I told this story at the Moth StorySlam in Asheville in late April of 2017. If you would rather listen than read, the performed version is here:
When I told my friends at women’s college I’d been invited to be presented, the only girl on my hall that understood what I was talking about was my impromptu hairdresser. She was the scion of a very wealthy and powerful family whose parents insisted she forg beauty school for college and then marry a literal prince or something. I let her dye my hair and she, in turn, gave me two critical pieces of advice about being a debutante: 1) you should have a battle strategy for your ballgown long before you end up in a bathroom stall 2) no matter the circumstance you will always get upstaged by a Kennedy.
Of course there were unlikely to be Kennedys at my hometown debutante soiree. I figured most of the invite list to be white girls I’d been to pre-school with. Every year about half of the invitees declined because the whole concept was archaic, insulting, flagrantly -ist and very, very expensive. And were it not for the generous and stubborn financial contributions of my daughter-of-a coal miner, self-made Grandmother, who saw my inclusion in the ranks of hoop-skirted elect as some personal apotheosis, it would have been legit no dice for me. And even with Nana’s investment, my mother told me you don’t have to do it. Really, it would be okay if you backed out.
But let me be clear: I kind of wanted to do it. I mean, what better canvas for perfect fiasco than a small town debutante ball? What better place to combat stupid patriarchal bullshit like debutante balls that trotted out otherwise normal young women live prize livestock in white gloves and boned bodices? What better way to achieve not just unpopularity among the local swells, but honest-to-god infamy than by exposing the hypocrisy of the ruling class on a literal ballroom floor. I could make the scene of all scenes if I wanted to. For an unhappy teenager who’d been recently disappointed into proto-Marxism by the inequity of whole the college admission process, for real, it was a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Over Christmas, my mother and I attended a orientation luncheon at a local country club we didn’t belong to in a neighborhood we couldn’t afford. I wore my closest approximation of a little black dress with Doc Martens. My mother was horrified by my ensemble, but especially the purple hair, which I tried to explain to her had been dyed by an Actual Heiress of, like, Henry James novel stature, but she was having none of it. We sat in uncomfortable damask-upholstered school and listened as a jowly middle aged man told us about the troubling history of the debutante-ing organization, the dress code, the schedule of parties, the best way to find an escort and how long our gloves had to be for actual presentation night. Every time he said the phrase coming out, I thought how much nicer the world would be if anyone that came out to anyone as anything would get to have a week of parties with an open bar, fancy cheese plates and weird glove regulations.
After the lecture, I tried to mingle with my fellow debs around the buffet table. I asked what they were studying and they didn’t know yet, but were all seemingly dating a boy named Chad. They asked how I was and I told them how I thought the new Sonic Youth record was overrated, but could still maybe be a grower. I then told them to work out a battle strategy for their ballgowns before they got in the bathroom stall and that they should except that they’d be upstaged by a Kennedy. When I walked away, they weren’t catty or condescending like the mean girls in “Pretty in Pink,” just kind of perplexed, like, what the fuck is she doing here?
I called my in-town best friend that night and asked him to be my escort. He accepted. We went to the late-lamented Vincent’s Ear, a coffeeshop in downtown Asheville, and smoked through at least a pack of cigarettes, plotting increasingly baroque plans of sabotage which started with unconventional ballroom footwear, progressed to incriminating dossiers of local tycoons and ended, more or less, with the climax of “Carrie,” but without the pig’s blood because I was a vegetarian. We were thrilled by the possibilities
The next day I went to my first appointment with a seamstress who would make my dress. She stuck me with pins and took my measurements. It is a shame the grand ball requires a white dress, she told me. White is just not flattering on bigger girls.
A few weeks later. I went to start my twelve-year old hand me-down Volkswagen and some not-insignificant part of the engine clattered onto the asphalt beneath me. Repairs were impossible. My mother called my grandmother and prevailed upon her to invest in a used Honda Civic instead of vicarious social climbing. And that was pretty much the end of it. Nana never told me she was disappointed, but I always kind of thought she was.
Maybe because I was a wee smidge disappointed, not just because I’d missed my chance to foment class war among the catering staff, but because I never got to walk into a ballroom in an actual fucking ball gown and take a turn round the dance floor with my friend and pretend for a minute that I was in the middle of some Tolstoy novel or something.
A year later, one my high school friends accepted an invitation and was presented at the same affair. She invited me to come as a guest to one of the parties and I went alone, in my Doc Martens and nose ring and inappropriate little black dress and my mother was still horrified. My high school friend was an avowed feminist and a self-identified riot grrrl and I figured my friend would be plotting the same sort of fiasco I had the year before, but she was actually into it, absolutely in character, all post-modern Grace Kelly. I spent most of the night sitting outside the country club with her boyfriend, a chatty New Yorker who cloaked his own discombobulation in trying to figure out whether the country club had acquired their Persian rugs the same place in Queens his parents had bought theirs.
I knew, of course, I ‘d never been cut out for this kind of thing, but I wasn’t inclined to ruin it for my friend. I figured being an almost grown up woman is perfect fiasco enough without the unwieldy interventions of bitter friends in inappropriate dresses. So I grabbed a glass of champagne and came out into the rainy June night. The world outside smelled fresh. Like cut grass and roses and dangerous possibility.