Unexpected Reunion Ch. 01byartisticbiguy©
Twenty years had passed, a life time of accomplishments behind me, and I was still nervous as I drove up to valet parking of the Park Hyatt Washington. Twenty-year Class Reunion; I had avoided the tenth, but I had found myself wondering about my friends and classmates as the twentieth had approached. Why I wanted to see anyone again I wasn't sure. I hadn't been the class reject, and I wasn't returning as the conquering underdog who'd done good. I hadn't been the head of the class, and I wasn't returning to prove I still had it all. No, I was just one of the forgotten middle-grounders. I'd been no one special, or memorable, or accomplished in school. I'd just been another guy, struggling with his identity and trying to figure out what he wanted out of life.
Ok, so I had also been a closet case; nothing new there either. I'd lived in denial 'til after college and a failed marriage. Julie had been a good wife, and we'd had two beautiful children together, but we just weren't meant to be a couple. Even after the divorce we remained friends. At least neither of us had cheated on the other. We'd simply known that it wasn't working. She'd always noticed my attraction to men, even though I'd tried to ignore it, and when we finally ended it, she'd pointed me in that direction. No judgments, no screaming, and no fears of what I would do to the kids; honestly, Julie was still my best friend. We'd both cried when we ended it, but we were miserable and it turned out for the best. I started and new life, and Julie remarried a few years later, but I still shared custody of the kids. Hell, I even liked Jim; he was a great guy with a "starter marriage" behind him as well.
Julie pushed me to come to the reunion. She thought it would be good for me to have some closure. She and Jim worried about me a lot, far more than I deserved. They wanted me to be happy and show the kids that "being gay" did not equate to being lonely and miserable. Hah, what a joke. I'd tried a few times; I'd only bottomed, but I'd even had a boyfriend for almost a year. Gay bars were too much of a fucking meat market; online hook-ups were scary. Were all gay men looking for hung, built, sex-crazed guys in their early to mid-twenties? That wasn't me. Not that I didn't like to look at and fantasize about the hot images on the internet, but that's all I ever did.
I pulled out my suitcase and hanging bag, gave my keys to the attendant, and checked in. The woman at reservations was kind enough to tell me where the sign-in for the Madison High School reunion was. I had a porter deliver my things to the room, tipping him in advance, while I wandered down to the meeting room area. A frustrated blond "soccer mom" was directing the final touches and looked like she really needed to be anywhere but here. I was early.
She saw me as I watched. "Hello, you here for the reunion?" She smoothed down the front her slacks and extended her hand. "I'm Meredith Bartoni, but I was Meredith Coleman back in school."
I smiled. Meredith had been the head of student council, a cheerleader, and though she was the target of every guy in the senior class she never seemed to be a bitch. In fact, she'd been nice to everyone. Extending my hand, I accepted the greeting. "Zack Johnson."
Her brows furrowed, and I could tell she was trying to place me. I hadn't been on any of the school teams. The only thing I'd done was martial arts club; it was the only sport I'd kept up with. "Why does your name ring a bell? I get the idea you were in one of the odd clubs?"
I was impressed. "Head of the Martial Arts club, senior year."
She smiled. "Thanks. I've tried to memorize the names of anyone who did anything at the school, but with a seven-hundred person graduating class it is just impossible."
I looked around. "Looks like you have your hands full."
She rolled her eyes and groaned. "Just like high school, actually. I get on a committee and by the time something has to be finished, most of the girls have 'conflicts' and I'm left holding the bag."
Grinning, I laughed. "Well, once I get out of my office clothes, could I help?"
The relief on her face was palpable. "Oh, would you?"
"I'd be happy to; I'll be back down in fifteen."
She gave me a quick hug, and I could feel the tension in her back. She was really stressed. "Thank you so much."
"See you in a few."
I got up to my room and changed. My bags had been delivered and I changed quickly. I stopped and looked in the mirror before I went back down. My hair had thinned and my waistline was about six inches larger than it had been at eighteen. Not that I was a porker; I was still under two hundred and I honestly had great legs and ass. I still did martial arts, kung fu and tai chi specifically. Our particular school was known for having men in the upper levels that were "beer kegs" or barrels. Something about the core body work developed bodies into a solid, columnar build. I didn't jiggle much, though I did have a soft cushion I could lose. I'd never get below a 34 or 35-inch waist again; I had just too much solid muscle in the middle to do get smaller than that. At five-foot-eleven, I wasn't bad, but no one would be asking me to model. My face was, for better or for worse, "sweet". I'd always had a kind of cherubim face; Julie called it adorable. I called it "no man's land" because I never seemed to be able to "land a man" with it.
