"Oh my gosh, Meredith?" I blurted out as a familiar-looking leggy human with flowing chestnut hair breezed in my direction.
She stopped short and blinked, caught off guard and straining for recognition after two decades without contact. "Is it... DoIt2Julia?"
I affirmed. We embraced and expressed the requisite mutual surprise.
"Do you work here?" Meredith asked, looking on as I wiped down and replaced the dining settings on an outdoor table for four. "I live two blocks away! My husband's waiting at the bar. We have a 8:00 reservation."
"Oh, great!" I managed with a nervous smile; I had hoped she'd just been walking past. "I'll see you inside." She continued to the bar as I completed picking up the slack for our overburdened busboy.
As quotidian FML moments go, this one —gazing across the class divide at an old schoolmate as she trots out from her West Village home in $400 stilettos to meet her financier husband for dinner at the fine dining restaurant where I earn $12/hr as a hostess— easily rated a 7 out of 10.
But Meredith was more than just an old schoolmate; she was my childhood rival. Twenty years ago, we'd had a lot in common. Perhaps too much.
Meredith and I both had estranged relationships with a parent which cast dark clouds over our formative childhood and adolescence. Meredith's mother had severe mental health issues, and she grew up with an emotionally abusive guardian in a situation that was just notches above foster care. I had a loving single mom, but my father was a violent, absentee deadbeat.
Come high school, the two of us were openly regarded as the prettiest girls in our class. Though both tall and slender, we were very different types and which one a person judged as The Prettiest was as revealing an answer as your favorite Beatle, Team Jacob or Team Edward. The verdicts were evenly split, but I somehow always felt inferior. Her hair was just so goddamn shiny.
By the end of 9th grade, Meredith and I had both earned undeserved reputations for promiscuity. I used my poems as an outlet to express the deleterious effect of slut-shaming on my fragile teen psyche. So did Meredith. Hers were published in the school lit mag.
We both competed in forensic speech and debate. Out of the gate, Meredith aced every tournament with perfect scores and always placed first in her category. I struggled for two semesters, trying five of the seven available categories before finally finding my wheelhouse. When we both qualified for the national championship tournament in spring of our sophomore year, everyone cheered me as the come-from-behind kid while Meredith's triumph was considered a foregone conclusion. Throughout all of this, we both supported and pushed one another, often just by existing.
There was nothing in particular to dislike about Meredith. We never fought or argued or overtly butted heads. Meredith and I should have been friends but were instead never much more than just friendly. Perhaps our lives ran too parallel to ever come together.
When Meredith first entered my life at the age of 13, I would have hardly considered her a threat. An ugly duckling, she was bucktoothed and lanky with frizzy hair and Coke-bottle glasses. But it was as though she entered a cocoon some time after 3:00 pm on Friday when she, having been taken under the wing of a popular rich girl, emerged the next day at Jennifer Katz's bat mitzvah looking like a late '90s supermodel. No amount of logical argument will ever convince me that Anne Hathaway's makeover reveal in The Princess Diaries was not inspired by Meredith Miller's miraculous 7th grade transformation.
As I stood there at the hostess podium, glaring at her picture perfect life from the outside, the only thing comforting me was the memory of the abysmally dressed, four-eyed middle schooler I once knew. But even that consolation extended only so far. The very fact of her humble beginnings just made her successes all the more remarkable. Meredith had overcome hardships, earned a spot at an Ivy, landed a great job, married well, and achieved the metropolitan American dream. Whatever she had, she deserved it.
On her way out, Meredith declared our reunion a "pleasant surprise" and pledged to drop by again, maybe next time with her young son. Was this the equivalent of a yearbook "keep in touch!" or did she really mean it? Could this be the start of a new chapter for us? Could the rivalry be laid to rest? Will we band together over a love of dioramas and play a game of Anagrams? Only time will tell.
*All names are fake because duh.