By Lisa Padgalskas Hand
As I stood at the door of the hotel ballroom looking into the crowd of beautiful people holding cocktails, and mingling in small groups, I felt it in the pit of my stomach: that sickening feeling of being an outcast. I knew the scenario. I would try to join in and someone would snicker and block my way. I would be ignored and isolated, and banished to the sidelines while everyone danced and had a great time.
It was the horror of high school all over again.
I lifted my chin and chased those thoughts from my mind. I was being silly. Certainly these folks were no longer the insensitive, cruel teenagers they used to be. Like me, they’d grown up and were adults now with jobs and families and kids, most of which were probably old enough to be married and have their own kids by now. My former classmates hopefully had matured into civil, middle-aged people, with passable social skills or at least the ability to pretend to have an interest in someone besides themselves. I felt a wave of confidence flood over me. This might actually be fun. After all, these were people my age and we all had one thing in common: we’d all graduated from Calhi in Whittier, CA, in 1972
When I had first received Colleen Carpenter’s notice of the reunion, I had scoffed at the idea. Pshaaa! I’d thought. There was no freaking way I would attend. Though we’d been “best buds” when we were freshmen, Colleen’d dropped me like a pair of used underwear the following year. It’d been horrid; my self-esteem hit rock bottom. While she went on to do big things like get chosen for junior pep squad and win Girls League president, I failed miserably in the social arena. I finally found an annoying boyfriend who couldn’t take his eyes off me, but at least I had someone to have lunch with. It’d been a long time ago, but still. The idea of attending the reunion at Colleen’s invitation irked me.
But not just that. I mean, come on, FORTY years? The bold number on the invitation hit me like a smack on the face. The number alone was ridiculous! I resented that someone would even suggest it.
But still, there was this little voice saying I should go. It was Rick’s. He’d just gone to his 45th and enjoyed it, and thought mine might be fun to go to, too. And I got to thinking, maybe he was right. After all, what was I afraid of? That deep inside I was still that skinny, geeky girl that those people would continue to torture? Hell, I was an adult now. I had people in my life that actually liked me. And for good reason: I was a good person. I was! Plus,I had a decent sense of humor, and I looked pretty darned good for my age. But the point was, why not go and put those demons to rest once and for all? Why not show them who Lisa Padgalskas really was?
Rick was off parking the car, so I entered the reunion unescorted, feeling a little conspicuous and a lot lightheaded, since we’d smoked a joint in the hotel room just before coming. I was immediately struck by the amateurish decorations in the reception area where, like a gymnasium pep-rally back in the day, there were a smattering of balloons in the school colors of blue and yellow and two small hand-made posters that exclaimed “Welcome Class of ’72!” and “Go CalHi Condors!” Actually, it was sort of charming that it wasn’t all high-tech and fancy schmancy – like it’d be for a reunion for a high school in somewhere like say Newport Beach.
Suddenly I was ambushed by non other than Colleen Carpenter herself who swooshed out of nowhere to greet me.
“Lisa Padagooski!” she cried. Next thing I knew, she had me in a bear hug. “I’m so fucking glad you made it,” she said in my ear with real feeling.
I was thrown off for a moment by her word choice, but touched by the sincerity of what she was saying. She hugged me a long time before finally letting go.
“Yeah, me, too,” I said. Then in a lame attempt to fully express the same sentiments, I added. “I’m fucking glad I came.”
I saw that Colleen had aged well and was still attractive, with the exact same pixie-ish hairstyle she’d had in high school.
“Let’s catch up later,” she said, grasping my arm, “when things quiet down and we can really talk.” Just like that she was off, disappearing into the crowd, as she obviously had important stuff to attend to. Same old Colleen.
I headed to the hostess table where all the lanyards with shiny blue ribbons were lined up in neat little rows. I spotted mine within a moment or two, and stared at the black and white photo imprinted on the tag. It was seventeen-year-old me — long blond hair, cute smile, big eyes, and white lips, which looked kind of weird but had been the style of the day. It was so deja vu! Strangely, I didn’t look all that tormented. I turned to make my way through the crowd.
I didn’t get far because I thought I heard someone call my name. Glancing around, I saw three women looking over at me. They looked normal enough, like anyone you might see at the grocery store, except they were dressed to the nines.
“Lisa!” exclaimed one of them again, like we were long-lost buddies. I couldn’t believe my luck! But I had no clue who she was.
“Hi!” I said, genuinely excited. Still, I was perplexed. “Wait, how did we know each other? Were we in a class together?”
“I’m Karen Lambo, Lisa,” she said laughing, as though I should automatically know.