I appeased my ego by reminding myself I had most of my hair, I had no health problems, I had two great kids and some really world-class friends; knowing that I could probably break most of my class mates in two if they pissed me off was also a great equalizer. I wasn't the prettiest, I wasn't the best built, and I certainly wasn't the most successful, but I could stand up with any of them and honestly say I had done pretty well. I wondered if I could honestly stand up and tell them I was gay.
Meredith smiled as I came back into the reception area. She had been talking with a taller man, maybe six-two, with graying blond hair and a lean, almost overly drawn physique. His face looked as if he'd had a lot of hard years, but his eyes were laughing. I think it was his eyes that caused me to pause. They were an odd sort of blue-green that almost leapt out at you like when people with blue eyes wear green tinted contacts. Meredith snapped me back to reality was she said my name. "Zack, do you remember Joshua Winters?"
I was stunned into speechlessness. Josh had been 'the jock' of school. He lettered in track, was tall, blond, built like a Greek god, and had everyone falling over him. I think what I remembered most about him was the distant, almost distracted look he always seemed to have. It was as if he wasn't quite paying attention to what was going on around him. He certainly didn't have that look now; his eyes seemed to capture everything. He also wasn't a Greek god; he must have lost thirty or forty pounds since school. He didn't look bad; he looked very fit and vibrant if a bit worn. It was just such a dramatic change.
He extended his hand. "Hey, Zack. I don't think we knew each other in school."
"No, we didn't have the same circle of friends." I wanted to say "no, I wasn't a cool jock like you", but I thought that'd be rude.
"Yeah, clicks suck, but when you're in your teens you don't know any better." Ok, that was a good comeback.
Meredith smiled. "Josh is my closest and oldest friend, Zack, so don't give him a lot of grief." There was the sound of something being knocked over and she shuddered. "Could you two handle the name tags while I find out what the hell just happened?"
Josh nodded. "You go, Mere, we'll take care of it."
I rolled my eyes as she dashed off to take care of another emergency. "Didn't anyone come to help?"
Josh grunted. "Damn Prima Dona bitches who started this whole thing are too busy trying to look seventeen again to get their manicures dirty." He walked to the reception table and slid around to the chairs. "Might as well grab a seat, Zack. If I know Mere, she'll have us slaving for her for the whole weekend."
I grinned. "The 'Demon Soccer Mom' strikes again?"
Chuckling, Josh found his name badge and struck his name off the list. "Something like that."
* * * * * * * * * *
Josh and I spent the evening handing out nametags, checking off name lists, and talking to dozens of people we didn't know and had no real interest in getting to know. Fortunately, we found common interests to talk about together and we caught each other up on life after High School. I told him about marriage, martial arts, kids and divorce. He told me about sports, surviving cancer and making life changes. I had to admit, Josh was not only cool but someone to be admired. He had his shit together in spades.
Mere plopped down in the other chair behind the reception table and let out a sigh of relief. It was after midnight and we'd finally shut off the straggling flow of arriving former classmates by closing the doors to the meeting hall. "Thank God."
I chuckled. "You handled it like a pro. I can't believe they had so many issues you had to clean up behind."
Mere groaned. "Oh, you don't know the half of it. Why the hell weren't you on the committee?"
I smirked. "Because I was a nobody in school, and didn't attend the 10th anniversary, so the recreation crew didn't think to see if I'd help."
Mere snorted; it was a sound that seemed to come naturally, but was totally out of place with the nearly perfect if frazzled woman sitting near us. "You weren't an available piece of meat is more likely."
Josh chuckled. "I'm glad I just moved back. No one knew I was here but you."
"And I plan to keep it that way, Mr. Winters; all those grabby bitches will do is make your life miserable. Hell, a few of them may even try to 'make you straight'." She chuckled but Josh looked a bit uncomfortable. It took her a moment to realize I wasn't 'in the know' and she blushed. "Oh, shit. I'm sorry Josh."
He shrugged. "Not like I wasn't planning on coming out anyway."
I was clueless for a few moments, and then I blinked. "You're gay?"
"Yeah, 'Mr. Top Jock' is a fag." He sounded bitter. I knew how he felt.
