Valerie Stauffer

Author

Going Back



GOING BACK…


I’m an outsider at this reunion. Wives and significant others have come along for this ride into the past, but we’re the tag-alongs. Despite decades of marriage to one of these classmates, I don’t fit in. I know the words of the songs, but I never sing. The collegiate orange-and-black silk scarf hangs around my neck, but I’m not part of the class. I wasn’t around when these friends bonded in their college years.


A man with a grizzled beard and a clear baritone stands at the mike and leads his classmates.


Going back…

Going back…

To the best old place of all.


Although off-key and beer-sodden, their voices belt out the words. The singers are well into celebrating Day Two of the weekend. Every five years, these men return to enjoy four days of camaraderie with old buddies. They’ve come back to the world of their youth, the world of their dreams—dreams that, more often than not, did not come true.

* * *

A sound from outside the enormous class tent is a counterpoint to the song. A persistent droning, whining, buzzing overpowers human voices. Tiny bugs are flapping their black, gossamer wings. Multiply the flapping of a single cicada by the thousands, millions, billions of bugs that pervade the campus. Their eyes of brilliant orange contrast with their black wings and bodies. They appear to be costumed, like the alumni this weekend, in the university colors of orange and black. 


These cicadas are members of Brood X, whose forebears last fluttered their wings seventeen years ago. They’ve risen from the warm, spring earth after seventeen years of exile. That cycle of the Magicicada is part of nature’s grand design. These Brood X cicadas will meet no alien cicada populations that hatch on five-, seven-, or thirteen-year cycles. These bugs will mate with each other. The genes of their offspring will be pure and distinct. The tiny cicadas have never studied mathematical probability or prime-number theory, but they are subject to the inexorable laws of nature, the laws of life and death.

* * *

The classmates must explain their past years. Hair has grayed and lines have etched in foreheads since the day they wore orange-tasseled caps and black gowns to receive diplomas. The alumni confess the secrets of their missing five years, or ten years, or, in many cases, decades since they have been on campus. Identical orange jackets and orange ties do not clothe identical lives and lifestyles. Some classmates have been out of work since the last reunion or the reunion before that. Some confess to problems of drink and divorce. 


But among these four-hundred-plus classmates are the authors of the three shelves of books on display in the University library. Pages are covered with esoteric words relating to E. coli bacteria and volcanic eruptions of Krakatoa. Other pages are covered with dried tears of a classmate who co-authored a children’s book with his schizophrenic son. The weekend is not about personal success and failure. The classmates have returned to affirm their bonds with college friends.


Going back…

Going back…


A small cicada hangs upside down from one of the wooden tent poles. Two bulging, orange eyes stare at me from a round head that could be carved of black ebony. Do I look as odd to him as he appears to me? His tiny shafts of legs protrude from a small shape the length of my little finger. He was a nymph, living beneath this ground, for the past seventeen years. The fluid of tree roots sustained him until he at last matured into the adult cicada he is today. These Brood X cicadas have only a few weeks to find a mate. The courtship ritual is song. An attracted female responds with a gentle rustle of her wings. Once she has found her lover, she will mate only once. The singing of Brood X is the music of a love fest.

* * *

I recognize the second wives and the girlfriends who accompany the alumni back to campus. On sight I dislike them because they have svelte figures and perfectly coiffed hair. They wear chic dresses of lime green or pale blue. Wives are an appendage of the reunion. I’m an original wife and wear an orange-and-black kimono, the class costume in past reunions. My robe verifies that I’ve accompanied my husband on his journeys.

* * *

The classmates slap each other on the back. “Remember when…” My husband and a friend recall the night they climbed the tall village lamps to repaint the posts in reds, greens, and yellows. They may or may not have been arrested, charged with some variety of crime by the town police, or put on university probation. The story takes its own form every five years. No one is concerned with the truth, but these moments from the past loom larger than the hours spent conducting experiments in chemistry labs or listening to lectures on wars and revolutions. Perhaps these misdeeds are treasured because these men have followed a straight-and-narrow path of righteousness in the years since graduation. 


Going back…

Going back…

Going back from all this earthly ball.


A cicada has attached himself to a window inside one of the dormitories. He screeches in frustration and despair. He has lost his brood. I watch him desperately beat his wings against the glass. He can hear the songs of his brood. Perhaps he can see them through the glass. He cannot reach them. I want to help him find his way back to his compatriots who sing on the lawns and trees. I capture the small insect. His wings vibrate against my palm. They are soft feathers fluttering in panic. I place him on the grass beneath an azalea. He will have time to mate before he dies.

* * *

This morning I walked the campus pathways. I could not avoid stepping on tiny black shapes that littered the sidewalks. These are the flotsam of Brood X. The dead cicadas mingled with the litter of beer cans. With my camera I recorded the antics of the living orange-and-black cicadas. They scampered on lawns, tree limbs, and the stone statues of the university. I zoomed my lens onto a pulsing shape perched on a bright-green maple leaf. In my viewfinder I saw two cicadas entwined in an act of love. The female will soon deposit her eggs in the bark of a tree. Within a few weeks the eggs will drop into the soft ground. Her legacy will hatch and return in seventeen years. The adults of Brood X will die before the eggs drop. 

* * *

Two of my husband’s best buddies have come to the reunion. A roommate is due at any minute. The classmate and his wife left several days ago to drive from Alabama. We save seats for them at dinner, but traffic must be delaying their journey. The four buddies have not seen each other for five years. I and another wife pledge to get the best friends together next summer—their home or ours. The years are escaping.


One buddy, halfway though his steak dinner, leaves the table to track down the missing classmate. When he returns his face is gray and his eyes mist with tears. Their friend, my husband’s roommate, the godfather of our first child, never began the drive. He suffered a massive heart attack on the day he was to leave. And then a stroke. He is dead—one of over forty deceased members of the class.


Let’s clear the track

As we go back,

To the best old place of all.


In seventeen springs, the tiny cicadas of Brood XI will burrow their way up out of warm mud. Taller buildings of glass and steel will hover over the traditional Gothic structures. The cars and students will be a new breed. The newborn cicadas will sing again, search within the bark of trees for mates, and, without regard for the esoteric research of eminent biologists, they will lay the eggs of another generation.