My phone rang and I didn’t recognize the number. But I knew that voice. You never forget the voice of your first best friend. I hadn’t seen Audrey in years. She wanted to know if I was going to our 30th high school reunion
I wasn’t sure.
“I don’t think so. Maybe. I don’t know,” I stammered.
We agreed to think it over and talk again in a few weeks.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on Audrey. She was swinging way high on the swings, and she jumped off and landed right at my feet. I felt something like love at first sight, and before the afternoon was over, we were inseparable–best friends.
I had a series of books from the 1940’s called the Childhood of Famous Americans. I liked the girl books best of all. They were bound in orange cloth covers and had titles like Harriet Tubman: Freedom Girl and Dorothea Dix: Girl Reformer. These girls wore petticoats and long dresses but they fought injustice and they were very brave. I was obsessed with these old-fashioned heroines and spent much of my childhood traipsing around the suburbs in a bonnet my grandmother made for me, pretending to be an abolitionist or a suffragette.
Audrey was a more modern girl. She introduced me to Harriet the Spy and Wacky Packages. She had a shag haircut and listened to the Partridge Family.
Even though we had different tastes, Audrey and I were kindred spirits in all the ways that count. I could be my real self with her, and she with me. The only way I explain it is that she was my kind of person.
She was also my ticket into an exclusive club—a club I never would have had entrée to if I hadn’t been her best friend.
It was called the Cindy Sugarman Club, and the founder and president was a girl named Cindy Sugarman. Cindy is what we would call nowadays a Queen Bee.
She was the most popular girl in first grade at Lincoln School—not because she was the most-well liked, but because of the sheer force of her ambition. She recruited Audrey for membership in her club and Audrey agreed to join if I could come too. Cindy looked me up and down. “I guess she can come. If she follows the rules.”
My memories of the Cindy Sugarman Club meetings are hazy. You might think that’s because they occurred over 40 years ago, but I am chalking it up to PTSD. All I remember was that Cindy held court at the meetings in her bedroom. She decided who got to speak and who would get to play house and be the mom or the dad or the babysitter. Cindy was the arbiter of all things, and her best friend Jane was her sidekick, her minion—willing to do anything in the service of Cindy’s limitless lust for power.
By winter, Audrey summoned the courage to quit the club. I didn’t want to go to those dreadful meetings by myself, but I couldn’t imagine quitting. I could never stand up to Cindy like that. It turns out I didn’t have to, because days after Audrey quit, Jane, the minion, approached me to say that Cindy wanted to meet me by the monkey bars.
Cindy delivered the news with little emotion. “You don’t really fit in, so you’re not in my club anymore.”
I felt relief, and a little stab of pain in my stomach. I was in school with Cindy for 11 more years after that, but I have no memory of her ever speaking to me again.
Eventually, we moved on to Junior High, where I took a nose dive from Tolerated to Total Outcast.
Audrey had new friends, and I had new crop of tormentors–chief among them was a girl named Laurie who had really nailed down the whole sarcasm thing. “Wow, you really like reading old books, that’s SOOO cool.” “Nice shoes. Where’s you get them, Sears?”
Laurie had a special interest in my wardrobe. “You have, like, 6 pairs of painter’s pants,” she’d say, making it sound like an accusation.
I wondered why Laurie had it out for me. She wasn’t my kind of person, but I couldn’t imagine being mean to her. But once she and a few of her popular friends decided that I was a weirdo, there was no hope for me. My unpopularity grew to the point where I guess I was actually popular in the literal sense, in that everybody knew who I was.
Audrey and I had spent nearly every day together for 5 years, but now, we barely spoke. I couldn’t blame her. I was social poison and could only bring her down with me. I passed her in the hallway. She glanced at me briefly, a pained glance that whispered, “I’m sorry” even as it shouted, “STAY AWAY.” I thought about a poster I’d seen with a picture of a dove being released into a blue sky that said, “If you love something, set it free….” and I knew that there was no use in trying to hold on to our friendship.
One day, Laurie’s mother volunteered in our class and I was surprised that she was a lovely woman–patient, kind, she even complimented me on a poem I wrote. I looked over at Laurie and thought, “I bet her mom has no idea how mean she is to other kids—how mean she is to me. Maybe at home, Laurie is actually…nice.” And for a moment, I saw no trace of the bully I’d known for 2 years. I only saw a skinny little girl with braces and bright red hair and a really nice mom.
The next day, Laurie and some other kids covered my locker with Frankenstein stickers, and just in case I didn’t get the hint, they wrote my name under one of the pictures. I was at the bottom of the social ladder. The only person beneath me was a cross-eyed girl named Jennifer who smelled funny and always seemed to have head lice. This afforded me an odd level of freedom—I didn’t have to worry about losing social position, no matter what I did!
