VICKI, VICTORIA

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For a woman who has regularly declined reunion invitations, I noticed my eyelashes were receiving unusual attention from my mascara wand that particular morning. For a woman who has cavalierly tossed high school and college reunion notices in the trash for two decades, I had to admit I was on the giddy side of nervous.

Twenty-five years have gone by, I think, as I look hard at myself in the bathroom mirror of my parents' house, hundreds of miles from Baltimore. Finding the light switch here is not the effortless move it once was in the dark, and I keep forgetting whether the medicine cabinet opens from the left or the right -- reminders of how long it's been.

Everything here was once as familiar to me as the freckles on the back of my hands, as familiar as the woman who will soon ring the doorbell and step into the living room where she logged thousands of hours.

She was my best friend, a word that doesn't quite translate into middle age. The most colorful girl among us, a girl who, in 1966, was as sure of her style as I was at a loss for mine. Quite bright and prone to extreme flirtation. The one who led the charge, did not wait for things to happen, never deferred to anyone.

In her headlong rush into life, Vicki had snatched up all the firsts -- first to go steady, pass her driver's test, strike out on her own. Even today, a deliberate line of boys she mesmerized comes waltzing by in my mind. Boys named Johnny and Jimmy, who by now are thicker around the middle and losing some hair, boys whose last names I have long since forgotten. Boys who all chose Vicki over me.

Today, for a moment, I am 14 again -- stinging from her victories, taking inventory of my own steadier and slower existence, keeping score. I make sure my lipstick is not too thin or too thick, wishing I were more or less of everything, wondering why I agreed to this.

Our mothers ran into each other at a concert last year. Vicki's newest city, the latest in an extensive line of them, was the first thing my mother told me in our weekly telephone conversation. I tucked the information away mentally, sure (in the way I'm always so sure and then so wrong) that I'd never need it.

The last time I had spoken to Vicki had been a whole decade before, and it had been a telecommunications disaster. I was the mother of two towheaded sons and an adorable newborn daughter back then, a resume I foolishly thought she would covet. I wanted her to swoon, and instead she said, "That's nice."

She spoke in what I heard as an annoying, acquired British accent and called herself Victoria. She wanted to tell me about her studies in Europe, her travels to Algeria and a lover who had followed her across a continent, unable to live without her. "That's interesting," I said.

In the years since, there were a few snippets from my brother who regularly ran into her brother, and a Christmas card that arrived one year out of nowhere. I knew she had never married, had given birth to a daughter in Oregon, and spent a few years teaching in Africa and then in Japan. If that ever sounded exotic to me (and often it did), I'd busy myself with a list of all the desirable, albeit conventional, qualities of my own life (I'd become a free-lance writer), and figured I'd never see her again anyway.

So reunion invitations arrived in my mail every few years -- pamphlets about "sharing the good times," and "reigniting old friendships," and lots of information on buffet dinners, open bars and reduced motel rates for out-of-towners. I was not interested.

Not until one afternoon while working on a story, when Vicki's name popped into my head as if I thought of her every day. She'd be a source for the information I needed. But when I felt myself rehearsing my opening line, I realized the source angle was something of a ruse. I'd say, "Well, I'm a writer now," thinking that I'd have something there that would impress her. Finally.

In a space of five minutes, I was asking an information operator for a listing. My friend answered on the first ring.

"Hello, is this Vicki?" I asked, hoping she'd long ago gotten over the Victoria nonsense.

There was a tentative, somewhat suspicious "Yes," from a voice that sounded too low to be hers.

"This is Linda," I said, and stopped there for a second, thinking it might be all that was needed. In the suspended air that followed, I added my maiden name, and even that took another beat to register her surprise. And happiness, I thought.

Although I was aware of a forced sophistication that neither one of us could shake, this time I no longer needed to tell her about my children, and she controlled her annoying habit of peppering her speech with foreign phrases. As our conversation wound down, she said, "I'll be home for the holiday," and before I knew it, I blurted out, "So will I." And those were the words that had me fiddling with my makeup and my hair that morning in my parents' upstairs bathroom, in the town we both still reflexively call "home," wondering what this meeting would be like.

My family assembled in the living room for her arrival, my parents outwardly excited, my husband and kids slightly amused to see me pacing ever so slightly. When I heard two car doors slam, I kiddingly asked my brother, who had stopped by out of curiosity, peek out the window and tell me if she was thin.

"Maybe you have time for a few more sit-ups," he said, laughing, as he watched my friend and her daughter come up the walk.

We were a bundle of solicitousness in the opening moments.

We neither hugged nor shook hands. I felt much the way I used to in the opening seconds of a blind date -- caught directly between trying to speak intelligibly and mentally recording every physical detail. Sliced right down the middle and rather paralyzed.

After a round of introductions and settling, all of us sat down, which seemed funny when I thought of all the times she had simply opened the screen door and darted up the stairs to the privacy of my room. Today my parents, denied the juicy details of Vicki's life all those years, would be part of everything that was said -- no need for secrets.

We marveled at her stories about life in places as different as Laramie, Wyo., and Sapporo, Japan. Her daughter taught my children a few phrases in Japanese. Vicki fascinated all of us with the dips and peaks of her life, and instantly impressed my kids when she told them in graphic detail how she killed her own chickens for dinner in Nigeria.

Even without bilingual children or chicken stories of my own, I found myself relaxing. She looked like a grown-up version of her old self, but I'm not sure I would have immediately recognized her in the street. Only when she laughed could I believe it was really Vicki, and when she did I remembered how much I loved being a teen-ager.

I was glad this was not taking place in a hotel ballroom, that I didn't have to compete for her attention. That we weren't gazing down at name tags with our high school pictures on them, straining at small talk as the disc jockey played Beatles songs.

At the end of the visit, we wandered slowly to the end of my parents' driveway. This was the spot where we had gossiped endlessly, questioned everything, and on more than a few occasions, cried. Here, where the concrete met the blacktop of the street, we swore we'd always be friends. Right here, we picked out the names of our children and planned to someday own identical houses right next door to each other.

None of it happened that way, of course. But she didn't say, "That's nice," and I didn't say, "That's interesting," as we might have stiffly done in a roomful of alumni and balloons. We said our goodbyes without promises to meet again. We hugged, and I remembered how she always smelled of Muget des bois cologne bought at the corner Rexall Drug Store. If this was a reunion, it was sweet.

LINDA DEMERS HUMMEL is a free-lance writer living in Timonium.

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