Image Credit: Dina Shirin
I’m wearing a sparkly 1970s vintage dress that clings to my youthful figure and makes me look like a movie star. It seemed appropriate for my 20-year high school reunion in suburban New Jersey. I admit I took pleasure in anticipating my former classmates’ surprise and envy, as I was not among the most desirable girls at my school. I may have been pretty then, but my awkwardness and low self-esteem made me feel ugly even when I made bold style choices. As I worried I might be showing off, I had to keep reminding myself that I evolved into a glamorous and creative woman of the city, who performs, writes and makes independent films.
“I don’t give a fuck,” I told Akemi, my best friend from high school who had traveled all the way from London to attend the reunion. In our hotel room at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, Akemi and I did “last looks” as they say in the film business, when the hair and make-up department makes sure the actors are camera ready. “We’re gorgeous.”
We descended into the Crystal Ballroom.
Round tables with white tablecloths were set up like a wedding reception or prom. With crystal chandeliers and shiny wood dance floor, it was as classy as a high-end chain hotel can get. Although we got looks, no one was shocked. I had no problem being myself, talking to my old classmates as if we were at a networking event, as though everyone had fast-forwarded from 1994 and landed on the same playing field. Even the loner kid found acceptance in the Crystal Ballroom. Then I noticed my juvenile nemesis Laura and her cohort of “popular girls” flitting amongst themselves as if no one outside their circle was worthy of even a glance of acknowledgment. They looked like older versions of their high school counterparts. Laura still wore her dark curls pulled back in a tight bun, straining her features. I pointed the clique out to Akemi who agreed it was odd they came to the reunion only to keep to themselves, as if they wanted everyone to know they were still in charge, even though they were clearly not.
Akemi and I had similar goals for the event: confront our bullies.
The day before, we had brunch at Junior’s Diner in Manhattan with my husband Peter. As we talked about the reunion, I expressed dread about seeing my two worst tormentors: a guy who sexually harassed me for months, and Laura, who abused me when I was about five, then spent the next twelve years snubbing or mocking me whenever she had the chance.
“I feel like I should say something to them,” I said. Seeing my husband raise his eyes in suspicion, I made it clear I didn’t want to be mean or vengeful, but simply have an adult conversation about what they did and how it affected me. At best it would be transformative. At worst, awkward. It didn’t really matter how they would react. It only mattered that I spoke to them as my present adult self: aware, accomplished, empowered, in a never-ending process of healing.
Peter reached across the table to take my hand. Although I had mentioned these bullies before, he wasn’t aware of the long-term impact they had on me, contributing to years of depression, anxiety and lack of trust in people. “I fully support you talking to them.”
I admitted I was afraid.
Peter reminded me I was no longer a troubled self-conscious teenager. I had so much experience to hold against them, yet in my mind the bullies of my past looked and acted exactly as they did all those years ago, rising up from the archives whenever I was vulnerable, to remind me of my weakness. I forced myself to acknowledge we are all adults now. How could a person not evolve, at least minimally, after twenty years?
I turned to Akemi. “Remember when we talked on the phone for hours about Brian?” Brian was not a teenage crush. Nor did I grow up knowing him since kindergarten.
He was a new kid in sophomore or junior year. We were both in band and jazz improvisation class so we saw each other several times a week. I was one of only two females in jazz class. Perhaps that is why he targeted me. As I described my experience to Peter, my entire being dropped into the scene as if it was still happening.
I’m putting away my saxophone in the dim and narrow instrument storage room. It smells like wet cork and dry spit. I try to be quick, but there he is again, like two days ago, like last week and the week before. He looks at me with an intensity that makes me feel like I have no right to be there. I focus on cleaning my mouthpiece and act as though he doesn’t bother me. As I slide my case into the wood cubby, he corners me so I can’t move past him. He presses against me while whispering lewd things in my ear.
