Wish You Were Here (Instead of Me)
by Frederick I. Iverson
July 27, 2014. Today, on Talk of the Nation: Why do people go to class reunions? In our current world of Facebook, Linked In, Twitter and every other permutation from e-mail to iPad, it's possible to stay in touch with people we knew in high school-- and completely avoid those we never wanted to see again. But maybe some memories can only be faced down in person. Frederick Iverson explores this in his article on the reunion of the Sunnydale Class of '99.
When I left California for an internship in the summer of 2001, I had every intention of returning eventually. I'd spent my whole life in one small town - population approximately 38,500 - up the coast from L.A., within five miles of the beach. Falling in like, and then in love, with New York City was not in the plan. I didn't think I could feel at home anywhere other than Sunnydale, but was glad to be proven wrong. New York and I got along just fine.
Then, in 2003, my hometown fell into a bay. As it does. Well, maybe that's not your experience, but I found it somehow inevitable.
So why go back? Why barbecue hot dogs by the shore of a sunken city I haven't seen in thirteen years, with people I've only kept in sporadic contact with over the last decade?
Maybe because I have a son now. Josh is ten, and fascinated with disasters. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes. You name it and he can tell you how much speed it takes for a blizzard to form, how long it takes to evacuate from a volcano eruption, how far away you have to be to see smoke rise in a forest fire. Finding out his dad is a graduate of Sunnydale High cemented his determination to see it.
Maybe, too, I wanted to be sure of what I'd heard reported from other sources. And maybe I felt brave enough to finally go to a reunion where I knew the ghosts would outnumber the returning attendees.
On the plane to California, I show Josh my old Class of '99 Yearbook (The Future is Ours!). As editor of the Sentinel, our school newspaper, I had a brief sidebar in it, proving I'd earned my reputation as a sardonic pessimist at an early age:
"At this stage we lose not only hope, but our souls. They defeat us not by killing us, but by turning us into blank-eyed drones in the anthill of life."
Did I say pessimist? Maybe I meant fatalist, instead.
Listed on the page with me as part of the staff are Wendell Sears, Jonathan Levinson, Robert Stephanopoulous and Lance Lincoln. Wendell I've exchanged emails with since we graduated college; he now has a doctorate from Berkeley in arachnid biology, although the job market has kept him from getting a permanent teaching position as yet. He and his wife are going to be attending. The other three I've lost track of. Jonathan Levinson is on the list as 'missing' from the reunion. He was voted Most Likely to Be Famous (something which I found odd at the time), along with Cordelia Chase.
"She's pretty," is Josh's opinion. "Did you date her?"
I snort. "No. She dated jocks. And Xander Harris."
"You could date her when we get there," Josh offers. "I could tell her you're a good dad and you live in New York."
Cordelia Chase died in 2004, of injuries received months earlier during the Jasmine Cult incident. In my memory, she is all that is haughty and high-fashion, and much smarter than people gave her credit for.
"Don't try to fix me up with anyone we meet there," I caution Josh. "Unless they already live in New York."
Sunnyside is the tourist trap that sprang up within a couple years of the destruction of Sunnydale. There are three motels, a visitor's center, a campground, and a recreational park devoted to bringing people in to see the disaster area. The scuba-diving archaeology site is very recent, currently being funded by the University of California Los Angeles.
I'd emailed Michelle Blake, our reunion organizer, to ask: why here? Why not meet in Los Angeles? Or Santa Barbara? Did we really want to hold this reunion at the site of such a tragedy?
Michelle (Co-Homecoming Queen, Cheerleader, and Sunnydale non-native) responded with: "Only maybe two people died when the town sank in the earthquake. And shouldn't we remember them? It's been fifteen years since Graduation Day. Shouldn't we remember that too?"
I wrote back: "Do you think anyone's really forgotten?"
If you go back to the 1999 newspapers stockpiled somewhere in Sacramento, they'll report that a gas main exploded during our graduation ceremony, killing Mayor Richard Wilkins, Principal Snyder, and one student, senior Larry Blaisdell. In reality, a dozen more students and members of their families died as well, but their names were not on the initial reports, and of course, there was no follow-up on the story.
I found it ironic at the time that it didn't make bigger headlines, considering Snyder was the one most responsible for censorship of the Sentinel while I was in charge. Any violence within Sunnydale High, or involving Sunnydale High School students, any reports of anything that reflected badly on his leadership, were quashed with extreme prejudice. I'm not sure he would have appreciated being overlooked like that in death, though.
