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A Love Letter to Arcata High's Class of '87

I am in a state of panic, deep-cleaning the refrigerator. I have also vacuumed the garage and deadheaded every petunia on the property. In a text this morning, I told my friend Peri that attending tonight's high school reunion felt like opening a grave. Later, while obsessively cobwebbing the upstairs windows, I think it's not too dramatic an assessment of the situation.

Arcata High Class of 1987 reunion (you do the math). I left with one friend in tow and never looked back. And here they've set up a Facebook page and I'm out of excuses for not attending after all these years. I don't know why but for the first time in my adult life, part of me wants, even needs to see these people who play across the yellowed film reel of my past.

I stalk the pictures of last night's Sunnybrae Middle School ice-breaker party, which I didn't go to. Inspecting the photos carefully, I take the time to catch each one with my fingers and zoom in. There's my former best friend, blonde and beautiful. We used to wear matching sweaters and I worked hard to style my hair just like hers. One night during our freshman year, with no idea of what we were in for, we stole and consumed the mushrooms we found in her sister's closet. I was laying on her waterbed, deeply invested in the texture of the ceiling when I heard the garage door open. The two sisters told their parents the drugs were mine. I remember standing outside Arcata High one sunny lunchtime, her slim fingers distractedly pulling at the straw in her Capri Sun, "My mom and dad said I can't be your friend anymore." In that moment, the sidewalk disappeared and my small world collapsed. She still has great hair.

And then there's the kind, quiet boy I walked with at eighth grade graduation. We were both the tallest of our gender in the class, and were thus paired in perpetuity based on our height. Clear as day, I remember the cat hair nestled in his wool sweater during graduation practice. (Any man with cat hair on his person is all right with me.) I also remember how at the ceremony, my friend Deb and I sang that Diana Ross song that goes, "Do you know ... where you're going to," and it was pretty awful. The dress I wore that night was a hand-me-down from my big sister and was pleated like the Hunter Douglas shades that now hang in my kitchen.

Deb drove up from Oakland for the reunion. We've been friends since we were 12. Our relationship blossomed during seventh grade when, every day at lunchtime, we met in the girls' bathroom and fastidiously tended to the food stuck in our braces. We've been there for one another ever since, through births and deaths and just about every heartache of the modern age. I couldn't do this without her.

I text Deb at noon, "Why the fuck are we doing this?" I tell her it's like that moment in the horror movie when the scantily clad woman heads down the basement stairs alone at midnight and the audience is like, "DUH! Noooo! Don't go down there, you idiot!"

Deb texts photos of outfit options and we chain smoke on the phone. She's been to one of these reunions before and says, "All I can think is, we have our husbands, we have each other and I'll give anything 20 minutes. If it sucks big assholes after 20 minutes, I'm out." Reasonable.

By three o'clock I realize there's no more avoiding it, so I abandon cleaning the vegetable drawer and head upstairs to wash my hair. Here I had poked fun at Deb for being so prepared in advance, what with her carefully compiled outfit smoothed across the bed in the shape of a body. Now, I stare deeply into the closet, waiting for my rejuvenating face mask to dry, and regret not doing a little forward planning.

In the shower I think about how by the time I met these kids in 1980, I'd moved schools and been the "new girl" eight whole times. At age 10, I arrived in Arcata from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a scrawny brown-eyed girl with a funny accent, preppy clothes and a mean streak inherited from my Southern grandmother.

The kids here had amazing winged Farrah Fawcett hairstyles and tight bell-bottomed jeans. They took me in as one of their own and bore witness to an adolescence I'd just as soon turn heel and run from. They were there alongside me. They saw the whole thing.

I leave the tank bra on the floor and put on a real one for the first time all summer, double check for errant chin hairs, ensure my purse contains both Xanax and prescription eyeglasses, and head out.

On the ride into town, I text Peri as we pass her house and tell her I want to jump out of the car and spend the evening on her worn velvet couch instead. She writes back with her usual Yoda-like wisdom: "They are really nice people, Amy! Just plain folks that went through the same war in the same platoon that you did. They will just be glad to see that you're still alive and they're still alive and that's the way 30th reunions go."

I tremulously descend the horror movie stairs only to find a party in the basement. The class of 1987 hugs and gossips and laughs and dances. It's a crazy weaving together of threads left unraveled. We were an unruly bunch in high school but now, eyeballing 50 and fueled by a full bar we are a raucous crowd of '80s kids who still have the mojo that got us through the divorces and stepfathers and latch-key lives we led in Humboldt's druggy landscape 30 years ago.

It was hard for a lot of us back then. Not for everybody, of course, but mostly we were a scrappy bunch. Humboldt County in the 1980s was a weird place. CAMP helicopters swooped low across the mountains. A single redwood log would comprise a full load for the trucks that hurtled down 101. One night, there was an earthquake so strong a highway overpass collapsed.

Even before we could drive, we hit the streets of our town hard. We crashed college parties and stole flowers from front yards. We snuck booze into the Mid-Way Drive-In and skateboarded in the Wells Fargo parking lot at midnight. We slam danced at The Depot and smoked cigars at the Minor Theater. We slouched around bonfires at Mad River Beach, slurping Budweiser and riding in pickup trucks across the dunes. We listened to Michael Jackson and Ozzy Osborne records; Madonna and Prince pretty much formed our sexuality. AIDS and MTV and Mothers Against Drunk Driving were just beginning to spill into the national psyche. Los Bagels was a butcher's shop back then and Don still owned the donut bar.

At the end of the night, an assortment of us — accountants, teachers and insurance agents — wind up on the Arcata Plaza at Everett's Club in a big heap of middle-aged grins. We're worn. We're complicated. But we've still got each other.

It's not possible to change a history. Or hide from it. Coming back now feels like watching our young selves in the mirror and not only celebrating the history we made together, but forgiving ourselves for it.

In the days following the reunion, posts and messages fly around like swallows in June — promises to keep in touch, to get together sooner than the standard five-year gap between reunions, to have lunch sometime. Deb puts up a series of reunion photos on Facebook and the caption reads: "Here's to the excruciating beauty of the ties that bind." To that, old friend, I can only raise my glass.

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Amy Barnes

Amy Barnes

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