kind of Wonderful. I broke his hold and left. I don’t remember saying anything else as I walked out, or in school the next day, or when he called or when he wrote. I remember holding my silence up as a wall to keep out… what?

*

Virginia Woolf once wrote (of the draft that would become Mrs. Dalloway), “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters… The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment.”

After the reunion Facebook revealed connections I had never imagined. When had this happened? Immediately after Facebook took off, in 2006 or 2007, when we were all in our mid-thirties and trying to settle into our adult lives—or escape from them? The ten-year reunion would have already passed (“All the hookups that didn’t happen in high school happened then,” the Class Secretary told me dryly) but there were at least five years to fill before the twenty-year reunion. Some connections, some relationships, some longings were, I’m sure, ripe for rekindling.

*

After I looked up the Brain and the Hippie and my Crush and my Rival, I looked up the Outcast. Like Mark Zuckerberg in the last scene of The Social Network, I had been tempted to use a friend request as an apology. I looked at his profile picture. He was still handsome, with a boyish curl to his hair—what had made him an outcast? I looked at his friends—he had plenty of them. And then, among them, I saw the Redhead.

I hadn’t known they were friends—on Facebook, in real life, or in high school. But her presence there made me pause. I had barely known him. I had no idea what kind of life he led in the countless hours I wasn’t in it. Maybe the Outcast wasn’t an outcast. Maybe I had been the Outcast all along.

*

The web of connections I found on Facebook became more like a fence to me. I was outside, and uncertain how much I wanted to be in.

Still, I made a few tentative overtures to other Quiet Girls and was stunned by how different our perceptions of high school were. One thought the Coolest of the Cool were the Sports, not the Preps. One categorized me as part of the Nerd Elite. More and more I felt my own story slipping away from me as other memories challenged my own.

*

Immediately after the reunion I had burned to be frozen in people’s minds at the age of 17—skinny, long-haired, bookish, on the edges, at the margins, holed up in my adolescent introversion, known only by a few who have since become lost to me.

Behind the CavesBut now the burn of frustration has shifted into a burn of near-shame: how had I not realized that everyone else had been frozen in my mind too? While I thought everyone was dozing along with me in the enchanted castle, they were meeting and talking, going out and hooking up, rekindling old friendships, making new marriages, babysitting each other’s children, and posting pictures of all of this on Facebook.

I did not care to dig beyond my cave and now it feels too late.

I wish I had responded differently as I was perched on that pool table. “I’m going to make love to you.” Maybe it was something he had seen in a movie and weren’t we all, at that age, fumbling our lines?

Maybe all those rebuffs—the few I gave, the many I received—were just ways of protecting ourselves, those nascent beings so unsure of who we were or what we wanted to become. We were just beginning to dig our caves, but were still so desperate—yet so afraid—some of us still—to only connect.

***

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from the Modern Love column of the New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Rain Taxi Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; Brevity and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com. More from this author →