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'Reunion' by Lisa Johnson Mitchell

Lisa Johnson Mitchell, LISP 2022 Short Story Finalist by 'Reunion'


Reunion


Patrick wanted to melt into the dirty, plaid industrial carpet in the La Quinta ballroom. That, or vomit—the smells were hideous, a combination of overcooked roast beef, body odor, and sulphur. He didn’t like the people in high school then, those who were nested around him now, and he wondered why on earth he thought he’d want to see them again, especially Alison, who he’d run into at the pasta bar. It was as if she was following him.

“So, catch me up on you,” Alison said. A short, bespectacled woman with a frizz of red curls, she stared at Patrick with a strange gleam in her eyes and slurped her martini as it waterfalled over the sides of her glass.

Patrick gave her a quick up-and-down glance. She’s really blimped out. Guilt coursed through his corpus. Bad Patrick. A picture formed in his mind of Alison years ago, marching along with the flag corps on the AstroTurf with her cohorts in what looked like a policeman’s uniform. In the mists of Patrick’s memory, she padded along, high-stepping and clad in culottes and knee socks instead of the usual heavily starched pants the guys donned. His lips tried to conceal a snicker.

“Do you talk to Thom?” she said in a loud, grating voice.

Patrick’s stomach tightened, and he folded into himself. “Nah.”

An ample, brunette woman in a green pantsuit waddled onto a small stage and positioned herself in front of the microphone.

“Really?” Alison said.

“Sssshh,” Patrick said.

“Good evening, Wolverines!” It was the class president, Nadine, who was now a dentist. In the back of her hung a large sign that said, “Welcome Wolverines Class of 1988”, trimmed in black and red balloons.

“If you haven’t signed in with your phone number and email, please see Donny at the front door. Let’s give it up for Donny!” Donny, a slim Jewish guy dressed in overly formal clothing, a tux, jumped up and flailed his hand and shouted something unintelligible.

“First off, I want to thank everyone who showed up. We weren’t sure if all you rock stars would want to come back to our little gathering, but so glad you did!”

Patrick surveyed the expressions of his classmates around him. Most were as blank as paper bags.


“I thought we’d kick off the event by having the cheerleaders come up and lead us in a cheer!”

A flurry of limbs, arms and legs in motion, hands over mouths in mock embarrassment, merged into a string of girls who push-dragged each other up to the stage. Patrick’s stomach twisted. He knew those faces, faces who’d mocked him in high school for being Mr. Wolverine, the mascot, and the same faces who spread vicious rumors about him.

Why did I buy into the crap that people at work told me, that the nerds like me were the ones who everyone would be jealous of, that things would be different? I mean, heck, I’m the CEO of Plant Town! I have over 30 direct reports!

The cheerleaders formed in a line. They pulled down their too-short sparkly dresses over their enlarged thighs and swung their hands around and clutched their wine glasses like prizes. Patrick was gutted by the way he saw himself in high school: a big, jiggly dork. He was struck with the unassailable truth that he’d made a mistake coming, so while the girls were chittering he skulked away.

“PATRICK GODFREY! COME BACK! WE NEED MR. WOLVERINE!” the voices were shrill and overlapped. Patrick’s legs stopped and cemented into the carpet. The lure of their compliments, compliments he wanted to believe, paralyzed him. As if led by Svengali, he wheeled around and trudged toward the stage.

“Yay! Patrick!!! Woot, woot!” A few whistles rippled behind him.

“Okay, okay,” Patrick said. He shooed them away, deflecting their adulation.

“Grrrrrr, Grrrr!” Patrick growled, fist-pumped into the air and jogged to the stage, drenched in an intoxicating brew of fear and exhilaration. He stumbled up the main step—his new boots were stiff and wooden. The crowd still roared.

Nadine was bent over a box wrestling with something inside. As she turned, Patrick saw it in her clutches: his Wolverine head.

“Put it on!” Nadine cried.

Patrick’s face flamed. Every cell revolted. Senior year, he’d left it in the gym and hoped to never see it again.

“Where did you—?”

“I saved it.”

“No, please, no. I can’t.”

“Oh, come on!”

