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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

I had a Zoom call last night with two friends who I quite literally have not seen since high school.

Valerie, who I’ve kept in touch with periodically over the years, requested it as a birthday present to herself. Kelli was the second, someone who I believe I last spoke to on graduation day when we said “bye.”

It’s weird how you can be friends with someone and spend so many years of your life immersed in theirs and then suddenly it’s like they never existed. You all go to college and grad school and in Kelli’s case medical school, and life just sort of happens in another dimension.

I can name fewer than half a dozen people who I was truly friends with in high school. I’m Facebook friends with a couple of them today though that doesn’t involve any actual conversation. It’s more like you talk by proxy. You post something about your kid or your job or the last thing you ate and someone else likes it or says something profound like “congratulations!” and that’s what passes for keeping in touch.

After high school I lost touch with everyone.

But somehow Valerie always found me. She is not online, in any way shape or form, and lives in a tiny Massachusetts town where they literally did not have home internet until 2019. Until then she went to the library to use a computer, so the chances of her googling me were slim to none.

Still, she dug out old phone numbers and email addresses and has tracked me down in various places throughout the years.

I’m a bad keep-in-toucher. I tend to go dark for years on end without realizing it, then suddenly everyone is ten years older and I have no idea how that happened.

She kept in touch with Kelli, too.

Anyway, it was… weird. And nice. And nice and weird. It got me thinking a lot about life and friendships and what I’m doing and whether it’s meaningful. I think I’ve just been in that sort of place for a while and this call was a bit of karma poking at the tangle of questions.

It’s not that I was worried they would judge me. These are two of the nicest people I knew, the kind you can actually be happy for when they tell you great things. The kind you’re ok being yourself with, even the wrinkled you, even though you really wish maybe not that wrinkled. Nobody had to put on airs or sound important or be successful.

It wasn’t about what they thought. For a little while I had the existential experience of seeing myself for the first time in 36 years. It was about what I thought. And I didn’t really know what that was.

Who am I, really? Are we really anyone at all except in the context of our relationships? I am friend, sister, daughter, wife. But not inherently. I am that and not that. I am the same and not the same.

It was quite a brainful.

Valerie looks like herself. If you dropped us both in the middle of Oklahoma City or something and I passed her on the street I’d go OMG that’s Valerie!

Kelli looks like someone I can imagine looked like herself at 18. But I doubt I would recognize her in passing. If we were at a high school reunion and she was wearing her name on a sticker on her shirt I would still probably not recognize her.

The awful thing about that is last night as we were talking, I said that out loud. I told Valerie she had not changed, and I told Kelli I probably wouldn’t recognize her.

I mean, it sounds as awful writing it right now as it did the second it came out of my mouth. At which point I opted not to dig myself into a deeper hole by explaining how I didn’t mean she looked old or anything, just different. I was actually thinking she looked quite beautiful, which also wasn’t to imply she didn’t look beautiful back then…

This is why you don’t drop into a Zoom with people after 36 years.

They couldn’t decide if they would recognize me. Valerie said she wouldn’t, and Kelli said she would, then Valerie, probably suffering the same omg did I just say the wrong thing as I was, changed her mind and decided it was just the hair. I have long, straight hair now, as opposed to big 80s hair.

I can see why that would throw a person off.

It does make you wonder though how people see you after all this time. I know how I see me, which is a more wrinkled and saggier version of myself. I look at the lines and the creases and the bags and cringe a little inside.

It’s different when people grow older with you than when they have a picture of you etched in their heads of you in a club outfit when you’re 18, and now you’re 53 and wearing a t-shirt two sizes too big because it’s all the clean laundry you have and you wanted to do your hair but really you just got off the Peloton because you’re fat now.

Anyway there was a minute of that whole wow it’s so nice to see you thing. And how weird is this? And, silently, please god I can’t be the only one who is trying to suck in my cheeks and smile without wrinkling my forehead.

But it was also weird how quickly you can fall back into yourself, like you were just holed up in the closet with the phone cord stretching from the kitchen and talking to your best friends about who knows what but probably boys.

Within ten minutes it was Val and Kel all over again.

Why do some people end up as one syllable? It’s not like adding the li on the end would make Kelli so much harder to say.

Nobody calls me Ca.

Actually, some people have called me Ca. Probably the same lazy friends who I called Mish and Ger.

Anyway, it was one interesting thing to note. We fell into Val and Kel pretty easily. Like there were not 36 years in between.

These two are pretty much exactly how I remember them. They sound the same. They laugh the same. They have the same mannerisms.

Which was also kind of weird, because it makes me wonder who I am.

I’m not really this person who went to Friday night football games and sang in the chorus, am I? I’m not the giggling teenager with gigantic hair anymore. Am I?

Am I?

If they are still themselves, am I still myself?

It was all so existential.

Things we talked about: our jobs. Our travels. Where we’ve lived and where we want to go. What we want to do when we retire, which is… wait, I’m not that old. Am I?

Am I?

Things we didn’t talk about: boys. Not even our husbands.

We didn’t even talk much about high school. You might assume there would have been a bit of remember-when, but it seems we are in agreement that we don’t have the fondest memories of our school days. Sure, we had fun together, but life in high school?

One can’t be blamed for graduating and then never looking back, even if it meant losing touch with friends.

It was simultaneously awkward and delightful to talk to them. I think there is more old school in me than I like to admit because the actual Zoom part was the hardest part. I think, if you could have put a corded phone in my hand, I would happily have been able to talk for the next four hours about anything at all, without a trace of awkwardness.

And by the way, I think the same might be true if we had been able to get together for a drink or a slice of cake.

As much as Zoom has given us a way to “see” people it is the most unnatural kind of seeing. It’s just you and one or more moving pictures staring at each other but never appearing to make eye contact because you are always looking at the person at the bottom of the screen and they are always looking at you on the top and your lines of sight never intersect.

It really was a whole existential thing. It made me think of who I am, really, and what does that matter if it’s not how other people see me? How DO people see me, and how important is THAT?

Have I changed in 36 years? Is that a good thing?

Not just the wrinkles, but fundamentally. Am I still the giggling oddball that I was? And is THAT a good thing?

Who knows.

It was fun and I really enjoyed catching up, brief as it was. I would do it again. In fact, I think it would be fun to get reacquainted and see new facets of these people I used to know so well. Maybe we will share an affinity for cocktails. Or maybe we all have a great bread recipe. Maybe we have nothing in common at all and then we can act like teenagers again and make fun of each other relentlessly for preferring sitcoms to scifi.

I did not conclude anything except that maybe I am not so different after all. I’ve had a lot more experiences, but I am the thread that runs through them all. More wrinkled, perhaps, but the mirror does not tell us who we are. I think, in fact, it reminds us of who we are not. We are not this aging reflection. We are just people who need connections with other people. And in the end, that is what reminds us of who we are.

Photo: me, looking like a total goofball in my senior yearbook. It was apparently the best photo they could find, and the best I could do on short notice. But really, I guess it sums things up nicely.