I grabbed the lanyard dangling from her neck and scrutinized it. The picture showed a typical smiling teenage girl with longish hair. My brain was firing like crazy trying to make the connection. But there was nada. She waited expectantly.
“Wow!” I said. “It’s you! Karen!”
But then I realized that I definitely knew the lady next to her. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was Donna Ramsey! We had both been on the back-stage crew for a high school play. The Man Who Came to Dinner I think,or some such play. Since there was mostly nothing for us to do when the actual scenes were going on, Donna and I would run around outside the theater pretending we were apes.
“Donna!” I exclaimed, trying to push the image out of my mind of her galloping on her knuckles and making “ooh-ooh-eee-eee” noises. I hoped to God she had forgotten. I pointed to myself. “Lisa. Padgalskas.”
She was pert and had a catchy little smile. “Oh yeah, I remember you, Lisa,” she said.
“We had some fun times, didn’t we?” I responded.
“Boy did we.”
We looked at each other askance.
Rick found me shortly after that and handed me a glass of red wine. It was a warm September night and I’d wandered outside where most everyone was, under the stars and near the cocktail bars.
“Thanks, sweetie,” I told him. “Do you mind if I…?”
“No, go. Go,” he said, almost pushing me. “Go have fun.”
I dashed off. I had found my stride. I would sidle up to small groups of people and use my nifty line: “Wait! Wait! Did we know each other…?” Then I’d search their faces and furrow my brows and dig really deep. Then I’d grab their lanyards to see if my hunch was right.
It was pure genius. Everyone seemed to find it amusing and it got the conversation going.
I wish I’d known that technique back in high school.
As the evening wore on, I ran into all kinds of people, most of whom I’d completely forgotten, but then suddenly appeared, like ghosts from the past. There was Mark Zacovic, notorious class-clown-turned-dean of some university. Then there was Paul Phillips, the one-time-heart-throb-water-polo jock who had become the minister of a church. I found myself wishing that my sad little teenage self could have seen me now, the “future Lisa,” animated and chatting it up with a big, popular “sosh.”
I was thrilled when the one person I really wanted to see at the reunion, Lynn Richie, showed up. Lynn was silly and cute and she still had her long bleached-blond hair. She had always been kind to me, and our friendship had jelled after as we continued through life.
“Honey!” cried Lynn, grabbing me for a hug. “Yay!”
“Yay, sweetie!” I replied. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
She was accompanied by Patty, her best pal in school, who gave me a perfunctory hug. Patty was the same as before – outgoing but stand-offish at the same time.
Curiously, many of those at the reunion that I’d felt the most affection for had been my friends in elementary school. Aside from Lynn, I don’t remember ever even seeing any of them in high school. Perhaps it’s that my memory was most vivid from those earliest days when I was a confident, outgoing youngster, rather than from my foggy high school days, when I was in my unsettled and self-absorbed world.
“Guess who I saw?” Rick said, bringing me another glass of cabernet. I was standing at one of the outside cocktail tables with Colleen’s husband Dean (though no Colleen) and a couple of other classmates. I’d barely seen my hubby since we’d arrived, but he was being a good sport hanging with the other spouses.
“Huh?” I said, taking a sip.
“Mark Boster. He’s over there.”
The wine went down the wrong pipe. “Really?” I asked, coughing.
When Colleen had emailed me all the reunion information including a list of people that were attending, I’d happened to notice Mark Boster’s name toward the top. I hadn’t thought of him in a long time, yet seeing his name I’d felt a little lightening bolt in my gut. Well, actually I don’t know where I felt it. But I did.
I peeked over and saw he was involved in a conversation a few yards away in a group of about five or six others. He was a barrel-chested man, a polished, dapper version of his kid self with an understated charisma. Wearing a dark jacket with a dark shirt and tie, he could have been a respected movie producer– though actually he was a photographer for the L.A. Times. Rick and I had seen his photos many times in the papers.
He turned to someone and made a comment and everyone laughed. I caught myself laughing along, which was kind of inane because I didn’t even hear what he said.
Funny how I could still see him as boy. He had been a stocky little guy with brown hair that was longer in front and fell across his forehead. His face was sweet and attentive and he was obviously enamored of me. I was a determined, curly-haired towhead, and he hung around watching me play on the monkey bars. In time, we began meeting on the grassy area where a quonset hut – a large semi-circle military building that the school had apparently purchased for storage – stood off by itself. We sometimes held hands, and before long we talked about our future. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but I remember I considered it deliberately and came to a conclusion.