His words are innocent at first, like, “What are you doing later?” then progress to things like “Are you a naughty girl?” and “Are you going to an orgy tonight? I know that’s what you’re going to do…”
If I tell the truth, he calls me a prude, if I say yes, I’m a slut. It doesn’t matter what I say. He touches my legs and breathes on my neck. Sometimes he tries to kiss me. I always go in there thinking this time will be different. This time I’ll say the right thing. This time he’ll leave me alone. I shouldn’t be afraid to put my instrument away. But every time I play music, one of the few things that makes life tolerable, a sense of dread fills each note.
“Should I tell a teacher about it?” I asked Akemi, my lifeline during that time. I never did, afraid my peers would find out. After months of Brian’s harassment, I finally got up the courage to tell him, “Fuck off!” He backed away and looked at me like I had just raised a knife at him. I repeated my command. His behavior stopped for a while. Then he started up again. For the second round I was stronger and better able to fight him. But the damage was done. A few months later I found myself flirting with him, perhaps because I was trying to make sense of what happened. Or perhaps because he was cute, and I convinced myself that negative attention from him was preferable to no attention from boys at all. No wonder I spent so many years of my adult life struggling with the word “no.”
I asked Akemi if there was anyone she would like to confront at the reunion. She tensed when she spoke of the boys who tormented her in junior high, as if they were sitting a few booths away at Junior’s, plotting their next offense. She had moved to New Jersey from Japan when she was twelve. Tall and gangly, with a limited grasp of English, she was an obvious target. Her saving grace was musical talent. She had perfect pitch and could play piano in a multitude of styles which elicited respect and awe from our peers. She grew into a beautiful woman who dropped out of medical school to pursue music, and she is now a composer and teacher in London. We hadn’t seen each other since the last reunion a decade ago, having lost touch since she moved overseas. But neither time nor distance had eroded our bond. We were both black sheep in our families—outsiders who left town and took the urban artistic path. Neither of us had children. She was the only friend from high school that remained in my life.
Akemi did want to talk to her bullies. My fear dissipated knowing she was on my team. And Peter would be cheerleading from afar. He and I agreed it was better that he not attend, because most people don’t enjoy someone else’s reunion. And besides, I needed to do this without him.
I found it intimidating to approach Laura while she was surrounded by her girl gang. Brian seemed easier to confront because he was on his own. He hadn’t changed much, physically, since high school. Not as skinny, but still cute and fit. He said hi first, and we engaged in small talk. I felt guilty about finding him so charming. He had that “I’ve moved on from the Jersey suburbs” vibe that made me feel like we were connected – what a shame I had such traumatic memories of him! I knew he was a Hollywood producer who worked in reality television, and it was comforting to know we were both in the entertainment business.
High school reunions would be a rich premise for a reality show. I imagined a crew documenting what I was about to do. Worst-case scenarios: 1) he doesn’t know how to handle it and ignores me for the rest of the night 2) he judges me for bringing up something that happened so long ago and brushes me off 3) he denies everything and spends the rest of the night telling other people about my ludicrous claims.
I mingled with other people. Once I was warmed up it was time to really talk to Brian. Akemi helped me refine my approach and in the moment I had no expectations, like when I was on a high school trip to see Miss Saigon on Broadway, and I spotted a young Neil Patrick Harris during intermission. I was so star-struck, I debated whether or not to approach him. Then, and now, I knew the only negative outcome would be regret over not saying anything. I had just enough wine to assist me in my mission.
I found Brian again, moved into his vicinity and smiled.
“Afterparty in 268,” he announced.
“Yeah, I know.”
I leaned toward him. “I have very unpleasant memories associated with you.” I said matter-of-factly, feeling cavalier.
He was suddenly a deer-in-headlights. “I’m sorry. Why?”
My lack of expectation failed me in that moment. I expected him to know what I was talking about. “You harassed me, after jazz class and band, almost every day for months, in the room where we stored our instruments—”
“I did?” The expression on his face was a combination of horror and blankness.
“You don’t remember?”
“No, I don’t, I’m sorry. What did I do?”
