On the day my classmates and I graduated from high school, a motivational speaker addressed us all in the assembly hall. “By the time your 10-year reunion comes,” he said, “only one of you will be working the job of his or her dreams.” He looked down and referred to his notes. “About a fifth of you will be happy with your lives. A third of you won’t be, and the rest of you will be somewhere in-between. Also, judging by the size of your year level,” he added, “one of you will be dead.”
That last bit of information was a bit of a downer. While the mood beforehand had been electric and joyous, having this complete stranger sentence one of us to death—but who?—killed the buzz. Still, it made us all curious. In the years that followed, I often wondered about who those people were. Who amongst us had become the one blissfully, revoltingly happy person? Who had become a struggling, poignant in-betweener? And more importantly, who had died?
So when the school emailed us all about our upcoming 10-year reunion, I was shamelessly intrigued. Most of my friends didn’t share my enthusiasm. One said there wasn’t a chance in hell she’d go. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I went to school every day dreading it. Seeing those people today would be like having an anxiety attack for three hours straight.” For others, Facebook had made the need for a reunion completely redundant. “They’re charging us 55 dollars?” they asked. “Outrageous. Let’s arrange our own.”
In my mind though, paying $55 to observe the biggest freak show in the history of the world represented great value. Plus, I’d also been sent on a mission, after my best friend from high school wrote to me from the UK with this. “Swear to me that you will go,” she said, “and collect as much hideousness as possible.” I swore I would. And with that, I was in.
But by the time I got back to my hometown, I’d lost some of my bravado. A good friend of mine, who I’ll call Jane, flew interstate to down cheap alcohol with me beforehand so we wouldn’t have to go in alone. With two bloody marys in me and only minutes to go before it started, I suddenly became aware of a pimple on my forehead and the fact I hadn’t exercised in months. I could already see people smiling with pity upon finding out that I wrote for a living. I felt sick. “Ben?” Jane asked. “Are you okay?” I didn’t say anything and ordered another drink.
Around 60 people showed up at the reunion. Everyone, strangely enough, seemed incredibly happy with their lot. There was T—, who described himself as a “septimologist” and said he earned “fuckloads” from cleaning portable toilets. There was also the model K—, who was now the international face of a mid-priced sparkling wine. But the people who impressed me most were folks who were largely off my radar at school. One girl had spent the last 18 months in Afghanistan working with kids. Another guy had worked his way into a senior position at the nation’s public broadcaster. Who knew?
Then, after a few minutes of awkward conversation, something magical happened: we all became 17-years-old again. This also meant we started to drink the way we used to. By the end of the evening, I was downing a toxic combination of Jagermeister and Red Bull, two substances that would never usually pass my lips—and yet, here I was. By the end of the evening, the overweight septimologist was dancing without pants, and I was screaming “SHOW US YER KUNT” to a male friend dressed in the school’s female uniform. A mannequin’s arm went missing; so did the hallway runner. It was carnage.
The next day, I woke up with a head like a bin. Our school emailed us to report missing items. “Dude,” someone said when they saw my photos. “Was that a school reunion or a buck’s party?” It was hard to concentrate with that kind of hangover, but I do remember that after everyone was ushered out—with a fair amount of disgust from the venue owners—I had remembered what the motivational speaker had said, and marvelled at how no one had died yet. In fact, as we stood outside in the freezing cold, laughing at an exploded fire hydrant, taking each other’s contact details on our phones, knowing full well we’d never see each other again, we felt very much alive.