It was a weekend of ten-year reunions.
My senior year in high school, I met and made friends with a sophomore from a different school. Stephanie was tiny, blonde, and naïve. She had a high-pitched voice and was incredibly physically affectionate; for a while, my dad worried that we might be lesbians.
We weren’t, but for several months, we were unnaturally close. Since she was younger than me, I often felt compelled to take care of her. So it was that kind of love: motherly, or sisterly. The last time we saw each other, as she recalls, was at a party she was having at her house – probably over the summer after I graduated, as we were already losing touch. I showed up to find her on ecstasy, with a new boyfriend I’d never met, and I guess I just couldn’t deal. I left, didn’t look back, and didn’t hear from her for about six years.
She found me on myspace, then, about four years ago. We caught up via a series of emails; she’d married the guy from the house party, she was pregnant, and I was planning my own wedding. She told me yesterday that even then, I was expressing doubts, talking about not wanting to get married, even mentioning another guy, or maybe other guys in general.
Stephanie and her family were coming into town from Portland for Thanksgiving, and we decided it was time, after all these years, to meet up. The six of us – me, Doug, Steph, her husband, her three-year-old son and her one-year-old daughter – went to the beach.
What I noticed: she’s no longer quite so small and blonde and naïve; her voice no longer sounds so high-pitched to me. We both said that, actually, that the other looked absolutely recognizable, but the voice had changed. Then I told Stephanie that she looked more relaxed, and she laughed at the idea. So did her husband.
“Ok, maybe not relaxed. But… Comfortable? Natural? When we used to hang out, we were always playing dress-up, wearing lingerie in public, too much makeup, curling our hair.” Maybe what I really wanted to say was that she looked like an adult. And, at least in my mind, she had never been one of those before.
As we walked several blocks to and from the cars, Steph told me that she thinks her marriage is reaching its end. Her husband, unbeknownst to her for several years, is an addict, and would rather give up his family than be “miserable without his alcohol.” And it’s not only that.
“It’s like we’re roommates,” she told me. “We raise our kids together, but then we don’t talk to each other, we never hold hands or cuddle, we definitely don’t have sex.”
I tried to tell her what I could to console her. But like she said she had no real advice or comfort for me regarding my miscarriage (even though she is a obstetric nurse, and reads my blog religiously), there was really nothing helpful I could say.
“I think sometimes, the mistake is putting all these expectations on ourselves, about what life is supposed to be,” I said. I was talking about myself as much as I was her: hadn’t I gotten married, obviously not because I wanted to, but because it was the next logical step, the next expectation?
“I don’t think my expectations were so unreasonable, though,” she answered sadly. “To get married, and have some kids? That doesn’t sound like too much to ask.”
On our way back to the car, we passed a crowd of people standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, all staring out at the same thing. A group of dolphins was swimming back and forth in the water directly in front of us, even getting within nudging distance of some surfers.
Our deep conversation was interrupted when we stopped to join the onlookers, and for a few moments, we were two separate families: Steph crouched down next to the stroller to point out the dolphins to her children, telling her son over and over again, “Look, buddy. This is something really special;” Doug and I stood up on a rock, holding onto each other for balance, and kissed, passionately and without agenda, for the first time in, oh, years.
“See, then you see something like that,” Stephanie said after we’d become one group again, and recommenced our trek back to the cars.
“And your whole perception of the world changes,” I finished for her.
We stood behind their minivan, waiting to say goodbye, as Steph loaded the kids in to their carseats; both were squirming, both were half-naked and covered in sand, one had a dirty diaper that would have to wait to be changed.
“Doesn’t this just make you want four or five kids?” Stephanie’s husband asked us.
Doug and I laughed. “I’m getting too old to have four or five kids,” I said.
“Two is good,” Doug added. “I just want two.”
“I don’t want any,” Stephanie’s husband said, a little too quickly.
Steph came back around then, and we hugged, and I told her to call me anytime she was in town, or anytime she needed someone to talk to. She told Doug to take good care of me, then added that he seemed to be doing a pretty good job of that already. And as we drove away, I saved her contact info in my phone, under her maiden name.
It’s really all any of us can do, in any situation: we appreciate the dolphins, we go on with our lives.