Vicki, Victoria

ESSAY

December 26, 1993|By Linda DeMers Hummel

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.

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