The invitation came last week. My youngest cousin is graduating from the same high school I graduated from, with the cousins of the kids I graduated with, probably after having the same teachers I had. I don't want to go. I don't want to travel back in time to my hometown, where nothing bad has ever happened, or ever will, according to everyone who still lives there. I want to stay in my new home, in the one bedroom apartment on the top floor overlooking the busy street of the burgeoning city of Seattle. I want to be where I feel free and anonymous and safe. Here, it doesn't matter who I'm related to.
I am the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter, and my cousin is the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter. Ten years my junior, she was still in grade school when I was freed from the hell of rural education - twenty-five students moving together through twelve grades of the most basic courses - math, English, and History. I can barely remember my cousin, except for the brief moments trapped eating at the "kids" table at Thanksgiving and Christmas, in my grandparent's mausoleum of a home. There were so many relatives there, it was hard to tell who belonged to whom, and so I may not really be remembering her.
I hate arguing with my mother. It's like ramming your head against a crocheted pillow, one with a big button sewn in the middle for decoration - ones like my grandmother has setting on the back of her vintage 1940's couch. It doesn't give you a smashing headache all at once, you just slowly get a throbbing in the middle of your forehead as you realize that you're bouncing off of it and getting nowhere. Just like last night.
"Your Aunt Jenny attended your graduation; the least you can do is attend Jess's." My mother's phone call had cut across 3000 miles, four time zones and ten years.
"But, Mom," I replied, " Aunt Jenny isn't the one graduating."
"I have a lot of work to do. It's a very busy time here for me. I'm working on a big story with a deadline."
"I always had time. You should always have time for family."
I still don't want to go, but my mother hasn't accepted it. While it's true that she and Aunt Jenny had always had time, Dad and Uncle Harlow, not to mention Sherman, my older brother, had not been able to attend my graduation. They had been at work. But then, they are men, and work is the domain of men. Or so the fairy tale goes.
Work isn't really the problem. My boss saw the invitation on my desk Friday, and offered me a long weekend to attend. "Fly out early and enjoy yourself. You need a vacation." Vacation? A vacation is when you go someplace nice to relax and have fun. Not when you subject yourself to the lewd pink of your adolescent bedroom, where pictures of a pouting Duran Duran and a trashy Madonna are still hanging on the walls. Where the corsage you wore to prom is dried and tucked into the edge of your mirror, right beside the picture of the "perfect" prom date, the one that thought prom night would end in the back seat of his mother's Ford Escort. Curtis Lane had screamed at me that night, hurling "bitch" after me like a rock. I walked home in three-inch strappy sandals, nearly breaking an ankle, but adamant that I was right. Mom and Dad had been asleep, unaware that anything was wrong. They were upset when Curtis and I broke up. My brother had gotten married right out of high school.
Jessica Tremblay, and the class of 2000, invite you to share in their accomplishments at 2pm, Saturday the 21st of May, in the gymnasium of Littleton High School. It's printed on blue and white paper, thick, with torn edges to make it look old and important, like the Declaration of Independence or something. A little card inside states that "Jessica will be receiving the Jake Meyers Scholarship, in memory of the Littleton graduate so tragically lost to us all." I finger that little card. I can remember Jake. He was part of my graduating class, squeaking through with just enough to pass - though I suspect that he had a little help from the teachers. After all, he was a jock. He helped to make a name for the school. He made us proud to be "Littleton Lumberjacks." I remember the "tragedy" that took his life. A car crash the summer after graduation. There is a clipping from the newspaper tacked to the cork-board in that pink bedroom on the other side of the country. The clipping doesn't mention the booze or that he had been racing another car. It doesn't mention the other passengers, either, the ones that lived to reach the reality of "after." I trace the scar that runs across my left wrist. My hand went through the windshield and was nearly severed. I had a concussion and three broken ribs. I was in the hospital while Jake was made a martyr. I wasn't released in time to attend his funeral. No, all but Jake has been erased. The last time I was home I heard the speculation that if Jake had not been killed, he would have played pro football - that he had already been approached by a team to play - and so the story grows. It's funny how once someone can no longer fail at something, everyone thinks they would have been such a great success; while those of us alive have to constantly strive to match up to the reputation of the dead. Not that I don't think Jake wouldn't have been successful. It just wouldn't have been at football. He wasn't going to play at U. of Maine. Jake was going to concentrate on his studies; he was going to be a teacher. I think about that clipping, pinned to the center of that cork-board. Though it's surrounded by other memories, it stands out in my mind, rather like it is in the spotlight - Jake was always center stage. I hate that article.
I think of my work - the articles I have written for the newspapers I've worked for. I try to spell it out like it is - no cover-ups, no gilded words to make it sound better, no ambiguities to taint the truth. I write about the survivors, not the victims. The victims' story is over.
The phone rings and I groan. I don't want to talk to my mother again. I don't have another excuse ready. At least, not one that she'll finally accept. I let the machine get it. I hear my outgoing message - the pleasant, up beat voice, the polite "please leave a message and I will get back to you as soon as I can." Yeah, right. I'll erase it and forget about it in two seconds.
"Hi." Says a young voice I don't recognize. "This is Jessica. I'm calling to ask you to please come to my graduation. It would mean so much to me. I have all the articles you've written, even that one on the devastation caused by the lumber industry that Grandma denies you wrote. Umm. Please come. I'm going to U. of Maine, down to Orono, next fall. There's no one else I can really talk to."
The line goes dead. I can hear the annoying tone resonate through the room before the machine finally disconnects. I glance down at the invitation in my hand; the little card is crumpled now, and damp from the sweat of my palms. I pull the response card from the envelope for the last time and pick up my favorite pen- purple with sparkles in the ink - and write a "1" in the slot for the number attending.
Tara Moeller lives in Norfolk, Virginia with her husband, daughter and dog. After six years in the U.S. Navy, Tara returned to school full-time, obtaining her English degree from Old Dominion University in August, 2000. She currently is working as a Technical Writer while working on her short stories and a science-fiction novel. This is her first publication outside of the ODU Literary Magazine "44th Street."