My hometown, Wilmington, MA, has the distinction of not only being bordered by three towns with toxic waste so bad they’ve been designated as Superfund clean-up sites, but also housing a Superfund site all its own. (It’s right next door to the town where John Travolta’s toxic waste legal drama “A Civil Action” took place. Jeal-ous?)
In my experience, Wilmington’s toxicity doesn’t stop with the contaminated soil; it also inhabits the mindset of some of its residents. Think of it as the spiritual soulmate to colonial Salem, MA, home of the witch trials, because it’s the quintes-sential closed-minded New England town where the boundaries of what’s acceptable are extremely narrowly defined.
Wilmington may have had its suspicions about me during high school when I didn’t fit into any of their existing social categories. I was in all the honors classes, but the smart kids didn’t like me because I was a partier; the “burnouts” didn’t like me because I was smart; and the popular kids didn’t like me because, I’m assuming, I wasn’t enough of an asshole.
Or maybe their suspicions started years earlier, when I got kicked out of Brownies for refusing to wear their uniform because it was the color of poop. Either way, it wasn’t until five years after high school that I was officially designated as something of a pariah.
In 1986, when I attended the first high school reunion we -- oh, I’m sorry, “they” -- had, I was actually shunned and denied access to pre-paid chicken!
I arrived with my friend and fellow reunionite Dianne (Side note: three of the four girls I’m still friends with from Wilmington are all named Diane. So, apparently Wilmington is full of toxic waste, assholes, and Dianes.)
As we walked across the Ramada Inn’s bleak banquet room toward the big, round 12-top where we were supposed to be sitting, we were stopped dead at the perimeter by the kind of force-field that can only be conjured by an entire tablesworth of bitch faces. I don’t know about you, but for me nothing whets the appetite like palpable hatred.
Dianne broke the uncomfortable stand-off by saying, “Uh, can we sit down?”
To which the response was, “Well, one of you can.”
It quite was obvious they meant her and that I was the problem. At this point, all the other big, round tables of chicken-eaters were staring at us too, making a lot of sheepish “no room over here either” faces as we skulked our way down the hall to the hotel bar.
Once Dianne and I found refuge in the Sassafras Lounge, we enjoyed complimentary bologna sandwiches as our dinner because this is what passes for happy hour fare in a town where the water gives you leukemia. And then Dianne enlightened me as to the cause of our exile.
Apparently, when we first arrived and I ducked into the ladies’ room, some of the members of the wonderful women’s auxiliary who had just refused to let us sit down scurried up to her and said, “Oh my God! Have you seen Jean??”
Dianne, a pretty but no-nonsense, gun-carrying, animal control officer, responded in what I imagine to be a heroic, pre-Republican convention, Clint Eastwoody way, “Yeah, I came with her. I drove her here.”
Apparently, they tempered their shock and revulsion a little bit, but still felt the need to let her know that I was “dressed like a punk” and that they “couldn’t believe I wore that.” By the way, the “that” that I wore was a fucking black dress that I bought at the completely mainstream department store Filene’s which is so main-stream that it is now a Macy’s. Sorry I forgot my powdered wig and my oversized doily dress, you uptight imbeciles!
Later in the evening when their bellies were full of pre-paid chicken, most of the reunionites spilled over into the bar where Dianne and I were. One by one, a handful of them, who were not sitting at the bitch-face table and who I didn’t know particularly well, slid into our booth and told me they actually thought I was really cool and they were sorry about what had happened. So that was a nice, unexpected palate cleanser after all that bologna and booze.
Cut to early 2010. I begin corresponding online with a classmate I sat behind in first grade. In his defense, he dropped out of school in 8th grade and hadn’t seen me since, so he had no way of knowing that he was supposed to shun me. He’d been a bit of an outsider himself, but I’d always liked him.
We were hitting it off, so he invited me to meet him in Vegas where he, an owner of a small New England chain of mattress stores, would be attending a home furnishings convention. I love Vegas and fun, and was probably looking for some small form of hometown redemption, so, of course, I said yes.
Ken and I had a lovely dinner where I learned about his cut-throat mattress competitor, Sandman City (not its real name), and that he dropped out of school because he became a father at the age of 14 and currently has 7 children, including a baby and an autistic 4-year-old from his recently defunct marriage to a mail-order Russian beauty.
After dinner, we had a few drinks and wandered around the casino, and the subject finally came around to good old Wilmington and our former classmates. Ken had attended the 20th reunion even though he hadn’t made it to high school.
He told me that when the word spread around the room that Ken was “rich,” all of a sudden the people who thought he was a trashy drop-out suddenly wanted to be his friend. He had the exact opposite reunion experience that I did: from outcast to accepted!
I told him about my shunning at the five-year reunion and said, “Sometimes I want to go back and see if they’d accept me now. Maybe I’ll go to the next one.”
And that’s when Ken dropped his bombshell. He suddenly seemed overwhelmed and blurted out, “Jean, don’t bother. I don’t want to have to tell you this, but they hate you.”
WHAT? They hate me because 24 years ago I wore a black dress with an asymmetrical hemline? That’s crazy. Well, that is crazy; but it’s not the reason they hate me. That, as it turns out, is even crazier.
According to Ken, the Wilmington High School class of 1981 hates me because I was married to the lead singer of a relatively successful indie rock band (who I can’t even believe those idiots have heard of since his name is not Bob Seger) AND, apparently, they believe my ex-husband’s band wasn’t really good enough to make it on their own and the only reason the band had any success was that I am a witch who supposedly used “black magic” to make them popular. Yup, insert deafening record scratch here!
What the fuck?! Guess what, Wilmington? Salem, Massachusetts is 17 miles east of here and the witch trials were 350 fucking years ago, thank God, or I would’ve been murdered in a public square to the great applause of you jerk-offs!
Besides, idiots, if I’m that magically powerful don’t you think I would’ve have chosen to make myself successful?! You think I wouldn’t rather have starred in "Thelma and Louise" than "Rectuma"? Bitch, please. Even though their hatred of me is laughably insane, I do remember having to take a seat at a video poker machine and becoming a little teary-eyed. Poor Ken, having to be the bearer of such demented news…and the father of so many kids.
Hate to break it to you, Wilmington, but not all of your toxic waste is below ground, OK? I’m with you, Steely Dan. I ain’t never goin’ back to my old school!