It was with some hesitation that, earlier this year, I ponied up $230 to attend my five year reunion at Amherst College.
A lot has changed since I decided to go. My wife moved out of our shared apartment a few weeks prior to the reunion, when we (amicably) separated. Then two days prior, I quit my job. So it was that I boarded a Peter Pan bus with my estranged wife, happily unemployed and quietly nervous about seeing former classmates whose names I would not remember, and who might be completely uninterested in who I’ve become over the past five years.
As the bus pulled into Northampton, the first thing I noticed were the tufts of plant matter floating through the air, making the parking lot look like an enchanted meadow. Ah, the pastoral grace of the Pioneer Valley in spring! How nostalgic I felt to be reunited with the natural landscape I’d missed for so long.
The second thing I noticed was a man who was crossing the street momentarily bend over, rest his hands on his knees, and forcefully vomit onto the ground before continuing on his way.
The bus continued into the Amherst town center, where I was pleased to see all my favorite local businesses still around: the small movie theater where I saw The Room for the first time, the frozen yogurt shop my then-girlfriend and I frequented on hot summer evenings, and of course the book store. Mixed emotions bubbled up, and I took a big breath of fresh air.
Our class headquarters was centered on two dormitories, King and Weiland, but because so many of the class of 2014 had registered, some of us had to stay elsewhere. That included us; we were placed in the brand-spanking-new set of sustainable buildings called the Greenway Dorms. This was the headquarters of the Class of 1994, who were celebrating their quarter century reunion. On every door there was a nice, handmade sign displaying the name of the returning alumnus, sometimes prepended with “and family.” On every door except for on ours.
After dropping off our things, we mingled with other early arrivers on a lawn spotted by adirondack chairs. We made awkward reintroductions, drank craft beer and sat in the freshly-mowed grass. Before long some large, shirtless men set up a beer pong table not far from our circle and brought out cases of Keystone Light. Ah, yes. I had almost forgotten.
I focused my attention on the friends I had come to see, exploring the new and shiny science center, walking down familiar paths and filling my lungs mountain air. But these large men, who often wore salmon-colored shorts and were shirtless whenever appropriate and often when inappropriate, were never far away. And among them, of course, were some recognizable faces. These men we spoke about only in hushes and whispers. Sometimes only rumored; sometimes accused, but never punished.
That night there were two open bars. There was lots of drinking and some aggressively awkward dancing. People split off into familiar cliques. We queers identified one another and tried to stick together, but I found myself pulled in every direction by knowing glances.
I told people that I had quit my job just recently. “Congratulations!” they would usually say. “What’s next for you?” I wish I had a good answer to that question. How does one explain that they’re totally, happily and frightfully lost? Especially to someone in medical school since graduation? Or to someone just finishing their PhD program, on the brink of one of the toughest job searches imaginable?
I felt incredibly lonely. I drank more, and brooded. That night I cried myself to sleep in an unfamiliar room, surrounded by strangers.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of frolicking children and wandered out of the building in search of coffee. The class of 1994 was out of coffee. I found my coffee in the new science center’s new cafe, and the staff member working there apologized for misgendering me despite never having used a gender pronoun in our conversation. “My kid uses they/them,” she told me. I wanted to say, “that’s good for them!” but I only mustered “cool!”
I lazed on a hammock with my sweet bean juice and browsed the catalogue of talks occurring that day. One caught my eye, entitled “Blazing Your Own Trail.”
Ten years after graduation, many of our classmates have followed generations of previous Amherst alumni on the well-trodden paths of law, finance, medicine and consulting. But a small-yet-determined subset of the Class of 2009 has ventured away from the more clear-cut avenues and into different territory.
Other talk titles included:
“Amherst Women In The Room Where It Happens” (where what happens, I wondered)
“Investing With Climate Change In Mind” (lol)
“Entrepreneurism: Don’t Do It!” (double lol)
“Netflix’s Customer Obsession: How to Delight Inherently Unsatisfiable Customers” (reduce margins for great good!)
