Saturday, May 24, 2008

At the Five-Year Reunion

We go on the tree tour. It’s early; not much of anyone is awake. We take cold, silent showers and then, without speaking, dress so that no part of our skin touches the air for a second longer than necessary. The front steps of the dorm are littered with broken beer bottles. There’s a dried smear of vomit, a wide blue sky.

Reunions are strange. This is our conclusion: deduced, extrapolated, winkled out from the raw data. Our education allows us this leap of intellect, guides us through the rush of goofy smiles, loose hugs, strange shiftings in our gut. We flutter our hands, flap our mouths. We discuss the way we look hard at every stranger, how no one has changed yet everyone has changed. We discuss that awkward moment when someone greets you and you dip your eyes to their name tag. Oh hi! we call out. And later: I don’t think I liked her. Isn’t it strange?

The tourers of trees are few. The three of us, to start. We are underslept, hungry for donuts. We lean on one another, even though we’re too young to need to. Next comes the tour leader: hat low, eyes bright, brief moons of dirt under his fingernails. There’s current student with a violin. Another current student with her parents. Then a smattering of older alumni, the ones who wear their name tags around their necks instead of self-consciously pinned to their hips. Our leader points out one tree, then another: pin oak, white oak, cypress, elm. There are stories behind the trees, some interesting, some not. An alumna pokes at the cypress and asks a question about wet ground, trees’ knees.

I could be sleeping. I could be draining the dregs of a beer at dawn. The amount of attention I paid to trees, when I was in school, was negligible. They offered shade, dimension, resistance to wind. I did not say to myself: trees, I need to tour you. I need to knew when you were planted, and how, and why, and what the disease was that ravaged you, slowly but thoroughly, in the late 1960s. I need to know about the buildings that were once here but were torn down to make room for more trees. I need, desperately, to know about the day in 1924 when the tornado goosed the river and the square flooded and children swam between the tree trunks.

I think about that flood all through the day, while I am exchanging greetings and hugs and brief, harshly edited biographies. Toward the end of the afternoon I begin to understand that it's the water that's the real strangeness. Not the reunion and certainly not the tree tour, upon which we are only trying to learn how things grew from the way they were to the way they are.

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