“Well, if we’re going to get married,” I stated, fixing my steely blue eyes on him, “we better learn how to kiss.”
He quickly agreed, and we subsequently disappeared behind the quonset hut. There we stood facing each other, our arms to our sides, and he proceeded lean in and kiss me, with a quick, but slightly lingering, peck on the lips. Though it’s hard to know exactly how I felt at the time, I must have liked it. After all, I’ve had a memory of it all of these years. Not long afterwards we returned to our spot behind the quonset hut and did it again.
We kept our special romance secret through the third grade, though I’m not sure how many more, if any, kisses ensued. By sixth grade the connection had waned, then completely dissipated when we went to different junior highs. I didn’t even know that he’d attended CalHi until I noticed him one time in the quad with the all the “soshes.”
High School graduation, 1972, we’d somehow ended up on the dance floor together. I was light-hearted and confident that night in a silky white halter dress I had sewn myself, with my hair curled and flowing. I don’t know where my date was, but it was sort of nice to have my arms around Mark’s neck, and his around my waist, our faces just inches apart. He was a jock, a popular kid, but he seemed kinder than the others. I felt like I still knew him and that we shared something, though it had been so long.
I’d asked him if he remembered back in kindergarten, us kissing behind the quonset hut.
He’d had a pleasant smile on his face, but there was subtle cockiness there. He still had that frock of hair combed back over his forehead. He told me that he’d played football and got knocked around a lot. He said he didn’t remember much of what had happened back then.
I was disappointed, but it was no worse than anything else I’d experienced in high school, and was in fact much better. I’d actually enjoyed our moments together, dancing with my long-ago lover.
It was forty long years after that, a warm September evening under the stars. And there was Mark Boster, with an ordinary yet refined handsomeness, standing just steps away.
“Let’s go say hello,” said Rick, taking my arm.
He had no idea what I was thinking about Mark, the curiosity and attraction I felt. Even though I’d told him the story, he’d probably forgotten it. Just like Mark.
A couple had left the group, so we went over and took their place. Three or four were still there talking, but they graciously stopped and turned to acknowledge us.
Rick held out his hand. “Hi Mark, Rick Hand.”
They shook, and then he turned to me. “And this is my wife Lisa.”
“Hi Mark, do you remember me?” I said. “Lisa Padgalskas.”
He looked me in the eyes, and his gaze was warm and engaging. I think I blushed little.
“Hi Lisa!” he said warmly, taking my hand. “Yes, of course I do.”
Introductions were made all around, and then Rick started the conversation about how we’d all gone to Cal State Fullerton at the same time, and that over the years we’d been seeing and admiring his photos in the L.A. Times. We chit-chatted for a while more, about CalHi, and some of the people there, and other small talk. Soon there was an announcement to go inside and take our seats for dinner.
“I’m going to get us some wine,” Rick said, giving my arm a squeeze. “I’ll find us a table and meet you inside.” Then he turned back and gave a wave. “Nice talking to you, Mark.” Barely waiting for a response, he headed off for the bar.
And there we were, Mark and I standing there next to each to other. For the first time all evening, I kind of froze.
I hadn’t planned on saying anything about our escapades in kindergarten. I mean, come on, it was just a hazy, half-baked recollection from childhood that I could have easily just imagined. Except it had happened. And it felt so surreal standing here, fifty years later, with the guy I wanted to marry when I was five years old. I had to say something, so I just blurted it out.
“Did you remember that we did it when we were in kindergarten?”
I gasped. Oh my GOD! What the hell was I saying? I saw that he was taken aback and I was absolutely horror-struck. But then it suddenly seemed really funny and I started to laugh. I stopped for a second but then I replayed in my mind what I’d just said, and I burst out laughing again, and I found I couldn’t stop, and pretty soon I was laughing hysterically.
“I’m sorry!” I said, wiping my eyes, when I was able to get out a few words. “I mean, I know what you’re thinking, but we didn’t do that…” and I couldn’t believe again what I had just said – to this guy I barely knew – and the giggles started again, which I tried to contain, but that made it worse because they came out as hiccups and grunts and guttural noises, like some weird creature on Animal Planet engaged in a strange mating ritual.
Finally, I ran out of steam and took several deep breaths. I felt worn out. Oh Lord. This conversation had gone totally south. What must he be thinking?
I tried again. “What I meant was that we had this little thing going in kindergarten.” I could feel my face smiling stupidly, so I took another deep breath and forced a nonchalant expression. “And we… kissed… behind the quonset hut.”