While the description for that last one proclaimed “hecklers welcome!” and I felt like I had a lot of heckling material, I was low on heckling energy, so I opted to go to brunch in town with my friends.
Brunch was delightful with one exception: the entrance of one large man who we discussed furtively in hushed tones as he walked in and appraised the room,. He left after 20 minutes without ordering.
I went back to reclaim my spot on the hammock but found that my space on the lawn had been taken over by a number of large, shirtless men and a few women drinking cheap beer and setting up pong tables. It was 11:30am. I read a bit nearby and then took a nap.
That night there was another open bar and more arrivals. I made a brief friendship with our bartender from the night before, a member of the class of 2020 staying behind to earn some extra cash. I stuck to the people I knew and desperately avoided anyone I didn’t. Someone congratulated me on four years of happy marriage. I became visibly upset; I don’t think they noticed.
On my way to the bathroom, I passed three large man standing by the wine bar. As I passed, one of them pointed at me and made eye contact. “Look at this guy!” he said mockingly while trying to get his buddy’s attention. I was wearing pink lipstick, eyeliner, a navy blue blazer nailpolish. I loved the way I looked. As far as I could tell, I was the only man there wearing any of those things.
Then I did something silly. I got up in his face. I right looked at him and said, “I’d love to know what you think about this guy!” I didn’t move. He didn’t move. He looked down and muttered something. “It was just a joke.”
His buddy, who was much larger and drunker than either of us, got in on the fun. “I don’t know you, man! We’re just having a good time here, go back to your friends! I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” He waved his hands in my face, thick fingers on top of a muscled trunk.
“I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to your friend here.” Nothing worked; he just kept screaming in my face. Eventually his friend – the one who had called me out – agreed to talk to me privately in order to diffuse the situation. But Mr. Largeman wouldn’t let it happen. He got in between us, facing his friend, and yelled even louder.
An acquaintance passing by realized what was happening and came to my side. “If you could just stand nearby for a moment, I would appreciate that,” I told him. He did.
I’m not sure what happened next – maybe another, less drunk buddy got involved. But I was able to take my heckler aside and scold him thoroughly. “Why would you say something like that? You know that makes me feel like shit?” He seemed thoroughly distraught. I don’t know if he got the message.
I hugged the person who had stood by me while it happened. Then I went into the bathroom, sobbed, fixed my makeup, and rejoined the party. The big guy was planted in the corner of my eye the whole night. He seemed to be having a good time.
The night went on. There was dancing. I smoked a cigarette alone and drank vodka sodas. We passed around a joint on the steps of the substance-free dorm some of us had lived and worked in.
At the end of the night my wife and I made our way back to Greenway and passed by the King/Wieland lawn. It was completely covered in beer cans. I wonder who cleaned them up.
When I attended Amherst, the school was raising money from alumni under the banner of the “Lives of Consequence” campaign. Even back then I could tell it was bullshit. As my friend Jake Walters rightly pointed out back in 2013 (https://whatsleftatamherst.tumblr.com/post/66100178343/lives-of-consequence-indeed), the problem with this framing is right there in the name. What denotes a “life of consequence,” in the eyes of Amherst College?
Amherst survives based on the monetary success and generosity of its alumni, and this definition of success is confined by the status quo within which Amherst happily operates. People like me, who quit lucrative jobs for reasons we can’t explain, who challenge authority and put love above career – we don’t quite fit into the world Amherst is trying to build. We’re inconsequential.
There was a phrase used often during my college days, and often used mockingly now among those in the know. It part of a longer list of phrases used by the athletes there; this one, they used to describe everyone who wasn’t involved in athletics or didn’t show up to their parties, often people too involved with their studies or campus jobs. They called us ‘shadow Amherst.’ And for the first time, I understand exactly what they meant.