I’d lived in denial ’til after college and a failed marriage. Julie had been a good wife, and we’d had two beautiful children together, but we just weren’t meant to be a couple.
Twenty years had passed, a life time of accomplishments behind me, and I was still nervous as I drove up to valet parking of the Park Hyatt Washington. Twenty-year Class Reunion; I had avoided the tenth, but I had found myself wondering about my friends and classmates as the twentieth had approached. Why I wanted to see anyone again I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t been the class reject, and I wasn’t returning as the conquering underdog who’d done good. I hadn’t been the head of the class, and I wasn’t returning to prove I still had it all. No, I was just one of the forgotten middle-grounders. I’d been no one special, or memorable, or accomplished in school. I’d just been another guy, struggling with his identity and trying to figure out what he wanted out of life.
Ok, so I had also been a closet case; nothing new there either. I’d lived in denial ’til after college and a failed marriage. Julie had been a good wife, and we’d had two beautiful children together, but we just weren’t meant to be a couple. Even after the divorce we remained friends. At least neither of us had cheated on the other. We’d simply known that it wasn’t working. She’d always noticed my attraction to men, even though I’d tried to ignore it, and when we finally ended it, she’d pointed me in that direction. No judgments, no screaming, and no fears of what I would do to the kids; honestly, Julie was still my best friend. We’d both cried when we ended it, but we were miserable and it turned out for the best. I started and new life, and Julie remarried a few years later, but I still shared custody of the kids. Hell, I even liked Jim; he was a great guy with a “starter marriage” behind him as well.
Julie pushed me to come to the reunion. She thought it would be good for me to have some closure. She and Jim worried about me a lot, far more than I deserved. They wanted me to be happy and show the kids that “being gay” did not equate to being lonely and miserable. Hah, what a joke. I’d tried a few times; I’d only bottomed, but I’d even had a boyfriend for almost a year. Gay bars were too much of a fucking meat market; online hook-ups were scary. Were all gay men looking for hung, built, sex-crazed guys in their early to mid-twenties? That wasn’t me. Not that I didn’t like to look at and fantasize about the hot images on the internet, but that’s all I ever did.
I pulled out my suitcase and hanging bag, gave my keys to the attendant, and checked in. The woman at reservations was kind enough to tell me where the sign-in for the Madison High School reunion was. I had a porter deliver my things to the room, tipping him in advance, while I wandered down to the meeting room area. A frustrated blond “soccer mom” was directing the final touches and looked like she really needed to be anywhere but here. I was early.
She saw me as I watched. “Hello, you here for the reunion?” She smoothed down the front her slacks and extended her hand. “I’m Meredith Bartoni, but I was Meredith Coleman back in school.”
I smiled. Meredith had been the head of student council, a cheerleader, and though she was the target of every guy in the senior class she never seemed to be a bitch. In fact, she’d been nice to everyone. Extending my hand, I accepted the greeting. “Zack Johnson.”
Her brows furrowed, and I could tell she was trying to place me. I hadn’t been on any of the school teams. The only thing I’d done was martial arts club; it was the only sport I’d kept up with. “Why does your name ring a bell? I get the idea you were in one of the odd clubs?”
I was impressed. “Head of the Martial Arts club, senior year.”
She smiled. “Thanks. I’ve tried to memorize the names of anyone who did anything at the school, but with a seven-hundred person graduating class it is just impossible.”
I looked around. “Looks like you have your hands full.”
She rolled her eyes and groaned. “Just like high school, actually. I get on a committee and by the time something has to be finished, most of the girls have ‘conflicts’ and I’m left holding the bag.”
Grinning, I laughed. “Well, once I get out of my office clothes, could I help?”
The relief on her face was palpable. “Oh, would you?”
“I’d be happy to; I’ll be back down in fifteen.”
She gave me a quick hug, and I could feel the tension in her back. She was really stressed. “Thank you so much.”
“See you in a few.”
I got up to my room and changed. My bags had been delivered and I changed quickly. I stopped and looked in the mirror before I went back down. My hair had thinned and my waistline was about six inches larger than it had been at eighteen. Not that I was a porker; I was still under two hundred and I honestly had great legs and ass. I still did martial arts, kung fu and tai chi specifically. Our particular school was known for having men in the upper levels that were “beer kegs” or barrels. Something about the core body work developed bodies into a solid, columnar build. I didn’t jiggle much, though I did have a soft cushion I could lose. I’d never get below a 34 or 35-inch waist again; I had just too much solid muscle in the middle to do get smaller than that. At five-foot-eleven, I wasn’t bad, but no one would be asking me to model. My face was, for better or for worse, “sweet”. I’d always had a kind of cherubim face; Julie called it adorable. I called it “no man’s land” because I never seemed to be able to “land a man” with it.
I appeased my ego by reminding myself I had most of my hair, I had no health problems, I had two great kids and some really world-class friends; knowing that I could probably break most of my class mates in two if they pissed me off was also a great equalizer. I wasn’t the prettiest, I wasn’t the best built, and I certainly wasn’t the most successful, but I could stand up with any of them and honestly say I had done pretty well. I wondered if I could honestly stand up and tell them I was gay.
Meredith smiled as I came back into the reception area. She had been talking with a taller man, maybe six-two, with graying blond hair and a lean, almost overly drawn physique. His face looked as if he’d had a lot of hard years, but his eyes were laughing. I think it was his eyes that caused me to pause. They were an odd sort of blue-green that almost leapt out at you like when people with blue eyes wear green tinted contacts. Meredith snapped me back to reality was she said my name. “Zack, do you remember Joshua Winters?”