He looked perplexed, and suddenly I felt terribly embarrassed. I knew I shouldn’t have smoked that weed! And all the wine hadn’t helped either.
But when I looked again, I realized he was actually quite amused. It appeared he was thinking – with a half-little smile on his face – and I waited for his response. He was seriously pondering what I’d said.
“Huh,” he replied, with raised eyebrows. Then he laughed. “That’s something.” He seemed intrigued.
“Yeah, we were planning to get married.” This time I clenched my lips together. He was looking me in the eye.
I continued. “But at our high school graduation we were dancing … and you said you didn’t remember. Because of football.”
He took a moment to respond. “At graduation?”
“Yeah.” I replied. “I was really disappointed.”
There was silence for moment.
“Wow,” he finally replied. “I’m going to have to think about that.”
Then I looked over and noticed there was a pretty, unassuming woman with short blond hair beside him. Had she been there the whole time? If so, I thought I might die right then and there.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “This is my wife, Sarah.” She seemed nice and not at all fazed by our conversation.
“Oh my gosh. I’m sorry. Nice to meet you.” I shook her hand vigorously.
The lights flashed a couple of times inside the ballroom, and the announcement was made again to come and take our seats. I told Mark and Sarah I enjoyed talking to them, and turned to leave. It was sinking in about the way our conversation had gone, and I was mortified. I had made a complete and utter fool of myself. But as I was walking toward the dining area in the ball room, I was surprised to find that Mark had caught up to me.
“You know, I think I do remember that now,” he said. We stopped and faced each other, the river of classmates enroute to dinner parting and going around us. “That was a pretty good first kiss.”
I was surprised and relieved and exhausted, and I’m sure my face was flushed, too, but not as much as earlier.
“Yes, it was,” I agreed. My soul was being swallowed by his eyes. “And do you remember we went back for a second one? I think that one was even better.” He looked at me and then let go a laugh.
I had this strange urge to plant a big one on his lips — just for the heck of it — right then and there. But this time I maintained my self-control.
The ballroom was buzzing with conversation. Rick had saved a table next to the dance floor, and Mark and Sarah joined us, as did Lynn and Patty and a couple of other classmates. Each table was set elegantly with white tablecloths, flickering candles, as well as an abundance of crystal wine glasses. I filled my plate with an array of pastas and salads from the buffet, but I barely touched it. I hadn’t seen Lynn since her daughter’s baby shower, and we spent most the dinner catching up. It was lovely.
I would have liked to talk to Mark more, but he and Rick were deep in conversation, mostly about photography, which I did join in on from time to time. But mostly I was simply intrigued. Had Mark had actually remembered our childhood tryst? My intuition told me that he’d never in fact forgotten it. And I was just blown away at the manner in which time and space works, when two souls can briefly cross paths at such divergent times in their lives, and make such a striking connection each time.
I tapped Rick on the shoulder. He was talking to another classmate across the table, but he turned to me and smiled. This was the man who was mine through the long haul. I’d known him since I was nineteen and he was twenty-five, when he had luscious long wavy auburn hair and a short but beautifully well-manicured red beard. He’d been quite handsome. Now his hair was thinning, as was his face, covered only with a stylishly scruffy grey mustache and goatee, a Steven Spielberg look-a-like. But his ready laugh, the glint in his eye, and his sweet nature had remained the same. He had given me a good life – a happy life – and allowed me my moods, my faults, my infatuations and peccadillo’s, calling me on it when I needed it, but never for a second wavering in his love.
“This is kind of fun, huh?” I said in his ear.
He brushed my hair back. “And you are the best-looking one here tonight,” he whispered back. I blushed for about the tenth time that night. He always said stuff like that, even in the morning when my eyes were puffy and I looked like crap.
After dessert, group pictures were taken and then there was a DJ for music. Rick and I, and Colleen and Dean, were pretty much the only ones on the floor, dancing to songs like Family Affair by Sly and the Family Stone, and Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young. When we were back at the table, Mark promised to send us a copy of a book of his photography from his travels around the world.
As the night wore on, other classmates came up to say hi and re-introduce themselves. It was an eye-opener. More people than I ever would have imagined, had known and actually cared about me, but I’d been too self-absorbed in my own pitiful world of misery to see it. What I realized is that high school was then, just as it is these days I’m sure, a veritable jungle of teenage angst, and at the time I just didn’t have the chutzpa to deal with it.
But the past was the past, and by the end of the evening, I’d accomplished something quite amazing. I’d left it all behind. All it took, as it turned out, was one helluva party.
Forty years later.
Copyright 2016 by Lisa Padgalskas Hand