That level of spin wasn't applied to the entire town sinking four years later. But as Michelle pointed out, only two people died in that disaster: one of our former classmates, and an elderly woman who had stubbornly stayed in town when everyone else evacuated.
"Did you know anyone who died there?" Josh asks, with the morbid curiosity of the very young. "Were you sad?"
"I met one of them, a couple times." Anya Emerson—she later changed her name to Anya Jenkins— was a feminist, a capitalist, completely without the ability to keep a thought to herself, and new to Sunnydale High in her senior year. I was inches from convincing myself to ask her to Prom, despite it being a bourgeois ritual we both despised, when she asked the aforementioned Xander Harris, first. That guy dated everyone. "She was... interesting."
Josh goes quiet for a minute, then reads the page with the Most Likely To's on it again. "Most Likely to Be Imprisoned: Buffy Summers and Tor Halsey. Class Protector: Buffy Summers." He gives me a look. "What's that about?"
"Buffy was, uhh..." Every high school has a Buffy; at least I hope they do. The kind of person who sticks up for the underdog, no matter how many detentions it gets her. Who finds authority figures irritating, not intimidating. Rumor had it she once punched out Snyder, and I don't want to know if it's not true. "She was bad at rules. But good at helping people."
She was the person who talked Jonathan Levinson down from a suicide attempt a week before Prom. Not the police, not our teachers, not the counselors. He presented her with the award for Class Protector a week later.
"Will she be there?"
"I hope so." Her name on the Attending list had 'undecided' next to it. But if she does show up, there are questions I still want to ask her.
Josh and I check into the Eternal Twilight Motor Inn, and then head out to Sunnydale Bay. The horseshoe-shaped coastline extends from the former city limits, and out into the desert about five miles inland. It's a remarkably even, almost geometrically perfect oval, surrounded by cliffs that rise twenty feet from the water's surface along the north side. Eleven years of erosion, and the efforts of developers, have put in a beach along the southern edge, but the divers from UCLA prefer the northern face for their explorations.
The expedition numbers thirty archaeologists, volcanologists, marine biologists and their graduate student staff for most of the year round. They're happy to show Josh the SCUBA equipment they use to go down into the bay and explore the remains of Sunnydale. The site is nominally under the control of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, but they have special permission to explore from the State of California.
"We do get thrill-seekers, treasure-hunters, crazy people, coming in to see how far they can get," confirms Sean Molonowski, an archaology post-doc. "Most don't get very far, though. You have to dive about forty feet before you even reach the tops of the roofs, and that requires a lot of prep work. Plus, it's not like open ocean.” He gestures to the cliff sides. “There's debris from the town that gets loose, currents from the ocean that can suck you under-- it's still not a safe place."
Reportedly, about one person a year dies while trying to explore Sunnydale Bay.
Dr. Lesley Petros, one of the country's leading volcanologists, confirms this. "We still don't know for certain why Sunnydale sank. We're also researching why everyone evacuated in the month before its final disappearance. It’s a job for experts, not amateurs."
According to Dr. Petros, the cliffs and caves beneath Sunnydale had always been unstable, filled with volcanic gases that leached out on occasion, and caused the earthquakes of '97, 2000, and finally 2003. The gases and micro-tremors caused anxiety symptoms in the population, very fortunately for anyone living there at the time. The mass exodus kept Sunnydale's destruction from becoming one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
Dr. Thomas Patrick (oceanologist) has a different theory. "The ocean currents had an upwelling out at sea that year, and the year before. This lead to the destabilization of the underlying strata. A mini-tsunami, if you will. The wave distortions and sub-sonic frequencies alerted people, the same way it does for animals before a storm. It wouldn't have become a problem, if the city government hadn't authorized fracking so close to a population center. It was a complete travesty that this was allowed."
Other competing ideas (some from the internet) include: a government conspiracy to wipe out terrorists, aliens that were responsible for a meteor shower two years before, Donald Trump wanting his own private underwater kingdom, and mermaids reclaiming the city as their own. Everyone has a theory.
The researchers admit they're nowhere near close to proving anything yet. But underwater tours of the city are being planned for next year, and Josh is thrilled, hoping that we'll come back so he can see it all.
