We drove through Southbury, CT., stopping into a storefront simply called The Bakery, but the name was misleading. Two glass cases held a measly selection of bagels: one rye, three salt, and one that was marked "day old". We put in an order for two lattes, and bought a scone and a blondie. Leaving the establishment we realized we’d made a mistake - we’d patronized something called the European Shoppe, located one door over from The Bakery. This was not a good omen. With much trepidation, Cori and I were on our way to our 20 year high school reunion at a small Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, NY. Before the bakery, we’d stopped for gas in Meriden at a station where a dreadlocked man with a death wish sat smoking a cigarette next to a gas pump while I went into the station's convenience store and bought two sleeves of Nutter Butters. This also was not a good omen, and it took all of Cori’s resolve not to say something to him about it.
"I almost said to him, 'are you smoking right next to a gas pump?’" She explained that she'd lost her self-censoring filter, although it wasn't that outrageous of a thing to say to a man smoking in a gas station. "It’s like something takes over and words come right out of my mouth before I even realize it.” The first time this happened to Cori was when she was pregnant with her eldest child, and she was at a county fair in Connecticut when a man cut in front of her in a food line. “I was waiting in line to buy steak and cheese, or maybe it was sausage and pepper. Who knows, all I know is that it was damn important to me, and I wasn’t going to be wronged.”
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
“I just said ‘excuse me, I was next'. And I could feel the Lou Ferrigno green rising in me.”
Last week Cori’s filter failed when a car full of teenage boys pulled into her apartment complex, and one of them threw an empty soda bottle out of a car window.
Cori rolled the window of her car down and said “you know you’re going to pick that up, right?”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“They picked it up.”
“Teenage boys are like dogs Cori, they just need discipline,” I said.
We approached the state line, where we were greeted by a highway sign reading “Welcome to New York, the Empire State”. We took the Taconic state parkway to 84 to route 9, passing through towns with names like Newburgh, Fishkill, Peekskill, and Wappingers Falls. As we were closing in on Poughkeepsie Cori suddenly opened the driver’s side door at a red light.
“Cori, don’t do it,” I joked, “it’s not that bad, we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
“I was just brushing the crumbs from the scone off my lap,” she said.
I was running on three hours of sleep; Bruce and Robert had picked me up at the Hartford airport at 9 p.m. the previous night. The last time I’d seen them they had dropped me off at that same airport after a visit, and watched as I underwent the humiliation of being subjected to The No Touch Pat-Down, a device that blows 37 separate jets of air onto your body simultaneously, and sent my hair flying. Robert and Bruce watched from outside the security perimeter, all of us laughing as I made my way to the boarding gate.
“What does that do anyway?” I asked.
“It detects trace amounts of materials you might be able to make bombs with", Robert said.
"It detects trace amounts of Summer’s Eve", Bruce added. Bruce has a wit as sharp as a blade, and not everyone appreciates it. He recently hurt his foot, and when a nurse in his doctor’s office asked him to remove his shirt before being examined he looked straight at her and said “my tits aren’t broken, my foot is.” On another occasion at Pearl Vision, the woman behind the counter brought out his new spectacles and told him to try them on. He put them on his face and turned to Robert, who is half Chinese and half Jamaican, and said: “oh my god you’re black!”
We pulled out of the airport parking lot, and began the drive to their home in Middletown. I told them of my travel plans; from here I was visiting New York, and then on to Boston. There were a number of ways to make this connection: Amtrak could get me there for $62, Greyhound could do the same for $35, and something called the Fung Wah bus makes the four hour journey from New York's Chinatown to Boston's Chinatown for $15.
“You can’t get cheaper than the Chinese,” Robert said, “if you want to know about the cheapest anything, ask the Chinks.”
We pulled into the driveway of their saltbox house that was built in 1725 by the Atkins family, and that they have restored over the years, discovering treasures along the way such as a hidden fireplace and a beehive stove. The property includes a small pond and a few acres of land, which Robert has cultivated into a vegetable garden. One summer before they had the pond dredged, Bruce made the mistake of wading in it, and before he knew it was up to his chest in mud.
“I thought that was going to be the last day of my life,” he said, “I wiggled my feet around in the mud until I broke free of my boots, and then fell face first into the mud. When I managed to get out, all my clothes got sucked off except my shirt, and I walked back to the house naked and covered in mud. My pants and boots are still in there somewhere.”
Being consummate hosts, the moment we set foot in the door Bruce set about making me a burger consisting of two grilled patties, three quarters of a pound of bacon, provolone cheese, three pickle spears on the side, and a basket of potato chips. I don’t usually speak of myself in the third person, but after taking a bite I said:
“It’s nice to know that whether or not a Lady is employed, she can always fly to Connecticut for a burger.” Robert has been calling me Lady J since we first met in New Haven the summer I turned 20. When I emailed him that I’d been laid off, he called me within minutes and yelled “what the fuck!” into the phone before I’d even said hello, followed by “that is no way to treat a Lady!”
As quiet as their part of the state is, I was awakened at 3:45 a.m. by a passing car, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I hadn’t given much thought to my employment situation since being cut three days earlier, and the additional strangeness of sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings kept me from falling back to sleep. I turned my computer on, checked email, checked facebook, and applied for a job online. To top everything off, as of midnight it was officially my birthday. When I finally clambered downstairs at 7 a.m., I caught Bruce on his way out of the bathroom.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he said, and after collecting himself: “that was close.”
“Well, it is my birthday, I should at least see someone in their birthday suit,” I replied.
“It’s your birthday?! Well happy birthday!” he said.
“Thanks’” I said, and went into the bathroom.