I was stunned into speechlessness. Josh had been ‘the jock’ of school. He lettered in track, was tall, blond, built like a Greek god, and had everyone falling over him. I think what I remembered most about him was the distant, almost distracted look he always seemed to have. It was as if he wasn’t quite paying attention to what was going on around him. He certainly didn’t have that look now; his eyes seemed to capture everything. He also wasn’t a Greek god; he must have lost thirty or forty pounds since school. He didn’t look bad; he looked very fit and vibrant if a bit worn. It was just such a dramatic change.
He extended his hand. “Hey, Zack. I don’t think we knew each other in school.”
“No, we didn’t have the same circle of friends.” I wanted to say “no, I wasn’t a cool jock like you”, but I thought that’d be rude.
“Yeah, clicks suck, but when you’re in your teens you don’t know any better.” Ok, that was a good comeback.
Meredith smiled. “Josh is my closest and oldest friend, Zack, so don’t give him a lot of grief.” There was the sound of something being knocked over and she shuddered. “Could you two handle the name tags while I find out what the hell just happened?”
Josh nodded. “You go, Mere, we’ll take care of it.”
I rolled my eyes as she dashed off to take care of another emergency. “Didn’t anyone come to help?”
Josh grunted. “Damn Prima Dona bitches who started this whole thing are too busy trying to look seventeen again to get their manicures dirty.” He walked to the reception table and slid around to the chairs. “Might as well grab a seat, Zack. If I know Mere, she’ll have us slaving for her for the whole weekend.”
I grinned. “The ‘Demon Soccer Mom’ strikes again?”
Chuckling, Josh found his name badge and struck his name off the list. “Something like that.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Josh and I spent the evening handing out nametags, checking off name lists, and talking to dozens of people we didn’t know and had no real interest in getting to know. Fortunately, we found common interests to talk about together and we caught each other up on life after High School. I told him about marriage, martial arts, kids and divorce. He told me about sports, surviving cancer and making life changes. I had to admit, Josh was not only cool but someone to be admired. He had his shit together in spades.
Mere plopped down in the other chair behind the reception table and let out a sigh of relief. It was after midnight and we’d finally shut off the straggling flow of arriving former classmates by closing the doors to the meeting hall. “Thank God.”
I chuckled. “You handled it like a pro. I can’t believe they had so many issues you had to clean up behind.”
Mere groaned. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it. Why the hell weren’t you on the committee?”
I smirked. “Because I was a nobody in school, and didn’t attend the 10th anniversary, so the recreation crew didn’t think to see if I’d help.”
Mere snorted; it was a sound that seemed to come naturally, but was totally out of place with the nearly perfect if frazzled woman sitting near us. “You weren’t an available piece of meat is more likely.”
Josh chuckled. “I’m glad I just moved back. No one knew I was here but you.”
“And I plan to keep it that way, Mr. Winters; all those grabby bitches will do is make your life miserable. Hell, a few of them may even try to ‘make you straight’.” She chuckled but Josh looked a bit uncomfortable. It took her a moment to realize I wasn’t ‘in the know’ and she blushed. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry Josh.”
He shrugged. “Not like I wasn’t planning on coming out anyway.”
I was clueless for a few moments, and then I blinked. “You’re gay?”
“Yeah, ‘Mr. Top Jock’ is a fag.” He sounded bitter. I knew how he felt.
I shrugged. “Cool.”
That had both of them nonplussed. “Cool?” Mere was shocked. “I out my best friend like an idiot, and all you can say is cool?”
“What do you want me to say, Meredith? That’s great Josh; let’s hit some bars together?” I grinned. “Not exactly my style.”
Mere grinned. “So, what is ‘your style’?”
Ok, that had me sweating. This conversation was going places I really didn’t want to go. “It’s the: you can live your life any way you want as long as you don’t drag me along, style.” Ok, that was safe; I thought.
Josh held up his hand. “Ok kids, time out.” He looked at Mere and pointed to the far side of the table. “You, over there. No more pressing for personal matters.” Then he looked at me and pointed in the opposite direction. “You, take a break ’til you can play nice with the other kids.”
I laughed. “Actually, unless Mere needs some help with the final clean up, I’m heading to bed.”
Mere smiled. “Thanks for your help, Zack. I’m sorry I got bitchy; it’s been a long night.”
“Need me in the morning?”
She shook her head. “No, those lazy bitches can take their shifts, or I’ll take one of my son’s cleats and kick them so hard they’ll think it’s implanted.”
We all laughed and I put out my hand to Josh. “It was a pleasure to meet you again.”
He took my hand and smiled. “Like-wise.”
Meredith hugged me before I left. “Don’t forget to give me your contact info, Zack. After all this, maybe we can get together.”
I really liked Mere. “I’d like that.” I left feeling like I probably had a couple new friends in the making.
* * * * * * * * * *
I really didn’t get much time with Josh or Meredith again during the reunion. We smiled at one another when we could; knowing smiles that no one else understood. People remarking on how they’d changed, how they looked, or another of a million insincere compliments had waylaid them both. Everyone reacted to Josh’s change as I had; he really was a different person from the boy in school. I caught up with a few of my high school friends; we had nothing in common, but I was glad to see them again.