People often have different versions of what’s happened, differing stories. She thought I’d rejected her while I remembered we’d gradually grown apart. My version was kinder to both of us, certainly kinder about me. Who knows which was true – er?
Anyway, my friend had kept the stash of letters I’d sent her during our four- or five-year friendship, from the end of junior high school through to university. We arranged to meet, after all these years and the plan was to re-read the letters together, recapturing lost time.
I was looking forward to it, not with any conscious expectations really, certainly no excessive overlay, but with interest. I didn’t know what I expected, and as so often is the case, it was only afterwards that I knew what I hadn’t expected and kind of had a sense of what I was looking for.
We decided to meet at Starbucks. I was sitting there waiting with a cup of coffee when a couple of people came in, a man and woman. They had their life’s belongings with them and seemed unsure of themselves, especially the woman. They had clearly fallen on hard times. They chose a table right next to me and settled in for a chat.
I wasn’t really paying attention but all of a sudden I heard two names I recognised, two high school teachers from days gone by, right back to the time of the letters I was waiting to read. My ears pricked up and the woman talked at length about one of them, the one I remembered better, saying he had helped her pass English and get into college. I was wondering why after all these years she was talking to this man so animatedly about a high school teacher. I couldn’t really follow what she was saying, and the man also seemed a little perplexed. It seemed strange – here they were at this much later stage in their lives, pretty much the same age as me, and she seemed so preoccupied with this high school teacher I hadn’t thought of for decades. I was struck by the different courses of our lives, I heard her say something about almost getting thrown out of home during high school, and I thought how true it is that our early life can shape us and set us on a path. I felt grateful for my start in life, as I looked at them, the man with a huge lump in or on his forehead – had he been punched or was it some deformity that had always been there or had grown up in the course of life?
I was tempted to join in and say, ‘I knew that teacher too, he taught me.’ But something held me back. And when my friend came, I told her as we walked to her car, and she like me hovered at the prospect of going back in and telling them, ‘we went to that school too, we knew those teachers.’ Something held us back. Was it self-protection or fear? We told ourselves it was a practical decision, it would have eaten up our precious time. These were people we might have known, maybe we did know them, they were unrecognisable as their lives had made them physically alien to us. Maybe we were unrecognisable too. Maybe we’d had lunch together on the playground. They could have been us, and we could have been them. I felt connected to them, and curious – but something in me held back. In rejecting them, was I rejecting a part of myself, or was I just being myself?
And remember, we had a job to do.
So we went to read my letters. And lo and behold, one of the key figures in all those early letters was that same teacher I remembered but hadn’t thought about for decades! Endless references to him of the most inane sort. I could hardly remember the man, but there he was on every page. I had mocked him, unkindly, we both had with adolescent insensitivity and no malicious intent.
And I saw in these early letters a person I didn’t recognise but a person I knew, a person I had never seen so clearly before – as I stood back from my earlier self. I looked at the reams of stream-of-consciousness…. Boys, gossip, food, clothes, pop stars, petty jealousies and insecurities, stuff…. None of it was wholly at odds with my memories, but the words on paper in familiar handwriting had the effect of bursting the bubble of my sense of past self. It was a surprise, moderated slightly by the glimmers of someone I knew better emerging in the later more reflective letters from university, these still swamped by an adolescent neo-Romantic drama queenish melancholia. I was a little disappointed – letting go the illusion – and it made me think.
The experience of reading these letters was oddly empty and insubstantial – like eating a Starbucks pastry that looks so tasty and leaves you feeling a little light-headed because of the high sugar content.
And then a couple days later coming back to England, getting off the plane and hearing the high-pitched shrieks and gigles of it must have been towards 1,000 adolescent schoolgirls all with their crushes on The Janoskians: ‘Just a group of hopeless kids with no future taking on the streets of Melbourne.’ ‘The Janoskians (Just Another Name Of Silly Kids In Another Nation) are a YouTube comedy group, pranksters, singers, entertainers, and stunt performers, based in Melbourne, Australia.’ (Wikipedia) The Janoskians were arriving on the same flight, in fact they’d been in the row behind, and all these girls were hanging on desperate to see them. Police were holding them back. It was surreal to walk through the entry doors at Heathrow Airport and be greeted by this huge crowd of barely controlled emotion.
And only afterwards did I reflect these were the schoolgirls inside of me let loose – this was the excess of emotion run riot in those letters, magnified and ramped way up the scale. I could not reject that girl who was me just as I could not deny the connection with the street people, my old classmates, at the table nearby. Walk by, turn away, that’s what we did as we walked down through Duty Free with no goods to declare into the airport, along the demarcated space with those pulsating schoolgirls pressing in on us – no, life would not let me off the hook.