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Michele Willens Headshot

Face It: The Prom Queen Then....

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I was sitting in Starbucks reading my paper the other morning and in walked a startlingly lovely young woman. Long, perfect straight hair, pristine features, slender body wrapped in a black pantsuit. I immediately felt old, shapeless, short and unattractive. I played a little game: how long would it take each new set of male eyes to do a double take? Would they find a pickup line? Sure enough, every gaze went her way, though only one man found the nerve to speak. (Allegedly curious about the Blackberry she was frantically punching as she sat in a leather chair across from me.)

My next thoughts, in no particular order, were: I bet she has never had one moment of insecurity in her life. No one will ever look at me like that again (if they ever did). Would that beauty be a curse one day?

The following afternoon happened to be an informal gathering of my Santa Monica high school class of 1967. As I entered, I immediately ran into two women who had been among my idols at a time when I felt charmless, cliqueless and dateless. Now in their early 60s, they should not be expected to remain knock-em-dead beauties and they certainly are not. Still, I felt a small sense of satisfaction in how they admired my, frankly, well preserved figure. (Was I now the Starbucks girl in the pantsuit?)

Such is the stuff of reunions: the ones you thought would never know pain or middle-aged malaise, do, while the ones who may have gone unnoticed, find their place. What I realized, and what gave me some small comfort, was that many of those whose high school experiences I envied -- since mine was unmemorable, at best -- never got past it. To say they peaked early would be an exaggeration.

When one of the party organizers saw me and exclaimed, "You are our second most famous alum!" I asked if she had me confused with someone. (Next, of course, I asked ... who was the first most famous? It was someone named Arman Shimmerman who starred on Star Trek?) I was truly touched to learn that many in my class had read my words over the years and several of the paunchy, gray haired gentlemen even confessed to long time crushes. (Now they tell me.)

They claimed I scared them off with a slight snobbism which, of course, was nothing but paralyzing shyness and lack of self esteem. It was not that some didn't crack through and sense what might be underneath. This was something that I was reminded while reading a passage from Kate Christensen's novel A Great Man. "Lila was shy, bookish, reserved and alight with the desire to flee her cage. She had seduced Claire into being her friend by letting her glimpse hints of the person Lila might become. "

Reunions are endlessly fascinating. You can't help feeling much of your life has passed, and while our short term memories may be shot, these linger. There are so many mixed emotions of sadness, nostalgia, longing. It is why we like epilogues at the end of our books and movies. We need to know Hubbell regretted losing Katie. Even Anne Hathaway's latest mediocrity, One Day, resonates because we all want to think the earnest, ignored girl-friend may one day blossom into the girlfriend.

As with so much in my life these days, I am learning to hold on to the moments that were great rather than seeing the whole picture in which I played a minor and dreary role. Yes, even in high school I remember my striped new minidress (the first in the class) that drew everyone's attention and made me queen for a day, if not of the prom to which I was not invited. But where is the prom queen and her court now? As I learned, one killed herself a decade back, another has suffered multiple illnesses and heartbreak. The hot girls then have cooled, as they should, but I fear they are having a more difficult time than those of us for whom our appearance was a lesser component.

Back to that girl at Starbucks: I have no reason to think she won't soar in life and get extra credit for the way she looks. But I also like to think she is so much more than that and will know it.