I leaned closer and whispered the details. When I moved away, he pulled back, even more appalled.
“Oh my God. I said that?”
He stared at me in disbelief and shook his head like he was trying make sense of his apparent amnesia. He put his hand on my arm. “I’m so sorry.”
His apology went right through me. How could he not remember something he did on a regular basis over a period of months? For a moment I wondered if he was pretending not to remember to avoid admitting what he did. But that didn’t make sense, because he apologized. To me the experience remained as vivid as the time I forgot my lines in the high school production of Grease, or repeatedly messed up volley-ball serves in gym class, or lost the French award at graduation to someone whose pronunciation would make any French person cringe. If he didn’t remember this, how did he remember anything that happened in high school? It made me wonder how many things I’d forgotten I had said or done to others who had burned my words and actions into their life narrative.
I smiled out of discomfort. “You don’t remember any of it?” Another wide-eyed pause, then, “No.”
Now what? I looked around at flashes of familiar faces and it felt like so many recurring dreams where I’m trapped in an institution with people from my past, forced to relive all the dynamics imposed by an artificial hierarchy. The loud nineties music didn’t help. A classmate who was sort of my friend moved into our space. She said hi to both of us, then focused on asking Brian questions until he said, “Wow, you look like my sister.”
She expressed her confusion after which I said to Brian, “Your sister must be very pretty then,” not because she was that pretty, but to diffuse the awkwardness of the situation. The strangeness of reunions must embolden people to say things they wouldn’t normally say. Knowing you probably won’t see these people for another ten years, if it all, lifts the veil of self-censorship. As I was looking back and forth between them, Brian said to her, “We were just having a serious conversation about the past.”
She took the hint, fumbled through an apology and drifted off. Brian and I agreed to continue the conversation later. I debriefed Akemi on the interaction and my shock that he didn’t remember anything. She too had spoken to one of her bullies, who like Brian, was remorseful and kind in a fog of amnesia. About forty minutes later, after the DJ had pumped up the generic house music, I found Brian and asked if he wanted to talk again. He nodded. I led him out of the ballroom and into the lobby, chose a high table with two chairs and sat in one. He sat in the other. It felt safe now, like continuing a therapy session after a brief intermission.
I looked him straight in the eyes. “I know it’s been twenty years, but it’s strange you don’t remember.”
“You said it went on for months?”
“Shit. That’s a lot to carry around for all these years.”
My husband had said almost the same thing at brunch. My brain short-circuited with the possibility that Brian may have evolved into someone as emotionally sophisticated as Peter. It was outlandish, yet plausible, and made me wonder if this is the kind of transformation psychologists and spiritual healers talk about: when an honest interaction breaks down a decades-long perception in a matter of moments. I searched my heart for animosity but could find none. He could’ve denied everything, accused me of lying, belittled and ignored me for the rest of the night, but instead he was sitting with me, an adult person trying to unravel a mystery of his past just as I was an adult person trying to come to terms with mine. There was a softness about him. A concern in his gaze.
Now that I had his empathy, I could dig deeper. “Yeah, it was. Maybe you blocked it out because you were going through something at home. . . were you? You don’t have to tell me specifically.”
“I don’t mind, but nothing was going on really.” He looked away. “Nothing I can think of.”
“Maybe you just wanted to fuck me.”
He shrugged and nodded, more in acknowledgment of probability than actual admission.
I looked away. “And I still have some shame about it because I let it go on. . . like why didn’t I stand up for myself sooner, or tell a teacher? I didn’t know what to do.” I looked back at him. “I didn’t know how to handle it. I had family stuff going on, and this on top of that and other stuff. . .”
“What other stuff?”
We were interrupted by two swaggering women in their late 40s making drunk talk, and a man trying to wrangle them. They were from the thirty year reunion down the hall. As they made their way to the bar, a group of dwarves who were part of a Little Person convention headed toward the elevator. Am I in a movie? Is this the moment where the bully and victim bond and forgive? I told Brian I had trouble with my parents, and felt like an outcast at school, but didn’t go into detail.
