{ There Are Two Endings To the Cinderella Story }
Lisa Infield-Harm

facesA daydream I used to have: My old classmates have gathered for a party, or perhaps a funeral. Ten years have passed, so maybe they've gathered for a formal reunion. I arrive among them like an apparition. It is a breezy summer night and I am beautiful and charming; my hair is like corn silk, I am thin and graceful and impeccably dressed, obviously successful. Who is this woman? I am not recognized. I am master of silence, of the lingering look. I reveal my secret identity. Everyone is astounded, longing, wistful, regretful. This beautiful, wonderful, talented person they never understood. This beautiful, wonderful, talented person, lost to them forever.
   Part of being a grown-up is learning how to have daydreams without dreaming fairy-tales. But part of being a person is also having wounds, places that are still five, twelve, fifteen years old. When I told people I was going to my eighth grade reunion, I received reactions of confusion and horror. Seeing people you haven't seen since middle school, days of braces and lisps, of big bangs and baby fat—why? Of course there is curiosity, interest in seeing old friends, spending the weekend with family. But I went because from the day I received my invitation, the idea filled me with all the dread, glee, and longing fantasies I imagined when I was a lonely and friendless eleven-year-old.
   The reunion wasn't cathartic and it wasn't cataclysmic. It wasn't exciting and it wasn't fulfilling. It took place between 12:00 and 3:00 on a too-sunny Saturday afternoon in May in the gymnasiums and on the soccer fields of a small K-8 Quaker school in suburban Philadelphia. Live music was a folk trio. We got T-shirts. Small children of older reunionees played tag in the grass. There were boxes for lunch with turkey and ham sandwiches and fruit cups. Coca-cola products to drink. There was no liquor, there was no dancing. There were snapshots and yearbook photographs to look at and tours of a capital-campaign-built, two-story media center to take. We wore nametags with blue trim. There were no fist fights or love affairs or apologies. There was some hugging, but no kissing. No guts, no glory. We were all friends.

When we arrive, all my sister (class of '97, 5 year reunion) and I see as we walk across the soccer field are lots of children running around screaming happily, making little grass trumpets and blowing them at each other. It occurs to me that some people love this place so much that they will not only bring their kids to an alumni picnic, but (according to the This Friendly Place, the alumni magazine that I still get and will probably get until I die) they will also enroll their kids in the school. To many people, Newtown Friends School was something special, something unique and valuable and sustaining and important. Since then, it has become idealized in their minds; it is something on which NFS bases itself. I never felt it. In school and afterward, I was always searching for a missing piece, a conversation or experience to blend my time there into a coherent whole that fit in with this ideal. I half-experienced it: I played sports for four years because no one was cut from the team, I had good relationships with my teachers, I knew every kid in our class, I have good memories. But I was teased and miserable as well.
   When, at the reunion, teachers have trouble remembering everyone's name (but they remember me!), when people make small talk around the table and fall into awkward silences, I decide it's okay to leave the reunion without connecting the separate pieces. I can leave the reunion without giving up my own experiences—as jarred and disconnected as they were—to a fantasy that says a reunion heals all wounds.
   Seeing people again for the first time since middle school leads to another realization, initially disturbing, that I confirm when I get home by looking in my yearbook: people basically look the same their entire lives; people look the same as they do in middle school their entire lives. I haven't seen these people in ten years and, since then, I haven't had a strong mental image of what they've looked like. I have hazy, blurred ideas—hair color, face. I've always found it easier to recall a photograph than a person's face. So when I see people ten years later, I experience one of two processes: (1) this person looks exactly the same; or (2) this person looks exactly the same but they got—fat, ugly, prettier, tall, hairy, bald—different from the photographic image I had of them.
   People do stretch out, swell up. People change their hairstyles. Basically, however, everyone is just a retainer-less, more filled-out version of himself in middle-school. This means, first, that wanting to be infinitely more beautiful than you were in eighth grade is not really possible. You're not going to walk into a room full of people who used to tease you because your glasses covered half your face, and be unrecognizable by simply wearing contacts. People are not going to fall at your feet begging forgiveness because your acne has cleared up and you have a nice haircut. Cute girls who spurned you don't suddenly show up with warts. If you can separate yourself from that fantasy, however, you can realize something infinitely more valuable than the fantasy, which is that you feel better now than you did in middle school; any coolness and triumph you feel comes from self-satisfaction with your life and experiences since then.
   Second, even before that part of the fantasy breaks down, the fantasy, on a base level, makes little sense in a real, adult life. Astounding people, amazing them with newfound beauty, charisma—even if this were possible, there's no point if you no longer care whether they like you. You're not in middle school anymore. As I sit and talk at the reunion table, it becomes clear that I don't have anything in common with people I went to middle school with, especially the ones who showed up at the reunion, especially the people who used to make fun of me, i.e., the people in the fantasy.
   For example: We're sitting around the '92 table and a girl named Julie Horn starts revealing herself to be absolutely, positively awful. She speaks in a voice I didn't know normal people actually have. Her cadence and her hand movements and her facial expressions—she opens her eyes really, really wide for emphasis—these are the mannerisms of someone who is flirting or trying to explain her way out of a speeding ticket. I realize this after Mrs. H, our old math teacher, stops by the table. Julie asks her about Dan, her son, another nerdy kid and sometimes friend of mine. (I'm embarrassed to say that even I said disparaging things about him at times.) Mrs. H says he's around, just doing some odd jobs. Julie opens her eyes wide—she looks like is somebody imitating someone being flirty or provocative—and says, "Well, we should call him then! Why isn't he here?" And what she does is astounding. She proceeds to ask for Dan's number, and she calls him on a cell phone. He doesn't answer and she leaves a Jessica-Rabbit-type message on his voice mail.
   Everyone looks strange. Do they all look embarrassed? One girl has a little smirk on her face but I'm not sure if it's directed at Julie or is conspiratory and directed at Dan. My sister (who, by the way, is sitting with us because she has been unable to locate one person from her class) has a look of pure derision on her face that I can tell she's trying to hide with her professional smile. I'm sure my mouth must be hanging open for a second because—is she making fun of him? It seems like one of those calls we used to make at slumber parties to boys' answering machines: "Hi this is Lisa, I am soooo hot for you now." Calls, in other words, made to boys declared losers, not sexually desirable. It seems like she is but she can't be, she's twenty-four years old. Did she never grow up? Is she conditioned to turn back into a thirteen-year-old when the school bell strikes twelve? It's as if I have a special glass and I can see ten to twelve years back in time and what I see is someone I find laughable and fake.