I thought about the girls I’d read about when I was little. Clara Barton began nursing the sick when she was only 11. Mary McLeod Bethune was a slave and was beaten for learning to read.
I gathered my courage from them.
One afternoon our social studies teacher got called out of the room and left 25 7th graders alone together. Jennifer of the head lice was there, and so was I. A group of kids began verbally abusing her. I felt a rising, righteous anger. It was one thing to abuse me. I mean, it’s true, I didn’t know how to act around other kids, but deep down, despite everything, I knew that there wasn’t anything really wrong with me. Jennifer was different. She was in speech therapy and special ed. She didn’t have Jane Addams or Lucretia Mott to lift her up.
I walked up to the front of the class as a bunch of kids circled around Jennifer. They began shoving her, using her body in a game of hot potato. I channeled the souls of my heroines and pushed my way in. I spoke hesitantly at first. “Does it make you feel better to pick on somebody who’s weaker than you? Do you feel cool because you can hurt someone’s feelings?”
As I spoke, I gathered courage and my voice grew stronger. I faced my classmates and asked, “What did Jennifer ever do to you to justify the way you treat her?” A couple of kids snickered, but the ringleaders slunk back to their desks, and I stood there for a moment, feeling good for standing up for somebody else.
Things were better for me after that. I still didn’t really have any friends, but nobody was openly mean to me. I was mostly ignored until high school.
My high school was too big for any powerful cliques to form and bullying was so 7th grade. I became a theatre kid. Audrey spent her time in the art room, painting. Cindy was the captain of the cheer-leading squad and the only time I heard her speak was through a megaphone, commanding people to show more school spirit.
Today, I tell people that 7th grade was the worst year of my life—I say that in all honesty—and I’ve had 2 miscarriages and a kidney transplant. But I got over it. It was a long, slow process that involved beat poetry and binge drinking but I got over it.
So, I called Audrey. Yes, I’m going—I mean, I’ll go if you go. Okay, so we’re doing it!
And I got a bit nostalgic for Lincoln School and the monkey bars–for Audrey, my first best friend, and even for Cindy and Laurie and all the kids who were now almost 50-year-old adults—surely they have had their trials too in the last 30 years. And I’d like to see them because they are the ones who know what I mean when I say I remember the smell of the school library and the little play house in the back of Mrs. Drager’s 1st grade classroom.
I start to get excited, even, for the reunion. I creep on Cindy and Laurie on Facebook—they look like nice women. Cindy—she’s Cynthia now— has 3 kids. Laurie teaches yoga and posts quotes from the Dalai Lama and Thick Naht Han.
I start to imagine a scenario at the reunion where I will talk to Cindy and Laurie. There will be a group of us from Lincoln School, laughing and drinking wine and catching up and when the moment is right, I’ll bring up the Cindy Sugarman Club and Cynthia will laugh and admit that she was quite the bossy-pants back then. And Laurie will say wow, I guess I was just scared—an insecure girl who had to attack before someone attacked her. I’ll forgive her and we’ll hug and plan to meet up for yoga and lattes very soon.
I meet Audrey in the lobby outside the ballroom and I immediately feel at ease. I knew then and I know now, she is my kind of person. I was 6, but I was the same person I am now and my instincts were right. Audrey is an art therapist, self-effacing, with a quick wit. I’m happy we decided to come here.
I see my high school friend Marci, a tall striking beauty who confides that she struggled with feelings of inadequacy in high school. I giggle with Jessica, who went to Harvard and started an NGO in Tanzania and Dan, a quiet boy who has become a confident and funny man who campaigns for LGBT rights. This feels good.
And then I hear a shriek and Cindy is barreling toward Audrey and me, with—who else? —Jane by her side. “Lincoln School picture” and Cindy grabs the side of my head and the side of Audrey’s head, bumps our heads together forces us into a kneeling position and puts her head over ours at the top of the pyramid, commands Jane to take a picture, and without so much as a “good to see you” or “how ya doing” disappears into the ballroom as Jane scampers along beside her.
And then I know. Right then.
My people are my people. The ones who are not your people will never be your people.
I run into Laurie as I retrieve my coat on my way out. “Hi Lindsay. Beautiful dress.” I honestly can’t tell if she is making fun of me. The coat check girl hands Laurie her Stella McCartney vegan leather jacket. I stand with my ticket in my hand. I want to say something to Laurie, but I’m not sure how to say it. I hold out my ticket. I want to tell her I always imagined she was nicer than she pretended to be, the girl hands me my sweater jacket, I stuff a wrinkly dollar bill in the tip jar. “I’m going to do it,” I say to myself, “ I’m going to say something, I’m going to talk to Laurie”—and then I feel the cold whoosh of October night, and the lobby door swings shut–and she’s gone.