In the medicine cabinet mirror I surveyed my weary face and took stock of the situation: I was thirty eight years old, I was unemployed, and I was on my way to my 20 year high school reunion. This was not how I’d envisioned this weekend unfolding. I took a shower and got dressed, stuffing myself into a shaping undergarment that covered me from just above the knee to my bra line before putting on a dress. I've put on a respectable 20 pounds since high school, but I'm not above trying to slim my appearance for a reunion.
"I'm wearing a fat sucker," I said to Cori by way of a greeting when she came by to pick me up from Robert and Bruce's.
"I am too," she said.
Back in the car, Cori and I drove past things that looked familiar - a water park called Splashdown, Estelle and Alfanso Fitness/Dance, and a pub called Greenbaum and Gilhooley’s. We took a right on Kingwood and drove up the back entrance to Oakwood, where the reunion was in full swing.
There were 12 of us representing the class of ‘89, which is better than it sounds considering our graduating class was only 67 students. We hugged each other wildly in a rush of giddiness and nostalgia.
“I love how we’re all hugging each other,” Karla, who has three little girls now, said. “We never would have hugged when we were actually in high school.”
“I’d hug you just for having survived the last 20 years,” I said. We settled under a tent that had been erected for the occasion where a buffet was being served on the same cafeteria dishes I’d eaten off of twenty years ago. A current student, emboldened by a bull horn, passed by our table and began issuing directives.
“Would the classes of ‘79 and ‘89 please gather at the auditorium, classes of ‘79 and ‘89, please gather at the auditorium for your class photos.” We did as we were told and abandoned our plates. A woman wearing white sandals with nude stockings arranged us on the steps of the auditorium, and a photographer took a few pictures. Once we were finished, we began milling around. I stepped into the gym to use the ladies room and paused in front of the school team symbol, a hand-painted blue paw print in a white circle and the words: "Lion’s Den, Go Lions” above it.
We gathered again outside the auditorium and began an impromptu walking tour of campus, pausing every so often to reminisce. We stepped into the dorms, which had the same smell of fabric softener and ramen noodles they'd always had, and Mike Thomas told me about the elaborate exhaust system that Andrew Yates and Jeff Crowe had set up in their room to elude detection of their marijuana smoking by the authorities. He also said that apparently we’d raised $1,000 that was to be used as a gift from our class to the school; we were going to buy a fax machine (can you believe fax machines once cost that much?) but instead the funds were misappropriated and used to fund a post-graduation loft party in Manhattan.
On the drive back, Cori looked perplexed.
“The class of ‘84 looked so much older than us, but they’re only five years older,” she said. "That's going to be us soon."
“That’s because they all let their hair go grey,” I assured her, “the class of ‘89 is way too hip for that shit.”
We walked through the front door of Bruce and Robert’s house to find a bundle of balloons tied to a chair, and a large pink box on the kitchen table. I wasn’t expecting this but was glad for the attention; I needed a little recognition after the week I’d had at work.
“Happy Birthday Lady,” Robert said.
“Have you ever had a Barbie?” Bruce asked,
“No, I haven’t” I said.
“Open the box,” Robert said. I did as I was told, and inside was a large pink mound with a plastic doll set in the center. I had never seen such a thing. Since I’d left that morning with Cori, Bruce and Robert had set about planning a surprise party for me, and Robert had called up the cake department at Stew Leonard’s, a local specialty grocery store, to see if they had any Barbie cakes available.
“I’m sorry’” the woman in the bakery department said to Robert, “We really need 48 hours notice for those cakes.”
“Okay,” Robert said, “what about those cakes that you can send a digital image of a person and it gets transferred onto the top of a sheet cake?”
“Well, I don’t know, I’m the only one here today and we’re pretty busy. I’d have to talk to my manager. I’ll take your information and call you back and let you know what we can do.” When Robert gave her his contact information, she paused at the sound of his last name.
“Chang, that sounds Chinese.”
“It is,” he said, “I am Chinese.”
“Really? I’m Chinese too!” she said, “I have to get you that cake now!" When he got off the phone Robert approached Bruce and said:
“I have some good news and some bad news; the good news is we got the Barbie cake, the bad news is I have to be Chinese to get it so you can’t come with me to pick it up.”
"Do you mean to tell me that you played the yellow card?" I asked Robert once he was done explaining the Barbie cake saga.
"Absolutely!" He said, "fortunately I had just shaved my head that morning, or I might not have looked Chinese enough. The best part was when she asked 'and how old is your little girl?'”
"What did you say to her?"
"I kind of dodged that question. It’s a layer cake,” Robert said as I admired the confection, “half yellow cake, half chocolate.“
“Just like you honey,” Bruce said.
I took a knife to the cake, and cut slices off it. The Barbie doll emerged from it in a protective sleeve that kept it from getting covered in cake and frosting, and was just the beginning of my loot. Bruce had stopped in at Wal-Mart, and a paisley print gift bag full of presents awaited discovery: a sun hat, a leopard print umbrella, a box of dried papaya, chocolates, and a jump rope with bubbles on the handles, among other treasures.
Cori’s husband Leighton joined us, and the four of us stayed up late talking. Cori and I were both tired, and retreated into the living room to check facebook. After a few minutes Bruce appeared in the doorway and said:
“What is this, the Vagina Monologues?”
I went to bed at 12:30, and slept the whole night through.
The next day after a brunch hosted by Cori’s parents, and watching a TV show called Yo Gabba Gabba with Cori's kids, Leighton drove me to New Haven’s Union station for the next leg of my journey. I paid fourteen dollars for a one way ticket to Grand Central, and a dollar for a banana from Sbarro. I walked to the track information board where automated tiles flipped over to show updated train destinations, whirring like a flock of pigeons flapping their wings in unison. I made my way to gate fourteen and boarded the train, ready to begin the next leg of my east coast adventure.