I shrugged. "Cool."
That had both of them nonplussed. "Cool?" Mere was shocked. "I out my best friend like an idiot, and all you can say is cool?"
"What do you want me to say, Meredith? That's great Josh; let's hit some bars together?" I grinned. "Not exactly my style."
Mere grinned. "So, what is 'your style'?"
Ok, that had me sweating. This conversation was going places I really didn't want to go. "It's the: you can live your life any way you want as long as you don't drag me along, style." Ok, that was safe; I thought.
Josh held up his hand. "Ok kids, time out." He looked at Mere and pointed to the far side of the table. "You, over there. No more pressing for personal matters." Then he looked at me and pointed in the opposite direction. "You, take a break 'til you can play nice with the other kids."
I laughed. "Actually, unless Mere needs some help with the final clean up, I'm heading to bed."
Mere smiled. "Thanks for your help, Zack. I'm sorry I got bitchy; it's been a long night."
"Need me in the morning?"
She shook her head. "No, those lazy bitches can take their shifts, or I'll take one of my son's cleats and kick them so hard they'll think it's implanted."
We all laughed and I put out my hand to Josh. "It was a pleasure to meet you again."
He took my hand and smiled. "Like-wise."
Meredith hugged me before I left. "Don't forget to give me your contact info, Zack. After all this, maybe we can get together."
I really liked Mere. "I'd like that." I left feeling like I probably had a couple new friends in the making.
* * * * * * * * * *
I really didn't get much time with Josh or Meredith again during the reunion. We smiled at one another when we could; knowing smiles that no one else understood. People remarking on how they'd changed, how they looked, or another of a million insincere compliments had waylaid them both. Everyone reacted to Josh's change as I had; he really was a different person from the boy in school. I caught up with a few of my high school friends; we had nothing in common, but I was glad to see them again.
I got to see just how bitter and spiteful old classmates could be at the banquet dinner. They did the whole "tell us about yourself" speech thing between each serving. Meredith was nearly a lead speaker, but being in the early middle of the alphabet, I'd had to give my introduction half way between her and Zack. I chickened out and didn't "come out" to my classmates. Why bother, there were only a few I really decided I wanted to get to know again and I could tell them in private. That was 'til Josh had his turn.
He stood up, smiling at the hellos and nods that people gave him, and just let it out. "Hi everyone, I'm Josh Winters. I've lived in about three states since high school, working as Business Analyst, and I've just returned to DC. I haven't been married and I don't have anyone in my life at present. I do a lot of racing, both cycling and triathlons, and I'm gay."
That last statement went over like a lead balloon. The ripple effect was horrifying. Between the gasps, the disbelief and the disgust, he might as well have said he was an ax-murderer. Then I heard a few people mumble he probably had AIDS. I'd learned from Josh that he'd had leukemia in his mid-20s, but had fought it and it was in remission. The assumption that a gay man automatically was an AIDS victim set my teeth on edge. I watched the spark in his eyes vanish as he sat back down and the people next to him seemed to shy away.
I got mad; no, I got furious. I'd been scared of the exact same reaction. Josh had had the guts to be honest and open and he'd been rewarded with bigoted, paranoia. I stood up, balling my fists. "I'd like to add," everyone looked stunned as I practically yelled it out, "that I'm Gay too and you idiots who are mumbling that Josh is an AIDS victim are mindless bigots. I think you people should shut up and take care of your own issues before demeaning someone else."
I was still standing when another of our classmates, Cynthia Stroud, stood up and echoed my words. Two others also stood, all stating clearly that they were gay and everyone else would just have to deal with it. I'm sure there were others, but that had been enough. I saw Josh looking at me across the room and I swear I could feel his eyes. The gratitude there almost made my knees weak. I think it was the end of my adrenaline rush that caused it actually, because I nearly collapsed into my seat, shaking a little, after we got a fairly large round of applause from the majority of the people in the room.
Meredith caught up with me at the end of the dinner. She had a large, Italian man with her who looked like the stereotype for an Italian cook. He was barrel-chested with a big gut, and was all smiles. She gave me an enthusiastic hug. "Thank you so much."
I was stunned. "For what?"
"For standing up for Josh. He'd been agonizing over his decision for weeks. You made him realize he wasn't alone." She stepped back and put her hand on the man's chest. "This is my husband, Frank."