“I feel terrible,” he said.
Those words could not have been more satisfying, and yet I was surprised I didn’t feel more schadenfreude. “People evolve, or one would hope. . . actually I feel a lot better now that we’ve talked about it.”
“Yeah, you know when you don’t see someone for twenty years they don’t evolve in your memory. It was a horrible experience but it made me who I am and now I see you as an adult and your remorse clears it in a way. We’re no longer those old versions of ourselves.”
He apologized again, but seemed unsettled. “Is there any way I can make it up to you? Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“Well, actually I’m trying to get a feature film off the ground…” Though it seemed like a joke as I said it, he was open to hearing about it. We discussed budgets and scripts and after I said I needed a producer and financing, I looked into the ballroom, wondering if I was taking advantage of his vulnerability. But didn’t I have a right to? After what he did to me? Of course I had the right. But why ask him for something? Why put myself in the position of needing something from him? There was no way for him to make up for what he did. This was about me, not him.
“You’re not the only one here who was mean to me,” I said.
“There was one girl in particular who used to bully me when I was little and ever since then she was never kind to me. I didn’t expect her to be here, but she is, so I kind of want to talk to her as well.”
Brian straightened in the chair. “Let’s do it. Who is it?” He leaned in as I lowered my voice. “Laura E—”
“What did she do?” he asked.
I summarized what happened with a few sentences, feeling a hint of the backdraft that took me down every time I replayed this in my head. I’m back there again, as if there’s no separation between five year old me and adult me.
My best friend is also named Stephanie and we play together with Laura because we all live on the same block. One day we’re playing on Laura’s swing-set and Stephanie stops talking to me. Laura says I can’t go on the swing. Stephanie says nothing. My face flushes and my stomach is trying to digest a bowling ball. “Why can’t I go on the swing?” I ask. Laura steps between me and the swing, puts her hands on her hips and stares at me with her beady black eyes. “Because we don’t want you to.” I look to Stephanie who looks back and forth between the ground and Laura. So this is what betrayal feels like. I don’t even know the word yet, but it feels like an earthquake shattering my sense of self and everything I thought I knew about life. I go home and think about all the things that must be wrong with me. I tell Mommy what happened. She tightens and resolves to talk to Stephanie and Laura’s mothers. Her intervention doesn’t help. A week or so later, I’m playing by myself in the front yard. I look up and see a familiar dark curly head walking down the street with a plastic baseball bat. I pretend I don’t see her. I hold my breath thinking that will make me invisible. But she stops in front of me and says, “What are you doing? You’re so stupid.” Before I can respond, she is on me, the bat pounding my head and back, the impact reverberating throughout my body, the hollow plastic solidifying inside me. I cry and flail but she has already won. I am nothing until my mother comes running out of the house.
Brian shook his head. “Shit.”
He looked toward the ballroom. “Where is she? I’ll take her down.”
I didn’t know what to make of his willingness to fight for me. On the one hand, it was gratifying, on the other, it didn’t seem right. His offer to play the hero would, if I accepted, rob me of my power again.
“Thank you, but I think I need to talk to her myself.”
We parted with a handshake, maybe a hug. Those details I don’t recall. Akemi and I could not believe our luck, yet we knew it was more than that. What no one learns in high school is that truth, when presented without agenda or fear, is a very powerful thing.
My newfound confidence wavered as I calculated the right moment to approach Laura. I feared if I didn’t try, I would not do justice to the transformation I had with Brian. I would have to wait another decade for the opportunity to break her power over me, and even then, there was no guarantee she would attend the next reunion. In spite of my dread, I made the most of the last song, losing myself in the dream-like quality of dancing with people who knew me without knowing me. After all, no one in my adult New York life knew me before the age of eighteen. These people did. It felt like the climactic dance scene of classic American teen movies, where unexpected but inevitable things happen; the nerd kisses the popular girl, the goth is pronounced queen, the gay kid discovers his crush is not-so-straight, and it seems like high school isn’t such a terrible place after all.
