This past week, the theme of WordPress’s Weekly Photo Challenge was nostalgia. Fittingly, while looking at some other people’s photos I was reminded of an evening when I was younger, an evening I might have otherwise forgotten.
I have mentioned before that my mother had several close friends all of whom had children born within a few years of one another, all girls except one. My mother met these friends during her early years teaching, when she and the others were young women with no children and their first jobs. For years, they all lived in our suburb, one within walking distance even for a toddler. Three of them, including my mother, continued to inhabit the same lower middle class suburban world throughout my childhood.
The movie The Ice Storm fascinated me because it so accurately captured the details of the early nineteen seventies, at least as they played out in the East Coast suburbs, that I found myself watching it with intense feelings of nostalgia. On the one hand, it felt so accurate. On the other, my own experiences of the same cultural changes were so very different. Perhaps there was some odd fortune to being lower middle class rather than being like the rich people in Connecticut who inhabit the film. My mother and her friends were never as self-indulgent at those fictional parents. Maybe, they couldn’t afford to be. The cultural changes documented in that film, did indeed mean liberation for us rather than disintegration. Except, perhaps, for one.
We’ll call her the Beauty Queen because that’s what she had been. Her husband had his own business which did well and by the time my own recollections kick in, they inhabited a step above us on the socioeconomic ladder. But the Beauty Queen became disenchanted with the boring suburban life. In keeping with the “me decade,” she would go looking for herself, which would eventually lead to a divorce and a sprawling apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. New York City was at its nadir, and that apartment didn’t imply the level of wealth it would today, but it housed the Beauty Queen and her two children, Kitty and Puppy, in comfort. Later, I would find that she would come to regret the divorce, though I strongly suspect she would have regretted staying had she stayed. With the bill being foot by the ex, Kitty and Puppy were sent to a Hoity-Toity Academy, a private, pretentious “prep” school in Manhattan.
Puppy was a few months older than I and the first boy I kissed. The less said about that ill-advised idea the better. Kitty, was tall and, as you might expect as the daughter of the Beauty Queen, beautiful. However, she was far too intellectual to consider her beauty of any real interest. She would eventually grow up to be very sophisticated as well, a writer with a degree from a top college, a graduate education in Europe, work experience in Latin America and Africa, but that lay in the future. As a teenager, Kitty was very close to Hera, the daughter of another of my mother’s friends. Although close to neither, I was friendly with both. Kitty would invite both of us, sometimes alone, sometimes together, to stay with her in New York City for the weekend. It was in the company of Kitty that I would first go to a discothèque. Studio 54 was a year or two past its prime, but still fun, and others were soon to follow. She was a good companion since neither of us drank or took drugs and we were only interested in dancing. Typically, she had a pile of free passes that people promoting various nightclubs would distribute at Hoity-Toity Academy. Looking back, I wonder about the prevalence of these cards at a high school where almost all the students were certainly underage.
Kitty’s birthday fell in the fall and for her sixteenth birthday, her family threw her a big bash on the Binghamton. The Binghamton was a former ferry that had been turned into a fancy restaurant. Parked on the New Jersey side of the Hudson river, it had enviable views of Manhattan. I do not know how her Hoity-Toity friends got there, but get there they did, as did relatives and family friends from the ‘burbs. I came home from college for the weekend to attend.
College girls only look good in movies. As I recall from my own days in school, if I managed to take a shower and run a comb through my hair before grabbing a bagel at the cafeteria on my way to class, that was a lot of primping. I’d only been away for a couple of months, but my mother was already aghast at how I’d let myself “go to pot.” A little make-over would be the perfect mother daughter bonding experience. She made an appointment for me at a moderately fancy salon in town where, for the first time, I got my hair cut short, really short, parted on the side and frankly boyish. When it was done my mother was surprised. “I wouldn’t have expected it,” she said, “but short hair suits you.”
Off we went to the shopping mall to get a dress and shoes for the occasion. The dress was a knee-length knit with long sleeves that skimmed my body from my shoulders to about mid-thigh, body revealing without being tight. The maroon and black vertical stripes outlined every curve. It was probably this dress that made me fall in love with stripes, graphic, severe, sexy, hard and feminine all at once. Another item I’d wear for the first time that night which would become another staple, was a pair of shoes with a spool heel. The social pressure to wear high heels can be intense. However, I had decided that no matter what I did, I would always draw the line regarding clothes and fashion at anything that injured my health. If a man would prefer watching a woman fully dressed, with a full face of makeup, a helmet of sticky hairspray and stiletto heels on the other side of a crowded room to rolling around with a sweaty naked one in bed, then he’s not the man for me. The spool heel was a revelation, high enough to quiet society, low enough to walk without pain. I bought a patent leather pair with a t-strap in a dark red. My mother insisted with my new boyish haircut, I had to wear big, big earrings. With the shape of my ass, the likelihood that I would be mistaken for a boy was about nil. Her concern speaks volumes about gender expectations. She thrust one pair of big, jangly pieces of costume jewelry at me after another. Finally, I went for another severe, geometrical item, a pair of big, perfectly circular hoops. A pair of dark tights and a wide black belt and I was ready to go to the party.
Sweet sixteens and proms are funny things. They’re like nights to play dress up, practice for being an adult, and I felt very womanly, balancing on my dainty heels in dress that emphasized my waist and hips. I was beginning to understand what was flattering and what wasn’t. The restaurant where the party was held was far fancier than I was used to and I spent the evening dancing and flirting and generally having a good time.