He put out a beefy hand. "Any guy who can stand up for what he believes like that is someone I can respect, poof or not." His accent was definitely something from the New York area. Somehow, being called a poof by the guy wasn't insulting at all.
I shook his hand. "Thanks, that's one of the best compliments I've ever had."
"You have to come over for dinner, Zack. Of all the people here, you're definitely one I want to keep up with." Meredith was a doll, and I agreed completely.
I'd made it out the door, deciding to avoid the whole "social dance" thing, and went for the elevators. I think I was still feeling a little sick from my outburst at dinner. Josh caught me before the doors opened. "Hey, Zack."
Why was I sweating? I turned around. "Yeah?"
He put out his hand. "Thanks. No one has ever done something like that for me before."
I took it; worried my palms were sweating, and smiled. "I'd say my pleasure, but it wasn't any fun. I just couldn't let anyone be treated like that."
He didn't let go, and I felt odd warmth running down my arm. It was unnerving. "Can we get together some time? I really don't know anyone around here other than Mere."
I smiled. "Sure, Mere's got my address and phone number."
He returned the smile, and I could see the handsome jock still there behind the leaner, older man. He had a great smile. "I'll call you then."
"Great. I'll look forward to it." Thinking for a moment, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a card. "Here, that's got my work number and email."
He took it and stepped back. "Thanks again, Zack."
I smirked and joked to try to relieve the tension I was feeling. "If you really feel obligated, you can buy me dinner."
His grin suddenly made me wonder if he'd taken it the wrong way. "You can count on it."
The doors opened and I left him there, grinning. The thought of having dinner with Josh Winters was suddenly a very frightening prospect.
* * * * * * * * * *
Meredith called me about two weeks later and, as promised, invited me to dinner. She and Frank lived in Georgetown, in an older section on P Street. Nice houses, quiet neighborhood, and classic. Frank greeted me at the door. "Hey, Zack, glad you could make it."
I grinned. "Someone mentioned beef on the grill; I couldn't pass it up."
He laughed and thumbed inside. "Just head straight back and keep to the left; through the kitchen and out to the patio. Mere's already out there."
I looked about as I walked back. "Where are the kids?"
"Pool party and sleepovers. We have an evening free." He smiled happily at the thought.
I chuckled. "Then I won't stay late," I teased as I wiggled my eyebrows.
"Get into the back yard you perv." He was laughing as he pushed me out the door. "Beer or soda?"
"Yeah, got it. Be out in a minute." The door closed and I followed the sound of laughter to the back yard.
Mere was laughing and shaking her head as I came onto the patio. With her were a woman I didn't know, who looked very satisfied about something, and Josh, who looked embarrassed. Mere saw me and came over to give me a hug. "Zack, I'm so glad you could come."
I smiled and kissed her on the cheek. "You know us gay men; offer hot beef and we come running from miles around." That started Mere's giggles again and the other woman began to laugh. Josh got even redder.
"Thanks, Zack." The sarcasm in his tone made me grin.
"What'd I do?" I tried to look innocent but I think it came off as clueless.
Mere smirked. "Oh, nothing Josh won't recover from. Becka was just commenting on how most gay men are just about sex and the lesbians have it right."
I raised an eyebrow. "Oh? All emotional drama and no nookie? No thanks."
That sent Mere into a complete spasm of giggles as she sat down. Becka did not look amused but Josh grinned. "Damn, wish I'd thought of that."
"You never were good on the uptake, Josh." Meredith couldn't stop smiling.
I grinned. Josh was wearing a pair of comfortable jeans and a T-back. He looked great. Closing on forty and having struggled through cancer did not make him a candidate for being on the cover of GQ, but to any normal human he was as fit as any athlete. He was so much more cut that I was. Though I was shorter, I had a lot more muscle and probably out weighed him. The fact I had a touch more body fat than I'd liked contributed to that too. Still, he didn't seem to mind the fact that I was shorter, had thinning hair and didn't have a gym honed body. If I hadn't known any better, I'd have thought he was checking me out.
Dinner was delicious, filled with laughter and good spirits. I even grudgingly admitted that I liked Becka by the end of the evening. By nine, I knew it was time to head out; Frank was looking like he wanted some time to take advantage of a house devoid of kids. I had to admit: I didn't blame him. Josh said his goodbyes as well and left right behind me. I wasn't sure, but I think he'd been flirting with me most of the evening.