I have less urge to walk down those streets again, or float down them, in this case. Either way, it’s time to head to the reunion.
Josh isn’t the only child of a graduate to attend, but he is one of the oldest. Lance “Link” Lincoln is here with his twin eight-year-old girls. Owen Thurman (former class President, and nationally published poet) has a toddler boy with his fiancé, and Lisa Campiti and Chris Epps have both brought their nine and seven-year-old kids as well. In spite of the age differences, a handful of other children join him and the Lincoln girls in a game of tag on the playground, next to the pavilion where the opening night barbecue is being held.
Wendell and I have staked out a picnic table for ourselves, and are catching up: trading rumors about our non-attending classmates and drinking beer while his wife refuses to believe half the stories we tell her. I pull out the yearbook again to give her as much proof as I can.
“Why is your class mascot on the obituary pages?” Moira asks us. “Better, why do you have three obituary pages?”
“Why does anyone?” Wendell shrugs. “Because people died.”
“Don’t bring up Herbert around those two,” I say, nodding to a couple of classmates over by the cooler. “They both became vegans after that.”
“It’s better not to ask.”
Herbert the “Razorback” pig was found partially consumed during sophomore year. Our principal at the time, Bob Flutie, was found dead after being attacked by wild dogs in his office that same week.
The leading causes of death among our graduation class prior to Sunnydale’s destruction were: stabbed in the neck with ‘some kind of kitchen implement’, animal attack, drug use, and suicide. In that order. Seven of our classmates in the In Memorium section disappeared, and were presumed dead.
All of which sounds slightly to the left of unbelievable, if you didn’t grow up in Sunnydale. This kind of activity may be why I found New York a comfortable fit when I moved there. Everyone in New York has their own unbelievable story.
Moira accuses me of putting together the yearbook as a joke, and I point out that I wasn’t even on the yearbook committee. “But if you can get Owen or Lisa to own up to it being a joke before the end of the weekend, more power to you.”
Wendell cranes his neck to check on the grill. “Oh, good. Nobody brought a barbecue fork. That means there’s an even chance no one’s going to die this weekend.”
We clink beer bottles together. Moira looks at us like we’re crazy, and someone puts the Sundays on the stereo system.
There are games, including guessing who has moved furthest away from Sunnydale (I lose to Oz Osbourne, who’s been in Tibet off and on for the last decade), who has the most children (a tie between Rob, and Lysette Torchio, who has adopted five), and who has stayed married the longest (Percy West and Holly Charleston, who eloped their junior year of college). There are less emotion-mined topics, so the kids can participate in trivia contests and jelly-bean-in-a-jar guessing—the last one is stymied when someone makes off with the jar while everyone’s back is turned.
Willow Rosenberg (valedictorian) is irate and glaring around the crowd, trying to figure out who took the jar. Since she has all the menace of a cuddly animated Disney heroine, the effect is less than terrifying.
“Who steals candy from kids?” she grumbles, joining me and Wendell. “Boy, when I catch up with whoever thinks they’re funny…”
It turns out that Willow has been working for a combination NGO and school program out of Cleveland and England; our ex-librarian started it up in the wake of the disaster, and it lead to the job she has now. As IT guru, computer teacher, and advisor for the Calendar School, she teaches and counsels at-risk girls and refugees from war zones.
“I think it started that last year before Sunnydale disappeared. We had some runaways staying with us at Buffy’s house, girls who didn’t have any place else to go. And then after that, they needed to go back to school, and we needed a place to stay, and it just—all came together.” She pauses, looking thoughtful. “I liked teaching; you remember, I substituted for Miss Calendar.”
“After her death,” I say.
“Yeah.” She looks briefly sad. “Her grave’s down there. I used to leave a rock on hers, and—other people’s graves. Maybe we should put up a sign or a stone, so we can do that here.”
I ask her if she’s heard anything from Jonathan, and get another wince. “He didn’t make it out.”
Usually, not making it out of your hometown just means you’re working in the local Best Buy, or still living with your parents. A pretty common occurrence for our generation. I am surprised and saddened that I hadn’t heard that Jonathan had gone down with Sunnydale.
“Yeah. He—he made some mistakes. But I think he really could have made a difference, if…” Willow shakes her head, and looks very grim. “Harmony’s still around somewhere, I think. But she fell in with a dangerous crowd. If she ever visits you in New York—“
“I’ll know not to invite her in.”