But we were in our late thirties with two decades of disappointments behind us, and no curfew or parents to answer to. So the climax deflated and those who did not retire to their rooms or cars in their adult-induced sensibility, dragged their dreams toward the bar, or some after-party on the second floor. Akemi and I lingered in the lobby. The after-party seemed appealing. I was never invited to such things in high school. But Laura was at the bar.
Akemi was my buffer. As we ordered drinks I observed Laura who had her back to us, talking to a preppy guy. With Whisky Sour in hand, I leaned into Akemi. “I’m thinking about saying something to her, but I have to wait for the right moment. She’s talking to someone I don’t recognize. You know who that is?”
“I have no idea. Maybe somebody’s husband.”
Laura’s high-pitched laugh sounded like a witch cackling. Her body position was not making this any easier. I would have to tap her shoulder or project into her ear. I faced the bar again, silently sipping my drink, rehearsing opening lines in my head. Hi Laura. How are you? We never spoke much in high school, but I’ve been thinking about you . . . Hi. Do you remember hitting me with a plastic bat when we were five? Hi Laura, did you enjoy the reunion? What have you been doing the past twenty years? Are you still stealing friends?
Why was it so much harder to approach her than Brian? Was it the fact that her hostility started when I was so young and vulnerable and lasted for years as opposed to months? I can’t remember anything she specifically did to me after the baseball bat incident. But I remember the inferior feeling I experienced every time I saw her and she rolled her eyes or laughed or whispered to someone while looking at me. I remember her never venturing out of her circle of close-minded friends. I wonder how much I imagined and how much was real. Regardless of what actually happened after age five, she came to represent the worst of all mean girls, who seemed responsible for so much of my suffering. Did it have something to do with our shared gender? That I could not blame her for being a boy? Is the cruelty of girls toward girls worse because we are supposed to be joined in solidarity of our sex? Could she, after all these years, still have the capacity to hurt me?
It’s never going to be the right moment, I thought, just say something. Anything. I imagined her being as kind and remorseful as Brian. Heart pounding, I held onto this thought as I turned to her, but she was no longer there. A hot wave of regret mingled with the whiskey and filled my chest. Before I fell into a vortex of self-punishment (one long-term consequence of being bullied), I realized she was not gone, not out of the room, at least. She was on the floor, struggling to get up.
I turned to Akemi. “Oh my God. She fell off the stool.”
At that moment, I wanted to feel that nothing I might have said to her could have been as satisfying as witnessing her wasted on the floor, but I was stuck in self-bullying mode. Why didn’t you say something sooner, coward! Now it’s too late! You blew it.
“Maybe I’ll have another chance later. Maybe she’ll sober up and come back,” I said as we watched the preppy guy help Laura get up and put her coat on.
As she slurred and stumbled toward the lobby, while I was solid and shiny on my stool, next to a true friend, I felt sorry for Laura. I wondered if she was happy in her life. Maybe she hates herself, and is trying to clean up the messes she made as a child. Perhaps she suffered from family abuse and was acting out on those she could control. Or maybe she’s in complete denial of her flaws and barely evolved since high school. I would likely never know. But I knew, at some point in the future, when the baseball bat rises from the archives of my mind, I would not feel the pain.
STEPHANIE SELLARS is a NYC-based writer, filmmaker, and performer. She has a MFA in film from Columbia University and will be starting her MFA in creative non-fiction with Bennington College in June 2020. Her writing has been published in magazines like Moviemaker and GO and the former alt-weekly New York Press. Her short films have won awards and screened at many festivals and her debut feature film Lust Life Love will premiere in 2020. Other accomplishments include residencies at Yaddo and Vermont Studio Center and the 2020 release of her jazz vocal album Girl Who Loves, available wherever music is sold online. When not working on her creative projects, she is active in the climate movement, wildlife conservation and animal welfare. www.stephaniesellars.com.