Patrick heaved a sigh, wriggled his head into the paper mache, furry helmet, zipped it up the back, and there he was: Mr. Wolverine.

Everything from high school came back to him: the unsteady weight of the head and small eyeholes. The air was tight, but by gum, he was going to give it his all.

‘Let’s go Wolverines, let’s go!” Clap, clap. “Let’s go Wolverines, let’s go!” Patrick shouted. The cheerleaders joined in his revelry and swayed back and forth. One of them who wore conspicuously high heels performed a hurky and landed perfectly. Her blonde, shellacked hair helmet didn’t move an inch.

As the stage emptied and the crowd dissolved, Patrick floated off the stage. He started to unzip his Wolverine head, but got distracted. Looking good, Patrick! You’re awesome, man! Rock it, Patrick! Glimpses of toothy, wide-mouthed smiles and compliments kept coming his way as he made his way out of the ballroom. What once was borderline embarrassing, being the mascot, now seemed to be a status symbol. Guess my work peeps were right. All through the night, people seemed to be glad to see him. The head cheerleader even said to him, “You were popular.” Popular? He wanted to believe it was true, but in a muscle lodged somewhere near his heart, a belief thrummed: it’s all a lie.

In the distance, Patrick spotted Alison elbowing her way through the crowd towards him, so he picked up his pace to escape her, but someone patted him on the back.

“Dude!”

It was Thom.

Thom stepped forward, and extended his hand and they shook. Patrick was surprised to see Thom clad in khakis, a business shirt, and navy jacket, primed and ready for the top 2%. In high school, he was all Dead Head t-shirts, Birkenstocks, and whiffs of patchouli.

“It’s been a while.” Patrick’s neck and cheeks grew warm, his body stiffened.

“Yeah, how ‘ya been?” Thom, who was one of the track stars, ran his hand through his sandy, surfer boy hair, eking out a half-smile, an impossible dimple on each side

Filmic squares of them smoking a joint in the parking lot with a druggy dream pop score invaded Patrick’s mind. Cut to a basketball court, where they were shooting hoops, Patrick winning for a moment. Cut to the playroom in Thom’s house, the lights low, Pink Floyd playing, the parents gone for the afternoon, nursing their Jack stolen from the liquor cabinet, them shoveling Doritos in their pieholes and pondering the mysteries of the String Theory.

“I’m doing okay” Patrick said. “Gawd, let me take this thing off. Come with me.”

As they reached the hotel lobby, Patrick tugged once more at the zipper of his Wolverine head.

“There you are!” A waifish, blonde woman slinked up. “I’m Megan.”

“Right, Megan, this is Patrick. An old buddy of mine,” Thom said.

“Nice to meet you,” Patrick said. He continued to wrestle with the zipper.

“It’s stuck!” Patrick cried.

“What?”

The giant globe muffled Patrick’s voice so he raised the volume. “IT’S STUCK!”

“Let me try.” Thom said. He jimmied the zipper. No luck. He pulled harder, caused Patrick to falter.

“Hey!” Patrick yelled. “Watch it.”

“Sorry.” Thom hands rested on Patrick’s shoulders

“You gotta help me.”

Thom turned to Megan. “Hey, listen, I need to help Patrick. Would you mind just hanging out here then head over to Flannigan’s, you know, the bar down the street? This won’t take long.”

Megan smoothed her poured-on, pink dress. “Oh okay, no problem.” She grabbed her shiny bag from a nearby table, gave Thom a peck on the cheek, and sashayed away.

Thom ushered Patrick across the parking lot and informed him about curbs and any upcoming obstacles. When they reached Thom’s car, he opened the door and helped Patrick navigate the passenger’s seat of his Smart Car. Patrick’s fuzzy dome seemed to be a little too big for the space.

“You and your DUMB car,” Patrick said.

“Ha! Funny as you ever were. Here…” Thom giggled as he guided Patrick’s head, but it banged against the roof. “Tilt it a bit.” Finally, he was in.

“What about my car?” Patrick said.

“I’ll drive you back when we get that thing off of you”

“So…that Megan is a cute number.”

“What? Can you speak up?”

