One of my most surprising activities during the pandemic has been, just like the rest of the world, reconnecting with high school classmates.
When I reminisce about those formative years, although there are a few fond memories, my overriding emotional reaction to that time, those people, is to scream, cry, and run away.
Which I did. All the way to Mancos, Colorado — as far away from that world as I could get.
So why am I reconnecting?
Why did I leave so defiantly and permanently?
Kent Place School for Girls is a superior institution that provides an excellent, cultured education for young women who travel from near and far to receive lessons in Latin, Jane Austen, field hockey, and mean-girl politics.
Let’s just face it, girls are brutal.
I wasn’t cool. I always felt like an outsider.
I was continuously uncertain of my rank in the hierarchy. Neither at the top nor the bottom. I suffered from anxiety and insecurity. I developed an eating disorder. I smoked a lot of pot and skipped school more than I attended. I spent four years trying my damnedest to fit in but I was definitely the square peg in a sea of round holes.
Doesn’t that sound dirty?
I always believed that I was included at times for “entertainment value.”
So I left – right after I graduated from my liberal arts college with my (totally impractical) degree in art history. I moved west and never looked back.
“Goodbye. It’s all yours.”
I haven’t given those high school gals a second thought in 30-ish years.
Until the obligatory pandemic-prompted Zoom call.
I had to begin by asking, “What the F@#$ is Zoom?”
I sat on my deck, under the cobalt sky, in the hot mountain sun, watching the snow melt off the La Platas, scrutinizing these oh-so-familiar but not necessarily missed faces.
They were pasty and white; the faces of those whose existences don’t involve much outside time in the high-altitude sun.
We updated each other on our lives since 1983. Each person’s narrative was some version of, “I’ve been married for 20-something years. I run a company and make millions of dollars.
My children are over-achieving Ivy Leaguers. I still live in the same town in New Jersey, belong to the same country club, and send my kids to Kent Place.” My first reaction was, “Jesus, I am a f@#$-up.”
My next thought was, “What can I possibly say when it’s my turn so that I don’t sound like a total f@#$-up?”
I was the only one out of a screen full of women who was divorced. Statistically impossible but leave it to me to be the odd one out.
I was also the only one on the call who doesn’t still call New Jersey home. Someone on the call, who just left NJ to live on a Napa Valley vineyard-mansion-olympic swimming pool-estate said, “I don’t like it. It’s not New Jersey.”
All of those heads on the screen bobbed in agreement.
Oh thank god Montezuma County is NOT New Jersey.
My turn came and the words that tumbled out sounded something like, “grumble grumble, felon, grumble, abusive ex, mutter mutter, college dropout, foreclosure, slur, mumble…”
But instead of feeling inadequate, I felt like the lucky one.
As I looked at the sea of faces in front of me, my eyes (and ears) glazed over. Any affection that I felt, any interest piqued, was for my fellow fringe-dwellers; those folks who dabbled on the edges of the alpha-troupe of blond-haired, blue-eyed, lacrosse-stick-wielding over-achievers.
These gals remained steady in their awkwardness. I looked into those faces and thought, ah, these are the interesting people – the ones who I want to hear about.
So this misfit has been reaching out to those misfits and besides entertaining, it has been SO reaffirming.
After two hours on the phone with a well-educated (and happy) housewife, I looked around at my tiny little cabin with no heat, no interior walls, and no closets and thought, “I’d rather be divorced and free in this ramshackle shack than ‘comfortable and safe’ in a manicured mansion in the east coast suburbs.”
I ask a million questions of these old friends – sincerely curious, but secretly searching for affirmation as to why I avoided a NJ life.
I am never left wanting.
A couple of years ago, two of my friends from elementary school came to visit. I was so excited to show off my world; while I view my life as a huge success that I think others will envy, the east coast executives viewed it (me) as a huge failure.
I Zoomed with them yesterday. One asked, “Does your new place at least have heat?”
I thought, “I don’t actually know. I didn’t check.”
I said, “Probably? Whatever – it’s warm in the desert.”
The suburban housewife is coming to visit on her way through this summer with her entire family. She’s never been west, but they are driving cross-country to take their Ivy League graduate to CA to begin a new life.
I think, “Oh come here – your mind will be blown.”
I said, “You can have my house. I’ll stay at my boyfriend’s.”
She said, “You don’t have to stay elsewhere.”
I thought, “Yeah, honey, I do.” When I offer up my house, I’m really just giving the four of you three rooms and a line for the bathroom.
Watch out for scorpions.
The friend will be shocked and horrified when she witnesses my squalor (or what I refer to as ‘the simple life’).
And I will think, “This is soooo much better than NJ.”
I am not one of them. I do not envy their huge homes and manicured lawns and successful children.
I went boating with my kiddos yesterday and I would rather do that than meet them for gin and tonics at the Yacht Club.
I listen to my classmates, I imagine their lives, and I know that I am not one of them. Never have been, never will be.
I do not have a NJ mindset. I’ve lived in the Rural West for too long. I want raw, natural beauty. The ability to walk out my door and get lost in the slickrock is a much bigger priority than having that door lead into a well-decorated four-bedroom home with a swimming pool.
I pushed my children towards forming community and developing solid work ethics, being good neighbors and not expecting handouts, instead of pushing them into college.
Much to my mother’s chagrin.
I need to live by a different set of values. I need tenacious, practical, hard-working neighbors. I need wide-open spaces. For me, the vast landscapes of the West have saved me from the confinement of cubicles, country clubs, and entitlement.
I couldn’t breathe if I lived there.
Obviously I couldn’t live there or I wouldn’t be here.
Suzanne Strazza, an award-winning writer, lives in Mancos, Colo.