Tales of our lives told through our loves

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The Independent Online
A CASUAL encounter coming out of the Post Office, with a face I had not seen since we left school, in a city we had not realised we shared, has got me into something: a school reunion on Saturday.

This will be a rendezvous of fortysomethings, women who have not been together for nearly 30 years. Presumably we will be coming together to celebrate. But what exactly? Ourselves or our school?

Some, no doubt, will be toasting the triumph of a tradition in themselves, the success stories of the single-sex selection system. For some of us, however, it was terrible. Still, I think I'll go. As one does.

What is this compulsion to revisit a complicated past in a context of celebration? Strangers who were once cohabitees, companions who shared space and secrets, smoking and snogging with boys, will gather together in a brief encounter across half a lifetime. Sharing life stories.

The story of our personal lives will be anchored in success - in being a credit to our school. This reunion will be peopled by women in their prime, marking the moment when they went into orbit as adults, propelled by the privilege that they had already been selected for success.

But our stories are also anchored in our sexuality. Not sex as such, because our sexuality will be codified as marital status. Married or single. And because we used to subject sexuality - if not our scholarship - to the greatest degree of scrutiny, by coming together we seem to give each other permission to enter into intimacy.

Even so, the raw data of falling in love, pleasure and pain, is muted by a code, not of manners so much as etiquette. The question is not: Are you in love? Are you happy? Do you do still do it? The story is not about love, sex and passion, it is about status.

Divorce will be palpable in the wedding rings on the wrong hand, signifying a history, a transition. We will expect our narratives to be contained in the classified template: births, marriages and deaths. Divorce disrupts that kind of chronicle because it is not just an event, it is a process of managing disappointment and pain.

More than that, it may be a woman's struggle for herself. Often enough it is a struggle for survival.

Married or divorced, heterosexuality will be visible in the rings and family photographs. It will be audible in the I that becomes We. 'We' means a man and a woman. But what do you say if you're in love with a woman, live in a council house and have friends who watch sport on BSkyB?

Not a day goes by without making a decision about someone: do I need to tell and do they need to know that I'm gay? For me it is no longer dangerous, or even difficult, it is just delicate, an intuitive brush with the decorum of difference in a society whose manners do not match its diversity.

In everyday life, camouflage dallies with candour. Lovers acquire alibis and family and friends offer their own conceits, which help everyone to cope with everyone else's embarrassment: after the war there weren't any men . . . they're company for each other. Like budgies.

The magnet of a reunion is revelation, we want to hear each other's stories, but there can be no equivalence or equality in our disclosures, 'I'm married' and 'I'm gay'.

The self is sexualised in that announcement - it is about nothing if not the disclosure of desire, of yourself as desiring. It is a description of sexual difference that draws an attention to the erotic which is effaced by marital status - when a woman says she is married do we think about what she 'does in bed'? The lesbians in our midst - surely I won't be the only one - will be faced with either silence or full-frontal exposure.

Sex, of course, was always dangerous - men were many a clever girl's undoing. Sex in those days could have meant swift disgrace. We fortysomethings forget how, then, our pleasure was plagued. Will the girl who disappeared early in her sixth-form career - it was whispered that she was pregnant - reappear at our reunion, embraced by the staff and the system that dispatched her?

If we are truly a cross-section of our contemporaries, then a third of these exemplary women will be divorced, a third will have conceived children with men other than their 'fathers' and a quarter will have been abused while we were in each other's world. Sex, it seems, is the single subject that we share and about which we know everything and nothing.