I'm doing my best not to be cruel here, because of course there is a strong temptation to be cruel and catty and get the best of people the way the fantasy demands. There are two endings to the reunion daydream, like there are two endings to the Cinderella story. There is the one where I generously forgive everyone and bless them angelically, the way Cinderella forgave her stepsisters and invited them to live in the palace with her and the prince. And there's the dark ending, the one where I break everyone's heart and leave them starving and bitter in their own jealously, the way some Cinderella stories treat the stepsisters. While they seethe with envy, white doves come and peck out their eyes, blinding them.
   But this isn't about revenge or absolution, it's about losing the fantasy and leaving the story and living one's life. It's about realizing how flummoxed I am that I ever desperately wanted to be liked by some people. I am embarrassed that I wanted to be Julie Horn's friend so badly in fifth grade that I followed her around and tried to like what she liked. It's about realizing that I was very insecure because I had a hard time keeping friends and I had a huge overbite and I always slept in the car on the way over so I guess I had messy hair and I read all the time and daydreamed in class and so I was often very lonely. And now I'm not, that's all. Basically, the end of the fantasy is that nothing happens.
   In other words, some of the people at the reunion aren't just people I don't like because they didn't like me way back when, but some of them are actually people I just don't like. The chicken-egg question I can't help asking myself is, of course, this: am I who I am because I was labeled "different" from these people, and the suffering that followed caused me to become who I am, or is it something about who I am, fundamentally and intrinsically, that made these people ostracize me in the first place? And if the latter is true, that fundamental something obviously isn't something wrong, or unlovable, because it is part of what makes me interesting now. I find that the reunion becomes different then, it becomes less a fantasy-realization-journey/cathartic-hormone-fest and more a scientific endeavor.
   And I think that Julie Horn might be a victim of another kind of fantasy. She's come to the reunion expecting everything to be the same. It's a daydream where middle school heroics still matter and having the perfect teeth and a cool Trapper Keeper™ means that people follow you around trying to like what you like. In that fantasy, Dan H. would still quiver with shamed, anxious arousal at her message. It's not any worse or better than my fantasy but while letting go of your fantasy is adult, holding on is childish.
   Not having anything to talk about, however, means the reunion picnic, ultimately, is a bit boring. There's not much to say. So it doesn't end in a barrage of tears and hugs. It ends not with a bang, but a whimper. Perhaps the whole reunion experience would have been different if there were more people there whom I was good friends with. Perhaps it would just be a fun get-together. I've never been to a high school reunion; perhaps that's more about getting drunk with old friends and laughing at beer guts than noticing you've grown up.

At the end of the day, there is a guy with a camera around his neck and he persuades everyone to go outside for a picture. I know we're going to end up in This Friendly Place. People talk about getting together to go to a bar or something that evening in Philadelphia, take each other's phone numbers, and sort of trickle out. It's ten o'clock before it occurs to me to check the answering machine. I'm not surprised or upset to see that there are no messages waiting.

back home.