“MEGAN! Are you WITH her?”

“Oh, please.”

“Didn’t think she was your type.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“If you could see my face, you’d see I’m giving you an automatic eye roll.”

The silence between them grew and was filled with the lonely putter of the small engine. As they drove along, Patrick’s stomach churned and a bit of the pasta began to make its way up his esophagus. “Oh god, I’m gonna hurl.”

“Oh, dear,” Thom said.

Patrick detected a note of disdain in his voice. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“My stomach really doesn’t feel right.” Patrick swallowed to suppress the sharp stomach juices that were gathering at the back of his throat. I hope I don’t throw up inside this thing.

Thom slowed down, his headlights shining a few feet in front of the car, but just when it seemed he was home free, hit a pothole. Patrick jerked forward.

“Ugh! Man!”

“Sorry!” Thom grimaced. “Can you make it home?”

“Yes,” Patrick whispered. “Please hurry.”


#

As they inched into Patrick’s apartment, Thom led the way. The walls were bare except for a few dusty photos. A large front window was lined with fluffy palms. Nearly every surface held a healthy, verdant plant. On his dining table was a spray of Gerbera daisies. Patrick rushed to his desk, tugged open a drawer that rattled a terra cotta pot full of ivy.

“Wow, it’s a veritable jungle in here—” Thom said.

“Cut if off.” Patrick handed him a pair of scissors.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“You’ll never be able to fix it.”

“CUT it off.” Patrick’s throat tightened: more of the pasta rested at the back of his throat.

Thom placed the blades with surgical care at the base of the Wolverine skull. “Don’t want to hit a jugular.”

“You wouldn’t care.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know.”

“No, I don’t.”

Patrick pivoted and drew close to Thom. “Let’s get this thing off and we can talk.”

“NO, I want to talk now. You’re making me very uncomfortable.”

You’re uncomfortable?” Patrick twisted the head. He tugged and turned it. Thom grabbed at Patrick’s hands, but they eluded him, seizing and fluttering like hummingbirds.

“STOP!” Thom said.

Patrick’s fists flailed and curled into tight circles. Thom clutched Patrick’s wrists and held them still. “Calm down.”

“Get it off, for God’s sake!”

As Thom snipped, the Wolverine’s hair was slippery, unwieldy. He tried the zipper again but it remained stubborn.

“Any luck?” Patrick’s innards were cooking. His breath heated up his face and the head became an oven. Sweat poured from his hairline. Moisture pooled in his eyes. He placed both hands on the side of his noodle, pulled and yanked, tufts coming off in his hands.

“Aaaaah,” Patrick roared. He tottered to a kitchen cabinet and returned with a hammer.

“Here.”

“I can’t do that. I could hurt you.”

“You can. And WILL.”

Patrick bent over the couch and braced himself. “Go ahead.”

Thom whispered, “Be very still.”

Patrick figured if he got a concussion, so be it. At least he wouldn’t be imprisoned in hideousness anymore.

Thom slammed the hammer into the head. Nothing. He slammed harder. A small crack peeked through. He slammed again. The fissure expanded. Patrick dug his fingers into the hole and pulled—the material tore a smidge, but not enough.

“Do you have any cuticle scissors?” Thom said.

“I’m not a manicurist! Make the pair I gave you work.”

Thom hesitated, then shoved the blades inside the furry mess.

“OUCH!” Patrick felt a small jab at the back of his neck.

Thom thrust his paw in the now-widened hole and riiiiip, the head split in half. Patrick wrested himself from the offending object’s suffocating grip. He threw it on the floor so hard it caused an end table to wobble. He began to choke, then went to the kitchen and downed glass after glass of water.

“You okay?” Thom grasped Patrick’s elbow.

“Sure.” Patrick’s face was glazed over with an icky film like plastic wrap and he stunk. He felt his stomach start to pretzel. “Be right back.”

Patrick fled to his bathroom and inspected his face in the mirror: he was puffy and white, like he’d been filled with helium, not unlike the Pillsbury Dough Boy in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. He turned on the shower, gingerly stepped in and shivered. He tried to vomit, but somehow he couldn’t. He pushed back the curtain, leaned out to pilfer through his medicine cabinet. Tums! Yes! No, it’s empty! He hesitated, stuck his fingers down his throat and vomited. The shards of cheese pasta and crimson of his multiple Sea Breezes swirled towards the drain.