Some people I skewered in the Sentinel really had it coming. I wouldn’t have invited her in to my home anyway, because Harmony and I were never what you’d call friends. But it’s grim to think that she’s another one of the absent ghosts.
Oz wanders over, giving his ex-girlfriend Willow a hug hello, then settles in at the table across from Moira, who starts quizzing him on the yearbook. She’s appalled to find out that the yearbook isn’t even half the story, as Oz clues her in about the murder-suicide of one couple, and the attendant murder of a mutual friend as well as the school counselor.
“Snyder wouldn’t let the Yearbook committee put in any details,” Oz says, matter-of-fact and deadpan as ever. “Not the kind of thing that raises school enrollment.”
A car alarm goes off across the lot, and we all crane our heads to look toward the beeping horn. One of the doors of a silver Prius is open, but no one seems to be close to it.
I wonder if it’s more jokes, or possibly Xander, goofing around. But Willow points him out to me on the other side of the crowd, with a stunning brunette on his arm, talking to Kyle and Heidi.
“Buffy’s little sister Dawn,” Willow explains. “They’ve been together five years now.”
I wonder again how that guy does it. He works for the same NGO as Willow now, doing administrative work and maintenance at their main facility. Dawn Summers is working on her doctorate, and looking for a job, like everyone else.
“Is Buffy going to be here?” Wendell asks.
“She’s… working on something nearby,” Willow hedges. “She’s going to try to get away in time to visit with people tomorrow, though.”
As Josh and I settle in to the motel room that night, he’s looking extra-thoughtful. A little poking, and he opens up.
“Lots of bad things happened here, didn’t they?” he asks.
“What makes you say that, buddy?”
“Gina and Dana were talking. They heard their moms talking about stuff in Sunnydale. They said there were monsters.”
How do you explain evil to a kid? Even a smart, street-savvy kid like Josh? How do you explain cover-ups, and city hall corruption, and gang violence? How do you explain the swim team just going missing right after the coach died? How do you explain what you don’t understand yourself, not completely?
All I know is I still take extra, nearly paranoid precautions when staying in a hotel room; there are some places I’ll never venture after dark; and if I ever get a hint that Josh’s school is becoming like my alma mater, we’re moving to a new school district.
“Maybe. But they’re under the water now,” I tell him. “And there were heroes here too.”
“Like that Buffy girl?”
I grin. “Yeah, like her.”
And Mr. Giles, who kept the library open at all hours for any student. Or Larry Blaisdell, who came out of the closet swinging, and made life easier for a couple guys I knew by his example. The staff at the Espresso Pump, who gave food to the homeless.
I try to figure out words to comfort him. “And other people. Remember—“
“Evil never wins as long as someone steps up and fights it,” Josh intones, smirking at me. Okay, so some of my blog slogans are better than others.
“Exactly. Go to sleep. We have a pancake breakfast tomorrow.”
It turns out that three of the cars people drove were broken into last night, and someone attempted to get into one of our classmates’ rooms sometime after midnight. I’m refraining from mentioning who out of respect for their privacy. The motel security cameras didn’t catch anything in the parking lot, or in the halls.
“Something weird is going on,” is Amy Madison’s opinion. “But hey, that’s our school motto.”
Amy’s working as a counselor for abused kids in San Francisco, and studying for her Ph.D in Psychology at the same time. During high school, I remember her going through a dark Goth phase that had Snyder searching her locker in one of his fascist snits, and later she disappeared for several years. She seems to have turned her life around now, though. I ask her if she thinks my impression that many of our classmates went into ‘helping’ professions is accurate, and if she has a theory why.
“People who get out of traumatic situations have a couple different coping mechanisms: denial, for one, or making sure it never happens to them again. Taken too far, you get into vengeance, which is not a good road to take,” she offers with gravity. “But yes, you’re not completely wrong, there’s a high percentage of counselors, and emergency responders in our class, somewhat higher than the average.”
The lead singer for the Dingoes, the perennial garage band of our high school years, wanders by in a marijuana haze. He’s surprised to hear that there was a break-in last night. But he’s also surprised that people got married and had kids.
“What the f___ did you want to do that for?” he’s asking Link, shaking his head in wonder.
Some people don’t change, it seems. I go back to my conversation.
