Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Reunited and it Feels So Good

Ashlyn and her best friend Suze transferred into our high school in junior year. In a class full of longhaired, patchouli-scented hippie chicks, they immediately attracted a lot of attention for their "public school" good looks - artfully styled hair, trendy clothes, perfect makeup. They were quickly scooped up by the cool crowd, and Ashlyn soon began dating one of the cutest guys in school. Our paths never intersected.

That same year I began dating Dean, a shy redhaired senior I'd had a crush on for awhile. Neither of us were all that popular in our own right, but somehow being a couple afforded us a higher social status. People who had never noticed us before now began to sit with us at lunch and invite us out after school. Dean lived with his father in a gorgeous house in the hills right near campus, which featured a sparkling swimming pool and huge hot tub overlooking the valley. His dad was very rarely home, making Dean's house the perfect weekend hangout for our growing crowd of friends. After a lifetime as a shy, reserved wallflower, I suddenly found myself co-hosting rollicking wine-cooler fueled hot tub parties and thoroughly enjoying my position as one-half of one of the most visible couples in school.

All of this ended abrubtly at the start of senior year, when Dean - now a college man - unceremoniously dumped me for my best friend Kate. Losing my first love and my best friend in one fell swoop left me utterly devastated and effectively pulled the plug on my social life. I began my final year of school in a daze, my eyes puffy from crying as I sat by myself in the dining hall. At some point in those first weeks I realized I wasn't actually alone - I had been joined at my solitary table by Ashlyn, who had also been dropped by her boyfriend over the summer and was, for mysterious reasons, being given the "deep freeze" treatment by Suze (and, by extension, all of her former friends). Our first, immediate bond was purely one of shared pain, which gradually began to ease as we gratefully poured our hearts out to one another.

I still remember the first thing we did together. Halloween was just around the corner, and we decided to incorporate our new identies as "dumped, friendless losers" into our costumes. We went to Payless and bought big, gaudy plastic polka-dotted bow ties, coupled them with Pippi Longstocking pigtails and crazy, mismatched clothes, and proudly participated in our school's tradition of trick-or-treating up and down the wealthy country club community next door. I totally admired the normally-elegant Ashlyn's willingness to look absolutely ridiculous, and was thankful to her for teaching me to laugh at a situation that had thus far been nothing but depressing. It was still hard - Dean and Kate were cozily walking arm in arm right up the street, and even seeing his new red car by the side of the road threatened to plunge me into a deep funk. But Ashlyn valiantly kept me cheered up all night, comparing Kate unfavorably to a drunken pelican and imagining how Dean's new car might look as a giant planter, stuffed with dirt and tree branches.

Thanks to our friendship, my senior year was nowhere near the disaster I expected it to be. We had a ball going to comedy clubs in the city, to concerts, and to the ballet, but our very favorite place was the shopworn old Lyon's restaurant downtown, with its cracked leather booths and '70s earth tone decor, where we chain-smoked and drank cheap coffee and talked until dawn. In school we were pretty much inseperable, coordinating our schedules so we took most of our classes together and arranging for the same free period, which we usually spent in her dorm room listening to the Cure or Madonna.

I loved being friends with Ashlyn - loved the great ideas she came up with, our easy rapport, her hilarious, sarcastic sense of humor - and was thrilled that someone so beautiful, so with-it and chic actually wanted to hang out with plain old ME. The flip side of that, though, was that I was never totally secure in our friendship. This was no fault of Ashlyn's, it was just my own privately-held conviction that what we had couldn't possibly compare to her old, popular life from before. Unlike Suze, I wasn't "in with the in crowd" and couldn't get her invited to cool parties or introduce her to cute boys. I feared I had little to offer her and I dreaded the day she would get back together with her boyfriend or mend fences with Suze, which I was sure would spell the end of our friendship.

Both of those things eventually came to pass and yet our bond remained strong, which quelled my fears - for awhile, anyway. Then we graduated, and I stayed at home to work and attend the local junior college while Ashlyn moved into the dorms of a university in the city. We still talked on the phone all the time and kept in close touch, but it was clear she was becoming entrenched in campus life, with a whirlwind social schedule of frat parties, dates, and late nights at the hippest dance clubs in the area. She made every effort to include me as much as possible, but I was an introvert and a homebody, and it really wasn't my scene. Even when she offered to meet me at our usual haunts, I was convinced she was doing so only out of obligation. How could she be happy being stuck in this same old booth at Lyon's with me, when she could be partying with the cute guys from the college soccer team, or out on the center of a dance floor?

I never meant for our friendship to end. I only remember feeling more and more distant each time we talked. Ashlyn and Traci, a girl from her dorm, had recently discovered a shared passion for the burgeoning British alternative rock scene and began excitedly planning a year-long adventure in London to follow their favorite bands. I tried my best to act enthusiastic about their upcoming trip, but I couldn't help but feel left out of their plans and even a little threatened by their growing friendship. Traci was everything I wasn't - a vivacious, outgoing blonde knockout who was as daring and impulsive as I was staid and unimaginative - and I feared I was being left behind. Without exactly intending to, I started to return Ashlyn's calls less and less, and then not at all. By the time she left for London we hadn't spoken in months.

Looking back I possibly could have salvaged things, even in the face of the hurt and anger that led to her ending our friendship via a letter written a few weeks into her trip. It would have meant facing up to the pain I caused her and apologizing up and down for my lack of faith in her - things that I, at 20 years old, was utterly inexperienced with and sadly unequipped to do. It was easier to just accept her at her word, that she didn't want to see me again, than to take the risk of trying to get her to change her mind. So I moved on, transferred to a university up north, made new friends, and forgot about her.

Only I never really forgot, of course. Many, many times over the past two decades I thought about her, wondered where she was and how she was doing. I pored over every piece of alumni correspondence from our high school, hoping it would contain some news about her; did she still live in the area, was she married, did she have any kids? I Googled her every so often and always came up with nothing. I'm not even sure what I would have done if I had found her. Would I have the nerve to initiate contact again, would she even want to hear from me? And even if she did, what if she or I had changed so much that we had nothing in common anymore?

There were a lot of suprises at last week's reunion: the onetime hoochie mama in the tight leather microminis was now a classy, elegant opera lover; a guy I crushed on in tenth grade went on and on about his mail-order bride; and the airheaded, Camaro-driving Suze had a PhD and a successful counseling practice.

But the biggest and best surprise was how easy it was for Ashlyn and I to pick up right where we left off, how strong our bond remains, how instantly and perfectly our daughters got along, and how wonderful it is to have her back in my life.