But then he saw them: skins of tomatoes. So THAT was the red stuff in the pasta! He was allergic to them, horribly so.

Even though his purging was warranted, and he was truly sick, he hadn’t succumbed to forcing himself to vomit in a while. The fact that he’d made himself upchuck felt worse than the actual upchucking. Shame covered him like cream gravy. He assumed he was over his eating disorder, but perhaps it was still there. That pasta was irresistible. Guess I need more therapy. But do I, really?

Patrick gargled with mouthwash and emerged from the bathroom. He turned on the kitchen faucet and filled up his glass. He ran his tongue over his teeth. They were bumpy like pimples.

“You okay?” Thom leaned against the fireplace mantle and fiddled with his watch. “You were in there a long time.”

“Yeah.” Patrick exhaled. “Want something to drink? Ginger ale okay?”

He poured them each a glass and crept towards him, his water and bubbly beverage threatening to spill.

Thom sipped the soda, then placed it on the fireplace mantle. “I owe you an apology.”

“I trusted you,” Patrick said.

“I led you on,” Thom whispered.

Patrick plunged his hands into his front pockets and peered into Thom’s eyes. “I’ll never get over Alison walking in, the look on her face when she saw me walking out of the bathroom without my pants, and you all buck naked sprawled out on the sofa. I suspect she started the scuttlebutt, though she swore she wouldn’t tell anyone. Did you see her tonight? I swear she was on my heels and I couldn’t seem to ditch her.”

“No, didn’t see her,” Thom said.

“Can’t believe she had the gall to talk to me. She never apologized.”

“Actually, everything, the whole snafu, was my fault. I left the playroom door unlocked.”

“It was my fault because I loved you.” There they were, those three naked words. They circled in the ether.

“I did care about you.”

“Care is for puppies.”

Thom gazed out the window. “I’m sorry, I just didn’t know who I was then. Maybe it was a phase.”

“Are you still in the phase? What, with Megan?”

“I’d be disowned.” Thom’s face greyed.

“You’re safe with me.”

“We connected. All our inside jokes. You got me.”

“And you got me.” Patrick shifted closer.

Thom tipped his head down and brushed the carpet with his toe. “Spray painting, barely evading the cops, and running over that stop sign.”

“Guilty! I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. I told you that.”

“I know, I know.” Thom’s mouth formed a tender gasp Patrick knew well. “We had some good times.”

“We did.” Patrick leaned in, their lips met, and his pulse quickened. He unswaddled a familiar, ragged part of himself, a place that he thought was forever lost. The glue was there. It was if they’d never parted.

Thom lingered, then pulled away. His eyes found the floor. The silence was thick.

Patrick stroked the back of his neck and massaged the place where the scissor had nicked him, then examined his fingers. “No blood. Guess I’ll be okay.”

“Do you still have that thing where you purge?” Thom said.

“Mostly no.” Patrick stirred. “But I did throw up in there because I ate tomatoes.”

“Oh, gosh,” Thom said.

“I feel better now,” Patrick said. “You were the first person who knew about me, what I did.”

“I always thought you looked great. You didn’t need to lose weight. You look pretty fit.”

“Thanks, I try.” Patrick’s skin prickled, as if it had been stripped away.

Thom picked up the two half-shells of the Wolverine head. He examined them as if they were precious, ancient artifacts. “Really did a number on this.”

“You can have that. It’ll be your souvenir,” Patrick said.

“Right.” Thom placed the broken halves together. “Maybe it can be repaired?”

Let’s go Wolverines, let’s go! Clap, clap. Let’s go Wolverines, let’s go! You were POPULAR. Lead us in another cheer! These messages marauded Patrick’s mind. Why couldn’t he feel important without his costume? He was getting too old to not be himself.

“I’ve got a better idea.” Patrick retreated to the kitchen and returned with a dark green Hefty bag. “Toss that thing in here.”


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