“So you think, because of graduation—“
“Graduation, Prom night, the band candy sale—“
“I’d managed to repress that. Thanks, Amy.” Some things can not be unseen.
She grins. “My pleasure. But yeah, if anyone in our graduation class got out of Sunnydale without some trauma, I’d be shocked. And I’d bet even money that half our non-attendees are in denial.”
Since the other half are probably dead, I can’t disagree with her.
Josh comes over with a fluffy stack of pancakes for me, and I adjourn to a picnic table and breakfast with my son and his new friends, who are talking about Skyping and chats over the rest of the summer. The difference between my high school experience and theirs yet-to-come has never been starker; we got computers in our library during sophomore year, but no one I knew even had cell phones until college. I wonder how much safer we would have been, if we’d been able to call for help more often, or take photos of weird stuff as proof that we weren’t crazy.
I finally spot Buffy Summers about an hour later, before the afternoon’s last few activities. I walk up as she’s talking to someone I can’t see, and I hang back behind the corner of the motel to listen. Okay, eavesdrop. I have to maintain some journalistic credibility.
“I dealt with you once before,” she is saying, and there’s a grunt as if someone is being shoved into a vending machine. “And you haven’t gotten any new tricks that I can see.”
“Very funny,” grumbles a female voice. I have no idea who this is.
“Like the thefts and the break-ins? Or was that attempted murder, again?” Buffy sounds incredibly chipper, her voice the same as after she smashed that one guy’s face into a steering wheel. In her defense, the guy was asking for it. “Don’t make me do this the hard way, Marcy.”
I still have no recollection of who this Marcy is, but she sounds sullen and resigned. “Fine. Can I have my knife back?”
I ease back a little further because some survival instincts have stayed with me. Curiosity is stronger, though, and I stay in the area.
“You can come out now,” Buffy calls a few minutes later. “I know you’ve been listening.”
How does she do that? I still don't know. But she always knew her surroundings better than any recon Marine.
She shakes her head when she sees me. “Freddy Iverson.”
“Looking for more scoops for your blog?”
“You read? …my blog?”
She gives me a deserved glare for the intentional pause, then smirks. “You don’t have enough fashion tips for my taste, but I still like to know what’s happening with people I know in New York.”
“I’ll try to work in more runway shows and shoe modeling for you.” I rock back on my heels. “Sooo. Who was that?”
“If you don’t remember her, I’m not telling.” Buffy gives me a c’mon-now look that would do any mom proud. “She’ll be in enough trouble with her bosses as it is.”
“You gotta give me something for my readers,” I tell her, as we fall into step on our way back to the park. She’s tiny, but wearing the kind of combat boots that are made for kicking biker ass, and she’s always walked like she was a foot and a half taller than her size. “Have you been to prison yet? Did you get married? Are you still looking out for the little guy?”
“No, no, and anyone big or small,” she shoots back at me. “Just like every other good citizen out there.”
I chance a look over my shoulder to where her confrontation with Marcy the Unmemorable took place, and point out, “Not quite like everyone else.”
“I am more stylish than most people,” Buffy says in a tone that lives up to her name. I’m not fooled.
“If I promise not to put the answer in any article or blog, strictly off-the-record, one free gut-punch if I lie, will you answer a question I’ve had for fifteen years?”
Buffy gives me a wary look. “Maybe. Depends on the question.”
“What really happened to the swim team?”
“You really want to know?”
“I really want to know.”
She tells me. I stop in my tracks, thinking. It all adds up, sadly.
“…yeah, no one would believe me anyway.”
“Nope,” she confirms, then squints at me. “You don’t seem all that surprised.”
I give her my best Nicholson impression: “Don’t try to understand it, Summers. It’s Sunnydale.”
Seeing is believing, that’s why we go to reunions. Talking leads to remembering how things really were. The past is another country, and I’m happy to have emigrated from mine.
I wake up on the plane home and look at my son sleeping next to me. For once, I’m not having nightmares, believing I’m sixteen, seventeen, eighteen again, drowning in nihilism in order to deal with very scary reality. I’m thirty-three. I’m a father. And a New Yorker. And the ghosts didn’t follow me home.
(You hear that? None of you are invited to my place.)
Frederick I. Iverson is city news editor at The Gothamist. His articles have been published in The Atlantic, Wired, and Huffington Post. His second book, “Memoir of a Millennial Misanthrope,” will hit stores in October. This has been NPR.